Being the Bad Guy

So I was the bad guy today. Last week’s bike ride was fun, but resulted in about a half hour or maybe even 40 minutes of five of us riding in the dark, where two of us had full sets of lights, two had taillights, and one had nothing. The time before that with this group, we had a flat and got back into the dusk, and I recall that I either turned on my lights or wished I had them with me.

My experience with the other group, the mountain bikers, has been that we haven’t yet gotten back before dark resulting in some fairly scary rides for me.

So for tonight’s ride, I commented that everyone should bring lights, or buy lights, or let me know and I can bring an extra set for them.

Reply: we’ll be back before dark.

My reply: yeah, but one flat tire or person not going fast enough and you are out after dark.

It was clear I stepped on some toes.

Part of me feels bad about that; we did get back before dark tonight. But part of me says hey, c’mon, bringing lights when we are quickly running out of daylight is just a sensible idea. People make mistakes. People get flats. And asking participants on a ride to wear a helmet or bring lights just in case is not an unreasonable burden, even if your plan is to be back in time.

I know I’m just the newbie here, and so I don’t get credit for 12 years experience of leading my own rides. No one knows or cares what a League Cycling Instructor is and using the credential to bolster the argument is arguing from authority, which isn’t right either. That frustrates me. It also frustrates me to see the rejection of sensibility in mitigating risk. We might get delayed beyond what we expect. So we prepare for the eventuality.

So internally there is the discomfort between not being the bad guy, and knowing that it is my belief that yes, I am willing to be the bad guy on this issue. It’s not a nice place to sit. While I hope I am constantly learning wisdom on how best to handle people in these situations, I hope I am also willing to state what someone or no one wants to hear when it is the truth, and it matters.


More interviews. An offer that I successfully negotiated to a point where I am comfortable/happy about taking it. A major teaching award.

I should be over the moon happy, but reality is that mostly, I’ve just been queasy and anxious. That seems ungrateful, even to me, but there it is.

The teaching award really put me in a funk for about a week. I think it brought home the idea that you really can be doing outstanding work, and, if you are not a tenure-track or tenured person in our department, you are still not really valued by the department.

Looking at it from another perspective, and this is the one I would like to get fixed firmly in my head, this award represents how much I’ve meant to my students. One in particular. The students wrote letters for me. They are telling me that I made a difference, sometimes a big difference, in their lives. I am honored and grateful for the opportunity to teach them and for the trust that they put in me. I am honored and grateful to be able to make that difference. I hope they know that they, too, have made a difference in my life.

On the job offer, I negotiated the salary to the point where I thought it was advantageous enough to me financially. The department chair himself told me to negotiate as hard as I could, and I did. It appears I pushed them as hard on salary as I could, hopefully while being polite, supportive, feminine — all the things women are required to be. Shouldn’t I be proud of that? So why do I feel kind of squicky about it now? Is it just that negotiating and asking for what you want is acting out of character for women? Is it the chilling news about the negotiation at Nazareth College that resulted in a rescinded job offer? I’m certainly familiar with the literature on women and negotiating, and that literature certainly makes it clear that often you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

That little voice in my head asks me if I have damaged relationships with colleagues by taking the chair at his word and asking for more than was offered. That little voice in my head says I was just doing what I am supposed to do. And it also says that life is not fair. My challenge is to find some peace and some path through all the things the little voice says.

Last the interviews. It was pretty obvious that the first school I interviewed at recently wasn’t as interesting as my current offer. The other one I liked a lot, but there are both perks and red flags with the position. First, the teaching load is lower. Second, they have a nice system of course buy-outs for pre-tenure faculty, even though they are a teaching school. Third, they are a department of 5 faculty nearing retirement, all of whom are greatly motivated to mentor me towards success. On the down side: the school has had financial problems in recent years. No raises. At one point, no contributions to the retirement fund for either a semester or year. There are reasons to believe it is on a healthier track. Things to seem to be getting better. On the other hand, there are also reasons to worry.

