Thursday, May 04, 2006

Talk with the Leprechaun

I mentioned the other day that I spent 45- minutes with my doctoral department chair, whom we'll call the Leprechaun. I was quite surprised at the extensiveness of our chat, since, as I've mentioned before, he's a man of few words. I gave him his due, with my obsequious gesture of asking him when might be convenient to talk (even though he had just looked at his clock in a signal that he was considering how much time he might have immediately). I thought it best to give him the sense that I knew I was imposing, that it was his time, and he could control it.

When I returned, I got right to the point and said "I need your help. My career is going nowhere slow, and I'm hoping you can give me some feedback, direction, advice." I guess that wasn't what he expected. It was a curious time, since we were both talking around things. He, not wishing to say directly what he thinks of my work, and me trying not to directly challenge him for things like letting my fellowship application to the department die without any consideration.

But, he gave me a clearer sense of what a typical search committee might be looking at than I had previously. At least, he stated somethings that I had only suspected. Here's the sense he gave:
Okay, so the committee has a stack of about 100 applications. 80 of them look pretty much alike. Then they pull out 20 over here. "Hmmm," says one, "[uncommon methodology subdiscipline], that's interesting. Hey, Joe, you know anything about [uncommon methodology]? No. Mary? Hmmm. Okay, well let's just put this one aside." And so it goes, until they put all those 20 aside, and decide to concentrate on the 80 that look alike, the mainstream candidates.
"Wow," I said. "I mean, this is a bit funny. We're all shepherded through grad school, taught to be unusual, to stand out, to ask interesting questions, to be unique. And yet, you're telling me that when it comes to hiring, they want us all to look the same."

Well, that was eye-opening. For both of us. For me, because it puts perspective on some of the comments I've gotten in the past, intimating that while my research looks interesting, I need to find a way to convince committees I'm ready, willing, and able to teach Introduction to... courses. Of course I can teach those. I've been studying [Field1] at the university level for, god what is it, 16 years now? I know this stuff. That's not a problem.

The Leprechaun seemed to imply that no matter what, if there's a large stack of look-alikes, it's that stack that's attended to first, rather than the standouts. How backwards. And yet, I guess the trick is to look enough alike, but still stand out from that crowd, like wearing a bright orange shirt with purple stripes at Disneyland, but donning a MickeyMouse hat like everyone else. [SIGH].

It was eye-opening for him as well, since in the midst of explaining the process to me, he remarked on several other (more senior) scholars in [Field 1] who are nonetheless asking questions outside the mainstream. For some, he had barbed criticism, but for others he seemed truly pleased that someone, some department, had given them the chance. I think that was the crucial point at which he began to see me in a different light, not as the maverick former student, but possibly as someone who in ten or twenty years will be seen as a pioneer of the sorts of questions that come from my niche interdisciplinary subdiscipline.

Besides, if he helps me get a job, he may be finally done of me. I'm sure he'll be glad to see me walk out his door for good. For now, I've got this interview next week at TPU in Beautiful Nowhere.


Lilian said...

wow, talk about eye-opening! That's what they want, then? The look-alikes? Hmmm, why is it then that we're taught exactly the opposite like you remarked? I guess we have to be unique, but "safe" enough, not too daring.

Ahistoricality said...

Hmm.... that's not really my experience with searches, perhaps because I've had some reasonably coherent -- i.e. cognizant of both law and vagaries of scholarly life -- search chairs guiding us. The first pass is Minimum Qualifications (MQs): anyone not meeting them is culled out (but only candidates who clearly don't meet them, unless the committee as a whole agrees to dispense with marginal maybes). The second pass is a quality sort: the Desirable Qualifications (DQs) are highlighted, and candidates are ranked based on how well they meet some or all of them, and for noteworthy qualities of other sorts (this is where, actually, qualified people who cross fields stand out in my searches, because the DQs usually include "can you do something else besides?"). The top scorers (and I'm ignoring the "do the works separately then come together and hash out and haggle" meeting process, but it does go on) (and on) (and on) are the first-round interview list (phone or conference). Ideally, first round interviews are attended by the entire committee, so they can equally weigh reactions. At this stage we're looking for clear presentation flaws (i.e. clues to troubling personality or professional issues) and standout performers; the former are eliminated quickly (I call this the "drool test" stage) while a few of the latter (and on) (and on) are invited for campus visits.

