Being Faculty

During a recent campus interview, I was talking to the chair of the search committee about the position for which I was interviewing. The position was to replace a faculty member who had been in the job for almost 30 years. I told the chair that I’d like to meet the faculty member I would be replacing, and his response to my question was interesting. He told me that he was hesitant to introduce me to her because he didn’t want me to think that I had to do everything the way she had been doing it in the same ways she had been doing it for 30 years. Rather, he wanted someone to come into the position and make it their own.

He said, “I know it’s hard to make the transition from being a grad student and thinking you need to ask the expert about what they think to you, yourself, being the expert in something.”

I thought he made an interesting assumption about where I was coming from. I didn’t really feel the need to know how things were done in order to replicate them. Rather, I just wanted to know a bit about the institutional history, learn about any battles she found and won or lost, and figure out if some things had or hadn’t been attempted. In other words, what the search committee chair advocated—that I take something and make it my own—was exactly what I was trying to do.

This brief conversation with him made me think a lot about what being a faculty member means (as opposed to what being a graduate student means). I have been fortunate during my time as a grad student to be responsible for my own classes of students. I have had the authority to create syllabi, run classes, and grade papers. But the overall outcomes of those classes were given to me (even if I was responsible for determining the details). I didn’t have the authority to propose classes or change the curriculum for undergraduate students. But as a faculty member, I will have those opportunities. In fact, I’ll be one of the people who is considered the “expert” in my field, and I’ll be the person who others seek out for advice and ideas. And that can be a scary thing; I don’t think I’ll ever feel like I’m done learning or done experiencing things and growing, and I certainly won’t ever feel like I know everything.

So to me, being a faculty member means that I’ll continue to seek out new knowledge, and I’ll get to work with people—both other faculty and students alike—who will always encourage me to keep learning and growing. Being a faculty member means being one of the fortunate individuals who gets to encourage others—other faculty members, grad students, undergrads, administrators—to find their own strengths and use those strengths to find their bliss.

On Trusting Politicians

A few weeks ago, I attended a meeting/meet-and-greet in the Graduate Life Center with the Swiss Ambassador to the US, Manuel Sager. In the meeting, the ambassador discussed the frequent elections held in Switzerland—four per year!—to decide on a number of policy issues.

One of the relatively recent elections had to do with adding another two weeks of vacation time onto the already four weeks of mandatory vacation time for all Swiss citizens. The Swiss people voted against this measure. While all the Americans in the room shook their heads and scoffed at this rejection of more vacation time (who doesn’t want more time off?!), Sager explained that the politicians in the country had explained to their constituents that two extra weeks of vacation time would decrease productivity, which would, in turn, be detrimental to the economy and the country as a whole.

And the citizens listened to the politicians and voted against the measure.

I was struck by the trust placed in the political system by the Swiss. The citizens listened to what their representatives had to say and believed that their representatives had their best  interests at heart. This seems so different from the ways we view politics here in the US. While I’m an optimist, and I want to believe that my elected representatives have my best interests in mind, sometimes it’s hard not to believe the common refrain, “never trust a politician.”

I remember my dad saying this when I was a kid. Although his statement, more specifically, was “never trust a politicians whose eyebrows are a different color than their hair.” So maybe all the Swiss politicians have matching hair colors, and are, inherently, more trustworthy? Regardless, it was refreshing to hear about a political system that really seems to value the voices of the people and seems to make an effort to have the citizens and political system work together.

The Eeyores

I always underestimate the mental energy it takes to get through October. Every year when this month rolls around, I’m surprised by the demands on my time and the depletion of my energy. I find myself wanting to vent to my friends and family just for the sake of complaining. Why did I sign up for so many things? Why are there so many meetings? How am I going to get through the rest of the semester? My friends and family can’t really do anything about all of my responsibilities. And the truth is, I’ll get through it. I always have in the past. But something about venting just feels so good.

Or does it?

