Tuesday, September 3, 2019

A New Chapter Begins in Flagstaff

Officially an NAU Lumberjack

Early last month, something big unfolded for me. After over a decade since my life changed dramatically with the start of my AT hike, I have found myself again embarking on a completely new chapter in my life book. On July 31st, while still recovering from my Long Trail adventure, C and I loaded into our our car, and left our apartment outside of Boston...and headed West. All of our belongings were jammed into random moving truck that was somewhere rolling down a remote mid-west highway. The condition of those belongings were completely outside of our control, so there was no sense in either of us worrying about what may come. All we could do is direct our focus forward...West, and see what may come.  

Over the previous 4 years (10 in total), C and I had been playing the delicate "two-body problem" game in New England. Anyone that is even remotely connected to Academia knows exactly what I am referring to. You see it’s quite common for like minded people to meet during graduate school. It only makes sense. You are thrown into an environment where you don’t get much time to “get out” and you are surrounded by people with similar academic passions. The difficulties often arise years later when people that have “found each other” in grad school, are trying to find permanent work...especially if that work is back in Academia. It is incredibly difficult to find two positions, at the same academic institution, that not only work for both people in the couple, but that each person is the ideal candidate for. There were times over the last 10 years, that C and I were quite literally on opposite sides of the world from each other, talking over broken satellite phone connections. 

Let me put this in perspective. First, I have dozens of academic and research colleagues that have partners in similar academic fields as they do. Like C and me, they have been trying for years to land in the same place. When a single academic/faculty position does post at an institution, it first has to be a somewhat close match to your research area. For me this equates to maybe 1-3 “good” postings a year that are somewhat relevant to glaciology, ice-core, paleoclimate, or even broadly climate. If I include basic geoscience teaching gigs, then this probably goes up to 5-7 a year.  When one of these few positions does post, I must leap on it. This means all other priorities are put aside, and my entire focus must be on submitting the absolute best application package I can. This means working with consultants to help me craft the best cover letters and arrange my CV such that it is flawless. I must compile lists of all of my outreach, broader impacts, and synergistic activities I’ve accomplished over the past year....as well as any new publications (published, in press, or in review). I must spend days going over my entire packet, bouncing it off of C, and colleagues, and even friends (many of whom may also be applying for the same position). After days and days of toiling, I then reach out to several colleagues to kindly ask for strong letters of recommendation, despite knowing that they may not even get read. Then I navigate the ridiculous online submission systems and finally....finally, submit my application documents to whatever institution I hope to get even a skype interview with.

Here’s comes the part of the story where reality sets in. Every time I make it through this process, it is very likely that there are AT LEAST several hundred other folks posting for that same position. What's worse, is that the more specific the position is to my field of research, the more likely I am competing against my closest friends and early-career collaborators. This gives you some idea of the "odds" of landing something realistically workable. I have posted for positions all over the world, ranging from 6-month teaching positions at tiny regional colleges, to 2-year post-docs positions in New Zealand, to Tenure-Track Faculty Positions at R1 institutions like Harvard and MIT. 

Now take all this into account, and multiply it by two...and you start to get a sense for how hard it is for two people working in academia to land gainful employment, that is also relevant to their research interests, and is long-term/stable, in the same place.

For the past 4+ years, C and I have been somewhat lucky as compared to other friends of ours. I had a job at a federal lab that focuses on Cold Regions Research on the VT/NH border, and she taught at a University in Boston. This meant I was driving 2 hours back and forth twice a week....every week, for 4+ years (Over 250 trips and 75,000 miles). I kept a small apartment on the VT border so that I had a place to sleep while up at the lab. After two years on the job, the lab finally started allowing me to telework, and I could drive up on Tuesday mornings, and then back again on Thursday evenings...meaning I was spending most of the week "home" with C in Boston.  Compared to some of our friends, we couldn't complain. I put "home" in quotes, because no matter how much Boston began feeling like a home vs. Vermont, I never could shake the feeling that I was a nomad and displaced. I know I often wax poetic about my "wanderlust", but after 10 years with C, I really did want to have a true feeling of home somewhere.....anywhere.

Bottom line is that the odds of landing two jobs in the same place, that is ideal to both people...and in a place that you both actually want to live are astronomical. If, and that's a big IF...two people do somehow land jobs at the same place, there is almost ALWAYS a trade-off. One of the jobs is not a great fit, or the location is less-than-ideal, or maybe the department at the institution is going through some major internal struggles...or maybe one of the jobs is only part-time, etc.

