Beyond the Science: Considerations when Picking an Academic Post

Susanna and Andy here-

Academia is complicated. Each position has complicating factors that are unrelated to the work you’ll do, or who you’ll do it with. Considering the money and benefits are important. Here’s a discussion of some of the things that we have had to consider as we’ve moved around the world. Andy is currently a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Bristol, Susanna is his very supportive and wonderful wife who’s been dragged all around the United States, and now world.

Susanna: I didn’t know what the life of an academic looked like. I’m not sure Andy did either, when we first got together, but the things listed here certainly affected us both.

Funding is not guaranteed for an advanced degree.

Susanna: There are different benefit scenarios which might be offered to someone applying for a Masters or Ph.D. program. My husband’s Masters program offered him a Research Assistant (RA) position, which basically meant he was paid to do his work. For his Ph.D., he was offered two years of funding as a Teaching Assistant (TA), which paid our living expenses, but it meant he had to spend time for teaching first before attending to his own research work.

Andy: Though I did get teaching experience, which helped build my CV. That’s something I actively pursued, even at the expense of money/research time.

Susanna: After the two years ran out, we were fortunate that his advisor helped provide opportunities for grants, fellowships, or other ways to stay in the program.

Andy: This can be a good thing also, to be finding grants as a PhD student, as once out of a PhD program you have to fight for money as well. It makes for a much more stressful early PhD process, though.

Benefits are not guaranteed.

Susanna: Our insurance coverage has run the gamut from fully covered with no copays, to paying $400+ a month for our own coverage under the Affordable Care Act. When Andy held a postdoctoral position as an independent contractor (Peter Buck “Deep-Time” Paleobiology Postdoctoral Fellow) with the Smithsonian Institution – National Museum for Natural History, he was allowed to purchase a healthcare plan through them. Let me walk you through what that would have been like.

Andy was paid $3766 a month. As an independent contractor, we had to deduct our own money for taxes and make quarterly tax payments. So we always immediately deducted $755 per paycheck. We lived in Arlington, VA, outside of D.C., and our rent was $1850 (Andy: That was cheap for the area. D.C. is expensive.). So far we are down to $1161. If we had opted to purchase the Smithsonian plan, we would have had $161 left per month. That would have had to cover utilities, food for a family of three, a Metro pass to get Andy to work (Andy: As an independent contractor the museum doesn’t have to pay for commuting expenses, as they would for a true employee.), gas for our car, auto insurance, any other expense that could and would crop up.

Andy: Susanna also could not get a job, as our daughter was not school-aged and childcare is outrageously expensive in the area. I did get a $2,000 per-year healthcare stipend, though that is not standard with that fellowship; many of my colleagues did not get one.

Susanna: We opted to buy our own coverage through the Affordable Care Act for about $400 a month instead, leaving us with $761 a month for all the above-listed expenses and the ones I’m surely forgetting. It didn’t leave much for anything unexpected, and certainly not much for leisure.

Paycheck $3,766
Tax Withholding -$755
Smithsonian Insurance -$1,000
Rent -$1,850
Affordable Cares Act -$400
Total per month: $761

At UMASS during Andy’s Ph.D. program, we had the same insurance as undergraduate students, including being seen at the campus health services. It was a very different atmosphere sitting in a waiting room full of students. To make a broad generalization, students were often there to get notes to get out of class; I was there because our daughter was vomiting.

Andy: The actual coverage varied quite a bit as well, as the university (UMass) and the Graduate Student Union were in the middle of a series of contentious negotiations. It varied enough that we decided to go onto Susanna’s employer insurance for a while, because if we had had a kid it would have cost thousands of dollars out-of-pocket.

Susanna: Conversely, the coverage for graduate students at University of Wisconsin while we were there was the same coverage granted to the professors. It was, if healthcare can be such a thing, luxurious.

The applicant is usually expected to pay their own moving expenses.

Susanna: When a job does offer relocation funds, they are almost always after-the-fact and you will have to submit a receipt and wait to be reimbursed. Depending on the length of the move, the amount of stuff you have, and the size of your family, this can be a huge burden or a minor inconvenience. In my experience, moving always costs more than you think it will, on both the leaving and arriving ends. We have been lucky to have family financial help when we’ve needed it. We’ve done renting and loading a truck ourselves, hired movers to help pack, load, and drive, multi-day drives with our daughter in tow (and once, dog). We also flew from the United States to England, where we live currently, with only 200 lbs of stuff to start a new British life.

