A Kiwi Leaves the Nest

I am a New Zealander. New Zealanders are sometimes collectively referred to as Kiwis, after the small, flightless (elusive and endangered) New Zealand native bird--not, as some mistakenly believe, after the small, flightless fuzzy brown fruit found on the supermarket produce stands (which, judging by their numbers, are clearly not endangered). In mid-2000, my spouse, our two preschool boys, and I packed our lives into six suitcases and came to the U.S. so that I could take up a postdoctoral position in psychology at a prestigious Ivy League school in New England. I love the town we live in and the university where I work, but, knowing that sooner or later you have to leave the nest, last year I went onto the U.S. academic job market for the first time in search of the elusive (and perhaps endangered) tenure-track job.

As I was happy to stay where I was for another year, my initial search plan was very selective: only apply to schools I thought I would really like to work at, in places I would like to live. The search, however, quickly took on a life of its own and finished up a flood of about 40 applications, much to the chagrin of those who had to supply letters of recommendation. I attribute this unplanned expansion of my search to two factors:

1) Once I had done the hard work of tidying up my CV and writing my research interests/plans and teaching philosophy/interests, it seemed little additional effort to pop it in another envelope where the possible return was a great job.

2) Two of my colleagues and good friends, both postdocs in psychology, were on the job market at the same time. We would talk about recent job ads we had seen other, and pretty soon the job search was the main, if not sole, topic of conversation amongst us. In that climate, it was easy to get caught up in a kind of job-feeding frenzy.

More Opportunities, But More to Learn As Well

Being a Kiwi (bird, not fruit) and not an American, I soon found there was an awful lot I had to learn about the way U.S. schools work. First, there are many different kinds of schools here in the U.S. Even though I had worked at a university in the U.S. for over 2 years, I knew surprisingly little about the U.S. tertiary education system. In New Zealand there are really only medium- to large-sized public universities (most of which have doctoral programs) dotted throughout the country, where the emphasis is clearly on research but teaching is also valued. There are no such things as liberal arts colleges. So, before I applied to a job at a liberal arts college, I thought it would be prudent to find out what one was.

Second, I had never heard of the schools that were advertising for faculty, with only a few exceptions. Given the sheer number of schools in the U.S., I understand this is a problem not confined to foreigners, but it is exacerbated by being from so far away. Unless the institution was publishing research in my area of interest, it would probably have gone undetected while I was in New Zealand. This meant, for example, that the vast majority of undergraduate teaching-focused schools--even the best ones--were unknown to me. In fact, I didn't even know that the school where I am currently working was in the Ivy League until I mentioned to an American researcher on my return to New Zealand that I had been there to interview.

Seeking a guide through--and out of--this quagmire, I did what I now feel kept me sane: I purchased the most recent issue of America's Best Colleges by US News & World Report. Although the rankings need to be taken with a grain of salt, I now at least had some idea what type of school was advertising the position (e.g., liberal arts college vs. doctoral university), useful statistics (e.g., the size and composition of the student body), and a rough idea of how good a school it was in its category.

Third, I gathered as much information as I could. I listened to anyone and everyone who was prepared to talk to me about the different kinds of schools and what it would be like to work in them. I also read lots of useful Internet articles describing other people's job search experiences at different kinds of institutions on Web sites such as The Chronicle of Higher Education and Science's Next Wave. I managed to convince myself that I had enough information to have some rough idea of what I was getting into with each new application. Of course, actually getting the job was something else entirely. ...

Highs and Lows, Thanks But No Thanks

The job search is an emotional roller coaster ride no matter what your nationality. As you send out those applications, you are filled with hope at the prospect of working at some great school or living in a great place. As time goes on and the rejection letters start to arrive, hope wanes. No matter how much I tried to convince myself I really didn't want a particular job, it still hurt a little to finally get the rejection letter. During the ride are moments of great joy when you get a phone call asking you to an interview, and moments of gloom when you find you made the short list but didn't get an interview.

I ended up with a pretty good offer last year but turned it down. The people I met there were very nice, as were the facilities, and the start-up funds they offered were unusually high for a school of their type. It was a difficult decision to make, but ultimately there were good reasons to stay where I was for another year. We had made some good friends here, my spouse was just beginning to make progress on her career again after finding it tough to get work in the U.S. (despite her MBA), and our two incomes were finally starting to allow us to service our student loan debt. Our children were settled (with one in school), and I could try again next year with a stronger CV, another couple of publications, and some teaching under my belt. Incidentally, both my two job-seeking colleagues (who were married to each other) managed, miraculously, to find well-deserved jobs in schools in the same city!

So this Kiwi (bird, not fruit) is having another go at getting a job this round. I feel much more emotionally and psychologically prepared for what lies ahead this time, having gone through it all once before. My first applications have already been sent. As I gathered them together, I had a moment of déjà vu. Grit your teeth, hold on tight, and keep your hands inside the vehicle at all times. Things could get hairy. Like a Kiwi--fruit, not bird.

Gary Muir also serves as the Next Wave's campus representative at Dartmouth College.

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