Dr. Christine Palmer just got her dream job. It’s a faculty position at a small state college in Vermont, where her primary responsibility will be teaching biology to undergraduates. Since her dream job looks a lot like mine, I asked her if I could pick her brain about her journey.
For those of you who don’t know her:
Dr. Palmer is currently a post-doctoral scholar in the Maloof Lab in the Plant Biology Department at UC Davis. Even though her academic path reads like a who’s who of elite institutions (she has degrees from Williams, Penn, and Dartmouth), she is one of the least pretentious people I’ve met and is well-known in the department for being friendly and upbeat (her one stipulation for doing this interview was that I edit it if she said “Awesome!” too much). You can learn more about Dr. Palmer’s professional history at her snazzy website – I focused my interview on her recent experiences with the job search.
Disclaimer: I have edited the interview for length and to make sure that Dr. Palmer and I sound like the highly educated adults that we are.
GB: You just managed to successfully get through the job search. Tell me about that.
CP: I started a year early – last year. I am really glad I did that. It made a huge, huge difference. My job packet was not nearly as good last year as this year. A lot of that was that this year I spent a lot of time personalizing it.
GB: How did you do that?
CP: Well you look at the school and you say, “So and so in this department works on this, and so and so works on this”, and you propose some collaborations. “For their teaching they really need someone who does this sort of thing, so I’m going to focus on that”, or “Wow this school really believes in outreach,” or “They really focus on the student lab experience.” You basically look at the school and see what they think is important (you can tell) and see what they’re missing and then play that up. Actually, for the job I just got, when the search chair called me for the first time, he said, “Yeah, it was pretty clear you did your homework.” I think my application was strong because I showed that I fit at their school and I knew who they are. That’s worth a ton.
GB: How many positions did you apply for?
CP: So, you apply to more places than you think you need to. I think I applied to maybe 15 or 20 this year. I probably applied to 5 last year, because I knew I wasn’t competitive, but I knew I wanted to make myself do it anyway. I had one phone interview that didn’t go anywhere. Then I had 3 job interviews. This job, I feel like they wrote it for me, so it was really easy to apply for. Everyone that I’ve asked that’s gotten a job has said, “I just got lucky.” I hated that, and now I’m saying the exact same thing. I think that if you look long enough, you find a thing that fits you.
GB: How did you go about finding positions to apply for?
CP: I signed up for as many of the auto-searches as I could. I signed up for Higher Ed jobs, which is really good. Chronicle of Higher Education is really good. Indeed Jobs is also really good – it’s general, but you can enter in “Biology” and an area, and it will give you teaching jobs and also museum jobs, or technician jobs, or postdocs. I would get like 6 emails in morning and scan them. Some people recommend Science and Nature, but those tend to be R1 positions. The searches were great, because not only was it automatic, it forced you to think about it every day, which is actually really good.
GB: How did you decide which positions were worth applying for?
CP: For me location was a huge criteria, but that’s going to be different for each person. I’m a New Englander, and my family is there, so that was not a negotiable item. You have to be open-minded about something, so I was trying to be open-minded about the balance of teaching and research. I was flexible about the job description, not flexible about the location, and somewhat flexible about the kind of school. You have to decide what’s important for you. A lot of people are more flexible about location and that’ll open up a lot of opportunities. There’s a lot out there, so I think it’s really all about timing. All you can do is try to have as much on your CV as you can control – you can’t really control publications, but you can control a lot of the other things. You should try to be diverse without losing any depth, because you never know what will come up, “Oh good, I did that stream restoration project and they want someone who does ecology,” or, “I did greenhouse tours and they want someone to set up their new greenhouse.”
GB: Can you tell me about the school you’re going to be working at?
CP: It’s Castleton State College in Vermont. I didn’t know that these existed, but it’s a state school that’s a liberal arts college. That is perfect for me, because I went to Williams – I loved the liberal arts education – but I didn’t love that most people would never be able to afford to go there. I had to take out some hefty loans to go there and I was lucky that my parents split it with me. So I get to teach at a school that has the same curriculum, but the students that go there are often the first to go to college in their families, which is really cool. Certainly, it’s not as selective of a school, but the students I interacted with – they were dynamite – they were so grateful to be there and worked their butts off, which is very cool. Research is optional, which is amazing. They encourage it – they love it if you do that for your students, because it gives them a great opportunity – but you’re not expected to.
GB: How does that work for tenure? If you opt in to do research, does that then become part of your evaluation?
CP: The way they evaluate tenure is “Have you improved each year? Do you show a commitment to the students? Do you show a commitment to the college’s community?” They don’t want a researcher. They want a teacher who provides research opportunities to their students. My impression was that you can definitely get tenure without doing any research, but doing research shows that you care about your students. It’s a very different idea from here (UC Davis), where the students help with the research. There (at Castleton) the research helps the students.
