Over the hump

It's been a couple weeks of seesawing emotions since the last time I updated, with some particularly bad days and some not-so-bad days.

The most important thing that's been going on is the preparation for the ERC proposal, the enormous EU funding grant that I was vacillating about applying for last time. I went for it in the end. Maybe this was a given - the past few years have shown pretty clearly that my ambition often wins out over most other areas of my life. Still, I was pretty close to deciding not to bother: I had been told I had to do some online training to submit grants this year, and said online training involved installing a VPN, logging into some server, logging into some other server and a bunch of other nonsense I didn't really have time for, since the ERC deadline was just one of many I was facing down this month. However, about a week before the deadline the university grant office contacted me unprompted, offering to handle the budget arrangements themselves and exempt me from the training to make sure I was able to submit for the ERC again.

I decided I couldn't really refuse that offer, although to be honest it was kind of a mixed blessing. My mood was already in the pits for various reasons. I had been operating on 120% capacity for weeks trying to finish the hoped-for Nature paper, which has now been thrown into doubt when the latest observations we got ended up quite different from what I predicted, meaning that the effort is likely to drag on even longer and may not result in the same high-profile result after all. I had many other proposals due the same week, master's students clamboring for attention... etc., and here was another gigantic task to distract me from everything else, run me ragged, all to try to win an award that I've failed to win twice in a row already and even if I did win this year, would actually have the effect of moving me further from my personal goals!

The compromise I made with myself initially was to go ahead and put in the proposal, but put the absolute minimal effort into it by essentially copy/pasting my proposal from last year. This would at least satisfy the university and department that I had "tried" (given that I very nearly won the the grant last year, it would be conspicuous if I simply gave it a pass this year). So rather than actually work on the proposal (or in fact anything) on last Thursday as I'd planned, I blew off most of the day wasting time on the internet and did the same for most of Friday as well.

This was actually probably what I needed, since by the time Saturday afternoon rolled around I was in a much improved mood, and reconsidering my "strategy". I took a look at last year's proposal and realized that it was getting quite out of date - in fact it was really a proposal from January 2019, resubmitted in 2020 with minimal changes (that was the year I came down with con crud - COVID? - right before the deadline). Too much has changed to make chucking it in for a third with minimal edits really feasible, particularly given that it'll be reviewed by the same committee that rejected my 2019 application. I then finally looked at my 2020 feedback and was pleasantly suprised (and a bit flattered) that it was actually filled with glowing praise, for the research and also for me personally, with phrases like "first-rate scientist" and "superhuman publication record", etc. Also, even though I was unsuccessful, I did only barely miss the cut - despite what in retrospect (after reading the rest of the feedback) were some obvious opportunities for improvement.

So at that point (late Saturday night, less than 72 hours before the deadline) I decided to just blitz it, and devote every waking minute until the deadline making a genuine effort to improve the thing as much as possible. I stayed up until 6:30am on Monday morning, got a few hours of sleep, stayed up similarly late on Tuesday morning, got a few more hours of sleep, and then sent the thing in on Tuesday afternoon. Not the most healthy or professional way to assemble a proposal, but in fact every successful funding proposal I've ever written has been composed under similar circumstances. I didn't have time to change everything that I would have liked - but in the end I'm pretty happy with it, and it certainly seems leaps and bounds ahead of what I put in last year.

We'll see how it goes, I guess. The ultimate dilemma about whether I even want the grant - which would keep me in the UK until 2027, by which time I'll be 45 years old - is still very real. Still, one upside of this year's grant cycle being delayed is that the results will come out on a similar timescale as the results of the regular faculty job cycle. If I don't get a US position this would be a potential fallback option (other than simply leaving the field like I keep threatening). And if I did somehow manage to get both a job offer and the ERC grant, I might be able to leverage the grant offer in negotiations or even (in the best of all worlds) finagle some sort of joint appointment which would let me take the grant here but not feel obligated to spend all my time on this side of the Atlantic.

That's probably dreaming (past experience has led me to expect crushing disappointment), but we'll see where things go.

Anyway, with that - and several other proposal deadlines - done, the pressure level has finally dropped a bit. Unfortunately the pressures on my time are still huge: the hoped-for Nature paper remains unfinished; a whole raft of grant reviews, referee reports, and the like that I agreed to do urgently need to be done after being almost wholly neglected for the past month. However, these are all things that I can delay if needed and the repercussions of being late are minimal - so if I need to take an hour or a day off to recover my mental health I can do so without feeling it's sabotaging my future.

