# "A Position at the University"

"A Position at the University", by Lydia Davis

I think I know what sort of person I am. But then I think, But this stranger will imagine me quite otherwise when he or she hears this or that to my credit, for instance that I have a position at the university: the fact that I have a position at the university will appear to mean that I must be the sort of person who has a position at the university. But then I have to admit, with surprise, that, after all, it is true that I have a position at the university. And if it is true, then perhaps I really am the sort of person you imagine when you hear that a person has a position at the university. But, on the other hand, I know I am not the sort of person I imagine when I hear that a person has a position at the university. Then I see what the problem is: when others describe me this way, they appear to describe me completely, whereas in fact they do not describe me completely, and a complete description of me would include truths that seem quite incompatible with the fact that I have a position at the university.

Lydia Davis from Almost No Memory

This is a beautiful short text that I found taped to the door of one of my colleagues at Harvard. Reading it reminded me of the importance of developing a grounded identity, a sense of self, that come from within and are not tied to an idea of oneself based on whatever denomination one carries at a given time. This can come from developing interests, activities that are not tied to your bread and butter, so called work-life balance, something I wish I had engaged a great deal more in grad school and that I am actively putting an effort to engage in now. When you others put you in a box, or you put yourself in a box, you begin to see the rejections (e.g. paper, grants...), the failures (bombing a talk/presentation, doing poorly in an exam etc...) as attacks on your sense of self. The truth is, you are not the rejections, the perceived failures. The process, the journey, that led you there-to the outcome, whatever it might be-are far more important and tell much more about you (I will write a separate post about process vs outcome and having a growth rather than fixed mindset).

Let us take a quick evolutionary detour into the allure of putting people and ourselves into boxes.

As a species, we are very good at building abstractions: knowledge and discovery stem from our ability to distill complicated phenomena into basic, simple, governing laws. The examples abound: Newton's laws, Maxwell equations (their simplifications into the circuit abstraction when one makes certain assumptions regarding wavelength), the discovery of the DNA and of the mechanisms of cell division etc...At the base of this obsession with abstractions is our (evolutionary?) need for being in control of the outside world, of our circumstances. For our ancestors, abstractions meant survival. Imagine if Wildebeests existed a few tens or hundreds of thousands of years ago, and one of our hypothetical super-smart ancestors had figured out the mating patterns and migratory behaviors of one of this particular source of food. All right, so now this super smart ancestor has figured out a way to guarantee a predictable source of food, and now you must figure out as a group how you are going to hunt. This is where the need for rigid denominations may have come from. If you picture a small tribe of hominoid, by rigid denomination I mean precise roles for every member of the tribe (who does what? in a hunting situation, in a situation when we are attacked, etc...). As an aside, I do not think this is a far fetched idea since, as early as a few hundred years ago, cultures around the world were organized around the principle that specific groups within a community had specific responsibilities. Just look at last names such as 'Blacksmith', 'Taylor' etc...I could give examples of African cultures where this is true, including my own, but this wouldn't mean much to most.

The denominations in and of themselves are not the problem, in my opinion. What would become of an army without ranks and denominations? The real world today is not as unforgiving as it was to our ancestors. However, because, our biology has grown to interpret the denominations as more rigid than they actually are, more rigid than is necessary in our time. I find that it takes a conscious effort to not fall prey to this natural instinct of ours.

Something funny and interesting has happened over the past few millennia: the rate of growth of innovation, of technology (through abstractions) has skyrocketed, giving us the ability for better (than our ancestors) automatic control of nature, thus reducing the usefulness of rigid denominations. In modern society, your being a blacksmith by trade is not tied to our survival as a species, or being a tailor by trade. Our biology, however, still thinks we're stuck in the past and has not realized that we've been moving on. It still thinks we're in 10000 BC. When it meets you, my biological self makes assumptions based on your title, assumptions that it thinks will make it feel safer. So we go around, putting others and ourselves in boxes, boxes in which we struggle to fit in.

