Guest Post: On Making the Biggest Decision of Your Life

Apr 11 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

'Tis a joyous day, dear readers, as we're blessed with the good fortune of another guest post by the most excellent NatC, who you may recall put forth some most excellent wisdom on negotiating not long ago. Dr C is just coming back to earth after a  hugely successful run on the TT interview trail, and after fielding some exceptionally competitive offers from some exceptionally Classy Institutions (not to mention negotiating LIKE A BOSS), she's  finally signed on the proverbial dotted line (which in actuality was probably more like a solid line). It was without question a very very very stressful decision, and I've asked NatC to expound on the decision making process here in the illustrious pages of FTTT, for the benefit of all of you. Many thanks, NatC!

There’s a lot of really great advice out there about TT Job Search – from writing research plans to negotiating an offer. All of which has been extremely helpful – for my sanity if nothing else – through this process. But there’s one question that no-one’s discussed yet: how does anyone make any major choice between two perfectly viable options?

Decisions are always deeply personal. Sometimes there are factors which make a decision more straightforward– a significant other refuses to move to a state due to work (or perhaps due to the state’s increasingly draconian stance on women?); or one department has the only other person in the world that understands and can support your fancy new technique; or one…um… difficult senior faculty member.

Often there is one offer that is clearly better. But sometimes, based on the tangible things: salary, teaching requirements, lab space, start up package, there is no obvious choice. Add to that wildly different institutions/departments, and the deciding factors become the peripheral* things - like “fit”, personalities, size of the institution, administrative support in the department, and location of the institution.

How is it possible to evaluate and compare these kinds of intangible differences?  Especially since in many fields of research, there is a range of different kinds of departments in which I could work - medical school departments, college-based departments, and strikingly different kinds of departments within those categories. There are large institutions and smaller schools. Different locations: East coast versus West coast versus Midwest. City versus college town. There are different research focuses of the departments – I could be one of a cluster of sub-field specialists, or I could be the person in that department. It’s like choosing between beverages: a negroni, a manhattan, or a glass of wine for example. They are all perfectly valid options, and there are advantages and disadvantages to each of these, but they are all so different it’s almost impossible to compare them directly. Without the ability to see the future, it is impossible to know which is the best.

There is one more catch to this decision. These comparisons make one huge assumption - that all the offers come within the same time frame. With a window for interviews of more than 4 months, there is a pretty high likelihood of needing to make a decision about one job before interviews at another have happened. Making a decision without knowing all of the options – or even the likely range of options – is even harder.

My strategy for making major decisions has always been: (1) obsess, fuss over, and generally over-think details for a few weeks, (2) Make complex spreadsheets to get my thoughts clear, usually with a glass of wine, a negroni, or a manhattan at hand; (3) Re-visit institution; and (4) wake up one day feeling certain of what to do. (5) Never second-guessing the decision – especially at some point further down the line when things are (inevitably) less than perfect.

[Note: This strategy FAILS rather spectacularly when some options are still only possibilities when decisions have to be made. It can end up getting stuck in a loop between (1) and (2)].

Clearly, I’m not an expert at best-practices in decision making, so people – help me out! How do you make decisions like this? Or, for that matter any major decision about where to apply, what kind of institution, what kind of department?

How does one decide whether to take a risk and turn down an early offer when there are interviews (but no actual offers) lined up at more attractive places?

What are the things outside the startup package to consider when taking a tenure track job?

Is it helpful to focus on the imperfections of each place, and decide which you are more comfortable, rather than the things you like?


*Not to say these things aren’t important. Having worked in a department with poor admin support, I can assure you it matters. A lot.


11 responses so far

  • DrugMonkey says:

    #5 is an essential key to a happy life. With any major decision, not just the first TT appointment.

  • Anon2 says:

    I'm a big fan of the "flip a coin" method. Do everything you mention as well, but when it's time to make the decision, take the two options, assign one heads and the other tails, and commit yourself to obey the coin. If you flip and it lands on tails and you feel good about the "tails" option, great. If you get a pit in your stomach and want to flip again, you should go with the "heads" option. I think we tend to know what we want to do, but overthink things and get overwhelmed when making a big decision.

    • NatC says:

      I love this as a method for forced-choice decisions!

    • gerty-z says:

      this is essentially how I chose between my two favorite graduate programs! I find it very interesting to hear how folks go about making their decisions re: TT positions. I was in the (lucky) position that I got an offer from my most-favorite interview, so when the start-up was good it was an easy decision for me.

    • Back when I had to choose a post-doc, I was choosing between labs at Stanford and Duke. I was stressing about it a lot, and then, at one very low point, I heard Joe Dee Messina's song come on the radio "Heads California, Tails Carolina." And then I laughed.

  • postdoc mom says:

    I just turned down a TT offer to a school that was a good fit and near family... but the town is having some major economic issues right now that were impacting housing, schools and quality of life. Things seemed ok from the outside but driving around with the real estate agent and doing more detailed research really made me realize how bad the problems were. Hubby and I just didn't want to get "stuck" in a bad situation (especially with a kiddo) and decided to opt for another postdoc in a better location. For us, quality of life weighed heavily.

    • DrugMonkey says:

      Word. There's a Uni that has a substance-abuse focus in transition...normally it would be a GREAT place for a vibrant young scientist or two join and rebuild/flourish the program. Sadly, it's in Detroit and that town is pretty well screwed right now. Insanity to go there.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    I was fortunate to receive only a single TT offer; so did not have to decide which was the lesser of the two (or more) evils.

  • Bashir says:

    I don't know if there are any universal best practices. I've had many conversations about this, real and hypothetical. People have different priorities in life. You decision analysis should match your priorities. So I guess I'd say, know your priorities.

    I agree with Anon2 attitude. If you are comparing 2 options, there's a good chance a clear winner will emerge in your analysis and you will have a "gut feeling". Just go with it. Not decision will be 100% certain.

    I certainly would turn down a TT offer if the location were bad enough. How bad does it have to be or how would I know? Tough to say. For example, we have decided we are not moving to another country (save Canada).

  • Susan says:

    I think the hardest part of the decision was this: in so many posts and friends' stories, it all collapsed into a single decision in which all parameters were known. In my real life, I had to make a decision without knowing everything at that moment; a moving target.

    I had several "help, I'm lost" phone calls with the people who I think of as peer-mentors. I read so many blog posts I was dizzy. But nothing and no one could answer my question for me. In fact, I appreciated that no one tried to -- they just made sure I was asking all the right questions. Good friends!

    Further complicating things, I am emotionally slow. I felt rushed, and I was going to feel rushed no matter what, which at least I knew about myself. It may be a heavy self-dose of (5) above, but 3 months after making that decision, I am much happier about many aspects of it -- most of all, my feeling of 'fit'.

    • NatC says:

      Susan wrote: "In my real life, I had to make a decision without knowing everything at that moment; a moving target. "

      THIS! Exactly this!

      For me, a return visit really clarified my thoughts, it made me feel good about the gut-feeling-decision I was leaning towards anyway.
      (Well that and being completely sick of feeling like I was in limbo, so I gave myself a deadline.)

      As soon as the decision was made I felt great about everything. I hope this lasts after I start!

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