In the meantime, things continue to move in the right direction in the world more broadly. I still don't have a vaccine appointment (ugh) and in fact it will probably be yet another month: as feared, almost all the current supply is going to second-doses. However, despite the UK's reopening the case rates are continuing to fall and have now gone back to August levels (and are the lowest anywhere in Europe), suggesting that herd immunity is kicking in. If the trend continues then I might be able to consider meeting up with people in other cities, doing some domestic travel, and other minor but desparately-needed things in the near future even before I manage to score the coveted appointment. Again, we will see.

For now, I am trying to enjoy what I can. Outdoor pubs and dining have opened, and as businesses have had a full 3 months to prepare the city is filled with outdoor tables and impromptu patios, making for a quite cheerful vibe. The weather has also started to cooperate marvelously, with calm and clear skies and warm temperatures. I do feel a bit sad that I don't have anyone locally I can enjoy these things with, but at least I can have lunch or dinner outside the house on my own now for some variety, and hope that better things will soon follow.

End of Lockdown 3

Tomorrow is the last day of the latest and longest UK lockdown, which began just after New Year's and has been in place ever since. In most ways this is insignificant for me - we've seen many lockdowns come and go by this point, here and elsewhere in the world, and I'm not planning on rushing to be the first to return to the mall or the pub (in any case, for the latter they're permitting outdoor service only and the weather isn't looking so great for next week.) In a practical sense, the impact might actually be more annoying than anything else - traffic on the noisy road by my apartment will pick up again, and the takeaway coffee and lunch spots in the big shopping center near where I live will go from being practically-empty to being crowded with shoppers. At the same time, there is reason to think that this may really bring an end to this period of severe restrictions for good, and we are crossing a landmark that really is meaningful and permanent. So when the shoppers and pubgoers return to the streets, the hope is that this will bring a sense of cheer rather than dread.

This is of course mainly because of the vaccine, uptake of which has now reached 60% of the population, more than in any other large country. Unfortunately, I am still waiting my turn - even as my social media feeds continue to be deluged with updates from Americans of all ages getting it. The national "queue" is in principle not that far away from reaching me: everyone above age 50 or with clinical vulnearabilities has been invited already. However, the rapid progress has in a large part been brought about by a policy of delaying people's second doses by 3 months intead of the usual one, and the bill for that is now coming due: most of the supply now is going to second doses, and that's going to remain the case for another three months. So mathematially when my number comes up is almost completely dependent on whether the supply is increasing or not, and at the moment it's not.

Frustratingly, I almost did have an opportunity to beat the queue last week, although in the end I missed it. Last Wednesday another faculty member sent an e-mail to the department saying that a local mosque was offering first-come-first-served, no-requirements vaccinations all day. I couldn't find any information on the web about it, although my suspicion is that this was an attempt to address "vaccine hesitancy" in minority/underpriveleged groups (by opening centers with super-lax requirement in specific places) without formally discriminating (while they don't advertise to avoid being deluged by people outside the target demographic, anyone who finds out about it can show up).
In any case, I immediately dropped what I was doing and walked over: it was a 45-minute walk but the weather was unseasonably warm last week and it would be good for exercise. Indeed, there were big signs advertising it as an NHS vaccination center and there were plenty of eager customers of all ages lined up outside. In fact, way too many eager customers: a queue of hundreds of people stretched literally around the entire block. The queue didn't appear to be moving and there was an online talk later in the day that I wanted to catch - so after pondering things over for a few minutes I turned around and went home, fearing that I'd be spending hours in line only for the supply to run out by the time I got to the front. Of course I quickly was kicking myself: a few hours' wait would have been worth it many times over to be able to travel and visit people weeks or months earlier than otherwise. There is some possibility they may run the event again, giving me another chance to get in "early", but as I have no way of knowing what days it's going on, I'd have to spend a lot of time walking across town in order to find out.

Aside from that, the past few weeks have mostly just brought work work work and more work. As usual. Things have gotten busy again even without the added burden of the fast-track paper I'm trying to write: last week we had the VLT deadline, this week the HST deadline, and the next few weeks bring a slew of other proposal deadlines. This past week I barely even managed to get outside my apartment for a walk. I plug away but continue to feel frustrated and undervalued.

One particular dilemma that is coming up is that among the many deadlines this month is the ERC funding grant, which I just missed last year. It would be logical to try again, but given how overworked I feel and given how unenthused I am about signing up for another 5+ years in the UK, it's more than a bit tempting to just drop the thing and just double down on papers and such in the hope of landing a position somewhere I actually really want to live this fall. But I'm also wary of missing opportunities for the future just in case things do take a turn for the better and the profoundly negative attitude that has consumed me over the past six months ends up being mostly pandemic malaise. Sigh. Anyway, one way or another I hope to be over this latest explosion of excessive business within a few more weeks.

Lockdown continues

Things plod along. The past week has had some (modest) highs as well as some lows.