And there in lies the danger for those of us in creative pursuits. When you are creating, you spend most of your time in what seem like dark alleys. If your are tied to an image of yourself, a denomination you must live up to, the hard times, the discomfort, become unbearable. They become a trial on who you are. And they should not. We can avoid this, and enjoy the process of creating by developing a sense of self that lives outside our accomplishments, outside others' idea of who we are.

Am I surprised that people are surprised when they hear I've got a position at the University? I used to be. I am not anymore.

# The Academic Job Search, The Story of You

“You think it’s easy being the boss?”

Tony Soprano

### 1. Deciding to apply: know thou circumstances, act accordingly

One should have an honest objective conversation with oneself to gage one's level of preparedness. The keywords here are "honest", "objective". I am not speaking here of the internal conversations that are so common among academics where we compare ourselves to others. Those are neither honest, nor objective. I am speaking here about the kind of internal dialogue where, having decided that one wants to become a faculty, one proceeds to figure out concrete steps that would give one the best chance of success in the future. How do you figure this out? Everyone's process is different. Here's how I did it: I got on the market 3 years after obtaining my PhD, and yes, it was a conscious decision. When I obtained my PhD in 2011, I was very confident about my technical knowledge and my ability to take a well-formulated research problem, deconstruct and/or figure out the steps (topics to learn) that would ultimately allow me to solve the problem. The skill that I proceeded to hone over the next 3 years, and that I was just beginning to learn, is the ability to formulate my own ideas. I did a 3 year postdoc to do just that, and published a body of work based on ideas I formulated myself. To me (and that may be different for others), a well-prepared junior faculty is one able to not only generate interesting, unique ideas, but also to guide a team to execute those. I was not fully prepared at the end of my PhD to do the latter. I sat down with myself and decided to take a few years to become prepared. I was willing to walk away from academics at the end of those 3 years if I did not believe I had become prepared at the end of them. It is important, once you begin the process, to talk to a trusted friend/partner/mentor, who can help you be as objective and encouraging as possible. One benefit of having this convo with yourself is that it lays the ground work for preparing your application package!

### 3. The job talk

#### Putting the talk together

I think of the job talk as your application package, the story of you (minus the recommendation letters) put into the form of a presentation. One thing I learnt very early on, through observations of other people's job talk, is that a successful job talk looks nothing like what most of us purists think of when we think about a successful technical/talk. You must develop the ability to communicate complicated ideas to an audience with a similar breadth in background as the members of the search committee. Unless you are one of the stars in the market on a given year, a talk that, given in your departmental seminar, will be lauded for its technical depth, can paint you as an applicant with a very narrow focus that has a poor communication style. Believe it or not, the interview process can be very taxing to the search committee. I'd like to believe that search committees spend a great deal of time and involvement to decide who they invite. Following this logic, the candidates invited will almost always be stellar technically. You then need that je-ne-sais-quoi to separate between amazing applications. That's why, a lot of qualities, absent in most technical talks (given to an audience of experts), are being judged: your overall vision (the story), your teaching style, your communication style, your level of collegiality, your enthusiasm.

Here is how I put together my own job talk. I took me a few weeks to converge to this style and a few more weeks to put the actual talk together. I believe the outline is not very field specific, though it is more geared towards an engineering/scientific audience rather than one in the humanities. The outline follows the chronological order of my talk.

1. The Vision, imagined: The 2nd or 3rd slide of my talk was titled "The Vision". In it, there was picture of a ven diagram whose intersection summarized my interests and vision. On top of the ven diagram, was the most wordy sentence of all of my talk, which read the vision I had for my research. This was the most important slide of my talk. In one slide I told the committee that this is my story and this is what I plan to do. The rest of the talk is to support this vision.