In any case, I find it unlikely they can get an offer together before I have to respond to the one I have.

It looks like a big decision is coming on Friday or later today to move to a new school and start a new position as a tenure-track assistant professor. I wish I felt less scared about it all, but big changes, even good changes, bring up a lot of anxiety. I don’t want to leave. I don’t want to stay. The only way is forward. There will be many very difficult moments ahead, but that would be true no matter what. As Lois McMaster Bujold writes,

Tests are a gift. And great tests are a great gift. To fail the test is a misfortune. But to refuse the test is to refuse the gift, and something worse, more irrevocable, than misfortune.


Must be making progress

I must be making progress.

The job offer negotiation is on, and it started off from a reasonable position.

I feared getting a low offer for less money than I am making now. I know I would have dealt with that if it had come, but I also know that my spirits would have taken a hit if that had happened. Last year’s incident was more than enough of that for one life-time.

Good news. The offer is for more than I’m making now or would be next year, but not overly generous. I know where I want to be on this negotiation so I said, “I’d like to open at this higher amount.” I got some hemming and hawing and referred to talk to someone else, but it wasn’t a “no way,” and it was respectful. They have some reasons. I have some reasons. All I want to do is meet at a good spot in the middle. I think — I hope — we’ve got a good chance of making that happen.

Money can’t buy happiness, but it can make you awfully comfortable while you’re being miserable — Clare Boothe Luce

Meanwhile the sort-of-kind-of good cop/bad cop routine (in which both players at the school — dean and department chair — are playing both roles) amused me.

I have some more questions to ask about this whole deal. But that’s how this works. You ask questions, you get answers, you ask more. You negotiate. You revisit and refine for a little while.

And one more small victory.

I had a student come by today to do some linear algebra. Over spring break! This is one I sought to put the fear of god into last week on Thursday, and apparently I succeeded. A low score was obtained on an exam. A high score was obtained on a homework. Dr. Jinx wonders how this happened and called a bunch of students in to demonstrate that they do, in fact, know how to do a homework problem. Several succeeded. This one did not. Bad juju. I gave him a zero on the homework problem, and the lecture about how if you put the time into understanding the material, the exam scores would follow right along with it.

I don’t like being the bad cop, but I’m betting that at the end of the semester, having come to terms with this material, this young man is going to be happier with himself than if he scraped by or had to drop out. There is something immensely satisfying about conquering a demon that’s scaring you. I think he can do it. We worked on linear independence and linearly independent functions. He knew more when he left than when he arrived. Success.

I hope I can do what I need to do too. I can walk around the world one step at a time. Watch me.

Fear and Flashbacks and Moving Forward

Eleanor Roosevelt says that you should

Do one thing every day that scares you.

I don’t know how I’m doing on the one-a-day count, but I know that in this past academic year, I’ve addressed a lot of things that have terrified me.

  • Going on the job market.
  • Deciding to go after tenure-track positions, which required me to write a research statement. I didn’t think I could. I was afraid to try. But I did it.
  • The interviews themselves have scared me on and off. Sometimes more confident, sometimes more shaky.
  • Dealing with my home department and its problems. There are people in that department whose lack of anger management and general fairness creates a hostile and intimidating environment.
  • Having to raise issues outside the department and within, to face these problems.
  • Dealing with people who are acting in an obstructionist manner.
  • Needing to go back to authorities within the university about even more blatant diversity and climate issues.

And I have gotten through most of that, though some is still pending. With a ton of discouragement, and not a lot of confidence. I have kept moving forward, nevertheless.

But tomorrow … tomorrow we open a job negotiation. I remind myself that we should be on the same side. But last spring’s fiasco has left me with anything but confidence on that point.

I am dealing with things that I am not sure are major enough to be called flashbacks, but they are like flashbacks. I am suddenly back in that emotional space where nothing I can do or say will change anything, I am not being supported by the person closest to me, and I am scared and paralyzed. I feel the obligation to say the right thing to make things go right, but I know that you cannot make unreasonable people reasonable. That is beyond my super-powers.