The lows are pretty much always the same, usually late in the evening where I make the mistake of not working for a while and thus end up getting distracted by the dissatisfactory state of my life, and the reality that while there is a light at the end of the tunnel of this long miserable ordeal, it's a ways off yet.

The latest "miffage" on that count comes from watching as a huge fraction of people I know in the US (younger, older, same age, whatever) manage to get in for their vaccines on the basis of some tenuous medical condition or connection to their line of work, while over here where there is basically no way to beat the system and I simply have to wait. With predictions of an April supply crunch, right now it's looking like May/June for dose 1 and July/August for dose 2 (probably of the less-effective Oxford/AZ vaccine), which might salvage some of the summer - but it still feels like an awfully long time to wait, and leaves a pretty short window to take advantage of it: I get inevitably extremely busy in September with the start of teaching. (At least I'm not elsewhere in Europe, where the situation is even worse.)

And in the meantime things are just kind of a slog. March has not been particularly high stress and the extreme hours I continue to work are basically self-imposed, but April presents a slew of deadlines, and as the last few years have led to a growing feeling that hard work and success are no longer connected in my life it's all just a bit frustrating.

There have been a few high points, though. One was that I actually managed to get in a little bit of convention-style fursuiting. Online conventions during the pandemic have mostly been a bust (at least for me) but the Nordic Fuzzcon organizers were serious about putting together a fully-fledged "at home" fursuit charade event, and I got to be one of the fursuit performers. A full rehearsal was held two weeks ago and the main event was last weekend, and went really well - with minimal technical hiccups and a good two hours on camera acting out silly phrases for an audience of hundreds(?). Not as fun as fursuiting at a real con by a long shot, but still one of the highlights of this whole year.

More recently, this week I was able to feel good about myself for helping to coordinate a birthday event. Back when lockdown started and all UK furmeets were cancelled, one of the Leeds furmeet organizers took it upon himself to set up a weekly social games evening every Saturday night (and more recently, weekly movie and music nights) to take its place. I managed to get added to this group somewhat by accident during online Confuzzled, way back in May of last year (after I tried and failed to coordinate a group to participate in one of that con's social events). I've been doing that every week since, and having a regularly scheduled social-ish night has been hugely beneficial for my own sanity - plus, has finally given me some sort of entry into the UK furry social scene which until then I still had never really cracked.

Anyway, this week was the combined first anniversary of everything being forced lockdown and also the birthday of the primary organizer (who has been particularly welcoming to me in particular, despite coming it not knowing most of the people involved), and in the lead-up he'd been posting various remarks about not looking forward to it, sometimes being burdened by all the social responsibilities he'd taken on, etc. I figured it would be nice to organize something around this, so I got in touch with a few others in the group, one of whom (being close friends with the organizer) immediately sent me a half-dozen links to potential gifts, and I took it upon myself to organize a collection among handful of the other regulars, figure out the address, and place the main order. The gifts were extremely well-recieved and in the end I felt pretty good about that.

And, that's about where things are. The weather has warmed up a little but otherwise has remained wintry in character, with clouds and wind, and as I've once again gotten sick of walking around my immediate neighborhood this has led me to probably not be getting out as much as I ought to. Still, spring is coming, and maybe in a few more weeks things will really get better.


The low-pressure mid-spring period I referred to last time looks likely to be short-lived indeed. The immediate cause is that I've publicaly announced to my collaboration that I'm going to try to pump out a major paper over the next few weeks and I'm going to aim for the top and see if I can get it into Nature (a general-interest science journal that frankly doesn't have a great reputation among astronomers but is seen as golden by university administrators and guarantees a massive international PR megaphone). To pull this off I'm probably going to have to hyper-focus over the next month or so, so any notion of kicking back and playing videogames or watching movies or nightly VRChat or whatever is out the window, again: it's back to 100-hour work weeks for a while.

The immediate motivation for this is simply that I can; these opportunities don't present themselves routinely and when they do it's worth running with. But there are also plenty of strategic considerations on my mind, as well. To whit: life is super boring right now, but has the prospect of getting a lot better in various ways come summer and autumn. So I'm going to be sacrifing my free time now in the hope of giving my self some breathing room later. I've submitted one paper this year already, and I figure if I can get a high-profile second paper out by April, followed by third one in May/June, I can spend July/August on a long-overdue semi-vacation without setting myself behind in advance of what will likely be a super-important job-search season this fall.

Of course, this is what I've already been doing since basically May of last year: working my tail off over the summer to push out a huge paper, over the fall to keep my research going despite a large retool of my course for online teaching, and during January/February to finish a paper and serve on a major review panel. Probably I've worked 80+ hours every single week from May until now except around Christmas. And for all that - I didn't get so much as a long-list phone interview for the jobs I applied for this time.