2. The Vision, I've done it before: Examples from my PhD and post-PhD work that demonstrates support this vision. I told the story two projects from my post-doctoral work (ideas that I belived where 100% my ideas) that I was super excited about.

3. The Vision, spreading it: I gave examples of three exciting projects that I wanted to work on over the next few 5 years and the venues, the community, where the work would be published.

4. The Vision, funding it: I talked about the funding agencies that would be excited about my work and how I would fund my research over the next 5 years.

5. The Vision, how it fits in your institution: I talked about how someone with my background can fit in, in terms of research collaboration, in the institution I was applying to/interviewing in.

If you are paying close attention, the outline of my talk was centered around the vision and the story of my research. I highly recommend that you attend job talks at your institution and see different styles. I noticed there was a non-trivial correlation between job talks I enjoyed and people that ended up getting hired at different institutions where I have been. One common feature of the job talks I've enjoyed is that, whether I bought it or not, whether you agreed or not, an outside observer did not have to dig deep to answer the question: what is his/her vision? One thing that I did not understand until later is this: when you get the job, no one is going to hold you accountable for what you said you'd do in your job talk. So, what's the point? The mere fact that you were able to organize a job talk into a convincing and compelling form, about one particular research topic/direction, means that you have the intelligence and skills to do it for an entirely different research direction.

#### Practicing the job talk

It is importance to practice your job talk, both in front of a general group and in front of selective audiences. This is advice, based on my personal preferences, that you should feel free to throw away, but let me try to explain the logic. Practicing one's talk in front of a general group (the research group you are part of, your department's seminar series etc...). Why practice your talk in front of selective audiences? One advantage of thinking of the application, the job talk, as telling a story is that it helps you to delineate your ideas from those of others. That's why I think it's important to practice your talk in front of people whose opinion you respect. I do not mean to pick people who will only agree with you, but to practice the talk in intimate settings that will make it easier for you to receive and incorporate constructive feedback.

### 4. Getting invited!

This is the moment you wait for: when the phone starts to ring and the email notifications start to buzz with news that you have been invited for an on-site interview. It's a big deal, you should be excited! This is advice how I made the best of out of the opportunities to interview on-site. It will be in the form of a bulletpoint list. This advice can be summarized in one sentence

"If they invite you, they want you: focus on the process, not outcome, be selfish".

2. One advantage of switching your perspective to "interviewing as much as being interviewed" is that it will enrich your interactions with the faculty you meet at the institutions where you are invited. At best, these faculty will become colleagues, at worst, they will become collaborators and letter writers. Some of the people I have met on the interview trail have become close academic mentors. Your one-on-one meetings are of multiple types: search committee members, potential collaborators, misc. faculty members. It's important to identify who is who and tailor the pitch accordingly. You can do this by closely studying your interview schedule and learning about the faculty on it. Group 1 (search committee members): know what you plan to do over the next 5 years, prepare an elevator pitch summary of your research plan and story, Group 2 (potential collaborators/faculty in your area): know your sh*t in and out, be ready to go on the board and be technical, show that you know the field. Group 3: Prepare an elevator pitch/high level summary of your work for a person in your major' that does not work in your specific area of research.

3. Beware of the quantization/analog-to-digital-conversion effect: Search committees consider 100s of applications and have to go through a process of selective reduction of the qualified applicant pool, culminating in those that will be invited for interviews. If you were invited, most likely you have a champion at the university inviting you. This person, whether or not they know the details of your work, must be able to summarize it to the faculty at large and be able to make a strong case that you will be an invaluable addition to the department. In the process, they must put you through what I call the quantization/analog-to-digital conversion effect: they must take you, a researcher with multi-faceted contributions that lie on a continuum and boil you down to your mere essentials. Think about what goes on when you compress or zip files/images or documents. Perhaps my research/accomplishments were too close to my heart, but I found myself pushing back when well-meaning, well-intentioned champions of me summarized' me. It's not personal, and it does not define you, but that's what they must do. This is not uncommon in academia. I hear that tenure cases are often decided by the ability to say, in one sentence "Demba Ba is guy who did [fill-in-the-blanks]". And the blanks should be easy to fill.

