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sick of interviewing - help!

PostPosted: Thu Feb 03, 2005 7:00 pm
by Madison
Ok, so I've now been on 19 interviews for assistant prof positions, 3 of these were return visits. I've been offered 7 jobs, 6 of which I've turned down. I'm currently holding a very nice offer. I?m exhausted, and physically sick from all this. The only problem is, I'm worried about the reputation (prestige) of the school. The dept head is great - very high profile, seems supportive. The start-up package is top level. Everything is in place for me to do good work at this place. Only thing is, the school is a bit "under the radar", so to say. As in top 25, not top 10. How much does this really matter?

People's opinion of how good I am will be influenced by the prestige level of the school I'm at - this is reality. This will effect grant funding, publications, etc. So is this good enough? Or should I keep going on interviews to try and get a more prestigious offer? (other schools have issues too, like location, cost of living, distance from family, that are problems of their own).

I'm worried that I'm so exhausted from all the travel that I'm jumping at this offer to just put an end to all this. Now, before the interviewing began I made a list of important stuff, and this school fits all the important criteria, but I?m still worried about the prestige thing. Can you still be top-level successful, and competitive for the big national awards, at a non-top level school? I'm having a very hard time being impartial (or even thinking straight) right now, and I don?t want to mess things up right and the end of this very long road.

Any advice?

sick of interviewing - help!

PostPosted: Thu Feb 03, 2005 7:26 pm
by John Mastro
Your story is an inspiration in achievement in job searching . Those full day or 2 day academic interview marathons would definitely give me a nervous breakdown. The number of offers you state seems great.
One option which several of my exbosses and other professors did was to take the good offer,
work a few years then go on another round of interviews. This put the pressure on the department to sweeten the deal, but also you might be able to move to a more prestigious institution.

sick of interviewing - help!

PostPosted: Thu Feb 03, 2005 7:29 pm
by Kevin Rogers
Ok - to be 'top level successful' you need the best grad students and postdocs working for you - the more prestigous the university the better, in general, they will be. (esp students) - this is a consideration.

However I would say 'fit' is probably a more important criteria - you can always move after you have tenure - there are a lot of people that do that. Also anybody that judges you purely on your school is a fool - there are many many big names that work at lower ranked schools.

The other question I eould consider is is the dept on the way up or down the rankings ? Does it have a lot of younger faculity that will be very big in a few years or a lot of old guys who are going nowhere ?

sick of interviewing - help!

PostPosted: Thu Feb 03, 2005 9:14 pm
by Shehan9762
Hi Madison,

First of all, I must congratulate you for having so many interviews and of course offers from various universities. I might not be able to provide you any good advice but I will tell you a bit about the observations I made while working for 2 assistant professors (Ph D and post doc). I have done my Ph D with a young female professor in UK in a university that was highly motivated to expand their department of chemistry. So they recruited a few assistant professors (including my boss) and a lot of graduate students. A few months later, our research started to kick off. Grants started to come in. Publications started to appear...
At the same time, my former boss got very involved in teaching and contributed actively in the changes in the department (recruiting of undergraduate students, quality of the classes...) The senior professors didnt like it but it slowly paid off. Our department started to climb in the ranking and more and more students started to apply.
Traditionnaly our department would get recruit students rejected from ivy league schools. These people would almost never complete their Ph D.They would just take up a job in banking and never complete the writing up or defense. However, in my time there, the success rates of Ph D. candidates were great

Last year my former boss moved to a top ivy league school for better opportunities. I spoke to her last week and she said that being in a bigger school is a lot better for attracting fundings because of the reputation of the research there. She didnt say that the people are all geniuses but she just said that everything is a lot easier. She would also attract lots of good post doc applicants. Of course better workforce would generate good quality results which would attract more funding.

However, she didnt regret the years when she was at a less known place because she learned how to deal with "political issues" and to work hard to get fundings.

On the other hand, my post doc advisor is completely different. He has a super pedigree as an Assistant professor. He graduated from the top 5 schools as a Ph D and did a post doc with a well known professor. He then took up a position as an Assistant professor in a small department. 3 years on : we still have no grants or whatsoever and we re still spending bits and pieces of start up money. We had 2 publicatoins after 2 years with a big workforce (9 people incl. 4 post docs). Hopefully, we will be doing well this year. Sadly, four of my former and current labmates left or will leave because of the bad reputation and bad quality of our lab.
You would imagine that it's easy to be a big fish in a small pond. I m also struggling as a post doc. A lot of things dont work well down here. The facilities look great but are poorly managed. A lot of technical staff dont know what they re doing and slows the research down. One of them just retired and is not being replaced...
The students we get hardly complete their Ph D's. The last person who graduated from our division goes back to 2002... Nobody remembers or knows the name of the previous one.