I would say that, unless you're applying to jobs considerably out of your training, look-alikes are not going to rise to the top (though they may have just that combination of topics and talents to fit, in which case they're not lookalikes). Secondary fields and true cross-discipline scholarship can help you if the department is looking for that kind of diversity; if it's more of a service department, focused on fundamentals, they may not like the idea of sharing your attention.

Just thank your lucky stars you're not applying for a job there, and move on.

ArticulateDad said...

Well, of course, this is all filtered through my own (somewhat embittered) eyes. True, anyone in my shoes is looking to find some explanation (excuse) to justify why we're still sitting here on the outside looking in; just as, everyone who's landed themselves a tenure-track job or (all hail the gods) achieved tenure, has a different set of things to justify.

Certainly, my desire is not to criticize or belittle anyone else's accomplishments. Frankly, I believe the overwhelming majority of professors deserve all the accolades and rewards of being where they are. But, being a bear of very little brain, but abundant self-confidence, I really want to understand why I am still seeking, and what I can do to get those search committees to recognize just how wonderful and outstanding I really am.

Got to love my mother. Today, on the phone, she said to me she thought perhaps some of the search committees are just intimidated by how smart I am. Yeah, I really see that happening, in a crowd of academics!... but she's entitled to her (amusing) self-delusions. What else are mothers for?

Ahistoricality said...

perhaps some of the search committees are just intimidated by how smart I am...

I've actually seen tt faculty scuttled (in search and in pre-tenure review) by older tenured faculty who really did seem to be put off by high publishing productivity and popularity.

We spend our careers being the smartest person in the room.... it's a lousy thought pattern, but it's there.

Professor Zero said...

I don't know enough about you to be able to assess your particular situation, but in general terms, I can say that it depends entirely on who is hiring. That is why people say, either just apply to places where you're sure you'll fit their needs exactly, or else apply everywhere (gamble, you may win).

I've been on hiring committees in all of the (very different) institutions I've worked for. The larger the department, and the better the school, the more likely they are to assume that
of course you know the standard stuff, and the happier they are with your unusual, original work. In smaller departments and/or less fancy schools, they are really concerned about whether
you know the basics. This is because they really do need those courses covered well, and they have actually seen some candidates who either couldn't, or weren't willing to cover more than one general survey-type course.

ArticulateDad said...

I've come to realize that there are really two types of programs I would fit into:
1) a small program, where I will be the only one, or one of two professors in my area, where the expectation is that I will cover the broad overview, but I will be allowed more freedom just how I present the materials;

2) a very large program, where there are two or three professors in my traditionally defined subspecialty, meaning again there will be greater flexibility in my presentation.

What seems least likely for me to fit into is a program where they are seeking to fill a particular slice of the pie, where the curriculum is set, where professor's areas are strictly defined.

Interestingly, the one campus visit last season, and my upcoming interview, are of the first kind, a small program, where there are graduate students in the field, but not directly in my subfield, where the courses I would be teaching would be considered service courses for the other subfields.

As my wife keeps pointing out. My research is one thing. There's no reason my classes have to directly cover my research areas. In fact, with the current overabundance of PhDs in the subfield (even if it's not really my area of research) I'm not really all that eager to contribute to the glut with more graduate students of my own.

Ahistoricality said...

There's no reason my classes have to directly cover my research areas.

About every two years I get to teach a course in which I can actually cite my research. Otherwise, it's largely irrelevant, except by broad principles....