4. Think about answering (the plan is to give the sense you've seriously thought about these questions)

• 5 year research plan
• How will you raise money?
• What do you plan to teach?
• Where are you going to publish?
5. Lunch, dinner, and being social: Make no mistake, you have to be on 100% of the time. You are being sized up (not in paranoid/ovearbearing way) all, the, time. Think about it, it's not just about the technical work, they'd like to know what type of a colleague you will be. Be yourself. In almost all of my trips, breakfast was a one-on-affair, lunch a large group and dinner a smaller group. I had a decent breakfast, kept lunch very light, and dinner more substantial.

7. Miscellaneous

• The interview: you can find a ton of advice online regarding how to dress. I wore a suit the day of my job talk and wore a business casual attire for dinner or days when I did not have to give a talk. It's important to be comfortable in your attire and yet professional.
• Be enthusiastic and excited: your body language will show, show up as someone who is excited and enthusiastic about your work and ideas.
• I got sick of my job talk: after my first interview, I was already sick of my job talk, because I had put so much time preparing and it and did not have enough distance before getting on the trail. I did not expect that this would happen. What did I do? I used the feedback I got after every visit and used it to refine my talk. I took the great questions, suggestions and advice that were in line with my story and incorporated them into the talk. The stuff I did not think was fair or in line with my story, I discarded. It made giving the same talk all over again much more fun and exciting.
• The visit(s) can take an emotional/physical toll: the traveling, the long trips, etc..., you will get sick. It's important to take care of yourself in the process and to build a support network.
• Keep an open mind: places you expected a lot of might disappoint you, places you discounted might surprise you.
• Have lots of fun!
• Follow up, follow up, genuinely, after you come back from the interview, whether you end up getting an offer or not.

### 5. Not getting offers

I want to start with, let's face it, what is the most likely outcome: not getting any offers. This being the most likely outcome, is why I believe that it is much more productive from a personal growth perspective to focus of the process of applying for faculty jobs, rather than the outcome. The only piece of insight I have here is that there is a lot of luck and randomness involved in getting a faculty job. I do not mean that it is not a fair process. What I mean is that a lot of stars have to align to get the best chances, the majority of which are not under your control: the area in which a given department is hiring, areas that are hot at the moment (any body working on deep learning or compressive sensing a few years ago must be smiling, does that mean you should bend yourself into the deep learning pretzel? I don't think so), your field, who is on the search committee. It doesn't make the lack of offers any less easier to get over, but I do believe it helps to put things into an objective perspective.

### 6. Getting offers!

You put in the hard work, you've learnt about yourself and the directions that really interest you, you told a compelling story that helped you to get an offer. What now?

1. Arguably one of the hardest and stressful things I have had to do is to negotiate start-up packages. You will do this at most a handful of times during your life, while on the other hand admins at institutions have done this with 100s of people. The knowledge gap in this game is so one-sided that it makes in intimidating from the perspective of you, trying to negotiate that start up package.

3. Negotiating your salary: talk to faculty friends, find out how much new professors in your field make, and about the cost of living in the city you would be moving to. No amount is unreasonable as long as you can logically justify it. Just remember that your starting salary will determine your future earnings. Do not sabotage yourself by asking for too little or for too much. I personally believe that you should negotiate your salary, whether you are successful in securing the figure you ask for, because it sends the message that you've actively thought about the issue. In other words, do not accept the first figure you are quoted. I know colleagues who disagree. You should use your own intuition here.

Disclaimer: This is not professional advice of any form. This perspective is based on my own experience, reading I've done while I was on the academic job market

# Two Months In

"It's been a long time, I shouldn't have left you, without a strong rhyme to step to."

Eric B. and Rakim.

