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A Kiwi Soars

As those of you who read my previous Next Wave article already know, I am a New Zealander, and New Zealanders are sometimes referred to as Kiwis after the small, flightless, and endangered New Zealand native bird. In that article I chronicled my attempt last year to leave the nest and find a tenure-track job. I spread my wings and flapped around on the job market again this year, and I?m very happy to report that the Kiwi has landed, in a tenure-track position at an excellent Midwestern liberal arts college. But, as suits a kiwi, my flight path was not perfectly straight.

I knew from the previous year that jobs would begin appearing as early as July, peak around September or October, and continue with a few more into January. I got everything ready ahead of schedule, and was ready to send my applications away as soon as the first ads hit.

My strategy: apply for everything

Everyone has a different way of deciding which jobs to apply for; mine was to avoid deciding. My strategy: Apply for everything that fell within my area of expertise, defined broadly. Luckily there were a lot of those jobs around this year. The idea was that I'd just see where I got interviews and do the work of assessing the schools once I had an interview lined up. As I wrote in my last article, being from New Zealand I don't know much about American colleges and universities. There is, after all, no better way to assess a school than a campus visit; so why limit myself on the basis of the little bit I already knew or was able to read on the Web?

My colleagues and letter-writers, who were surprised by the 40-plus applications I sent out last year, might have doubted my sanity (and perhaps their own) after this year?s final count of 110 applications. I believe I was single-handedly responsible for a sizable spike in the revenue of the local U.S. Post Office around that time. Then again, postage is cheap and a good job is priceless.

Although my approach might seem, at first, like the job-search equivalent of spam, in fact I took pains to customize my applications. I did at least a little research on each school before I applied by going to the Web site of the department in question and looking at the faculty listing. If I saw a faculty member I thought would be particularly interested in my research, I mentioned her or him by name in my cover letter as a potential future collaborator.

Those who read my first article will recall that I decided to turn down a job I was offered last year. This turned out to be a good decision. Teaching a course during the Fall semester--my first as sole instructor--made me a stronger candidate at some of the colleges that had passed me by the previous year. For this and perhaps other reasons, I received proportionately more telephone interviews and requests for additional information than I got last year.

Not all these requests led to on-campus interviews. My research, I discovered, was too expensive for some of the smaller colleges. In at least one instance this cost me a campus visit. It's just as well: Better to lose out on an opportunity than to end up in a job with a bad fit.

The first two on-site interviews came in late Fall, which is still fairly early on the interview circuit. I was still teaching my course, so it took some work to fit the visits into a busy schedule: very early flights out, very late flights home, and late nights prepping for class AND the interview before I left--not to mention the dirty looks from my wife as I neglected my household chores.

At first I found myself disheartened by the quality and condition of the research facilities on offer at some schools. Like driving a fancy sports car before buying a Civic, a research experience in a top-notch lab is likely to make many other facilities look plain, if not downright grim. The facilities where I work as a postdoc are 5 years old; the shiny lab was custom-built for our research. Outside the Ivy League, academic science buildings are more likely to have white cinderblock walls, linoleum floors, and low acoustic-tile ceilings lit by flickering fluorescent bulbs.

My first interview was at a nice little liberal arts college on the coast in the Carolinas. The interview went well enough for them to unofficially offer me the job about 2 weeks later, although it took quite a while longer for an official offer to follow. It felt great to have an offer in hand so early in the search process but, as I was to find out, an early offer is not without complications.

Soon after that first interview I had another, at a Midwestern liberal arts college. I was the last person interviewed and they called to offer me the job before I had even gotten home from the airport. I thought this meant they really liked me, and it probably did, to some extent. But as I realized later, their haste was also strategic: They wanted to close the deal early before their favorite candidates received other offers, and to make sure they had time to offer the job to an alternative candidate in the event I declined. A fast response was good for them, but bad for me.

I liked the Midwestern school a lot, but I had dozens of applications still pending. Who knew what other opportunities would arise? "Midwestern" was applying pressure for a quick decision. I, on the other hand, wanted to make sure it was a good match. We were looking to settle down, so it was essential that my wife and family be involved in the decision. I therefore asked Midwestern if they would fly my wife and me out for a visit. They agreed, but the timing and terms of the visit involved intense negotiations with the associate dean and the department chair. We finally agreed on a date, later than they wanted and earlier than I wanted. I agreed to give them a decision the day after I returned home.

Could I afford to turn down a great tenure-track job?

Navigating the timing of the various searches is tricky. Getting two offers so early in the season is a very fine thing, but it can make deciding more difficult than it would be if an offer came later in the season. Although the North Carolina college made the first informal offer, they were slow to follow up; I had to decide between an official offer, an unofficial offer, and all the future offers that the flush of my early success had led me to expect. Then, before I had made a decision, I received three more interview invitations. Could I afford to turn down a great tenure-track job on the chance that I'd get an even better offer?

I?m not a gambling man. After having survived a number of harsh New England winters, deciding to go somewhere possibly even colder would be just cause for some to question my sanity (again). Yet my second visit to this Midwestern campus, this one accompanied by my wife, confirmed my first impressions. With an offer in hand, I found it easier to relax and evaluate the place and the offer more freely, with less anxiety. On the flight home, my wife and I agreed that I would accept the offer from "Midwestern."

It?s hard to know what effect, if any, being a foreigner has had on my chances of landing an academic position. I am, apparently, a good interviewee, although I'm not completely sure why. I had three in my academic job search and I ended up with job offers from all three. No doubt luck plays a big part in all this; the finalists chosen depend on the specific composition of the Search Committee and their interests. Part of me wonders, though, if being a foreigner with strong (indeed, native) English skills made me more appealing. Maybe people pay more attention when I give a presentation because I talk funny; yet my English is good enough for me to be clearly understood, or so I like to believe.

Being a Kiwi certainly doesn?t hurt either. Americans thinking of New Zealand usually bring to mind lush green fields, hordes of white fluffy sheep, bungie-jumping, and hobbit-holes; a nice place, and no threat to U.S. national security.

Being a foreigner here, however, does have some negatives. For example, our relocation plans were recently thrown into turmoil with the news that the annual limit on U.S. temporary work visas had been reached and no more would be issued until October. This doesn't apply to my new job, but it impacts directly on my wife's ability to get work immediately upon our relocation. Kiwi's may not be threatening, but we are still affected by U.S immigration policy.

As I reflect on my decision, I feel more and more confident that I have made the right one. Above all else, I feel lucky to have achieved a tenure-track position at a time when many talented scholars fail to do so, and am excited at the thought of becoming a faculty member at a great school where the people are exceptionally nice. This Kiwi has landed, in a place where I can now start to feel something more than temporary, a place my family and I will be more than happy to call our home.