How does a professor change universities? Sometimes the convolutions and false starts can seem a little like a dance. This post describes the process that led from my current home institution to my next position.
On October 10th of 2013, I received a message from a state university to inquire about my interest in an executive recruitment for a high-level administration job. They wanted me to interview for a center director position at their university. I had achieved tenure at my home institution in 2011, becoming an associate professor, so I felt unsure that I was ready for a position of such responsibility. In November of 2013, though, I took a trip to the state university to present a seminar on my research to the faculty and to meet with the search committee. It was a good visit, and yet I must say I was not yet ready to jump. Being recruited in this way, though, woke me up. The fall of 2013 was when it first entered my mind that it might be time to leave the university I had joined in 2005 when I became an Assistant Professor.
On April 24th of 2014, an email from the Research Gate website (essentially a LinkedIn for scientists) arrived in my inbox with the subject “Professorship opportunities in Bioinformatics selected for you!” Two postings were listed, one at South Dakota State University and one in Stellenbosch, Western Cape, South Africa. I had never heard of Stellenbosch before, but I knew a bit about Cape Town from friends of mine who had performed service work in the area. The position offered full funding for five years, courtesy of the Gates Foundation. Google made it seem obvious that the campus in question was Stellenbosch University. I was delighted to discover that the campus was one that featured substantial research in mass spectrometry.
Would I really want to pull up stakes to move to another country altogether? I thought about this question a bit, and the answer I felt was, “I wouldn’t rule that out.” In the last half-year, I had realized I was ready for a significant change. I wanted to add more possible directions rather than ruling them out, untested. I tried clicking the apply button, but the link was broken. I was crestfallen for a moment, but then I decided to continue my pursuit. I wrote to the staff scientist for mass spectrometry at the campus Central Analytical Facilities, and I was very grateful that she forwarded my information to the principal investigator and HR firm handling the search. I was officially an applicant!
I should say that the following half-year saw several other applications from me to other posts. I thought seriously about an American university with a top-notch metabolomics program, another domestic campus for which I had produced a tutorial workshop, and even a university in a U.S. territory. I also spoke with a bioinformatics company that I’ve known for quite a while, and I gave some serious contemplation to a federal laboratory. Many of these discussions had produced real possibilities that could have worked out.
The position in South Africa, however, had really fired my imagination. On June 20, 2014, I interviewed with the search committee via Skype (I had already spoken with their HR contractor on a couple of occasions). I was in the library of a hostel in Washington, D.C. at the time, with pretty spotty Internet access. I was relieved that it held up for my hour-long conversation. The discussion was a positive one, although the meeting format gave very little time to each member of the committee. One week later, I learned that I was one of three candidates still in the running.
The next couple of months were excruciating. The university Appointments Committee met on the last day of July to discuss the three remaining candidates, but their decision was not announced until August 21st. I was crushed to learn that one of the other candidates had been chosen. In the end, Stellenbosch principally wanted support in the area of genome and transcriptome bioinformatics, since proteomics was only beginning to be deployed in tuberculosis research there.
I was not the right person for the high-throughput sequencing job, but Stellenbosch and I had made an impression on each other. Starting in September of 2014 and continuing to this week, we have worked to find the right mix of funding and responsibilities for my position. I forged many valuable relationships at Stellenbosch and other institutions during a week-long visit to South Africa in November, 2014. Critical support from the Medical Research Council of South Africa allowed Stellenbosch to commit to a five-year appointment rather than a shorter interval. On April 16, 2015, my appointment letter arrived.
Almost one year since our initial contact, I have accepted the appointment as professor in the Division of Molecular Biology and Human Genetics at the Stellenbosch University Faculty of Medicine. Over the coming weeks, I hope you will join me for the adventure of a lifetime as I move to another continent!