I’ve been noticing recently that sometimes when I vent, I can’t seem to get myself to stop. It’s like trying to scratch an itch that won’t go away, no matter how long my fingernails or how much Benadryl I use. And I’ve noticed, too, that I’m certainly not the only one going through this. Over the past few weeks, I’ve had countless friends and coworkers stop by my office to complain about various things. This conference presentation or that job cover letter. And I’m happy to be a listening ear for them just as they are for me. We wouldn’t have gotten this far in this crazy grad school endeavor without being a support system for each other. But sometimes after they leave, I find myself feeling drained and weary, even if I started out in a good mood.

That’s why I found this article about “complainers in the office” so apt. In it, the author discusses how listening to complainers (especially the one who just want to vent and don’t want a solution to the problem) can actually be detrimental to our own wellbeing. And the author offers some suggestions for how to deal with people who just want to complain. I think there’s some great advice in there—like getting some physical distance from the situations you know are unhealthy for you. And I also think it’s useful to look at this through the lens of my own experiences as a complainer. Yes, sometimes we all need to vent. But from now on, I’m going to try to be a little more cognizant of how my mood could be affecting the people I come into contact with.

And now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll go pull on my invisibility cloak to protect me from the Eeyores.

The “Right” Job?

Being on the job market is a funny thing. As I look at different job ads, I have to live hundreds of possible lives. Could I do Job X? Do I want to do Job X? If I took Job X, where would I live?

This article in the Chronicle finally made its way out of my Instapaper, and it really resonated with me. In it, the author works through the tension between seeking out and taking the best job and taking the right job. To some job seekers, this might be the same job. We’re urged to think that we should go after the most prestigious, the highest ranked. We’re often told that we should apply for all the jobs, even if they’re not really jobs we want (and even if they are jobs that we think we could do).

I’m not sure if there’s any way to know what the “right” job is so early in my job search; so much of it comes down to a fit with the people, the program, and the university. But I think it’s important to talk about this process and hear about other people’s experiences. Because graduate students are not a homogeneous group. Some of us will take awesome jobs at research intensive schools and hardly ever teach, some of us will end up teaching and doing barely any research at all, and some of us (all of us?) will be rockstars.


Differing Opinions

I’m on the job market this semester, and I’ve been getting as much feedback as possible on my job documents. This week, I started putting together my first cover letter for a position that seems like it could be a good fit. I sent a draft to my advisor and he responded with comments and feedback. “Don’t sound too cocky. You don’t want to step on any toes,” he said. Then I sent the letter to my partner who had a highly successful job search last year in the same field as me. His feedback on my cover letter was the exact opposite of my advisor’s: “Make bolder statements; tell them what you can do for them; be aggressive.” Who to believe?

Actually, they’re probably both right. The cover letter is such a tricky document, and it’s really difficult to strike the right kind of balance in tone. I want them to know that I’m awesome, I do awesome things, I think awesome thoughts. But I don’t want them to think that I think I’m too awesome. Otherwise, I’ll come off as a jerk. And, quite honestly, I tend to find it much easier to downplay my accomplishments. So I also run the risk of not impressing them enough to give me a second glance. At the same time, I don’t want to come off too beggy.

So what’s a job candidate to do? Get more advice? I’m certain that I could give the same document to five other people and get five different (and possible disparate) bits of advice. Indeed, there is no end to advice offered each year by folks The Chronicle (and along with it ProfHacker) and GradHacker. All the advice can get so overwhelming and frustrating.

Why won’t somebody just give me the right answer?

And that, right there, is one of my biggest realizations during this hunt for a job. There is no right answer or any one right way to do this. I have spent years being a graduate student, being told–if not what to think–then the many different ways that there are to think. “You could think about it this way” or “you could think about it like that.” I’ve been trained to see all the possibilities (or at least as many of them as possible), to stretch and flex my brain in many different (and sometimes uncomfortable) ways. Now’s my time to figure out which stretches feel the best.

I’ll listen to everyone’s advice, and, ultimately, I’ll take my own. Because this is what I’ve been training for.