Unsolicited advice on unsolicited advice: geography and the academic job search and the etiquette of turning down offers in places you don’t want to live

DrDrA just posted on a currently 37-comment-long thread of a post by PhysioProf at DrugMonkey based on a quote from a post by Dr Brazen Hussy (opening sentence almost as long and convoluted as the title, eh?).
The short summary: postdocs and other academic job candidates are disqualifying themselves from even applying for certain positions because:
1. they don’t feel they meet the job description in the ad
2. the job is at a “lesser” institution or department
3. the job is in a place (they think) they’d never want to live
4. they’d feel bad about turning down a position at a place they know they’d never want to be.
First things first: in this climate, academic job candidates are lucky to be offered faculty positions anywhere. Community colleges big and small, Research I universities, desolate field stations of major universities, #24 of a 24-institution state university system, Bob Jones University. . .anywhere.


Geography: The beauty of this business is that it can take you to places you never thought you’d be and expand your mind and life experiences. I’ve lived in several places I never thought I’d consider, but that’s where the job offers were. I’ve found cool stuff about every place I’ve lived and have cultivated relationships with interesting and engaging people that I wouldn’t trade for the world.
A lot of it has to do with your outlook. It’s easy to find culture in New York City or London or Sydney, truly beautiful campuses in Istanbul or Vancouver or Oxford, and pretty much anything you’d ever want in San Diego or Toronto or Tokyo. While it may take a little time to find the treasures of other places with universities, they can be found regardless of your needs at age 25 or 45. Embrace where you are, learn about the history, get involved in the community outside your laboratory, celebrate the extremes of climate, and you’ll have an enriching experience during those few hours when you’re not in the lab or writing grant applications.
The discomfort of turning down offers when you know going in that you didn’t want to go there: Even people smart enough to read this blog are going to have trouble getting *any* offer (see above). AB wrote at Blue Lab Coats:

Let’s say you cast a wide net, get your only offer from one of these places where you thought you would not want to live and instead of changing your mind, the visit just confirms that you don’t like the department and/or town. In other words, as you suspected from the start, you don’t want this job and you decide to remain a postdoc and try again later. I can imagine writing a letter to say you just didn’t feel that you would fit in the department or town and so you’re deciding not to take the job, but I don’t relish the idea of doing that.

An academic job search is like a dance, a marriage or, if I may, like two dogs butt-sniffing – both parties have to agree. Candidates turn down offers all the time. In my experience, I’ve tried to keep good relationships with them, follow their careers, and wish them well when seeing them at conferences, but I certainly don’t take offense. (I can also tell you that I’ve been pissed at some of my past colleagues on search committees when I couldn’t win them over on my top candidate, only to watch them blow the doors off all of us ten years later – but that’s another story).
If a candidate wants to remain in a postdoc rather than be an assistant professor anywhere, that is their decision. Any department where I’ve been would certainly not want to make the investment in an assistant professor who wasn’t happy when we could bring in someone else who was passionate and driven about being offered the opportunity.
Not meeting the job description: Ads are largely designed by committees. The views of some committee members often get diluted in the final version. Sometimes it takes an outstanding candidate like YOU who has strengths peripheral to what the ad states but that a search committee member is just waiting for to argue her case that, see, we can get strong candidates in this area.
The job is at a “lesser” institution: Yes, you should have high standards and not agree to go anywhere where the system or environment will impede your success. The problem is that one often does not know this for sure until you visit and meet your potential future colleagues. I’ve had both experiences: one of being very disappointed by the environment and people at “greater” institutions and another of being very pleasantly surprised by the environment and people at “lesser” institutions. There are gems and dogs everywhere, often within the same institution. Investigate all options and listen to advice (even mine) with the same objectivity with which you pursue your research.
Of course, there will be cases where your gut is correct. A town or an institution or a department is not for you (or you and your family, or you and your scientist significant other). But absolutely nothing is lost by going off for an interview if you are so offered. You will hone your interviewing skills, build new networks, and maybe even identify new collaborators.
But you won’t know any of this if you disqualify yourself from consideration by not sending in an application.
So, let me then return to PhysioProf’s riff of casting the net widely when one considers applying for positions. Apply everywhere and to every position that even has a single word that matches a word in your CV.
As the children’s TV cartoon character, Oswald, says, “Sometimes, you just never know.”

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5 thoughts on “Unsolicited advice on unsolicited advice: geography and the academic job search and the etiquette of turning down offers in places you don’t want to live

  1. From experience, geography is a constraint if one has a partner whose career is not fully portable, and especially if you both have kids whose care you want to be a part of. Beyond the strain on a relationship of being two places and the impossibility of really sharing childrearing when only one of you is with the kids, the expense of maintaining two households is usually prohibitive.

  2. Those are very good points about which I failed to write.
    Pre-PharmKid, PharmGirl and I did the long-distance thing for about 18 months and it was miserable personally and detracted from each of our scientific progress.
    My myopia results from the fact I come from a time way back when I was childless and spouseless when first looking for a TT faculty position.

  3. I can also tell you that I’ve been pissed at some of my past colleagues on search committees when I couldn’t win them over on my top candidate, only to watch them blow the doors off all of us ten years later[.]

    And from the other end of things, it is extremely satisfying to see the looks on search committee members’ faces from institutions that didn’t make me offers when they find out how successful I have been, and know how unsuccessful the dipshits they actually hired have been.

  4. yep- the dual career dilemma is a tough one to tackle. even as a mere grad student considering what’s next, taking one’s spouse and their career (and associated job market in this swirling toilet of an economy) into consideration makes for an occasional moment of sheer panic.
    this applies to non-scientist spouses too- unfortunately, things aren’t much easier in other fields.
    side note, i’ve found that being in a long-distance marriage has done wonders for my short-term productivity. but i’m downright miserable so it won’t last.

  5. Hermann Weyl, Professor at the ETH Zurich since 1913, accepted in 1930 to be successor of Hilbert in Gottingen. The position at the ETH was offered to the well-known algebraist Emil Artin. When Artin came to Zurich for some days to discuss the offer and know more about the city it happened to be a period of ‘Fohn’ (warm wind from the
    south). It is well-known that on such days many people don’t feel well and suffer from headaches. It seems that Artin reacted in this way. He refused the offer because he would not be able to stand the climate of Zurich. The position was then offered to the young Privatdozent Heinz Hopf from Berlin, who accepted and stayed in Zurich until his death.
    This is what Hopf used to tell his friends; he added ‘Thus I owe my position at the ETH Zurich to the Fohn’. The question whether there were other reasons for Artin not to accept the ETH position remained open. No doubt mathematics in Zurich and in Switzerland in general would have developed in different directions. One might speculate that we, the Ph D students of Hopf would have become students of Artin.
    [Page 27, “Mathematical Miniatures”, Beno Eckmann]

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