It has been two months and some changes since I begun my faculty appointment. It has also been two months and some change since I have posted anything :/. It's a coincidence, of course. And I am sure you will understand. I have two words to describe the experiences thus far: intense and exciting! The train has left the station, and there ain't no stopping it.

Right out of the door, I began writing a huge grant with a colleague at Boston's Children Hospital, as well as two smaller grants. These were the first major grant writing effort I have been involved in. It was a highly pleasant experience overall. Like with anything you do for the first time, there is bound to be a certain amount of doubt/discomfort: the trick is to push through despite the discomfort. If you are currently a postdoc, what they tell you (and I think this is great advice), is that you should get some experience writing grant, so that you can hit the ground running. I consciously decided to focus on more research during my postdoc, as I was aiming to get stuff out that I thought would make me more marketable. I think both approaches have some merit, you should make sure you discuss this with your mentor and consciously pick one. We wrote the grant fully in Tex, and used git for version control. It was a great and seamless process to update files and compile the final document which, whether it gets funded or not, I am extremely proud of. Now, for the intense part. The novelty of it all is what I struggled with the most: here I am, having just started my job, and having to figure out how to put a budget together (WTF is fringe? direct/indirect costs? modular budget?!!), a bio sketch (nerds, we're not too good at speaking highly of ourselfves), figuring out my needs for the grant (students, postdocs, equipment etc...), while trying to maintain 100% focus on writing the science. I'm sure that sentence was exhausting to read. It was exhausting to write. I am very lucky that there is staff in place to help with the details of formatting and budget etc...I was equally lucky that my colleague at BCH and I share the sentiment that it is important to start writing early! This might have been my first grant, but I am convinced that the only way I'll be able to do it again is by giving myself plenty of time between start and submission - it's just how my mind operates. This deserves a separate post: I really think of writing science/a paper/a grant as storytelling. You are telling the story of your work/idea/result. And this takes time. Because the story starts one way, and morphs into ways you may not have expected. But if you're like me, the early days of the process are painful because you're mostly starting at a blank page on a screen!

It's been really exciting because now I am running my own show. With the excitement though, comes a certain amount of fear. It's like an oh-sh+t-the-training-wheels-are-off moment. I have been very fortunate that my thesis and postdoc advisor gave me lots of freedom and space to explore my own ideas. That has equipped me with lots of confidence with my ability to generate and write about ideas that are worth writing about. It's one thing to have your own ideas, though, and execute them yourself. It's another animal altogether to guide someone else to execute your vision. It's the part of the job that is requiring the most shift in mental attitude, and I love it. It's a great opportunity to grow as a leader. I do not think a lot of people appreciate how challenging it is to have conceived/solved in your mind the path of an idea from beginning to end (publication), only to realize that to convey the route to someone else is much much more difficult. I am much more appreciative of how patient my mentors/collaborators must have been with me. But I am loving every moment of it, because equally eye opening and exilarating have been moments when, while discussing a research idea, my mind felt like a train, my thoughts passengers on this train, and to see that some people just have the ability to hop on this train and get it! That's what collaborative research should feel like.

I promised you a few posts on the academic job search. Tis the season, and I already have outlines for these posts. I shall start posting them soon. In the mean time, if you know students interesting in a PhD and would want to join the train of my ideas, holla! And stay tuned for posts about some of the exciting research we've been working on with my group!

# The Role of the Past in our Question for Social Change

The past few years have been an extremely confusing and uncomfortable time for me, as a black man in America, more specifically as an African immigrant. It all started with Trayvon, Michael Brown, then Eric Garner, then Sandy and then and then.... The list goes on. I do not want to discuss the facts behind these events and whether or not justice has been served. I am neither qualified nor well-versed enough to go into a deep, detailed, discussion. Still, there is something about writing, even when what one is writing about are half-baked ideas, be they mathematical, philosophical or fictional, that helps/forces one to organize their thoughts and gain insight. That is one of the reasons I write, and this is something I expect of my students and postdocs: write it down, share an ipython notebook, not just for me, but also for yourself. Now that we're past this digression, what I would like to discuss is how I experienced the events of the past few years, and the shift in thinking that these events have engendered in me. The gist is the following:

I mentioned earlier than one thing that changes across time, when it comes to dealing with these issues, are the politics. The politics have a huge role to play, especially in the age of Obama. There has been an immense polarization in how Obama has handled the race issue, and questions of police brutality. One school of thought says, don't talk about race, change policy etc. The other, is embodied by the Black Lives Matter movement, which says we must tackle it head on and be unapologetic about demanding change. My opinion on the matter is not fully formed. But the following quote from an article by Brandon M. Terry is the closest that comes to explaining my current thinking

"Ordinary politics treats these deadly encounters between citizens and police as causal inevitabilities—high crime begets intensive policing, which brings unfortunate tragedies. But why stop there? What we need is an extraordinary politics informed by ordinary lives, one capable of provoking, and responsibly guiding, a process of civic reflection in a moment of moral crisis."

Beautiful. Absolutely beautiful: "extraordinary politics informed by ordinary lives".

How can "ordinary lives" guide the politics? One way is through the context provided by history and the lived experiences of people. The context of history is necessary to move forward. Case in point, you have probably heard of the BLM activists who crashed the Bernie Sanders event in Seattle. That was not cool. But, you have to go past the act and think about the why of the act? I think it's the frustration among black people, activists, that even well-meaning liberals are only compassionate with their struggle in theory and words. And this, I think, might be because, of the lack of context regarding black history and the struggle of black America. How can the politics/economics change anything, unless they are informed by the context of ordinary lives?

I may be wrong. And an old argument, definitely held by conservatives, and by a segment of black politics, talks about African American responsibility, the degradation of the African American family, and how African Americans must pull themselves from bootstraps. Even Bill Cosby of all people talks about this. But if you read Isabel Wilkerson, if you read some of Coates' writing, and the historical references in both, you cannot help but question this view. To me, the argument about moral reform is weak because it is devoid of historical context. This would be the same thing as saying something which I think is absurd "well, women have been granted equality decades ago, why can't they pull themselves by the bootstraps and make as much money as we men do?", "why can't they pull themselves up by the bootstraps and get their voices heard?" These are absurd statements.

History informs the structural and systemic forces that have led us here. The role of "extraordinary politics" is to user "ordinary lives" as the basis for policies that will dismantle these. We might need to wait for Kanye's 2020 presidential bid to see such "extraordinary politics".

# Rethinking the Interviewing Process

This is a prelude to a series of posts I plan to write on the academic job search and things I learnt during the process, about looking for a(n) (academic) job, about myself and about Interviewing in general. I was on the academic job market in Spring 2014. I am grateful to have landed a position, after which I decided to defer by a year to wrap up some of my post-doc work and to work on my own company with a colleague and my thesis advisor.

As I am on the eve of officially starting my position, I have been thinking a lot about why I picked Harvard SEAS, and what I was able to accomplish this past year. This post is going to focus on one seldomly-discussed aspect of the interviewing process, that I believe was tremendously helpful to me. I'll write later about some of the really cool things I did during the year before starting the position. A little bit of background is in order. At the time of applying, I had been a post-doc for 3 years, and a well-seasoned veteran of the industry job search. I had applied and interviewed for everything from positions in finance, on Wall Street (all my friends were doing in it, I was weak and followed, forgive me), to positions in Software Engineering and Data Science. My batting average, I am afraid, was 2/30: I had applied to 30 positions roughly, was flown out to 4 or 5, and got 2 offers. A few things to note. First, 2/30 can seem depressing (and it was), especially from an over-achiever such as myself. Second, the number 2/30 does not reflect the sequence in which those 2 wins came.