Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Reader Query: Can I Change My Mind?

April 15. For those of us stateside, it's tax day. But for academics, this has traditionally been the deadline to accept or decline your offers to programs,[1] along with their attendant funding packages, if you're so fortunate.

But today, a comment from a reader on an old, old post raises an interesting question that I'm not sure how to answer,[2] so I thought I'd ask my readers -- if, indeed, any of you are reading. If today is hir deadline, chances are that the answers may come too late to do much good, but I'd like to hear what others think -- especially those of you who are at institutions with doctoral programs.

The query:

What are the unspoken rules about accepting a PhD program and backing out last minute? I got offered a position at a University which wasn't my first choice; I am afraid to walk away and I wanted to accept and let them know for sure closer to when the program starts. How bad would that be for my career?

As longtime readers know, my institution doesn't have a doctoral program, so I can only guess at the answer to this question. What I have below are off-the-cuff thoughts, not to be relied upon. Hopefully more experience readers will chime in.

(a) Would it be unheard-of? No. If you backed out, you wouldn't be the first person to do so. Things happen between April and September: Illnesses, financial catastrophes, family emergencies. And yes, some people simply get offers they can't refuse.

(b) Would it be bad for your career? That all depends on the faculty at the institution you're at. If they're grudge-holders with some influence in the field, then yes. If not, then probably not. And it may be that if and when the day arrives that you enter the job market, they will have forgotten all about some aspiring grad student they never met.

(c) Would it be inconsiderate? Well, maybe a little. Programs have limited places. If they're offering you one, there is likely some other applicant out there in the cold (or accepted by a less-preferred school when your suitor is their preference). Same goes double if your suitor has offered you a funding package. If you're in the sciences, advisers may have to make calculations way in advance as to how they're building their lab teams -- I don't know anything about that, personally, but it may be a more serious issue. If you back out down the road, it may be that the offer and/or funding can go to someone else. Or maybe not. But this brings me to a related point: The aspirant suggest that s/he might "accept and then let them know for sure closer to when the program starts." If I'm reading that right, that won't fly. You either accept or decline. There's no seat-saving in grad programs. And you'll also want to read the conditions of acceptance carefully: I've never seen contract-type language in an offer that specifies consequences for changing your mind, but if there's a financial offer in there then there just might be. If that's the case, then you want to tread more cautiously, because you may be signing something legally binding. Again, I've never seen such a thing, but it's been a long time.

(d) Is it a moot point? Perhaps. I'm trying to think of a situation where one school has their April deadline and another you haven't even heard from yet. There are only two: (1) you're wait-listed at Dream School and they've informed you of such; (2) the program you're waiting to hear from has a different notification calendar, so nobody's heard. If neither of those two obtains, then I think it's a fairly safe bet that the call isn't going to come, and there's no sense waiting for it.

Here's my thought: all academics should strive to be courteous and professionally considerate in all things. This includes not stringing along potential advisers and allies. On the other hand, all academics balance this with their own best interests, and sometimes this has professional consequences. Were it me, I'd accept the bird-in-the-hand offer, unless it were somewhere I really, really didn't want to be. And if Dream School came knocking later, I'd scrutinize that offer very closely and ask myself whether accepting it would be worth whatever consequences came my way -- remember that you don't have to accept an offer just because you have one, and the "safety" school may in fact turn out to be a better fit than the high-profile one you were aiming for.

That's my two cents. Again, pulled straight out of my nether regions, as is almost all my advice. So I defer to my six remaining readers: What would you tell a person in this situation?

[1] At least it was back in my day. But that day was a long, long time ago.

[2] Like that's ever stopped me.

Monday, March 31, 2014

On a Pilgrimage

Today is International Hug a Medievalist Day! It's also Cesar Chavez day in California. But perhaps more important to academics from my institution, it's the first day of spring break.

Whoo Hoo!!!  SPRING BREAK!!!

::ahem:: Sorry. I'm just kind of excited, because I'm almost 100% caught up on my grading for the second time in as many weeks, and I may be able to handle the 8 remaining papers during my extended layover (flight delay) here at Midcontinental Airport, and again on the approximately 2 1/2- hour flight from here.

From here to where, you ask? As loyal readers, you know that I've been known to spend time in several lovely locations in sunny, cosmopolitan Blargistan, go off on semi work-related jaunts to Italy, give papers in Rio, visit friends in Venice. Where should we expect such a jet-setting glamour-puss with a week and no obligations to spend her time?

I am going to Gradville.

Gradville is located in a non-coastal college town about an hour from the nearest international airport. Gradville has one main street and a lot of fiercely independent businesses. Gradville is an island of blue in a red sea. Gradville has Interesting Weather.

Why am I going to Gradville? The first reason is that a major anniversary of one of those Life Milestones happens to coincide with my spring break, so since this particular Milestone happened while I was resident in Gradville, it seems appropriate to commemorate it there.

Second: I haven't been back to see Gradville friends (of both Town and Gown types) in several years, so it seemed like time.

Third: Esteemed Former Advisor still lives in Gradville, but rumor has it that his health may be failing. So I very much want a chance to visit with him. We have a nice lunch planned for tomorrow, and I'm really looking forward to it.

So: perhaps an odd way to spend spring break, but for me, for this year, it seems just right. Pictures to follow.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Please, ma'am: May I have some more?

Today is my last teaching day before spring break. And while most of my classes this week have been replaced by conferences for upcoming papers, I did have one to get through: Western Civilization. A 100-level class, and today we were discussing El Cid. And let me tell you, I was dreading it. This is a really fun story, and I'd been selling it to them for a couple of weeks: Battles! Honor! Valor! Betrayal! Christians and Muslims! But walking into class today, I knew I had several things working against me:
  • These are not history majors. Most of them are taking this class as a General Education requirement, so they're only here because they have to be.
  • A medieval epic may be exciting to a medieval historian, but it's not everybody's cup of tea.
  • It's the last class before spring break.
So, you will appreciate how pleasantly surprised I was that the 60% or so of the class who actually participated did so with some real enthusiasm. But even more than that, there was this conversation after class:

"Yes, Susie? Did you have a question?"
"Well, it's kind of off-topic..."
"I love off-topic questions. Shoot."
"Well... I really liked this book! I read it all in one night. Like, I had to do laundry, and I was really mad because I had to put the book down! And so... I was wondering... Are there other books like this that you can recommend?"

That's right: My undergraduate, non-major, taking-this-required-course student just asked me for more medieval literature. Because it was so awesome.

Friday, March 21, 2014

How I Won the Week


What to say about this week? These days, it feels like a minor triumph just to keep ahead of my normal workload. But I've managed to do all that and take care of some backed-up e-mails and arrangements about upcoming conferences, plus three letters of recommendation, helping plan a shower for a friend, and getting off an application for a campus program that could really work in my favor if I get it. In other words, I'm keeping all of the balls in the air. This is an accomplishment for me. In addition to all that, I've been negotiating some class-three rapids in a way that had potential to embroil me in something I don't want to be embroiled in, and I think I managed to do so with a bit of grace and come out okay. All right, so there's one person who's likely not happy, but I'm secure in knowing that I acted ethically, so things will turn out all right in the end.

Extra bonus: Visit from a good friend and former colleague who moved back to her home country several years ago. She's a real dear, and it's always lovely to spend time with her.

Extra-extra bonus: By noon tomorrow, I should be fully caught up on my grading! I could push that to tonight, but I've decided that I've earned an extra yoga class tonight and an early bedtime.

Life is pretty darned good chez Notorieuse.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Another Surreal Moment

My conversation with the facilities guy today, regarding a problem with the aged heating/cooling unit in my office:

FG: Someone called in a problem with the wall unit?

ME: Yeah. The cooling isn't working. It was working yesterday, but today it's only blowing hot air, even when it's supposed to be cool.

FG: That's what I thought the call down to us said. But I checked with my boss, and he tells me that there isn't actually air conditioning in this building.

ME: Yes, there is. I mean, there isn't any right now. But it was working yesterday.

FG: No -- this building only has pipes for heating, and a fan that circulates the regular air. You just thought it was air conditioning.

ME: I've been in this office 10 years. There's always been cooling. Including yesterday.

FG: My boss and four other guys told me there wasn't.

ME: But look: there's this dial right here that has two settings: one for heating and one for cooling. There are occasional problems with either one, but generally, they both do what they say they do.

FG: Let me get on the phone to my boss. [calls, confirms, puts boss and other Guys In Room on speaker phone, who also insist that there is not now, nor has there ever been, air conditioning of any kind in FO-2]

ME: Hang on here a minute. [walking next door to office] Coleague, is your AC working?

Martha: It was yesterday. Let me check. [turns on AC] Yep.

FG: [sets thermometer to measure temperature from wall unit next door]. Huh. 70 degrees. So there is air conditioning in this building. Let me see if I can fix yours.


To be fair, the guy in my office was very nice and apologetic about it once he realized his error. And I was equally gracious, assuring him that I understood he was only working with the information he had. And my cooling now works. But still.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

You'll be stone dead in a moment!

From an e-mail from the leader of the History Students' Association, regarding an upcoming event that I agreed to give a quick 5-minute talk (on medieval food) for:

Dear Dr. Notorious,
Thank you for presenting tomorrow for the HSA event. Just as a reminder the event is from 4:00 pm to 5:30 pm in the conference room.  The first 30 minutes will be presentations by the students or HSA members, followed by presentations by our extinguished faculty, such as yourself.

There are so many jokes here that I don't know where to start, so I'll just let my witty commentariat supply the punchlines. But first and foremost, there's this:

Thursday, March 13, 2014

On being stood up

Undergraduates, take note:

If we have academic business to discuss -- a paper conference, say -- I will go out of my way and be up on campus for you on a day I'm normally not here. I don't have to be, and I don't expect that other faculty members ought to do the same -- this is my choice, after all. But because I have made that choice, I abjure any right to resent you for taking me up on the offer, or to loudly trumpet the sacrifices I'm making. If I voluntarily make an offer, I should follow through with a cheerful mein.


If you fail to make that appointment, even once, with no notice, just leaving me cooling my heels in my office when I could be elsewhere, you may expect that I will never again go out of my way for you. I will continue to be as helpful to you as you need me to be, but that help will come only during my regular office hours. Period.