Friday, February 17, 2012

I, flotsam.

Certain relatives of mine cling to the fantasy that I will be able to decide where I get a job, so as to live within a few miles of them. While the sentiment is appreciated, and shared, the reality is that I have almost no say in where I end up.

Let's review a few facts. First, the US economy is still in the shitter, if slightly less deep in than a few years ago. Lots of people, regardless of their industry, are moving wherever for whatever job they can get. Maybe there is some profession where you can just up and move where you want and be confident of making a living there, but I'm not sure what profession that would be at this point.

Second, even in good times, academics can almost never pick a city and get a job there. For hundreds of years academics have been moving to whatever University has a position for them. I'm reading a book about Alexander von Humboldt, who was one of the greatest scientists of the late 1700s and early 1800s, and even he keeps going from country to country looking for a patron and encountering academics working far from their own countries. There are extraordinarily few academics who can simply contact a University of interest and based on their scientific reputation be confident of getting a job there. Once you've won a Nobel Prize your chances are good. Barring that, good luck.

Third, I have done what most of the academic establishment says scientists should do, but very few fully do, because it makes publishing and job-hunting that much harder. My work is so damn interdisciplinary and specific that I am unlikely to fit the particular job description a small disciplinary department at a college or university is likely to write. I am on an email list for an online bulletin board for evolutionary biologists called EvolDir, and every few days I get an email for some position somewhere in the world that they are trying to fill. Here are a few of the most recent entry-level faculty positions:
•"There are several openings for Bioinformaticians and Software Developers at the University of Glasgow (UK)."
•The City University of New York seeks candidates with expertise "in tropical ecology, biogeography, evolutionary ecology, and conservation biology."
•" Tel Aviv University (ISRAEL) invites ... applicants who apply modern approaches to investigate fundamental problems in the general area of Plant Ecology. "
•UC Riverside "invites applications for a faculty position in plant evolutionary developmental biology."

These are positions I would bother applying for. This is not to say that I won't find anything, but rather that even if Near My Relatives U does decide to advertise for a new professor, they are more likely to be looking for an expert in the genomic analysis of primate fecal samples than they are a developmental evolutionary demographer. When I am ready to apply for positions, the question will not be, "Is that biking distance from my relatives?" but rather, "am I plausibly qualified for that position and is it a place where my wife is willing to live?" If it is, I'll need to apply. It is most likely that positions I do apply for will be among the relatively few broadly defined positions in evolutionary biology, with no further disciplinary restrictions. I very much approve of such broad-net casting, but it tends to lead to many hundreds of applications, as everyone in the field qualifies, so my chances with any one such position are slim.

If the economy were to improve dramatically, I could plausibly limit my search to within 1000 miles of my family. As it is, that limit will be about 12000 miles.


GML said...

Alas, you are right. We do wish for geographical closeness, but we have good reality testing about the facts. GML

jte said...

Why is it that job openings are made so narrow and specific?