April
14th 2009
Lucky Louie wins a fellowship but wants more, oh so much more

Posted under: happy endings, jobs

moneyhandFrom the mailbag at Historiann.com HQ:

Dear Historiann,

I am a soon-to-be unemployed recent Ph.D. who was offered a prestigious postdoctoral teaching fellowship today. Hooray! I’m so excited, but I have a few job applications still pending for some other tasty opportunities. This prompts a job search question that I thought your readership might be able to help me with. I make $30,000 a year as a lecturer. The fellowship has a set salary just a shade lower than what I make now, but the town I would be moving to is a little more expensive. There are two other positions out there that I am extremely keen on. For one of them, an interdisciplinary studies fellowship, I am simply another applicant, as far as I know; I had a phone interview for the other last week, a great non-tenure track position that would give me a big pay hike and a reduced course load of only undergrad seminar courses at a great state university. I think that’s the one that I want. I have two weeks to accept the current offer. How do I approach these schools to tell/ask/suggest to them to hurry the hell up?

Just sign me “Lucky Louie.”

Congratulations, Louie!  To answer your question succinctly, you should e-mail the chairs of the two active searches to inform them of your good news and to ask where they are in the process.  This happens all of the time–and indeed, I’m sure they would prefer to get this information sooner rather than later if you’re at all a contender.  They will understand that this is a polite way of asking them to tell you where you stand in their searches, and what their advice is on the wisdom of accepting your fellowship offer. The search chairs may or may not be able to give you much specific information, but they should at least be able to ballpark an estimate as to when they expect to extend an offer to someone.  They may or may not be willing or able to let you know where you stand–but I’d be very reluctant to let this fellowship opportunity slip by for anything less than an actual job offer.  (That is, they may say “Please, please, please don’t take the fellowship,” but unless the search committee and department have met and voted and the offer is just pending the Dean’s approval, I think it’s good to remember that passing on the fellowship costs you so, so much more than it costs them to ask you to turn it down.  Only you would pay the price for that if no other offer was forthcoming.)

Now, if I may offer some unsolicited advice:  you seem a little fixated on the salary offerings for your current prospects, neither of which is a tenure-track position.  Is it possible that taking the fellowship, albeit for less money for a few years, would put you in an even better position to compete for tenure-track jobs down the line (assuming that you want a tenure-track job eventually)?  Postdoctoral fellowships are so rare, and their value on your CV goes far beyond just paying your bills next year.  (Of course I don’t know what your financial situation is–you may have compelling reasons–alimony, child support, an enraged mobster threatening to break your legs if you don’t pay your gambling debts, etc.–to go for the highest dollar amount.)  Lecturerships are much more common than fellowships, so it might make sense to evaluate these opportunities not just in terms of their immediate rewards but also in terms of how they will help situate you on the job market two or three or six years down the road.  It all depends on what your goals are, but I’d keep my eye on where you want to be not just next year, but on the next decade of your career.

Readers, what do you think?  Do you have any experience yourself with juggling job and fellowship offers (lucky you!)  Do you have any warnings for Louie hard won by your own bitter experience?  Pass it on.

16 Comments »

16 Responses to “Lucky Louie wins a fellowship but wants more, oh so much more”

  1. Notorious Ph.D. on 14 Apr 2009 at 9:41 am #

    Nope: I took the one job I was offered. But I think Historiann’s advice is good, if you can at all afford to take it. Huge pay raise is great, but it will mean a year where you’ll get almost no research work done. Not only will you have course preps (even at a reduced load); you’ll have to start preparing those job apps only a month after you take the job (if you’re in the Humanities). And everyone says that next year’s Humanities job market will be even worse than this year’s.

    Can you afford to take the fellowship? Because two of my most super-productive friends (R1 jobs in English; multiple articles; books under contract by year 4) did so after two-year fellowships like the ones you describe (teaching one course a year). The job market may or may not be better in two years than it is next year, but if you can crank out a couple of articles, teach *a little*, and have a year off of job market angst, you’ll probably be in a better position.

  2. GayProf on 14 Apr 2009 at 9:46 am #

    HistoriAnn is right: Fellowship trumps lectureship.

  3. Another Damned Medievalist on 14 Apr 2009 at 10:03 am #

    I agree.

  4. JJO on 14 Apr 2009 at 12:00 pm #

    I agree with other folks — fellowship over lectureship unless there’s some unexpected major difference in teaching load and/or length of tenure (in this economic environment and job market, a three-year contract might be a nice cushion) that favors the lectureship.