We have enough of money as a department and we re ranked in the top 25 in terms of research budget in the country. The fact that we have such a bad reputation makes me anxious about my future career.

I hope that these observations would have helped you. I do not intend to try to persuade you not take up the job but you could be very very lucky and successful being a big fish in a small pond (my former boss) or end up as a small fish in a small pond (my current boss).

Good luck

sick of interviewing - help!

PostPosted: Thu Feb 03, 2005 9:35 pm
by Andy

Drop the laser pointer! Step away from the lectern!

In all seriousness, there are different ways to approach this. Here's mine.

Go to the best place you can, but don't worry about people's opinion so much. 19 interviews . . . I've never heard of so many, so you clearly are a hot prospect. You can do well anywhere if you're good, but make it easy on yourself and go to the best place possible.

I have a friend at the University of Wyoming who is getting more grants than my friends at better schools. And he is publishing well (G&D, Development, etc).

There will always be someone at a hotter institution with a hotter lab, so just kick back, have a beverage, and wait for the offers to roll in. Calm down because you are going to be busier than a one-legged man in an a**-kicking contest starting this summer. Do an experiment for once this year !! :), I'm sure you're colleagues are teasing you about being out of the lab so much. At least they should be.

Congratulations, good luck and thanks for your good posts.


sick of interviewing - help!

PostPosted: Fri Feb 04, 2005 12:33 am
by Emil Chuck
Congratulations, Madison!

My personal opinion on your concern: I don't know your area of research, but I'd be more concerned about the ability to get your work off the ground. To that extent, I would be more worried about your department and the quality of research it produces relative to the rest of the world. Basically, you can be at a top 25 school but have the best group of researchers in an area that would propel your work farther than being at an upper-crust school but have a directionless department. You need to know that your department will give you a good home and provide your work the human and technical resources to make you succeed.

My current lab group used to work in a not-a-top-25 institution for many, many years before moving to Duke Med.

Besides, if you make it really big, your productivity in a medium-sized pond should make you a viable candidate in case you need to move up to a better institution. But show that you can do a lot with what you have. Who knows... you may help propel that top 25 school into the top 20 or 15.

So in short to answer your question: Can you still be top-level successful, and competitive for the big national awards, at a non-top level school? YES, I think so.

sick of interviewing - help!

PostPosted: Fri Feb 04, 2005 2:28 am
by David
Dear Madison
Let me add my congratulations to those above. You have done excellently and while I am a few years behind and just getting through my first post-doc it is encouraging to hear such stories. A clever cookie indeed!

As for which school? I did my PhD in Oxford and was loathe to move anywhere else (i.e. less prestigious) after that. I had a conact in Harvard and she invited me to her lab. I conceived and wrote a NSF grant which would have made me a post-doc and during that process learnt some things which may be pertinent to you. Firtsly, the very experienced PI and another PI there who was also a former program director for NSF told me that Harvard (and such schools) do not get all the grants. There is some kind of reverse snobbism whereby NSF panels might pitch for the "lower" shcools becuase they think the Ivy's get too much. I didn't believe that but I heard many tales of how the 8-member panel operates and conclude it is true.
Combined with that is that Harvard (at least) is not good value for money with 67% of the grant going to overheads. My grant was recommended for funding by the panel and knocked back on budgetry grounds. The progam director suggested a re-submittal but did offer pilot money. I got the impression from the PI that were the overheads less we would have gotten it.
Finally, the PI I know was previously in Princeton which she said was terrible and full of in-fighting. Though this is not limited to the Ivy's being in a lower school might shield you from some of that.

Oh, yeah. One other thing! I have heard that becoming a assistant prof at the larger schools (and here I know only Harvard in the states) is a walk in the park to actually becoming tenured there. Perhaps if your heart is set on tenure in an excellent school then 5-10 years somewhere else buidling up an impecable record would make that goal achievable.

Since you are exhausted... watch a video. Thomas Cech has a nice video on line about his choice of going to Colorado from Harvard and what made him successful

There is also the lab management book on this page which you may know of but does give good advice if you haven't seen it.

One very last thing. While waiting for the Harvard thing to pan out I took a position in a lab in Finland. Oulu. It is very small place and quite a world away from Oxford. The lab is excellent and my PI wonderful. I was reticent about the move but there are so many positive things here and, sorry to sound like a snob, but since I have Oxford on my CV I can afford to stay here and work on the hard currency of research (papers) without thinking "amd I in a good school?". I have actually refused a post-doc offer in Harvard to stay here becuase of this places benefit to my career.

