I love the expression:

“Of course, this isn’t rocket science.”

You hear it all the time. My favorite part is that I can say:

“Well, if you should find yourself suddenly in need of a rocket, I’m your man!”

The boy scouts think the situation is particularly funny. Trying to build a wood fire with a rocket scientist present – it does seem like something more interesting should happen than simply getting a match lit doesn’t it? Rocket science is nice work if you can get it but the job I had was in California. That was a problem for a variety of reasons but the resultant convoluted story is a long one.

It’s easier to answer a different question; one that frequently comes up when discussing the migration from rocket science to software development and that is:

“Have you ever considered teaching?”

or

“Why didn’t you get a job as a professor somewhere?”

Oh Boy! There’s where the story gets long. It turns out that I did go down that route briefly and found it a very frustrating experience.

I spent five years hard labor in graduate school to get a Ph.D. in physics only to find out upon graduation that the world actually needs very few physicists. It’s a disconcerting experience particularly in light of the fact that even though I’m a smart guy, I wasn’t the sharpest tool in the graduate school shed and it was a quite a struggle to make it through. I actually had to study for the first time in my life. There were those for whom it was a pretty easy ride but I wasn’t one of them. Thus, the difficulty with finding a job was doubly exasperating

The standard thing to do upon graduation with such credentials was to find a university where you could get a job as a professor. Failing that, you could always go write software. There was a myth going around at the time that was started by a study published by the national science foundation in the early 80’s that the United States would soon experience a great shortage of scientists and engineers and that there will be a vast retirement of university professors as soon as all the old hippies reach retirement age. That study was debunked in the late 80’s (after I had put in all the work) as it was found to be based on some ludicrously absurd assumptions and that the truth was in fact that there was a huge surplus of scientists in the world. As a result of this myth, most openings at colleges would have something like 475 applicants. The astronauts who went to the moon first were chosen from a pool of only about 300 applicants so I feel that I was in good company.

That gave rise to some pretty ridiculous job postings. Apparently, the search committees felt that they could really stick it to the guys who were trying to get the few jobs that became available. When looking for a teaching position, one frequently comes across job postings that look like the following. I have made this one up but it is by no means an exaggeration; it is pretty typical.

——————————————————————–
Physics
Mount Holyoak College of the Hills

Funding may become available for a one year temporary position at the instructor level beginning fall 1994.

Responsibilities include lecture at the introductory and upper levels, appropriate levels of service, and the establishment of a productive externally funded research program that can involve promising undergraduates. Mount Holyoak is a private four year liberal arts college established by the Evangelical Brethren in 1905. We remain firmly dedicated to the ideals of quality undergraduate liberal arts education. We are located in the beautiful Blue Ridge foothills of eastern Tennessee; offering all the fine qualities of rural life combined with proximity to opportunities of urban life.

Members of under-represented minority groups are particularly encouraged to apply as are locally qualified individuals. Send application materials to Krishna Parthaduparioulosuy, Mount Holyoak College of the Hills, Science Building, Holyoak, TN 74422.

——————————————————————–

That all sounds very well doesn’t it? One has to read between the lines however to get at the truth. A sentence by sentence translation follows:

1) The dean won’t get his lazy ass out of his chair and approve funding for this position but we had to post the ad in order to get it in print in time. We’re crossing our fingers that the pressure of an ad in print will force him to approve it. We also hope that once you get your foot in the door, momentum alone will carry you through your tenure review but we can’t guarantee anything. Your chances are somewhat improved if you’re a good at sucking up to the dean.

2) Our tenured faculty are typically unmotivated so you will have to teach all the required lab science classes that are full of similarly unmotivated freshmen. These classes are all huge. Likewise, the tenured faculty bitch so much about serving on committees, that you will have to serve on a bunch of these. We have no money or lab space to support research but since the job market is the way it is, we feel that we can impose the requirement on you and possibly bolster the reputation of the university in the process. The bit about involving undergraduates is very trendy these days so we had to include it here to remain competitive with the real schools. We’ll conveniently forget about it unless you start complaining about committee service.

3) We were founded by a bunch of Holy Roller fundamentalists who believed everyone on the planet was wrong but them. None of us believe anything they preached and indeed most of us feel that they were probably insane but they founded a really pretty school. They’ve been dead now for 75 years and we’re still trying to mutate into a real university but it’s slow going since most of the alumni are mired in the past. We’re trying to establish credibility by associating ourselves with a more moderate church.

4) We can’t afford an engineering school.

5) We’re way out in the sticks. But there is a Wal-Mart about 15 miles down the road in Hogfart.

