The same side of two coins

It seems like not that long ago, I was going through my campus interview here at Bates College. That is one reason why it feels so weird to now be on the other side of this process. Just a month ago, I was poring over applications, reading teaching statements and research statements. Just a few weeks ago, I was at the Joint Math Meetings (read my blog on that by going here), interviewing candidates. Today, we start our on-campus interviews, which will be going for the next few weeks. In this post, I want to share some of my thoughts on what it’s like to be on this side of the process.

First of all, and this is something people warned me would happen after reading dozens of applications by very talented applicants: how did I ever get hired? These people have won teaching awards, published a ton, had postdocs, worked in industry, have legions of adoring students and colleagues. OK, maybe I’m just collapsing lots of talents onto one amorphous blob of a candidate, but what an impressive blob it is. The next thing I felt, after getting over being intimidated, was a need to get every one of these people a job. Unfortunately, we only have one position (although we’re hiring next year, hopefully), and too many great people.

It was very hard to narrow the list down to thirteen (how many we met at the JMM), and it was also interesting to see the many different opinions in my department. Not that I thought we all have the same opinions, but it was interesting to see how one candidate would really shine for one person and would go unnoticed by another. In the end, though, we made a list we were all very happy with.  The even harder part came after coming back from the JMM (which only one of my colleagues and I attended), and distilling those 30-45 minute conversations into morsels that the rest of my colleagues could incorporate into their existing opinion of the candidates. Picking the top four of those thirteen was another challenge, with a lot more disagreement and negotiation (although, in the end, we were all satisfied with the result). And the most difficult part is still to come, after the on-campus interviews are finished.

I think part of what makes this so tricky is that we have two research areas we would like to fill in the next few years. If we had only had one area of focus I think the decisions would have been much easier (at least these first few). But we’re also trying to choose someone who will be a good citizen of the department and a good fit, and I’m not sure how one can evaluate that with such limited interactions (besides being able to tell if someone is “nice”). There is a fundamental lack of information, since we can’t know what is going to happen later! I remember feeling that way when deciding where to go when I got a couple of offers, and I’m surprised that those feeling are coming back. How am I to know?

The most important thing I have learned, though, is that these decisions are incredibly hard, and making collective decisions is even harder (just think of Arrow’s theorem!). It really seems like many different factors affect how you evaluate candidates, and even though we all strive for fairness, it is almost impossible to judge what is fair and who is “the best candidate”. It really depends on what you want, and it changes very much from person to person. So, to those people who did not invite me for a campus visit, I totally get it. To those who didn’t want to interview me at the JMM, again, I totally get it. Especially since I DID get a job, and a great one at that, I guess I have the luxury of this hindsight and understanding. The real problem is that there are too many talented PhDs and not enough jobs! The system is rigged to be unfair, and I understand now why really great candidates might be left in limbo after this process. But I don’t like it. I’m not sure what to tell people, though, other than getting or not getting a job seems to be very far from a judgement on your value, and more on the job crisis we have at the moment and good or bad luck.

I don’t have any meaningful insight to share on this, it seems, and very many of my opinions seem to be tied to my emotions, so I can’t be completely rational. I mean, I’m not sure I know anyone who can, to be honest. But I’m remembering how hard it was, when I accepted the Bates offer, to decline other offers. I got offers at places where I was a good fit, which means I liked the people there and they liked me. It felt like a betrayal after all that to say no. I think I will feel the same way after this. I mean, I am meeting all these wonderful people and thinking how great they would be as colleagues, what kinds of contributions they could each make to the department, and how they would get along with the students. I think there will be heartbreak at the end, no matter what side you’re on. Maybe other people are not as emotional as I am, and I envy you all very much.

On a more positive note, however, at the end of this process I will have a great new colleague with whom, the tenure gods willing, I will get to work for the next thirty-or-so years of my life. And what an embarrassment of riches,  that I can foresee this decision is going to be hard: there will be too many choices for a wonderful new colleague!

Anyway, I leave you with this quote from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, by Tom Stoppard (inspired by a recent blog post of Evelyn Lamb’s), which I think is appropriate for the situation:

“For some of us it is performance, for others patronage. They are two sides of the same coin, or, let us say, being as there are so many of us, the same side of two coins.”

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yyy2 Responses to The same side of two coins

  1. Joe Silverman says:

    Hi Adriana, Great essay (as always).

    And you might think it will get easier, but it doesn’t. Every year there are so many great people applying, both for our one or two post-doc positions, and for any senior position(s) that we might have. One can only hope that all the deserving people get what they deserve, but as you say, there are also components of timing and luck involved.

    I’ll close by offering another quote from “R & G Are Dead”: Heads, heads, heads, heads,… Also, as mathematicians, wouldn’t you agree that we get very good at playing the question game?

  2. Mike says:

    I felt the same way when I was on search committees (how did I get hired?). It’s a struggle, from how to narrow down a field of hundreds of candidates to what voting process should be used at the end. Good luck! (is that from R&G?)

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