Friday, October 07, 2005

'Survivor' in the Academy

I just got back 'home' (what is home to a grrrl who feels like she lives in three countries?) from my first experience with interviewing in the British university system. It is quite similar to that which they use back home in the good ol' U.S. of A., but it differs in one crucial respect: all candidates are evaluated simultaneously in what I've come to call 'Academic Survivor'. You could make a reality TV show out of it. Fortunately, although this was my first interactive experience with Academic Survivor, I was a member of the 'live studio audience' when my partner was a contestant (a strong contestant, I might add, albeit unsuccessful) two years ago at a university that shares its name with a city in the deep South of the good ol' U.S. of A., and which is the hometown of musicians ranging from the Moody Blues to Electric Light Orchestra to Ozzy Osbourne. Being a member of the live studio audience while my partner suffered was fortuitous for me because it gave me valuable insight into this sadistic selection method. The Brits throw all three candidates together into two nights and three days of artificial camaraderie during which you dine together the night of your arrival, then the next day sit together while you await your job talk 'performance' (thankfully without the other candidates in the audience), lunch together after the faculty have had a 30-minute closed-door gossip session about you and your job talks, embark together on tours of the department, go out together for friendly pints at the local contemporary arts centre, and then sit nervously together the next day while you wait your turn for formal interviews with the selection committee. All the while wondering, who of us is next to be voted off the Island of Academia and lose the coveted prize of guaranteed employment for the next years? Social comparisons run rampant as one scrutinizes one's fellow contestants, sussing out their strengths and weaknesses compared to one's own. For example, I almost immediately surmised that my co-candidate from a southern European country was little or no competition, not due to her research or intellect (about which I was unable to obtain any diagnostic information), but rather to her amazing inability to suppress her whinging on about various trivialities (as well as stuff more substantial, such as the climate). But then I saw her greeted warmly by a member of the faculty who is also from her homeland. Aha, I mused, an inside track! Nepotism of a sort. Will it trump her unpleasantness? The third candidate was a guy from the same university that had stupidly (although thankfully, but that's another, less interesting, story) failed to offer the job to my partner two summers ago. Early on, I evaluated this third candidate to have at least an equally strong research track record as I, but less teaching experience. Also less personality. Personality is where we Americans can often (but not always) win out over the Brits. Also in my favor: This candidate bows to the gods of experimental reductionism in our field of research, which might give him an edge in the broader scope of the field, but in the narrower scope of this job, i suspected would not favor him, as his interests simply did not match with those of the faculty (mine did). So, Dr. Whinge had done me the good deed of getting her own self voted off the island, but Dr. Boring was still 'stiff' competition. I set about the two nights and three days to work hard to make him the next to get the boot. Being my charming, self-effacing, enthusiastic self, and emphasizing how well I fit with the faculty, along with my clear advantage in the teaching department, seems to have been a successful strategy. Dr. Boring was soon voted off the island and I received my prize: a faculty position in the vaunted halls of academia in a city that shares its name with a famous fictional hunter of crocodiles.