What if this happens again? I don’t want to stay where I am. I will not go somewhere that isn’t treating me right. What if we end up in the grey zone of uncertainty? Then how do I deal? What if I say the wrong thing or don’t deal with things perfectly?

And that’s ridiculous. I don’t have to be perfect. Neither does that dean have to be perfect. We both just have to be good enough. We both just have to want to make a deal that is good for the school and good for me, then work on what exactly that is.

Well, at least this time, I cannot lose a significant other over what happens. Right?

A principles/ideas of the negotiation:

We all want me to accept this job offer, and bring what I have to the school. This negotiation is about making that happen.

Tools that can be used:

  1. Figure out our common goals and priorities.
  2. Ask why the other person has whatever stance they have.
  3. Generate alternative ideas that might help with the problem. This can involve hiring me with a different title, for example.
  4. How can funds get best used to further everyone’s goals?
  5. Find out from others some details on start-up packages.
  6. I don’t have to respond to anything immediately. “I need some time to think about that.”
  7. If offered a salary that is obviously too low, the pregnant pause and, “That was lower than I was expecting/Is less than I am making now.”
  8. Find somewhere that we can have success together.

That’s the basics of what I can do. On the rest I have to trust.

A friend reminded,

Fear is a sign of profound opportunity.

And that goes along with a corollary,

Make the most of the opportunity in front of you.


Even after being up in the middle of last night, today was better. I fell back asleep around 5:30 am, and I didn’t get up until well past 8.

I went in to campus late.

I got done with the minimum I needed to do.

I had a massage. Those really do help. Really do help.

I had a phone interview. I cut it short when they said a typical faculty member was expected to teach 4 courses, with three different preparations and produce 2 papers every 5 years in order to expect to get tenure. Seriously? No thanks. I’m not interested in the position.

I heard a hilarious story about more of our departmental mismanagement. I need to hear the rest of this story.

I mailed a letter to my Dad that I decorated and wrote while I was awake last night.

I told friends about the pending tenure track offer. I informed my department chair so that he would have ample time to consider what kind of a counter offer the department wants to make.

I talked to one of my mentors about negotiating the actual offer. This will probably happen on Monday.

And we’ll see what happens next.


I’m following up to Wins and Losses.

Here’s the letter I sent declining the interview.

Hi 4— and 3–,

The conversation with 3– yesterday and 4—‘s follow-up about what {your university} is looking for have raised a few issues that make me doubt that the strengths I would bring to {your university} are what {your university} will value in the tenure and promotion process. Consequently, I think it is best that I decline the invitation for a campus interview at this time.

A longer explanation:

I think 3– knows that I think one of the leading strengths of my application is my ability to work with undergraduates on projects and, in particular, mentor undergraduate research, but this doesn’t seem to be well-placed in the tenure and promotion process at {your university}.

With 4—‘s letter: my current plan of research is interdisciplinary. We would expect publications in good journals, but not necessarily math journals. This, coupled with my conversation with 3–, leaves me wondering how I fit with what {your university} is really looking for.

I would welcome having the invitation revisited later if you feel that I am a better fit for your department than what I am currently seeing.

I also wish you best of luck in your search. Definitely keep doing the phone interviews; it is better for everyone if you interview and hire candidates that can give you what you want.

Best regards,

Dr. Jinx

You want to see flummoxed, the department chair (3–) and search committee chair
(4—) clearly weren’t expecting that. I got a 3 page email reply from the chair, and both urged me to reconsider.

Unfortunately, there was no more clarity in the 3 page email reply from the chair than there was in the initial phone conversation. This department wants undergraduate research and wants to raise its profile. They have no idea how it fits into their department. If it doesn’t produce peer-reviewed research papers in good journals, it really doesn’t matter for much of anything. Notice, we are discussing undergraduate research. If a publication in a good journal is 1/3 of the requirement for me for tenure, this is a fantastic accomplishment for an undergraduate and that undergraduate’s mentor.

And, as valued toward teaching if it doesn’t result in a peer-reviewed publication in a good journal, this is an uncompensated overload.

