An academic job in the hand vs. two in the bush?
June 25, 2010 10:35 AM   Subscribe

I'm trying to decide whether to take a non-ideal academic job or stay on the market another year. Faculty types, especially in the sciences: I need your perspective!

The position is at a good school, they've offered a generous start-up, and the department is collegial and excited about where things are going. However, I have misgivings about the fit. I study a subfield that is new for this department, and I'd be more comfortable in a department with a few faculty who are working in my area (people to bounce detailed ideas off and people who are familiar with the subfield's journals and time-to-publication when tenure-time comes).

I keep bouncing back and forth about whether to roll the dice again. Mostly, I don't know how to assess my chances next year. On one hand, I'd be "staler" as a candidate, with another year in my postdoc. On the other, I recently got good news about grant that could make me more attractive than I was this past cycle. And I have no idea what the market outlook for next cycle is like. This year was lousy with hiring freezes and furloughs (and hence enormous competition for the few jobs that existed); I can't tell if next year will be more of the same.

So, academic-types, what would you advise? How do the staleness/grant balance out in a search committee's eyes? What do you think the market will do?
posted by 2lemmas to Work & Money (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
A bird in a hand is worth two in the bush.

When I talked to the faculty search committee in my department, they said things like already having grants are a plus, but didn't dramatically improve their view of any candidate.
posted by grouse at 10:42 AM on June 25, 2010

Grants do make you attractive (I have been on search committees). It's somewhat difficult to be more specific without knowing what type of field you're in. But I'd take the job if I were you. I mean, the market is pretty dry right now (I'm in year 2 of my postdoc dreading the fact that it could be another two before I find a job). My current department has called off two searches this past year alone. Why not take this job and make the best of it? In a few years when better jobs open up, you can always switch.

I've seen several young faculty do that recently. Take a less than ideal job, keep publishing/writing grants and move to a bigger/better school when the opportunity comes up.
posted by special-k at 10:59 AM on June 25, 2010

I keep bouncing back and forth about whether to roll the dice again.

In my field you'd have to be crazy to turn down a good but not perfect TT job in this market. The fact is, practically no one at any time but the best of the best gets the really perfect jobs. (And the jobs that seem perfect usually aren't for some reason you don't know about.) Right now in particular the market is saturated with strong applicants, and many of them aren't getting even one TT offer in any given round. I don't think it will be getting any better next year, either.

I am in a similar situation to what you describe, actually. Being in a good department with no one in your subfield has minuses, but also pluses. I would say it is not nearly as much of a dealbreaker as e.g. having a non-collegial department. One plus is that, at least in my experience, it is actually easier to get grad students -- in a department with established, senior colleagues, they will naturally gravitate towards those colleagues. Another plus (if this is your kind of thing) is that you may end up doing some interdisciplinary work that you wouldn't end up doing in other departments. You do have to work more at maintaining relationships with former advisors and people at other universities, but this isn't necessarily a bad thing to do anyways.
posted by advil at 11:03 AM on June 25, 2010

Take the job - no question.
posted by Fiery Jack at 11:23 AM on June 25, 2010

I'd take the job; you can always go back on the market if you aren't happy. Obviously no one knows the future, but no one I know is expecting next year to be a boom year in academic jobs -- better than this year, probably, but not night and day better.
posted by Forktine at 11:28 AM on June 25, 2010

Bird in hand, absolutely! I am in the same situation (several campus visits, among top 2 candidates in 4 schools, including what would have been my first choice, but job offer only from my "last option" school). Obviously I am not very happy, but I am taking it, planning on continuing my research (although nobody at this school seems to be working in this area), and trying again in 1-2 years.
posted by prenominal at 11:41 AM on June 25, 2010

After seeing the process from the inside, I now realize what a total crapshoot it is. I don't think there's any reliable way to predict your chances next year.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:03 PM on June 25, 2010

One big question I asked at interviews this Spring (math, TT, smaller mostly undergrad programs) was about tenure expectations. At least one school had a psychologist and a sociologist on the small RP&T committee, and I found out by talking to math faculty that the committee did not understand the publication process in mathematics; time to publication, what it takes to create publishable material, etc. It's important that a promotion committee understands that different fields work differently. When the school with which I took a job for this Fall explained the recent revamping of their process, including mathematicians on the committee, I was pleasantly surprised.

So, now solid answer to your question, but an important question to ask yourself about this job offer.
posted by monkeymadness at 12:10 PM on June 25, 2010

Monkeymadness has a good point. If your subdiscipline has a wildly different academic culture than the rest of the discipline (e.g. Values books over papers, doesn't have a NIH subpanel appropriate) then you really need a more senior colleague willing to argue at p&t that what you do is valid within your subdiscipline. However I would be amazed if they wanted to hire you if they didn't understand your subdiscipline and want it in their unit.
posted by Fiery Jack at 12:39 PM on June 25, 2010

Anecdata: I know very well 2 Science Professors who did exactly this: Decline all offers in their first year on the academic market, spend another year as a postdoc, and apply again. It worked out extremely well for both of them. In terms of NRC type department ranking they both went from considering offers from 'Top-50' type places to having jobs at 'Top-5' type places.

This was 5 or 6 years ago, before the current 'crunch.' But you're not insane for considering it. Some of my mentors encouraged me to do the same when I was in your position -- to hold out for offers from 'Top-10' type institutions even if it meant a few more years as a postdoc. I did not do this, and do not regret my decision.
posted by u2604ab at 12:55 PM on June 25, 2010

Response by poster: Those of you who have suggested I take it and then go back on the market in a year or two: how do you envision this working? Realistically, will I have had enough time to start up my lab & be productive enough to compete? What will become of my grants (the one I have now is portable, but are others)? Won't other places wonder why I'm leaving a new position after such a short time? And how do I do the search without pissing off my colleagues (ones who would be making t&p decisions for me if I don't find something better to jump to)?
posted by 2lemmas at 2:10 PM on June 25, 2010

You are competitive now because you have done well at the things you have been asked to do so far. You have a phd from a good program, you have at least one good postdoc , your research interests are "hot", you have published, you have a competitive grant. If you spend time as a faculty member you have to demonstrate you can do those jobs too. Get more grants, publish, teach and importNyly in the sciences advise grad students and publish with them. Starting all these tasks takes time and you certainly won't have graduated any phds of your own in two years. (indeed would you feel good taking on a phd student if you had no plans to stay around for long enough to graduate)

Also any new committee willl beasking why does s/he wants tmove so soon. It's not impossible and certainly if you are hot enough for a top three program to look at you then they will just grab you without worrying about any of this. The institution you are leaving will be pissed off - they will have invested a lot in you and got nothing from it. They will get over it.

Specifically to your questions most federal grants are fairly portable.
posted by Fiery Jack at 5:32 PM on June 25, 2010

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