6) Our administration is typically obsessed with political correctness so if you are black or female and even moderately qualified, you’re a shoe-in. The alumni, on the other hand, would rather see a real American but they’re totally out of the loop. We’ll probably compromise and hire someone from the middle east because they never question the low salaries we offer. We can’t really afford to fly anyone in from out of state.

Here is how I would respond to that particular ad if I wanted that position and if I could express the way I really feel.


Gregory L. Westbrook
374 Dayton Avenue
Santa Clara, CA 95051
Dr. Krishna Karungulapoartharsarthy
Mount Holyoak College of the Hills
The Science Building
Holyoak, TN 23487
Dear Dr. Whatever,

Change your name for chrissake! I am writing in response to your ad in the Chronicle of Higher Education seeking qualified applicants for the position of assistant professor. I have seven years of industrial experience and, contrary to your almost certain biases, this is not the educational equivalent of leprosy. It has firmed up my knowledge of physics and given me a very practical outlook so that I can now answer those questions the students ask about ‘why we have to learn this stuff.’ If you want to hear my answer, you’ll have to invite me out for an interview. And you can forget about me sharing the cost of the ticket.

To be honest with you, I’m not all that thrilled about working with a bunch of prima donnas with a fragile grip on reality in a tiny town but I really hate California. How would you like to pay $250,000 for little more than a corrugated tin shack? How would you like to raise your children in a place where they sell ‘The Sex-Changer’s News’ at the Post Office paper machines right next to the ‘New York Times?’

Now we both know that if you have no money and no lab space that I’m not going to get much research done. Maybe I can swing some sort of summer appointment at Oak Ridge National Laboratories or something similar but that’s about all I can promise. They have some cool student programs so there’s your ‘involvement with promising under- graduates.’ My office is going to be a former broom closet isn’t it?

I think you really need someone like me. I am not the typical physics geek; I know how to tie a tie most of the time and I know how to act at banquets and other social gatherings. As a result, I would be very good window dressing at the faculty lounge and in committee meetings. I know this is something you sorely need; all physics departments do. Who knows, I would probably even be able to play golf with the dean sometimes (yes, I know how) and maybe he wouldn’t be so quick to cut your budget in the future. Add to this the fact that I can make any experiment work and you’ve got a perfect professor in me. I can even pretend that I care about the students when I advise them.

If you are looking for the typical wild-haired, slump-shouldered physics guy then don’t call me. How many times do you guys have to hire those weird guys with no social skills and who live such alternative lifestyles before you realize that they are the reason that physicists have such a bizarre reputation? When are you going to realize that they scare people; especially those people who approve your funding? If you want to hire a guy who will willingly teach those freshmen lab science classes and actually do a good job at it, then give me a call. And whatever you do, when you send me the usual ‘bite me’ letter, at least show all of us losers the dignity of saying something nice and not just the usual ‘position filled; 475 applicants, etc.’ crap. Tell us that each of us was just what you needed and that if the situation were only slightly different, we would be hired; IT DOESN’T MATTER IF IT ISN’T TRUE! IT’S JUST GOOD MANNERS!

Sincerely,

Gregory L. Westbrook


One of my good friends has had a similar experience in locating a teaching job in the field of engineering and he was so much in agreement with the above examples that he courteously provided his own from the school of engineering.

———————————————————————-
THE DEPARTMENT OF AEROSPACE ENGINEERING AT FREAKING HUGE STATE UNIVERSITY
is actively seeking applicants for a tenure-track faculty position to be filled for the Fall semester of 1994 (contingent upon funding). The successful applicant is expected to have expertise in one or more of the following areas: … Commitments to teach at the undergraduate and graduate levels and to develop a vigorous, high quality, externally funded research program are required as is a Ph.D. in Aerospace Engineering or a closely related field. Industrial experience is valued. The appointment is expected to be at a junior level although applicants having national or international stature will be given due consideration. The Aerospace Engineering Department is nationally ranked and attracts outstanding students. Approximately 400 undergraduate students and 100 graduate students work closely with an excellent faculty of 20. External research funding for the department recently topped $3.5M per year. FHSU is an equal opportunity/affirmative action employer. Send all application materials to … In order to ensure full consideration, all materials must be received before March 15, 1994. Some interviews may be conducted before this date but no finalists will be established before the deadline.
———————————————————————-

Translation:

  1. We want to hire somebody quick. Some poor schmuck didn’t make tenure and we are afraid that the state will take the position away. Maybe if we get an offer letter out in a hurry it will be legally binding.
  2. I didn’t specify the areas of interest here because sometimes they are incredibly specific and other times they are so broad as to include everyone who ever took an engineering class.
  3. We are going to stick you with classes that nobody else wants to teach. Not only that, you have to bring in big bucks! Our department is run on soft money so if the grants go away so do most of us. We have several unproductive faculty with large salaries that have to be paid. Also, we prefer someone with a Ph.D. in a “closely related field” because the odds are so much better for them to get funding.
  4. Industrial experience is about as valued as leprosy.
  5. We would rather hire somebody we don’t have to pay very much. However, if you are a big enough wheel to where you can pay your own way as well as ours (see #3 above), you’ll do.
  6. The department is ranked at the bottom of the educational slag heap and our students are dumber than bricks.
  7. All of these numbers are derived using creative numerical principles. Actually, about 10 students have changed their major from AE since you started reading this ad.
  8. We are required by edict from on high to include this crap but we all know that the only people we will interview will be Asian or Caucasian males. If we interviewed an African- American female, we might have to hire her God forbid.
  9. However, this deadline is flexible. Not even we would be so short sighted as to eliminate some well-qualified individual who happened to miss the deadline by 24 hours.
  10. Actually, we know who we are going to hire but to give this charade some degree of credibility we will hold off a couple of hours anyway.

In spite of the trouble, I did actually go through the process of interviewing for a couple of these positions. Interviewing for an academic position is quite different from a typical job interview at a business. The following list illustrates the differences by going through the process of application step by step.

Interview in Industry

  1. Mail resume
  2. If business is good, fly in. If economy is bad, interview only in local area no matter how good your qualifications
  3. Meet with manager of department. Assure him that you really do know how to program in FORTRAN.
  4. Have lunch with future coworkers and talk about how about all you do in industry is program in FORTRAN
  5. Listen politely as host tells you he’ll get an offer to you as soon as possible. Avoid whooping with delight.
  6. Go home.
  7. Two days later, receive offer in mail.

Interview in Academia (and, by the way, nothing here is made up – each of these things is based on a personal experience and is not exaggerated)

  1. Mail vita, list of publications, research plan, statement of teaching philosophy, and have four letters of reference sent from colleagues
  2. Day 1: Fly in. Get picked up by department chairman. Discuss how expensive air travel is. Make no comment about his tie; remember: it’s the only one he has.
  3. Go to hotel. Take five minutes to ‘freshen up’ while chairman waits in his car
  4. Meet with future co-workers. Explain your graduate work to them. Ignore blank looks.
  5. Have dinner with entire faculty at local Western Sizzlin’. Make clever political commentary about science education and its funding needs
  6. Day 2: Have breakfast with chairman. Make clever political commentary about science education and its funding needs Shake hands and leave after 3 hours
  7. Go to university and teach a class in introductory something while students yawn and chafe at not having their usual professor and while entire faculty eye you and take notes
  8. Meet with all faculty one by one and explain why you want to give up a good paying job to work at university. Also explain why you ever wanted to work in the real world of industry at all.
  9. Have lunch with entire faculty at student center. Sit up straight. Don’t order anything that will cause bad breath or gas. Avoid ogling shapely co-eds.
  10. Meet with dean. Explain why you ever went into the commercial sector in the first place. Explain why your work in industry will not prove ruinous to the entire educational process.
  11. Meet with president who will have forgotten he had a meeting with potential new faculty member. Nod and smile when he says that he never really wanted to fund this position anyway. Sit patiently while he reads your application materials for the first time. Explain your teaching philosophy, whatever that is. Explain how you would make your subject relevant to the students of today. (This is the ‘Bull S&^t’ Test).
  12. Give presentation to faculty and students on your research or some other topic that is interesting and relevant to students such as space exploration. Be prepared to do it all orally in the (very likely) event that the overhead projector doesn’t work.
  13. Attend cocktail party with faculty, wives, and others. Drink but not very much. Express interest in art or classical music. Back up knowledge with some bits of arcane trivia; for example, find some obscure classical guitarist and bone up on him – buy a CD so you’ll know some tunes.
  14. Day three: Drive with chairman to airport. Express gratitude at just having the opportunity to breath the same air as he. Tell him you want the job. Show no emotion as he tells you that they have one more candidate to interview that ‘looks very good’. Don’t hit him when he tells you that they have to interview three candidates as a formality.