Not. Impressed.

I think I’ll send them a follow-up on Monday reiterating the problem and stating that this is the sort of mess I am good at cleaning up. I’ll followup that my hourly consulting rate is $250, and I would be happy to help them figure out how undergraduate research should be handled in their department and the tenure and promotion process. If they would prefer not to hire me given my relationship to their search, I would be happy to recommend a colleague.

Or maybe not. We’ll see how much energy I have over the weekend.

In any case, in reply to the previous blog post and follow up, a friend wrote:

I’ve got to tell you, I have been delighted by the thought of you turning down that interview. You are an academic badass Jinx! I hope I can be as good at listening to my intuition and going for what I want instead of whatever is offered to me when I return to the workforce.

You are a hero to me right now!

That made me feel good. I replied, “I think I’m going to have a hard time wiping that cocky smile off my face today.”

I needed it. Some controversy with the department came around to roost again. It appears once again, within my department, that I am mistaken and confused as to what my job duties are. Now, I am a careful and conscientious person. I think that repeated, documentable, problems with this, especially when I have produced evidence in writing about what I’ve been told are my duties that are in conflict with what others are telling the chair, should cause the department chair to stop, look, listen and, for goodness sake, think when given information that once again indicates that I don’t get what I’m supposed to do. Jehosophat.

And could we please take a moment and consider all the things I have done, the level of competence with which they have been done, and the once again, the documented lack of resources that I was given to get them done.

I should have some credit built up by now.

But I’m not tenure-track faculty. I don’t even get the courtesy extended to make me part of the conversation about my duties.

The department chair walked in when I was discussing these issues with my immediate supervisor. He tried to duck out quickly after asking his question. I didn’t let him. I let him know that

  1. That I, up until this year, did not want to leave Texas A&M, but I am now on the job market.
  2. The lack of clarity with regards to my duties is one of several reasons why I am on the job market. I can no longer see staying at Texas A&M.
  3. That lack of clarity, especially this repeated extenuating lack of clarity, in someone’s job duties is unacceptable to me and should be unacceptable to him as department chair.
  4. That while I liked him and was glad when he was first appointed chair, this is, in fact, an embarrassment to our department and calls into serious question the professionalism of our administration.
  5. The REU principal investigator threw me under the bus. And I am angry about this.
  6. I should be included in these discussions about what I am doing and what I am supposed to do.

I was polite, professional, and not about to brook any nonsense. He said I need to hear his side of it. In a meeting. Later. And ducked out of there.

I contacted the dean of faculties to inform them of the situation and request mediation at this meeting. Which is not yet scheduled. I wonder how many weeks this will take.

Academic badass. It was one hell of a stressful day. But bring it on. If we are going to fight this battle, we are going to fight this battle. I am going to do my best to get this crap straightened out for my colleagues’ sakes. Me, however, I think if I get any kind of an acceptable offer I am out of here in the fall. Maybe at the end of the spring.

Wins and Losses

Tonight I am home from interview #3. The best part of interview 3 was a brief visit with some faculty from another school in the area that are interested in me. I liked them; they were kind and helpful and welcoming.

The school I interviewed at had a number of people talk to me about collegiality. Yet they didn’t join me for breakfast or for dinner. Yet they didn’t have me sit with any faculty one-on-one to discuss life in the department or the possibility of collaborating on projects. I don’t think I talked to any other regular faculty without an administrator present. That didn’t sit right with me.

They also have a big emphasis on going to a project-based educational model. In baby steps. Baby steps are right for an emphasis like that. I’ve taught projects and mentored projects and developed projects. They take a ton of time. Developing a campus-wide initiative to incorporate projects in every course across the curriculum is going to take some serious faculty time. They have a high teaching load, and “for reasons of fairness”, they do not give course releases except for faculty with grants. I agree that course releases can be distributed unfairly, but developing projects can be a serious drain on faculty time and energy. Some will put a lot of energy and time into developing materials, and they should be rewarded for this. It shouldn’t be an unfunded mandate for the faculty to somehow provide.