I will point out how frequently there has been a delay in receiving a first paycheck, too, since that appears to be a common complaint. How are you supposed to pay for a move upfront, and then wait 1.5 months to be paid?

Andy: Some places will help you with this. Some of our travel to the UK, and some of our visas were covered by the University and the grant supporting me. The NMNH provided a bit of money as well. Sam Houston State University helped us move from DC to Texas. You will likely not find that in graduate programs, and I also expect it’s less frequent in postdoc programs. It’s also never enough money to cover moving, which is so unexpectedly expensive every time.

Moving somewhere you never considered

Susanna: I am from Michigan originally. After college, I moved to Madison, Wisconsin (Andy: to be with me!), and it wasn’t much of a change. I liked it quite a bit. Western Massachusetts after that was more hilly than I was used to, but again, there were still four discernible seasons. Just the way I like it. Northern Virginia was too hot for too many months in a row.

So what did we do after that? Moved to Texas.

Andy: Something I will apologize for years for.

Susanna: When job-hunting, my husband will sometimes throw out questions to me like, “How do you feel about living in New Zealand?” and I can hardly say no. He has applied all over the world. Around the same time he got the postdoc at the National Museum of Natural History, he had also got a Royal Society Fellowship that would have taken us to Southampton, England. We thought we had missed the chance to live in England by accepting the position in Washington D.C., but another position in Bristol opened up last spring and here we are.

You (Might) Travel

Susanna: Andy has gotten to travel a lot for work. He has gone to conferences, school, meetings, and even sailed onboard the research vessel the JOIDES Resolution for seven weeks. In no order, he’s been to: Germany, Italy, San Francisco, Puerto Rico, Montserrat (Andy: Technically I was just off the coast, never on Montserrat, but close enough), Vancouver B.C., New Orleans, surely others. Unfortunately we could rarely afford for me to tag along, but I did meet him in Curacao when he got off the JOIDES Resolution and we took a vacation there.

When in-person interviews start getting scheduled again, there will be more travel.

Andy: Get a frequent flyer card! It won’t matter because you’ll almost constantly be forced to fly whatever flight is cheapest, but I hold out hope it’ll help someday.

Job-Seeking Starts Earlier Than You Think, and Takes Longer Too

Susanna: Most US places start looking for candidates about a year ahead of time. In this case, that means that Andy started looking for jobs pretty much as soon as he started teaching at a Visiting Assistant Professor position at Sam Houston State University. Each job application required a few hours’ work. The standard documents requested from each candidate are: cover letter, CV, teaching statement, and research statement. Of course, it’s best to spend some time on the boilerplate document and make sure it addresses specifics about the department for which you’re applying. This takes real time.

Andy: I once calculated the time spent on it. A job with 75 applicants, each spending an average of 3 hrs on that application, with letter writers spending 30 minute each, means that 337 hours is spent by people on the applicant side for each academic job. In our case, that means that during job season Susanna is the primary parent on weekends and I’m stuck on my computer typing and editing (until she takes over and edits everything).

Reaching out

Andy: Finding postdoc positions is tough. I’m balancing a family, a research focus, a strong urge to teach or do something where I’m interacting with non-scientists, and more. I got lucky when I blind emailed a potential advisor with a project, he immediately wrote back, we Skyped, and then wrote countless (ok, 6 or 7) postdoc funding applications together. He mentored me though the entire process. Sometimes you get lucky with good timing or just finding the right people.

I’m not one to normally be able to email somebody out of the blue, but having a supportive partner through this experience has made it more possible for me to do my best work.

Conclusion

Andy: All of these are things that we’ve considered over the years about different positions. It’s certainly not an exhaustive list. Certain places have built up structures to exploit graduate students or postdocs. They might have excellent name recognition, but always consider carefully the cost of living, pay, and benefits of a place. It’s a lot harder to get your best science done when you’re worried about the basic necessities of life.

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