    Postdocs often have an additional advantage over adjunct or term faculty in that the department or program they’re in takes a more active role in helping them get tenure-track jobs. In our department, we do a bunch of things for postdocs, like practice interviews and job talks, writing letters, making connections with publishers, and reading manuscripts. Adjuncts and lecturers aren’t purposely excluded from this, but because they’re not part of an organized program, they tend not to get this kind of attention and slip through the cracks unless they’ve got a friend or advocate in the department.

  5. Historiann on 14 Apr 2009 at 12:10 pm #

    Thanks, all–and great advice especially from JJO about the mentoring that would be available to you in a fellowship that might not be there at Big State U. JJO is exactly right: the fellowship program has a vested interest in your future successes, whereas Big State U. is just looking for a warm body to cover some sections for them.

  6. Indyanna on 14 Apr 2009 at 12:27 pm #

    I’d second most of the above advice. How much teaching is involved with the teaching fellowship is a not-irrelevant question. Because ramping up lectures or other course prep things can be a genuine time sink whether you’re at Anonymous State U. or at the Oasis Library and Tropical Gardens. One major post-doc program that I follow has recently cut the teaching obligation from three courses in four semesters to two courses over the same time. I presume because of an accumulated recognition of the impact it can have on doing the work that is central to the fellowship itself.

    On asking for timeframes, I once had an offer in hand from what to me was an out-of-this-world one year center-based residential fellowship and an app. pending for what seemed to me to be an even slightly more out-of-this world fellowship. I was then in a one-semester renewable adjunct situation. The fellowships were for two entirely different and not even related projects, making the calculation even more difficult. I asked the first place how long I could have. They generously said about 10-12 days or so, and when that time was up I took the offer in hand. I ended up as an alternate for the other place, which was gratifying enough in itself. You can’t go wrong with a good fellowship, though.

  7. Matt L on 14 Apr 2009 at 12:53 pm #

    Yeah, I agree with Histroiann, JJO and company… A fellowship in hand trumps a fixed term any day. Its hard to walk away from the money, but even a one year post-doc is a far far better thing for all the reasons mentioned above: Purina-Vita-Chow; time to write/publish; limited course preps; mentoring; chances to present at Department workshops…

    Speaking as someone who started out doing in a fix term lectureship at Woebegone State University, the first year of teaching full time (4/4) was hell. It will consume all of your energy and you will not get any writing done, even if you only have a 2/2. So consider the first year teaching a lost year. Also, by the time you start teaching in August or September you will have to be on the job market again: another major time suck.

    In terms of money, I would just say that you’ve already been a grad student for X number of years, stretch it out a little more if you can. The fellowship might help leverage you into a better job with higher earnings. Plus, check the fine print. Some post docs come with nice perks in the form of travel money for research and conferences, a computer, money for copying, books etc. This might alleviate some of the financial burden.

  8. Historiann on 14 Apr 2009 at 1:09 pm #

    Thanks, Indyanna and Matt for your thoughts. Matt’s got a good point about the perks and incidentals, which might be better in a postdoc than in a lecturership. (As a fellow, you’re the star, but as a non-tenure track lecturer, not so much.)

    Bear in mind, Louie, that everyone who has written to contribute their 2 cents is either an Assistant or Associate Prof., and therefore currently employed. We dream of fellowships–whereas I realize that the unemployed may envy us our regular paychecks and (in some cases) tenure.

  9. Shane in Utah on 14 Apr 2009 at 7:42 pm #

    I mostly agree with the consensus here. But one point of clarification: If I read the original question correctly, the choice is between the bird-in-the-hand of a teaching postdoc, and the possibility of a plum lecturing gig that would actually entail a lesser teaching load than the postdoc. Is that right? If the postdoc is prestigious enough, then it’s still probably the right long-term career move. But in this case, it sounds like taking the postdoc would NOT free up the research time some of you seem to be daydreaming about…

  10. Rad Readr on 14 Apr 2009 at 7:44 pm #

    Ah, the smell of privilege. Many years ago I worked with a very prominent reporter who won a Pulitzer and had a job offer from Columbia U’s J-School. This woman had never gone to college, but she had earned a national reputation as a tough police reporter. She had a knack for getting herself behind the yellow line. In an article about her — I believe it was the NEw Yorker or some such East Coast establishment publication — they described her as “hard as nails” — not the type of journalist who takes “cushy fellowships.”

    I’m not advocating taking the tough road, but i just love the beautiful contradiction — the preferred choice of fellows is a privilege that is sustained by the other job, the lecturer. Perhaps the postdoc is supported by a foundation (Ford? I believe Naomi Klein has written eloquently lately about the Ford Foundation). But if it is a postdoc at Big State U, chances are that lecturers are part of the system that sustains such funding. Of course, the tenure-track and tenured fat cats (myself included) also benefit from these types of labor differentials, for lack of a better word.