Not impressed (photo)

Color me unimpressed.

Then, late today, I had a phone interview with yet another school. One aspect of the conversation is the tenure and promotion criteria, and how does what I do fit in with what they want? They are interested in my application for the work I do with undergraduates, they want to promote this, yet it is not really part of what they consider for tenure and promotion! (Yes, you read that right.) Work with undergraduates seems to be counted as a part of teaching or service (where I already excel) rather than as a part of scholarship or research, which is where I want to make sure I have enough points. In fact, what they want for scholarship and research is, specifically, math publications in quality math journals. Nothing wrong with that, but that’s not my main direction. I’d grab it if it came my way, but that’s not what I have planned out for myself.

I tried in every way to make it clear in my research statement that my research focus is on interdisciplinary projects that I can do with undergraduates. They specifically state that they want math publications. Since mine are interdisciplinary, this means they are likely not published in math journals, though mathematical in nature. Second, my real strength is in working with undergraduates and promoting undergraduate research, but they recommend I not do this for the first 2 or 3 years I am there to focus on my research publications (really?). Third, I write on on best practices in education, which is okay, in their book, but not the main thing they want to see.

I’m pretty sure my writing was easy to understand, and it is not clear to me what went wrong here. I spelled out what I am all about. Why did you pick my application out of the pile?

You win some and you lose some. My feeling is this school is also not for me. Tomorrow, or very soon, I will have to reply to their invitation to a campus interview. I am thinking not. I will leave the door open for them to come back and have a dialogue with me, but I don’t think I want to waste anyone’s money and time flying up for an interview with a department where I have serious questions about whether I’d get tenure.

Ups and Downs

Another interview tomorrow. This group took me hiking today; that was cool. Someone noted my interest in geocaching and put GPS coordinates along with the building and room numbers on my schedule for tomorrow. That was a nice touch. I laughed out loud. I sent a thank you.

All the photos in this post are from the hike.

* * *

At dinner tonight we were talking about the interview process and who to ask which questions. The first thing that came up was that when I meet with the Dean. That’s the person to ask if I have questions about pay, promotion, etc.. I do have some concerns about this; I think I have qualifications beyond entry level assistant professor. How do they intend to handle this? How do I intend to handle this?

Immediately, I can feel my anxiety level rising.

spiny seedpod

All of a sudden, I am acutely aware of all of the spiky things, and scared I will get hurt.

Breathe, breathe, breathe. (Yes, those breaths were taken that fast!) No right answer. No wrong answer. You get information about who you are dealing with (and they, likewise, get information on me).

With all the oh-so-encouraging information on women and negotiating, this thought is giving me a high stress moment. I want to win at this, but I don’t have a strategy for handling the conversation.

Picture of thin ice.

Negotiating can feel like skating on thin ice.

But. But. One of the secrets to negotiating jiu jitsu is to establish your worth and the benefit to the organization in giving you what you want. Maybe I don’t have to know how I’m going to handle this. At least, not yet. One of my big questions for the Dean — in fact, for everyone — is what could I do that would really make them happy if they hired me for the position? What can I do to knock the ball out of the ballpark in this job?

My first order of business is to find out what that is, and whether this is something I want to and can deliver. My second order of business is to get the offer. My third order of business is to negotiate the package that gets me out to the position that I want to accept.

Birch trees

There are many trees and many facets to this process and negotiation. Don’t lose sight of the forest, which is, ultimately, everyone’s satisfaction.

One step at a time. One step at a time, I can walk around the world. Watch me. But sometimes the secret is in knowing which step to take, and which direction to take it in.

I’ve negotiated in my past life. Sometimes I think I’ve been punished for it. That can definitely happen again. I can’t control what other people do. When I know more about these people, I will be better able to predict what they do. Regardless, I can only control me. Sometimes not even that! And the best job I can, right now, is to find out about this job, this university, this community, and how I would fit into it. What I can do to make it better. How I think I can become better in it.




leaf in a nest of thorns

Even in a nest of thorns, you may find one perfect leaf.


