Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Finding a Job in a Pandemic

Hello Eco-Evo Evo-Eco Blog readers! 

I've been a contributor for this blog since it started, and I'm excited to say that I'll be another co-host of the blog along with Andrew (@ecoevoevoeco) and Dan (@danielbolnick). Consider this my first official blog post as a co-host. I (@photopidge) look forward to contributing to the blog. Also, a reminder we happily take guest posts! Published a paper you are super excited about? Have an issue that you think needs addressing? Have advice? Any and all contributions are welcome so please tell us!

So who am I? My name is Kiyoko and I'm currently a postdoc with Dr. Fanie Pelletier at the Universit√© de Sherbrooke. Previously I was at the University of Cambridge and somehow, I've managed to find a job in the middle of a global pandemic. I'll be starting as an assistant professor at Brock University in Ontario, Canada in August of this year. Who would have thunk that would be possible? I certainly didn't. So here, I'll recount my job search chronicles. This isn't really a job advice post, more just a look back at my personal path to finding a job. We have many posts about finding a job (though I know many disagree with some of the advice!) such as:

How to Get a Faculty Position 1

How to Get a Faculty Position 2

Resolution: I Will Get a Faculty Position

So what was my path to getting a job in a pandemic? I finished my PhD in 2016, and then spent five years as a postdoc at the University of Cambridge. I know that academia isn't for everyone, and for those of you who want to pursue a non academic career, DO IT. but I knew I wanted to aim for becoming a prof. I limited myself geographically to Europe and North America because I have strong, personal ties to Montreal, so I wanted to be as close to Montreal as possible. I set myself a six hour flight limit (which is what Montreal-England was essentially). So, pretty much right out of grad school, I started applying for a few jobs. Job applications initially take a LOT of time. I figured this was my first foray into the job market, so I applied to just a few places. Didn't hear from them. After the first few applications, I realized I wasn't happy with my application because I was pushing a research program that didn't feel like it was MY research program.

So, I had to sit down and think about what exactly is MY research program. I work in multiple systems and ask multiple questions, so what was the link between everything? I mapped things out visually on a whiteboard (I miss my whiteboard. It's still in Cambridge and I wish I had it with me in Montreal/Sherbrooke), I looked at word clouds of my abstracts, and I asked lots of people for advice. I eventually convened on a job application package I was (relatively) happy with and felt represented me, my research program, and my teaching philosophy. I was also happy with my diversity statement as I am a big proponent of equality and diversity in STEM. With my re-vamped application package, I got my first interview about two years out of grad school. It was in North America so it was the full two-day in-person interview. I was SO nervous. I spent hours and hours on my presentation, practicing it with multiple people and thought through my answers for interview questions. The experience was fantastic. Though I didn't get an offer, it did instill in me a little tiny voice that said, 'you know what. Maybe, just maybe you can do this!' Don't worry, that voice quickly disappeared.

I continued my postdoc and fully launched myself on the job market for the 2018-2019 season. My first big season applying for lots of positions, I got a few phone interviews in North America, a few in person interviews, primarily in Europe. But I didn't get anything beyond those phone interviews, nor beyond the in person interviews. OK, I thought. I knew I was still sorting out the best way to answer interview questions. I knew I was getting hung up on certain questions, so I worked on figuring out a way to answer them. I knew the positions in some cases were going to people with established research groups (still can't figure out why I landed an interview!). But I learned things. I learned tricks to streamline the job application process. I thought more (and sought feedback) on how to answer the questions I knew I was having a hard time answering. One thing I did not realize until much later was that having experience interviewing in both North America and Europe was helping me because I had to learn to communicate effectively and be concise. In North America, you have a two day in-person interview, where you give a research talk (one hour), often a chalk talk (at least one hour), and you meet everyone. Everyone! Profs, teaching faculty, research associated, admin, facilitators, grad students, etc. You also have so called 'informal' times where you go for lunch and dinner with members of faculty. In Europe, you have a very different process. My experience was you give a research talk, which can range from 12 minutes to 45 minutes, you meet the committee (maybe 90 minutes), and you might have a tour of the facilities. It is a much shorter process than North America. Often, you are there with the other candidates. And for those in North America, it might seem odd and uncomfortable at first, but it's actually a lot of fun and even inspiring! I got to meet researchers who I've been following on twitter, met people that could lead to collaborations, and actually found the process much less awkward and more rewarding than I expected. While we were all competing for one or a handful of positions, we're all in the same boat! These group interviews were extremely collegial and inspiring! But I didn't get any offers.


I did get good feedback (ask for feedback after interviews, both phone/skype interviews and in person if you didn't get to the next stage). So I plugged on, attended conferences, conducted field seasons, collaborated, wrote papers, etc. For the 2019-2020 season, I started sending applications out again.  The season started decently enough. I was getting Skype and in person interview invitations, lots of rejections, etc. The usual. And then news of a novel, devastating virus emerging started to appear. However, it wasn't found in North America or Europe yet, and I continued to go back and forth between Cambridge and Montreal. I got to go to the University of Glasgow as the Darwin Day graduate student invited speaker (so much fun!) and to Barcelona to give a talk to researchers at the Centre de Recerca Ecol√≤gica i Aplicacions Forestals (CREAF). I had an in person interview in the United States at the start of March. My colleagues and I then headed off to the Galapagos for our annual field season. 