In conclusion, be damn proud of what you achieved. I can't tell you what to decide as I am not qualified but I hope it is a decision which makes you happy.

best wishes


sick of interviewing - help!

PostPosted: Fri Feb 04, 2005 9:24 am
by Emil Chuck
Adding to my own thoughts and David's:

Okay, I'm going to make a basketball analogy. You very rarely see a new coach land his/her first job as head coach at a "top tier" basketball program at the time the program is top tier. Coaches like Bill Self at Kansas have a resume of improving smaller tier programs before making their way up to larger higher-profile ones ( says he started at Oral Roberts, then Tulsa, then Illinois, and now Kansas).

I can agree with David... getting to Harvard or upper-tier Universities as an assistant professor does not mean you'll stay there. In all likelihood, you'll move on to another place whether you succeed in academe there or not.

sick of interviewing - help!

PostPosted: Fri Feb 04, 2005 9:31 am
by TF
I would like to add my .02 even though I am quite far away from your situation. Basically some observations I have made by looking at the professors I have worked for in the past. I think the bottom line that everyone is saying is that YOU are in control of your own situation. Like everything in science, it is what you make of it. If you get this position and just do nothing with it, then that's what you get out of it. How are the other faculty in the department? Are they motivated, do they have grant money, do they publish? How about collaboration? Is there someone there who you think you could trust if you need to talk to someone about professional matters?

As far as running a successful lab I really don;t think where you are is necessarily that important, provided the others around you are motivated as well. These types of people naturally are found at the top places, but, that's is most certainly not always the case. I think you should take a closer look at the other faculty in the department and see what they are like.

I once worked for a tenured professor at a strictly mediocre school. The guy had a great educational background, with a Ph.D from MIT and great post-doc experience. You would think the guy would be into actually doing work. Well, in his late 50's and already having tenure, the guy didn't seem to do much of anything. He mostly sat at his desk and surfed the net, while I was trying desperately to do work. And if we needed new equipment, that really was out of the question because the guy had no money. Talk about a downward slide. This guy should have been sloughed off a long time ago in my opinion, or at least been forced to do something administrative.

My current situation is also at a mediocre school, but a completely different experience. My boss is from China, and as such, he doesn't really have much prestige after his name. He did some good US post-docs but that about it. Now however, as a full tenured prof (after about 4 yrs I might add!), he has more NIH money than he knows what to do with and publishes 5-8 papers a year. And he has won a bunch of awards. He eats, sleeps, and breathes science, and it has payed off for him.

So really, it is going to depend on your motivation level and the type of help you can get in your lab. Running a lab is like running a business. The high caliber school may out certain aspects in your favor and possibly get your foot in the door in other areas, but going to a lessor school is far, far, far from the kiss of death.

sick of interviewing - help!

PostPosted: Fri Feb 04, 2005 12:04 pm
by Madison
Wow! thanks so much for all the replys!
Yes I'm exhausted. In fact, I really can't take it anymore. I have been gone from lab basically since the first week in October, and my office-mate is indeed making lots of jokes about me never being around. My PI is also less than pleased (to say the least....) I had to go on all these because it's taken this long to get a good offer on paper (schools are sooooo slow), and I refused to cancel interviews until I knew I had a job SOMEPLACE - I didn't want to get screwed by someone.

The position I'm considering (at the top 25 school) FEELS like a good fit, I'm just second-guessing things right now. I'm terrified about making a choice now out of exhaustion that I will be unhappy with later.

The department is in an upward swing - with a new head (a basic scientist, and HHMI, heading up a clinical department, which I think is great!). Many of the other dept heads at the school are also new, as well as the med school dean - they are cleaning house and trying to turn things around, and I think they want me to be part of that (how flattering!!).

You guys are right about the problems with being at a big cheese school. I'm currently at Harvard, and I know that a few years ago the tenure rate of assistant profs was 10%. I understand that it's better now, but in the last few years the percentage of women faculty getting tenure has been steadly decreasing. And the overhead rate here has increased to 76%. (!!!!!!!!)

The school that I just got back from is one of the higher ranked schools, but they say that they will take my career development award and use it to pay my salary - but if I didn't have it they would use their own money to pay my salary! Who's best interests are at play here? The lower ranked school won't do this (btw it not like it's BAD in any way, just a bit under the radar- probably should be ranked in the top 15 instead of the top 25). In fact they have been amazingly supportive, and the package they are offering is stunning; and they are guaranteeing no teaching for 4 years so I can really get things going.

I think I'm going to spend the weekend thinking it over and make my final decision next week. This whole thing has got to end.

The HHMI book has a great quote from Tom Cech. Basically, he says make your decision carefully, think it through, then commit to a place and don't look back. I'm going to try and take this to heart.

Thanks so much!