Part 2 of a series focused on my struggle deciding whether to leave my previous employer
- It forces you to keep your application materials (resume, cover letter) up-to-date and ensures these materials are ready to go when you see a truly amazing opportunity. It ensures you are prepared to seize opportunities.
- Part of keeping those materials up-to-date involves revisiting your past successes and impact. This process can remind you of your accomplishments and that you are a great employee...ie, it improves your self confidence.
Importantly, I leveraged people in my network for their advice and consul and reached out to others to learn more about open positions. As with any job search, I didn't hear back from some of the positions I applied to while others I made it through a first-round interview but no further. That is just part of the job application process. Fit is a tricky thing and you will often not be the right person with the right skillset for many roles. And some roles you think you might not be a good fit for or "ready" for might lead to interviews and offers. You can never really tell until you put yourself out there.
I also tried to keep perspective on this opportunity, though. It was a city many people were moving to during the COVID-19 pandemic and I knew housing costs would be high. Was it worth uprooting my life in the Raleigh area to make that move?
Then came the job offer...a number so below my expectations that I felt I needed to turn it down out of principle. I was shocked that they would offer someone with the responsibilities associated with this "director-level" position that salary.
How did I know that salary offer was low? Well, I had my own experience and knowledge of the salaries associated with roles at NC State University and the UNC System as a basis. But, I was also plugged into a community of professionals working in that area: the Graduate Career Consortium (GCC). The GCC collects benchmarking data on graduate-level career & professional development professionals and shares it as part of a report at the organization's annual conference. So, I know the median salary of a "director" level role in this field and expect the salary for a particular geography to reflect the cost of living in any salary offer.
I told the HR contact who extended the offer to me that it was much lower than I expected and proposed a new range I felt more comfortable with. While they came up on the salary in two additional rounds of negotiations, it still fell short of my expectations.
First, I would be inheriting a team that would have reported to me and that made me pretty nervous for a lot of reasons. Managing people is no easy task and I debated with myself whether I was ready to take on that type of role. In addition, the structure of the office included a faculty director and an administrative director, which was the role I applied to. It became clear to me that the faculty director was the individual really in charge. That wasn't necessarily a problem, though, as I felt the faculty director and I got along well during the interview. I think my nagging worry was that I would be stuck carrying out someone else's vision for the office.
That "prestigious" institution gave me a very strong initial offer, though,...so strong that I didn't see the need to counter it. I was most interested in negotiating some flexibility around when I would start and initial remote work options, which seemed like a possibility. I told them I need to think about it for a week.
It wasn't just about making more money. We had been asking for an open line on our team to be filled since January 2020 (this was now June 2021) and had received very little traction on that request. Our team recently had presented the position as an administrative support role as we all were feeling underwater with our administrative tasks. We presented the idea to the Dean and he seemed supportive of it. So, I figured now was the time as part of my counter offer to ask for the administrative position to be posted. In addition, I asked for a dedicated office budget (I hadn't had one previously) and the creation of a working group of leaders from across campus to assess support for postdocs and the office in an attempt to ultimately increase resources for myself and the office.
So, when we had our meeting between the Dean, my supervisor, and our unit's finance officer, I clearly articulated that I knew that the retention salary adjustment was possible, should the Dean be willing to sign-off. This request was met with some pushback that the unit "could only do" an amount smaller than the 20%. Since my offer in hand was a good bit higher than even my retention ask, I felt confident in standing my ground but in the moment did not want to respond in a rash way. Frankly, I found the initial counter offer around my retention salary insulting but instead of saying that, I simply reiterated that I felt I was doing good work and wanted to keep the momentum going with my office but would need the full retention offer and other contingencies to be able to stay and feel confident in that decision.
I left the Zoom call with the rest of the leadership planning to continue the conversation. From what I have heard, my supervisor really advocated for me and the work I was doing after I signed off the call. Despite what I and others on the team may have thought of her ability to lead (which, as I mentioned in last month's post, was probably due to a variety of environmental challenges), I have to say she was a strong advocate for me that day.
Long story short, I did receive the full retention offer (20% salary increase) plus most of my other asks: dedicated budget for the office, the creation of a working group to examine how to improve the postdoc experience and support for the office at NC State, and promises that the administrative position for our team would be posted. Given all of this, I was determined to try to make things work for me at NC State.
I conveyed this information to the "prestigious" institution who had offered me the administrative director role and told them that I felt I needed to continue in my role at NC State given their increased commitment to both me and my work there. They were disappointed but understood. I think I showed some character and loyalty in my exchange with them that could be helpful in future interactions with that group and employer. I offered to be of assistance on relevant topics, should they be interested in the future, and even shared a copy of my NC State Postdoc Climate Survey with them.
On the whole, I think I exited the situation as gracefully and amicably as possible.
Also, to be candid, I was half-way to my 5-year service requirement to vest in the state pension plan and that was a pretty larger incentive to stay. The state benefits are excellent in North Carolina and their pension plan and retirement benefits (including subsidized retiree health care insurance with 10 years of service) provide a large incentive to stay employed with them long-term. This plus the knowledge that I could get a job offer if needed (I had received two offers in the past few months) gave me the confidence that I was not sacrificing too much by staying. I would give myself time to see if my situation would improve before abandoning the progress I was making.
In fact, during the retention offer saga, I was also interviewing for another position which, in my eyes at the time was my dream role....
I had my on-site interview at my "dream" employer in August 2021 and I thought it went really well. I met with a lot of stakeholders at the institution from faculty to postdocs and thought I conveyed my past experience and ideas on making continued progress in postdoc support there effectively. To be frank, I expected to get a job offer from them. Wasn't this what I was building toward? I had done good work at NC State...I knew it and other potential employers could see it. It had led to prior job offers earlier that summer that, while not perfectly ideal for me, gave me confidence that I was a hot commodity. But it wasn't meant to be...
Over a month passed between my on-site visit to "dream" employer and I had received no update from them. I didn't take that as a good sign. My assumption was they were negotiating with their preferred candidate. Indeed, the recruiter reached out to let me know that while I was an awesome candidate, they had went with the other finalist given that person's experience as an international scholar. So, that was something I couldn't do anything about in terms of their employment preferences. In my role at NC State, I have certainly learned a lot about the challenges international scholars face and even wrote about it on this blog. But, I am not an international scholar and so don't personally have that lived experience. If that was really important to this employer, I respect their decision...even if I didn't like it. That experience took me down a peg, for sure. It stung and I wondered to myself would I find anything better either through staying at NC State or in the future? At the time, it was unclear but things have an interesting way of working out in the long run...
I pushed on with my Reimagining the Postdoc Experience working group and thought we had a good initial meeting to discuss compensation and benefits for postdocs at NC State. I also think leadership in our Office of Research and Innovation was taking notice. I was even encouraged to draft a strategic plan for postdoctoral affairs at the university. While this was occurring, our new team member was getting up to speed on learning the various postdoc HR processes, which I was pushed to document more extensively for her. I felt like that burden would soon be lifted from me and that the documentation would ensure postdoc HR would be able to operate without me.
Doing all this assuaged my gilt of having flirted with other employment opportunities. I believed I was leaving things better than I found them, which I think is about all one can ask of an employee. The big unknown lingering in the back of my mind was: was change possible at NC State?...would these efforts lead to increased institutional support and resources for me and the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs? I knew change would be slow and difficult and part of me thought I just needed to see some movement in the right direction to be convinced to stay. Another part of me thought things would never change. That is the thing about the future, it is hard to predict. So, making decisions about the future state of things in one's life is challenging if not impossible. We must act and decide with incomplete information and come to grips with our decision. Living in the what ifs or what could have beens is not healthy of productive...we must sometimes act and move forward. And I was approaching one of those pivotal moments in the fall of 2021.
Back in late 2019, I received an email from the head of Human Resources in the Research and Innovation Office at Virginia Tech inquiring about postdoc benefits and salaries at NC State. At the time, I was compiling my own list of peer institutions' postdoc benefits and happily shared not only my information but that from my peer institution sheet with the HR lead. That one act showed a lot...that I was collaborative and helpful and also knowledgeable about this area. It planted a seed of goodwill that led to other opportunities to provide value and demonstrate my expertise. I am generally a helpful person and so engaged in this information sharing with no sense of what I would personally get out of it.
I also generally want to see recognition and support for postdocs improve at a national an international level. So, when Virginia Tech reached out in late 2020 to ask me to speak over Zoom with a working group they had established on improving support for postdocs there, I happily said yes. I shared with those on the call some of the things we were doing at NC State and my general thoughts on what ideal postdoctoral support would look like. Many of the individuals I interacted with on that call would sit on the search committee for my current position. Obviously, it was difficult to predict this at the time but it goes to show you that anytime you have a professional interaction with others it can set the stage for future interactions where the stakes can be much higher. It pays to say yes to opportunities to engage with those in professional areas you are interested in as you never know where those engagements will lead.
Indeed, Virginia Tech did post their Postdoctoral Affairs Program Administrator position in Fall 2021 and I reached out to my HR contact there about it before applying. Again, this was the same individual who reached out to me about data over a year ago and now I was reaching out to her to learn more about the position, expected salary range, and more. After talking with her, I realized I had to apply for the Virginia Tech position despite trying to make it work at NC State. First off, they were compensating this individual at what I believed to be an appropriate level which was substantially higher than what I was making at NC State even with the 20% retention increase (wow was I underpaid my first few years there!). Second, the Virginia Tech position would involve helping to establish a new Office of Postdoctoral Affairs there. I saw it as an amazing opportunity to grow professionally and make an impact. I also knew there would be latitude to build the office with intention and that I would not be inheriting preconceived notions of what the office did (which was the case at NC State where I believe many saw OPA as a purely administrative unit). Long story short, I had a series of video and in-person interviews at Virginia Tech and was extended the job offer in late Fall. It was now decision time.
I also relied on my National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) and GCC network to serve as references for me during my job search, demonstrating the importance of developing professional relationships outside one's coworkers. My leadership within NPA and GCC and the willingness of these individuals to speak to it certainly were helpful in my job search. Reminder: you must build professional relationships before you need them. They often will come in handy later on.
Thanks, Dinuka Gunaratne, for pushing me to share my job search journey in this post!
I think I left on good terms. I hear from a colleague there now that my name is routinely mentioned around the office with an air of appreciation. It is good to know I made a difference there and hopefully began to change people's perceptions of what could be done to support postdoctoral scholars at NC State.
- Applying to positions, getting interviews, and hopefully an offer or two can give you the confidence to know you have skills and experience employers value, even if there are times when you think your current employer doesn't see or recognize them
- A strong network is crucial to your job search
- Colleagues from the NPA and GCC served as key references for me
- Colleagues made referrals to recruiters and hiring managers on my behalf
- Be of value, expecting nothing in return. It can buy you goodwill in the future.
- As mentioned, I provided value and engaged with Virginia Tech years before taking this position. Doing this made me more of a "known quantity" with them, which probably helped my chances when interviewing for this job.
- Know your worth
- I think I undersold myself early in the job search when asked my desired salary range. As I become more confident during the job search process, I realized I could and should ask for more. I ultimately got it.
- Don't get caught up in the moment...carefully weigh the pros and cons of a new role.
- It would have been easy to focus on the role at the "prestigious" institution as some sort of status symbol or the fun-in-the-sun lifestyle of the other role I was offered in the summer of 2021. However, carefully considering whether those roles truly aligned with my career goals and needs allowed me to decline each. Eventually, I found a role more in alignment with my strengths and other priorities (proximity to family, autonomy, ability to build something). If you can, consider waiting for the "right" opportunity to materialize and try not to jump at the first offer, unless you feel pretty confident it is the right role and environment for you.
- Give real effort to try to make it work with your current employer
- It is so easy to bolt when things aren't working out. However, if you don't articulate your challenges and then make a concerted effort to improve things, if only for the rest of your team or next person in the role, are you showing true commitment to your craft? People will respect you more for not giving up right away and doing your best to improve the situation...it takes character to do that.
- Know when to leave
- At some point, though, you must objectively assess your options and make difficult decisions. It is never easy to leave a place and move into a new role, with all its unknowns. Talking it out with family, friends, and trusted mentors and colleagues can help.
- Things can work out, in the end.
- While I didn't take the role at the "prestigious" institution or land my perceived "dream job", I found something better, something I was not expecting.
I also learned during my interview process that Virginia Tech postdocs have access to the same employee benefits as faculty and staff, something I can feel good about as I promote the value of postdoctoral training here.
In addition, the pay and benefits here are great, I am able to focus more on the things I love (building programs, interacting with postdocs, and helping faculty recruit and support postdocs), and am close to family and friends in North Carolina and Tennessee. It would have been impossible to imagine in early 2021 this is where I would be now and, little did I know, I may have been laying the groundwork for my own success by answering that initial email about postdoc benefits and salary from Virginia Tech in 2020. I engaged with them in 2020 because I wanted to be helpful and assist them in thinking about what effective support of their postdoctoral population could look like. Now, I am working toward that goal with them while also growing as a leader and strategic thinker.
I hope to build a positive legacy for both myself and postdoctoral support here at Virginia Tech in the years to come. Our aspirations and goals are ambitious, in a good way. We are striving towards building something impactful and innovative for our postdoctoral population, including the recent launch of a Presidential Postdoctoral Fellowship program this Spring.
Stay tuned for additional exciting announcements and developments in the months ahead!
In closing, I truly believe that if you put yourself out there (ie, apply for positions you think may be a stretch for you), volunteer for causes you care about, build your credibility and network (which I did through leadership roles and involvement with NPA and GCC), and know what you are looking for in a role (turning down good but not great opportunities), you can land at a place that meets most if not nearly all of your needs.
It might take a year or it might take longer but all good things, as they say, are worth the wait.
- The Journey from Postdoc to Working in Postdoctoral Affairs
- What to Do When the First Job Offer Comes Your Way (legacy NIH BEST blog piece)
- From First Job, Post-Postdoc to Growing as a Professional: Daring to Lead and Leave