And then the pandemic was declared. For adventures on how to get from the Galapagos back to North America, you can read about it here: Well, this completely changed the job interview process (as one would imagine). The primary thing was all interviews went completely virtual. This was fine as we were all getting more and more Zoom experience, However, some things remained the same. In the UK, all the interviews are usually scheduled on the same day, with no exceptions. So if you can't make the interview on the scheduled day, you don't get to do it at all (I had to change a flight once to make an interview!). As it turned out, one of my interviews was on a travel day, and so I did my interview from the airport while waiting for my flight (directional microphone was one of the best pandemic investments I made!). This type of scheduling has also meant I've done interviews at 10pm EST (which was 3am by my body clock) at night after walking off a flight from London to Montreal (I was interviewing for a position in New Zealand. I had applied on a whim) as well as from the Galapagos. Virtual interviews do make it extremely difficult to get a sense of the department, but you can still pick up information based on the questions you ask them. The pandemic also delayed the job searches themselves. I also found out that many job searches were suspended or cancelled, and I also heard a few cases where offers were actually rescinded. One place I interviewed at had their job search suspended, which puts the department in a difficult position because they can't notify applicants that they had made offers to other people and they were no longer under consideration. Yes, they were a department that would notify all applicants once the position was filled! Anyways, the delays were difficult. I'd apply for a position in the spring with a starting date of August 1st, and after a few months, it became quite clear the job search could not proceed on the timeline the committee would have liked and the position would not be starting on August 1! For my position at Brock, it was a one day virtual interview. I gave a research presentation and a teaching demo and then had meetings with members of the faculty. I couldn't tour the university, but they did take videos for me so I could get a sense of what facilities were available. To my great surprise, Brock made me an offer, which I accepted!

So, lucky me, I managed to find a job in the middle of a pandemic. You'd think that'd be the end of the story. It is, but I want to mention one more thing. As soon as I signed, the first thing I thought was, they really don't know what a huge mistake they just made, do they? Why do they think that I'm going to be qualified to be a prof? The impostor syndrome is alive, well, and incredibly active, and I'm still having trouble dealing with it.

So that's how I found a job in a pandemic. If you are curious, I applied to 56 positions/fellowships in 2018-2019 and 61 positions in 2019-2020. If I were to offer advice, it is to get lots of feedback on everything (application materials, presentations, answering interview questions, all of it!), have supporting colleagues and friends (rejections are hard. They can be really, really, really hard), and recognize your own imposter syndrome (and realize you DESERVE to be where you are and where you will go. I know easier said than done). Good luck to those pursuing jobs, no matter what sector. Also, wash your hands, wear a mask, and get vaccinated! 

Saturday, January 2, 2021

#TryHard Virtual Teaching. 2 - Place-based teaching

I have decided to release my online lectures from this fall as a "short" course on youtube HERE. This series of blog posts outlines how the lectures were developed.

#TryHard Virtual Teaching. 2 - Place-based teaching

 A critical part of my in-person teaching has always been generating a personal connection with the students - no matter how big the classroom. Underpinning those connections is a kind of "show-and-tell" conducted during and  after class. For instance, I always bring in exciting physical items to illustrate concepts discussed in the class. Highlights from my Introductory (Organismal) Biology classes over the year have been a real gorilla skeleton alongside a cast of a human skeleton, a meter tape stretched out across the room to illustrate the size of a whale shark, a (stuffed) platypus, and many more items, but especially my wife's pet ball pythons (see picture below). These physical items coupled with the lectures generated some of the most fun personal interactions with students. 

The shift to virtual online teaching was going to throw all of this out the window - the best parts of my lectures - gone. I spent months mulling how best to achieve some of this personal connection in the virtual lectures, and I settled on "place-based teaching." The idea was to pre-record a 10 min video for each lecture that showed me discussing content in a physical location where I was (or had been) present. My hope was that I could "take the students out with me" to particular locations, where I could embed concepts into a real setting with which I was intimately familiar.

I started this effort at my cabin in northern BC over the summer. I simply walked around and recorded myself making a variety of natural history observations in hopes that I would be able to inspire new content for my lectures - or illustrate existing content from past years. I did not have a pre-conceived notion of how these observations were going to fit together - I simply recorded as much as I could in hopes that I could piece together useful narratives.

When I got back to Montreal, I sifted through the various recordings to find useful aggregations - and  the first one to emerge was a group of observations involved organisms consuming other organisms: bears eating salmon, skunk cabbage, and red osier dogwood berries (from camera traps); leaf miners eating aspen popular and willows; bark beetles eating spruce trees; parasitoid wasps ovipositing in bark beetle larvae; mice eating nuts that we put out for them; wolves following moose (again from camera traps); and so on. Thus, my "introduction to ecology" lecture became centered on food webs. Here is the introductory video that I released in advance of the lecture as a way of generating a place-based connection between the students, myself, and the content. 

A lot of the footage from my cabin also related to various effects of climate change, and so the next lecture became "Ecology and Evolution Under Global Change." Here is the introductory video for that lecture assembled from recordings at my cabin combined with additional recordings from my home in Montreal.

A third place-based introductory video from my cabin centered on mammal behavior as seen through the lens of camera traps that we have deployed there.

Of course, I couldn't use my cabin for all of the "place-based" introductory videos (e.g., amphibians, reptiles, and primates) - and so I also used footage recorded in previous years from various field sites around the world. I won't show them all here - but below is the one for Galapagos (Evolution!), which was the very first one I recorded and released to the students. 

Overall, I think this "place-based teaching" approach was useful for generating a bit of a connection with the students. The next step was combining that approach with a call for "lecture collaborations" with the students. I will detail these collaborations in the next post but - in essence - at the end of each introductory video I asked the students to provide examples or pictures or videos from their local areas - and then I wove those into the remaining segments of the lecture. 

Stay tuned.


Here is the developing series of #TryHard Virtual Teaching

1. Promotion

2. Place-based teaching

Finding a Job in a Pandemic

Hello Eco-Evo Evo-Eco Blog readers!  I've been a contributor for this blog since it started, and I'm excited to say that I'll be...