    Professionally speaking, of course, good advice.

  11. Sisyphus on 14 Apr 2009 at 9:22 pm #

    Hmm, when I first read this post I thought the person had multiple fellowship offers (and was feeling sorry for myself.) But now, on re-reading it, I notice that it is a “teaching postdoc fellowship.” Hmm. The differences between a “teaching postdoc,” a “postdoc” (in the humanities) a “lecturer” and an “adjunct” are actually really slippery in the humanities and I’m not quite sure if other academics rate them consistently. They all involve various levels of teaching (as opposed to the “we will hand you money” postdoctoral fellowship) and sometimes there is no objective difference between them.

    I mean, heck, I’m labeled as a “postdoc” instead of a lecturer because that means I’m not part of the lecturer union and they pay me less! (at my school all of these positions have the same teaching load, different pay scales, except the adjunct is hired by the quarter and not by the year.)

    I would suggest that the original poster look at the prestige and name recognition of these positions rather than the money. And if it is a standing postdoc that cycles generations of scholars in and out of it, can you find out about placement rates? Stanford I know has two “postdocs,” the IHUM and the IMAP (I forget which is the good one and which is the sucky one), and the one that is very high level of teaching at basically a TA level has _terrible_ placement rates. I know quite a few people who got extended a for a second “tour” and still never landed any interviews after 6 years. The other one requires no teaching. So prestige is good, but also see if you can winkle out some placement information.

  12. Flavia on 14 Apr 2009 at 9:51 pm #

    I agree with Shane and Sisyphus that this does not seem a clear case of a more-prestigious, lighter-load post-doc versus a lectureship; indeed, from the wording I assumed that the bird-not-in-hand involved both more money AND less teaching than the post-doc. And like Sisyphus, unless the post-doc is very prestigious (which in the humanities usually means more money, and this isn’t a lot of money), I’m not sure there’s any difference between having “post-doctoral fellowship” and “lecturer” or “visiting assistant professor” on one’s C.V.

    Louie should absolutely not give up a sure thing for the mere hope of something better, and money isn’t everything. But unless the post-doc is affiliated with an institution that has high name-recognition AND a lighter teaching load, I see why Louie is anxious not to act too quickly.

  13. Historiann on 15 Apr 2009 at 8:34 am #

    It would be a strange fellowship that required more teaching than a lecturership–but I suppose stranger things have happened. Maybe Louie’s comment about “a reduced teaching load” was in reference to his current position? I looked up the fellowship he was offered, and it looks pretty de-luxe, and not at all like a scam for buying a lot of cheap labor. (It’s not in my field, though, so I don’t have any intel that’s not on the program’s website, so I could be completely wrong!)

    Postdocs were originally designed to offer their recipients an opportunity to teach their own classes, so as to buff that side of the resume in addition to providing support and time for research. This seems like a rather antiquated model of a postdoctoral fellowship, however, since I think it’s extremely unusual for people to have insufficient teaching experience these days. (Most of us have to adjunct or do VAPs for at least a few years before getting a tenure-track job, and many ABDs teach their own courses in their Ph.D.-granting departments.) Then again, teaching one or two classes a year is a small price to pay for a fellowship, if that permits the sponsoring institution the leeway to continue funding the fellowships.

  14. JJO on 15 Apr 2009 at 9:44 am #

    I agree that there are circumstances under which the lectureship might be preferable — a combination of just how prestigious the fellowship is, how much teaching it requires, and possibilities for renewal/extension over multiple years.

    Although I read the description of the lectureship as meaning a reduced teaching load compared to Louie’s current position, I agree with Sisyphus and Flavia that a heavy teaching load masquerading as a fellowship is a far different proposition from a real fellowship. (And also consider the number of preps — it might seem like more fun and prestige to teach specialized, upper-level courses than a survey, but if it’s four different upper level courses over the course of a year versus four sections of the survey, you’re going to be devoting a lot more time and energy to teaching.) As Sisyphus points out with the Stanford example, the prestige of the fellowship itself, not just the institution, matters a lot.

  15. Sisyphus on 15 Apr 2009 at 6:25 pm #

    … there’s a 4-4 “postdoc fellowship” at Georgia or Georgia tech, I believe, that involves teaching a class on your research and 3 different “business writing” classes each semester. I don’t understand how anyone gets anything published on it. Or why digital humanities people would willingly go teach classes all about writing business memos.

  16. Historiann on 15 Apr 2009 at 6:58 pm #

    Well, that’s a mighty strange postdoc that would make a lecturership look good. It seems like a transparent bid to hire cheap labor, in fact.

    Odd.

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