Some of you may already know that I put my credentials out on the tenure-track job market. Oh, not the Tier 1 Research University market — that’s definitely not my thing. I applied at liberal arts schools and master’s granting institutions where teaching is clearly highly valued.

My ideal position would give me breathing room to do both teaching and research/scholarship. Let me do my thing teaching. Let me explore some ideas. Let me not be so overburdened that I am working every weekend and always freaking out.

I wasn’t even sure I was tenure-track material. All those positions that required research statements. S-C-A-R-Y. I’d seen one of the graduate students’ research statements, and something like that wasn’t coming out of me. So I worked on the things I knew how to do. The CV. The teaching statement. So grateful to the advice I got on those.

But the research statement. What I’ve gotten into I’ve gotten into through my teaching. Undergraduate research projects. I do undertake some collaborative projects, but that’s where they come from. There are some more papers on teaching that I’d like to write. I had one (now accepted) under review at the time. Could that possibly be good enough? I went out and searched the internet and I found Dr. Karen’s Rules of the Research Statement. One page long? That doesn’t sound so scary. I didn’t think I could get even my simple ideas in to one page. She said short. Maybe two pages. And give an overview. I can do that. The simple mathematical biology projects I work on, and my ideas for things I’d like to write got all put together. It ended up going onto a third page with the citations, but there it was. A research statement.

I am so grateful for the mentoring I got; I was surprised to hear from that senior colleague that she thought I’d be competitive at the good liberal arts schools.

Soon (days) after getting my first applications complete, I got my first request for a Skype (phone) interview. It’s been about a month and a half since I first put myself out there. I’ve done three Skype interviews. I have two more coming. Today I got invited for two site visits. Whoa.

I’m excited and scared and intimidated and eager and afraid and mind blown! What am I going to talk about at the general audience 45-minute science talk where I can’t use calculus? How am I going to find time to prepare the talks and classes I’m going to have to do while interviewing? Who will teach my classes while I am gone? How to bring this up with the departmental administration that got me mad enough to apply elsewhere in the first place? Will I be able to negotiate a good starting salary; because I am not in a fresh out of school or fresh out of a postdoc position; I’ve got more behind me than that. After my last promotion I’m doing okay salary-wise where I am (not that I couldn’t do better).

But some of that is tomorrow’s problem. Here I am. Success. Now we make the best of the next step and keep moving forward.


  1. You have a right to your feelings.
  2. You have a right to set boundaries to feel safe.
  3. Anyone who attempts to revoke your right to your feelings or to set boundaries is someone scary.

Now, it may just be that the person is clueless, but lack of empathy on this is a danger signal that you cannot ignore.

Predators and bullies will try to negate your feelings and push you into situations where you don’t feel safe. The only defense you have is to own your feelings and to own your boundaries.

A predator will flatter you to let your guard down. A predator will cast you as a bitch if you don’t do what they are asking.

You know how this plays out in a bar: “I’m just trying to buy you a drink! You don’t want me to buy you a drink? Why are you being such a bitch?” No one has the right to argue with you when you say no. This is the clarion call of the predator. Hell, yes, I absolutely am such a bitch. I do not want your drink. I said so clearly. Now buzz off.

But a bar is an easy situation. What happens when this is your boss? “Can’t we just have a cup of coffee and talk this over just the two of us?” If you don’t feel safe, you have every right to request that a neutral third party is present. But for many it’s harder to set this boundary.

I think I am lucky that I do not find either of these situations ambiguous. Trigger my lack of trust, and I will take action to protect myself. Even so, I still get the arguments.

On this count, I am flabbergasted.

I am shocked by how many people are unable to see or unaware that when a boundary like this is set, that if you wish to reestablish trust, the only way to go about it is to be very very respectful of the boundary. No sneaking around it, no flattering your way out of it, just respect and forthrightness.

This is one of those topics that makes me see red.

If there is one book you should read on this topic, it is The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker.