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Pandemic adds stress to already stressful job hunt

11 September 2020

Job offers are sped up, delayed, and sometimes rescinded.

Bjoern Penning (front left) and Marcelle Soares-Santos (front right) moved from Brandeis University to the University of Michigan.
Bjoern Penning (front left) and Marcelle Soares-Santos (front right) moved from Brandeis University to the University of Michigan. Their groups moved with them, and in August they met with some of their graduate students for a socially distanced gathering. From left are Luke Korley and Michael Williams, who work with Penning, and Nora Sherman and Johnny Esteves, who work with Soares-Santos. Credit: Bjoern Penning

Tova Holmes has yet to set foot on the University of Tennessee campus where she is a new assistant professor of physics. She was in the middle of her job search in March when lockdowns were introduced. Job interviews went virtual.

This spring the pandemic and the attending economic downturn added a sense of urgency and uncertainty for many job seekers (see Physics Today Online, 23 April 2020). Job offers were rescinded or postponed, and negotiations were accelerated. Holmes says another university wanted to hire her “but couldn’t get approval on the money because of COVID-19.” Those lucky enough to land a position are often onboarding from afar—like Holmes, who for now is teaching from Switzerland, where she had been a postdoc at CERN—or relocating without first visiting.

Andrew Kubik, a physics postdoc at Texas A&M who is involved in the search for dark matter, says interviewing via Zoom makes it “almost impossible for the audience to ask questions during the job talk.” But he adds that his previous experience as a graduate student with online communication on the Compact Muon Solenoid experiment at CERN was good preparation for the virtual interviewing process.

Pietro Giampa, who studies physics beyond the standard model, says he tailored his job talk for remote delivery. For example, he says, he decided to avoid humorous comments that work in person but may not go over well online. And some people, like Nathaniel Roth, a computational astrophysicist, say they found talking online more comfortable than standing in front of a crowd. Still, with the virtual format, Roth says he missed out on getting to talk to more people about more research projects.

Tova Holmes.
Tova Holmes just started a position as assistant professor of physics at the University of Tennessee. Due to the pandemic she is teaching remotely. Credit: Lawrence Lee

Online interviews reduce travel time, cost, and carbon emissions. And they simplify organizational aspects for hosts and candidates. But both sides miss out on informal conversation. For applicants it’s hard to get a sense of lab and office space and a possibly never-visited city without actually being there. Someone from the University of Tennessee sent Holmes a video she had made driving around Knoxville. “That made a real difference,” Holmes says, adding that she also “spent an inordinate amount of time looking at Google Street View to get a sense of the city.”

“I do my best work when I connect both at the colleague and colleague-friend level,” says Kristin Beck, who on 14 September will start a new job as a quantum research scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. “Online, that was hard to judge. I’m expecting it will be great, but I still have some trepidation.”

Beck moved from the startup IonQ and initially looked at startup companies in the San Francisco Bay Area, but hiring was frozen for the foreseeable future due to COVID-19. She narrowed her search to Livermore, where Roth, her partner, had lined up a postdoc. They moved together across the country from Maryland.

Kubik and Giampa both ended up with offers to be research scientists at SNOLAB in Sudbury, Ontario. Giampa drove there from Vancouver, where he had been a postdoc at TRIUMF, Canada’s national particle accelerator center. The pandemic added stress to his job hunt because of the “canceled and delayed jobs. I didn’t know if I would be able to provide for my family.”

At press time, Kubik’s offer at SNOLAB was still in limbo. The lab’s director of research, Jeter Hall, says a firm offer requires an on-site visit, to make sure the candidate “feels comfortable working in the underground environment and is a good fit for the area.” As soon as Hall can cut through the government tape to arrange for Kubik to cross the US–Canada border, Kubik will go. His visit in Sudbury will likely start with a two-week quarantine.

Though the pandemic has led some employers to delay or cancel jobs, in other cases the specter of a vanishing opportunity has led to accelerated negotiations. For example, Philip Ilten interviewed in person early in the year for a position on the physics faculty at the University of Cincinnati. By the time he got an offer, the pandemic had set in, which made him worry about leaving his permanent position at the University of Birmingham in the UK for a less secure job. He told the search committee at Cincinnati that he could accept only if the job came with tenure. “They got wind of a hiring freeze that would come into effect, and they moved incredibly quickly,” says Ilten. “I got a position of assistant professor with tenure.”

Marcelle Soares-Santos and Bjoern Penning moved from tenure-track positions at Brandeis University to similar jobs at the University of Michigan this summer. She studies gravitational waves; his focus is on the search for dark matter. The couple had begun negotiations late last year. “We knew there was a danger that the offers could be rescinded,” says Soares-Santos. “The pandemic made everything uncertain. Will there be hiring freezes? Will this opportunity disappear? It put some pressure on us to make the decision more quickly.” Soares-Santos’s and Penning’s research groups, a total of nine graduate students and postdocs, moved with them.

For Holmes, the same sense of urgency in negotiations led to what she sees as a “major downside” to the outcome of her job search. She and her partner had pushed for a dual hire. But as soon as the university established a hiring freeze, “that came off the table.” For now, her partner is a Harvard University postdoc located at CERN.

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