Thursday, February 14, 2013

Talking to shipwrights

I had my talk with the shipwrights today. Many thanks to everyone who wrote in earlier this week with ideas and encouragement about how, as an expert in rope bridges over ravines, I should talk to shipwrights, without trying to be an expert raft maker.

Between your advice, and my partner's, I settled on pitching at a level such that if the general level of discourse at the department seminar were much lower, I wouldn't be very happy. I gave the talk to my partner, who said that he was able to follow along at a level that he would be happy following along for a talk not in his subject area. Admittedly he has heard me give talks on this subject several times, but his is in a very different field.

I think the talk went rather well. The few raft makers in the department stopped me a few times with good questions. Afterwards, one asked me to go back over a salient point. One of the rowboat experts asked me how my work could apply to his, and I had to answer honestly that I didn't know if it could, but that I think there are tools he uses that could be very useful to me. The undergrads came up afterwards and asked a bunch of questions in private. They were a good group of kids, and fun to talk to. One of the raftmakers mentioned that he used to work on dock design 20 years ago where he saw connections to my talk. I pointed out that I have rope bridge making colleagues who collaborate on cutting edge research with dock makers today. In hanging out afterwards we talked about the differences between the education system at Univerity E and the US, and I got to hear professors talk frankly about their frustrations and joys.

As I said, the talk went relatively well.

The this is not an interview (TM) lunch beforehand, however, was a different story. To be fair, you should know that they are considering me to replace a retiring professor teaching galley mechanics, a course I can teach at the undergraduate level with a little work. However, I have made very clear that I will not leave my research in rope bridges to study galleys. The meeting was preluded with a strong emphasis on how they would be considering me for this job in order to be nice to my partner's department and several reiterations of the fact that if other people are more qualified then the job would go to them. Much of the lunch was a discussion between what I imagine are two of the important people on the hiring committee (no raft makers) debating about whether they should apply for a particular type of grant. This was interspersed with some small talk, a few questions from me about University E and an emphasis on how I need several top ranked articles. My publication is not as strong as I would like it to be. I mostly lost a year for health complications during my pregnancy and aftermath. I am used to hearing about my weak record from the top schools where I have applied for postdocs. Thererfore it did not occur to me until I was back home that what they were asking for would have been a reasonable request from the very top departments in the field. In short, the entire lunch made me feel like I was in the position of supplicant, or worse, asking to be pitied rather than a normal job applicant. In short, they seemed to signal that either they are fairly inept at conducting interviews or they don't want me. On the whole, this looks bad for this being an avenue for family reunification, which is too bad.


  1. Mmm... it may be hard to tell. My experience is that hiring gets influenced by so many random factors, and what some people say about your file today may mean nothing in the future, specially considering that they don't have the opening right now.

    I've seen faculty change their minds about a candidate from one year to the next, with no apparent reason. I also know a postdoc who, by just adding a recommendation letter (and no new papers) from one year to the next, got invited to trice as many interviews (and counting) in the second year of applying compared to the year before.

    I say that you should try to take this experience in a constructive way as much as you can: your talk went great, and you may have to give it again in the future. As for the publication record: can you somehow choose to publish many small papers as opposed to one big paper? This doesn't sound good from the research-ethics, but when your file gets read by people outside your area, it helps to have many papers, as opposed to a few strong ones.

  2. I've ranted to a few people since the talk, one comforting perspective was that European universities seem less likely to view an interview as an opportunity for the candidate to interview the department as well as the other way around. I don't know if that was the case here, but if it's just a cultural thing, it explains some of the strange behavior, and helps me feel more positive about the experience.