It’s a grueling process; much more grueling than it has to be in light of the fact that such teaching position only pay half to three quarters of what an industry job does. But of course, professors get the summers off. So, indeed, why would anybody want such a job at all? Because the job is sweet; summers off, hanging around crowds of clean-cut young people all day, an office with a window (you have to be a high muckety-muck to get a window in industry), a dignified, well respected position, and after a few years of lecturing, you can go on autopilot because basic physics never changes. The work load drops to a bare minimum. It’s difficult to find anything wrong with that.

There are many times that I have wondered if anybody actually gets hired and how. I can imagine what would happen if an obviously superior candidate would apply. Here’s how that exchange might go:


Moses
General Delivery
Heaven
1-800-159-0753 (The sign of the fish)
moses@heaven.net
February 20, 1995
Dr. Krishna Karungulapoartharsarthy
Mount Holyoak College of the Hills
The Science Building
Holyoak, TN 23487
Dear Dr. Karungulapoartharsarthy,

This letter is in response to your advertisement in the January 31 issue of the Tulsa World seeking qualified applicants for the position of professor of physics. I feel that I am particularly well qualified for this position because of my thousands of years of experience.

My most recent experience was parting the Red Sea and leading an entire race of people (the Hebrews) out of slavery. This project included violating physical laws in order to part the red sea to a sufficient width to allow thousands of weakened former slaves to traverse the distance between shores, causing a variety of plaques on the Egyptians, and teaching the freed people about the new rules of morality that would now be imposed on them. In this way, I was in the position of both political leader and ethical mentor; teaching them both the new rules of morality and leading them to a new home – guiding the future political structure. I feel this would be particularly applicable to any future committee work at your University.

As a professor with your university, I would bring an intimate understanding of all physical processes which I could then impart to the students. Furthermore, I work well with others, and I am experienced in project management. I was, after all, in charge of building new cities for pharaoh, Seti II. I also have the ability to smite others if I am forced to in order to make a point which includes, but is not limited to, bringing down plagues of flies, frogs, boils, and bloody water, to name but a few. This is a skill that would be particularly useful in the rare cases of obstreperous students or in isolated cases of cheating.

My enclosed vita only highlights my skills and experience. I would be glad to meet with you and discuss my qualifications in more detail at your convenience. I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

Moses

jch


It would not be unreasonable to expect that the above letter would generate the following response:


Mount HolyOak College of the Hills
Dr. Krishna Karungulapoartharsarthy
The Science Building
Holyoak, TN 23487
February 20, 1995

Moses
General Delivery
Heaven
moses@heaven.net

Dear Moses,

I was quite interested to receive your recent letter of application. I have attempted to contact you via the 800 number you listed but the line is consistently busy. I hope this has nothing to do with the fact that I am a Muslim. At any rate, the physics department would like to invite you to Holyoak for an interview on the Monday, the 6th of March. I understand that you are likely to be quite busy on the 5th (Easter) so if your travel plans necessitate it, we can reschedule for Tuesday. If there is a compelling reason to, we can also re-schedule for after Easter but most of us are off on spring break then so it might be difficult to arrange for everyone on the selection committee to be there.

Your qualifications seem to be quite good but the committee is understandably concerned about your lack of recent teaching experience as well as your apparent lack of an advanced degree. Indeed, we can find no evidence of any formal education at all so you might want to be prepared to defend your qualifications on this point. In addition, the dean wishes to speak with you personally about your philosophy of physics education as it applies to non-science majors. The dean is sensitive to the matter of education for all students, not only the gifted, so he will wish to discuss the matter and conditions of your smiting procedures to assess its possible impact on our renovation budget (which is quite limited), our public image, and our insurance coverage.

We will schedule a guest lecture for you to give to our physics for non-science majors class as well as a seminar in the afternoon to be given to the entire department including students. The subject is open to your preference but the science department would be particularly interested in a demonstration of sea-parting (perhaps the fountains in front of the administration building will suffice) or, if you prefer, a demonstration of your smiting abilities. I look forward to hearing from you; if I don’t, we will see you on the 6th! Although it hardly seems necessary, we can discuss reimbursement for you air travel expenses at that time.

Sincerely,

Dr. “K”
Professor of Physics

lst


You can see why I sometimes wonder how anybody ever gets a teaching position and how the selection committees actually ever make their decisions. Visions of flipping coins come to mind.

So, that’s why I’m here. Because it is, ironically, both easier and much better paying than any other alternative. The rocket science in California was a lot more fun but pretty unstable. One bad vibe from the secretary of defense and thousands of people could hit the streets. I got tired of that.

I do occasionally miss California though. Usually during the tornado and mosquito season.

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