In all of my years of navigating Academia, and now the early-career scene, I only know of one couple that landed jobs at the same place, doing what they want to do, on tenure-track lines, in a place that is fairly decent to live. Otherwise, every other couple I know, has had to make major compromises.

SO...this is where this post finally leads to back to me and my story. 

8 months ago I was sailing as part of an IODP expedition off of Antarctica. While I was drifting around the Southern Ocean, pulling up sediment cores, C had made it through the early rounds of an interview stage at an institution we were both incredibly excited about. At one point we joked about the "perfect places" to get academic jobs, and this particular University was in the top 5. Towards the end of my expedition, with spotty internet connectivity, I got a short email from C simply stating that she "nailed" her in-person interview with this institution. I knew right then and there, with her already being one of the top candidates, that she was going to get the offer. At that point, I also knew that there was no way we could turn it down, so I was going to have to go on the hunt for work in the same city.

View from aboard my IODP cruise in March.

Over the past 4+ years, I had submitted 50 different applications. In all of those applications, I really only made it to the Skype interview phase a few times, and was otherwise rejected or ignored in some fashion. I did manage to land one direct offer, but it was for a company that works on Polar field seismic equipment (not Academia). I ended up turning that job down for my job at the Cold Regions Lab instead.

My Approximate Job Application record Post-Graduate School

About a week later, just days before I was to finally step back on land off of the IODP research vessel, I got the email from C letting me know that she did get the job offer. I was so ridiculously happy for her, and for us. Still, I knew my life was about to get complicated. I had asked my lab about the possibility of working completely remotely, and was told "that type of work model is not supported". So...I was either going to have to live really far away from C, or quit my job and find something new. Obviously, I was ready to quit my job.

But then something interesting happened. During negotiations for C's job, she asked if they'd be willing to interview me for a job as well...and to both our surprise, they agreed. I went into full panic mode and immediately updated all of my documents, and prepared a new/fresh job talk. I flew out to the University and spent 3 days doing my own on-site interview with the entire faculty and students. I gave my job talk, and spent considerable time with the chair and dean talking about the position they were offering me. It all went well, and in the end, I was also offered a faculty position. For the first time in over 10 years, C and I would be truly working and living in the same place full time. 

Were there any trade-offs? Sure. The job I interviewed for and landed is focused heavily on the climate side, not ice/glaciology side....and it is a Non-Tenure Track Professor of Practice position, so I won't have the potential security of tenure on this track, nor the freedom to do as much research as I want (it's a heavy teaching and administration position). BUT...I can't imagine us having this much good fortune again in a job search. 

So does that mean I am a technically a spousal hire? Yep. Am I ok with that? You bet! I have no problem admitting that it's because of C that I even had an opportunity to interview. All that means to me now, is that I have to definitely earn it!

So here comes the best part....The University, is Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff AZ, and the department I'm now working in is fantastic. This means we are living in a beautiful place, amongst a wonderful group of colleagues and collaborators. I don't think in a million tries, could we end up with situation as fortunate as the one that we did. So I say many thank-yous every night to whoever in the cosmic arena might be listening...expressing gratitude that I have been so fortunate.

To all my friends and colleagues out there....keep trying. I promise eventually something will come your way. Stay hopeful, even when it seems that there may not be a lot to go around.

...and on that note, I will leave you with some fun photos from our road trip across the country to our new home in Flagstaff!

Car packed and read in Boston

Empty Apartment in Vermont

Hanging out with my Nephew in Rochester NY

Cathedral of Learning, Pitt Campus

Kecksburg PA....famous UFO site! (or acorn site)

Old cars in Kentucky

Giant Dinosaur near Mammoth Cave, KY

Dairy Museum in Texas

Dr. Seuss Park in Texas

Dr. Seuss Park in Texas

Dr. Seuss Park in Texas

Dr. Seuss Park in Texas

Dr. Seuss Park in Texas

A Texas breakfast

Texas scultpures

Carlsbad Cave, NM

Guadaloupe Peak (TX Highpoint)

Guadaloupe Peak (TX Highpoint)

Roswell NM

Roswell NM

Roswell NM

Our New Home

Painted Desert / Petrified Forest

Painted Desert / Petrified Forest

Painted Desert / Petrified Forest

San Francisco Peaks (Mt. Humphreys in Background)

Fire near Flagstaff

Desert Plants!

Look at me...all professional and stuff

The Students arrive at the bookstore!

I've discovered Noteability on iPad! 
No more notebooks!