Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Getting a faculty position with an interdisciplinary PhD training

For teachers, summer time is travel time (Yes, poorly paid teachers have no choice but to travel during the most expensive times of year!). Summer is also the time for many academic conferences, workshops and meetings, at least many of the ones I frequent. I did my bit to boost the economy and warm the earth. Just last week, I got to attend a unique and highly satisfying workshop. It was a NSF Workshop on Interdisciplinary Urban Sustainability Careers at the University of Minnesota. The theme was - Now That I Have an Interdisciplinary PhD in Sustainable Urban Systems, What’s Next?. The workshop had panels dedicated to careers in academia, industry, government etc. I, ofcourse, was on a panel focussed on how to land a job in academia as an interdisciplinary PhD. It was a lot of fun and a wealth of information for students interested in both an interdisciplinary graduate education and career. I have been told there will be a link with the video recordings which I will share as soon as I get the information. In the meantime, I wanted to blog when it is still fresh in my mind.

Below are the questions I was asked to speak about. I did not get to convey this verbatim but basically this is what I had to say.
  1. What drew you to a career in academia? 
    • When I began my PhD, I thought I will join the non-profit/non-governmental sector or work in a government agency. That was still the case by the middle of the 4th year of my PhD. However, in my fourth year a slew of things happened that first kindled and eventually made a faculty position as my first choice for a career. I authored a couple of publications that instantly received a whole bunch of citations. I was also invited to guest lectures, workshops and international consultations on biofuels - the focus my research.  While I had been a TA before, I actually got to be a co-instructor for an interdisciplinary class freshman/junior class called Plants and Society, which was  a lot of fun. Finally, I also got the chance to help write grant proposals. 
    • Secondly, it was option value in the face of irreversibility. I felt and still feel it is harder to find a faculty job after working in non-academic jobs rather than the other way around. Ofcourse, there are exceptions. If you worked in National research labs, some private research labs or even the government you might be able to find academic positions but those are fewer and when I see the openings for and applicants it is mostly freshly minted PhDs and post-docs. So long as you are doing high quality research and have good writing skills and communication skills, you are likely to be competitive in academic market.  But you will be swimming against the tide.
    • Lastly, as an immigrant, an academic position can fetch you a permanent residency quickly and it did for me. I hope that is still the case today. In today’s political climate that is gold.
    • Today however, the thing I value to the most is the total freedom to pursue your passion, speak your mind, and the flexibility of working during your own time except of course, when I have to teach. Also it is extremely satisfying to hear students tell you how much they enjoyed your class and that you motivated them to continue in this line further. These more than compensate for the lower wage when compared to private sector career. 
  2. How did you frame your research and experience when you were on the job market? 
    • I was in a situation of having published a couple of papers. In such a situation you have a couple of options, present one of the papers or a weave a story around the papers. The risk with the former is that it is the standard approach in disciplinary job talks and you might come across as not having breadth. The risk with the latter is that you might come across as shallow as you run through two or three different papers in 40 minutes. So it is a really tricky situation.  I was fortunate that the topic of my research -  the environmental implications of biofuels — was then a hot new topic. I focussed on one specific paper, that would take three more years to publish, but I also gave a brief overview of my other papers. Having a publication or atleast an almost final manuscript is critical. This is also essential to make the initial cut from 100 odd applications to a select 10 to 20 that will be more closely reviewed say via Skype and eventually the 5 or 6 that will be short-listed for a site interview.
  3. How did your interdisciplinary research experience help in the job hunting process? 
    • Quite a lot. For one, I went to an interdisciplinary program and so I was acutely aware there is a perception issue to overcome. 
    • My PhD committee had an engineer, physicist, agricultural economist and water economist and that was a great preparation. 
    • Our own department PhD seminars and department seminars were a great preparation with people from different disciplines asking all kinds of questions of a presenter.
  4. What is the most challenging aspect of navigating the job hunting process? And how did you overcome it? 
    • Clearly communicating who you are  especially when you have an interdisciplinary PhD that no other institution offers.
    • There is also a disadvantage. A lot of disciplinary people might compete on the interdisciplinary market but the otherway around is more challenge as there is a perception issue to overcome, when you want a job in a disciplinary department but you don’t have a PhD in that discipline.
    • You will not be able to send a canned application that you mail out to tens of openings, each has to be tailored for each interdisciplinary job could be different.
    • Contact the programs you are applying to and speak to a search committee member and get a sense of what they are looking for and if it is worth your time. 
  5. Looking back, what would you do differently?
    • Not much. Why tinker with something that seems to have worked well. I will know for sure next year :-)
  6. How do you handle the workload and life/work balance during the first two years as an assistant professor?
    • Depends on your personality and life situation. You have 6-8 years to tenure, don’t rush it. Use the clock. Ease into the job. Don’t get burnt out. Get your grad school/post doc papers out of the way and put together the class materials for what you want to teach. Get to know the place you have moved to. Important to find a good mentor at work not necessarily one who works in your area but one who can help with navigating the tenure process. Lastly, and most importantly, there may be important personal and family decisions that for some can wait until after tenure and for some it cannot. I am one to put family first, and for me that has totally changed my view of sustainability.

Closing Thoughts

  • I was fortunate to be accepted to a top PhD program. I was fortunate to find outstanding advisors, late Prof. Alex Farrell and Prof. David Zilberman. I was fortunate that the topic of my research was timely both in a policy and academic sense. So I have had my share of good fortune but it also just did not land on my lap! It has been, is and will be a lot of a struggle whenever you attempt something outside of mainstream. 
  • Academia is an institution steeped in disciplinarity. While it is changing it is a slow transformation. Expectations are that you have some solid disciplinary foundation and demonstrate an ability to bridge disciplines. 
  • This is important - there is no single template to success - you have to be creative and imaginative and that is where the fun is. You will be evaluted by smart but disciplinary experts who quickly need to understand who are you and what is your skill set. There might be no single discipline, single journal, single academic society that you can point to and say you are that person. It is your job to communicate clearly what is your unique skill and how it can be applied beyond your dissertation work, to attract students to work with you, to attract funding for research, etc. At a minimum you should be an expert in atleast one research method and a have a good grasp of the basic theoretical concepts needed for your work. 
  • You got to embrace skepticism about your work. Believe me, there will be many days when you wonder, I wish I was just an engineer, chemist, ecologist or economist. But if ask you me it is worth failing challenging established norms rather than walk a well worn path. If I were do it all over again, I will choose an inter-disciplinary PhD again.

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