GB: You’ve done a lot, in terms of both research and teaching. Did the committee give you any indication as to why you were selected?
CP: The postdoc, for some of the older professors, was actually a bad thing, and for some of the younger professors, it was a very good thing. My experience is that it depends on where you’re applying. Some places view it that if you did research, you’re not serious about teaching, but other places you wouldn’t even get an interview if you didn’t have a competitive postdoc. I think that the thing that helped the best was the continued commitment to teaching. Sometimes that means taking the class at the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, or guest lecturing, or volunteering at a high school. Something that says “This is really what I want to be.” I still don’t think I would skip the postdoc – I think it opens up doors and it gives you more time to teach.
GB: Let’s talk about the interview process. Did you have to do a teaching demo?
CP: Yeah! It was so much fun. They give you a topic – they said, “You’re going to teach on genetics of plant adaptation”. They gave the same topic to every candidate, which is a little unnerving, knowing that five people before you have given this exact same talk. It’s half faculty and half students and everyone has an evaluation sheet. I tried to not be nervous about it – you know, “This is fun, I love teaching – this is what I want to do”. You try to make sure that you’re concrete, that you have learning objectives and put them up there, that you use both visuals and talking, and I had a couple of activities. I, maybe foolishly, picked on faculty members, gave them a hard time – I wasn’t thinking about it. It was actually a really fun process.
GB: Did you use PowerPoint or other technology?
CP: I asked in advance, “What style do your students usually respond to? What do you usually use in the classroom?” He (the search chair) said that some faculty use PowerPoint, some use the board. So, I thought I would do a bit of both. I think that students like to have slides, so that they can write on them, but I think it’s a mistake to put all of the information on the slides, because then you get going too fast. So I did the halfway point – I had pictures and bullet points of crucial items, but then I did a lot of board work. Then I had a couple of activities. You get them working in pairs, which keeps it from getting too slow. Just doing board work is bad, but just having PowerPoint slides is bad because then there’s the danger of looking like a researcher. This all depends on where you’re going and I think that it’s something you should ask about. You can say – “I’ve taught in different styles – what tends to work best for your students?”
GB: Did you have a panel interview, individual interviews, or both?
CP: Both. I think that it’s pretty typical for it to be a 1.5 to 2 day process. You do a lot of individual meetings and the research or teaching demo is somewhere during that period. For this job, it ended with a panel interview. It was a panel of maybe 8 people. They asked all sorts of questions – everything from “Is that what a classroom would normally look like for you?” to “If you had really good students and really poor students, where would you teach to?” The hardest one – I was embarrassed – was “So you’ve looked at our curriculum – how would you change it?” I sat there completely dumbfounded, because in that moment, I couldn’t remember which was their curriculum. It was awful! I had this petrified look on my face, and I said “I’m kind of embarrassed, but right now I can’t think of your curriculum.” One of the deans in the back of the room said, “You want help?” “I would love help!” Everybody is tired, you’re tired, so that was really challenging to stay on all the way through. So, I thought the committee interview part was the hardest part.
GB: Were there any questions that really surprised you?
CP: The president (of the college) asked me three questions. “Where do you see yourself in 5 years? In 10 years?” Then he said “Take all of your modesty away for a minute and tell me why you’re awesome, why you’re perfect for this job, why we should hire you.” And then “You’re at your funeral. What do you want them to say in your eulogy?” That was hard to answer!
GB: On your CV you have lots of mentoring, teaching, and outreach. Do you have any thoughts on finding balance or prioritizing between all of the different opportunities that are available?
CP: For me, I usually said yes to as many as I could, because they’re my sanity. I find that even just one afternoon spent planting trees and talking about bugs with middle schoolers gives me the energy to come back in and say “Yes, I believe in what I’m headed for – I can do this research.” I think that if there’s an opportunity that’s one day, that’s easier, because it doesn’t weigh on your mind as much. The best is mentoring students in the lab – you get to teach them to do posters, you get to teach them to write, and it helps your research, so your PIs are usually more willing to let you do that than teach. Each time you do a teaching thing, you remember, “Okay, that’s why I’m doing this, I love this.” For me it was kind of a necessity, because otherwise I would have quit a long time ago.
GB: In closing, what are your top three suggestions for grad students or postdocs who want to get a teaching position?
CP: Absolutely do everything you can to get teaching on your CV. Try to pick a thing every term. It’ll make it hard with your research, but it’ll keep you alive and get them to take you seriously. I really would apply a year early. Absolutely. I would have a ton of people read your application packet. I would reach out – before application season – to people in these kinds of positions to have them read your packet. They’re often really happy to help. The schools are all so different, so I would try to contact people at different types of schools for advice. If you’re passionate about teaching, you’re going to be a good teacher, and you’ll learn most of it on the job. You just have to somehow demonstrate that you’re committed to it and that you have some competence.
A big thanks to Dr. Palmer for taking the time to talk with me. I hope you found her story as informative as I did.