However - last year the job situation was miserable all around, but there are reasons to think that this year will be the opposite. Thanks to the US COVID relief bill and general economic recovery, there ought to be lots of stateside R1-level hires and between that and all the deferred faculty searches that didn't go forward in 2020, this ought to be my best shot in ages at righting at least some of the things that have gone terribly wrong in my life. And maybe I could get something good even without a paper frenzy this spring if I get lucky enough, but I can't count on that. So: for now I'm doubling down. If I finally burn myself out by June, frankly, so be it - I'll eff off for two months on a vacation somewhere. And if in spite of all this I still can't get a job I'm happy with, then at least that will be clarifying by demonstrating that the astrophysics faculty hiring process has become well and truly screwed and it'll be time to find something else to do with my life in my 40's and beyond.


This update starts with (yet) more bad job news: I was rejected (again) without making the shortlist (again) from the job I applied for at Northwestern. With that, another year on the job market is over, this time without getting so much as an interview.

In spite of that, this has generally been a good week. I had low hopes for this academic cycle anyway (the number of advertised positions is half of normal or less). I'm also going to try not to take things too personally. I got a somewhat encouraging personal e-mail directly from the director of Carnegie suggesting that I was out of contention only because their search was limited to junior candidates but stating that they were aiming to hire a more senior position in my area (!) in the next 1-2 years. Northwestern's rejection was a crappy form letter, although their short-list was public and it seems that in spite of what I had assumed, they actually aren't looking to hire in my area at all (nobody on the short list works in my subfield).

So I'm going to try not to take things too personally. There are actually a couple of good career indicators. For one, I got an e-mail from the head of the department at Warwick pointing out that they have a position open (due March 15) and wanting to chat about it. I said OK, and he tried to sell me on applying moving there. I don't think I will bother - while there are some pluses (they are rapidly expanding into my field so it'll likely be a quite engaging/dynamic place) the move would be mostly lateral in an academic sense, and it would be purly negative from a personal standpoint. All my complaints about my life would remain, but I'd probably have to drive to work, I would be further from the (limited) circle of friends I have built up here, and probably most importantely I'd again be off the market for any good opportunities in the US or Canada (or elsewhere?) that might crop up over the next three years.

A couple of other encouraging items. February is PhD interview month; the admissions committee narrows down the applicants to a short list and invites them to interview. This year everything happened virtually, which probably worked to my advantage - normally this thing happens right around NFC and I'm not even in town for it, but this year all staff offering projects were able to briefly plug their work to the students. Most of the other staff gave stuffy boring presentations filled with boring bullet points or plots that a pre-PhD student probably couldn't understand; mine started off with silly memes and was filled with excitement. Anyway, whether it was because of that or not, by the time all was said and done (interviews completed and offers made) fully four students had said I was their first choice of person to work with. Not that this will make much of a difference to my career either way, but I'll take whatever good signals I can get. In addition to that, I finally got around to posting the paper I submitted a few weeks ago to the preprint server, and later in the day got a call from a journalist who wanted to do an hour-long interview about it for a magazine article - so I might get some favorable press in the coming days. We'll see.

Aside from all that, though, what was really notable about this week was that for the first time in months (the week around Christmas excepted) it was basically free of deadlines or distractions. No 6-hour panel reviews, no classes to teach or recordings to make, no transients to drop everything and chance and reduce data for, no talks to write and give. I could just plug along at my research, attend my usual meetings, and generally just... do what needed to be done, without feeling like things would collapse if I didn't finish something urgently. I was able to (mostly) relax in the evenings and not feel too guilty about it.

This will be short-lived, of course, there are some major proposal deadlines and the like coming up at the end of the month and in April. All things told, though, I can now look forward to a part of the year in which the pressure valve declines at least a bit: historically March through may are the quietest months for me, due to my fall-heavy teaching schedule. Last year, of course, this period was completely consumed by the first wave of the pandemic (which was probably not a good thing, since the lack of distractions allowed me to focus in on the bad news unrelentingly). This year... well, it's still a pandemic, but (hopefully) now the very end of one: everything is going in the right direction.

Approaching the one-year anniversary of when things really went off the rails is a bit weird just on its own. The weather, the light, and simply the calendar all bring back to mind those very strange and eventful days, where in a span of a week it went from "something on the back of everyone's mind" to "JFC this is going to kill millions of people, wreck the economy, and ruin our social lives for months or longer"; everything was uncertain and it was impossible to feel safe. But of course everything is different now - most importantly with the vaccine roll-out but also now that the government is (for once) erring on the side of conservatism rather than blithely ignoring the situation and hoping for the best. Infection rates are down to August levels and in a few more weeks will be down to summer levels. The main outstanding question is when my turn for the vaccine will come up (it will be at least a month), but my general feeling now is that it's just a matter of holding out for another couple months and by the time summer rolls around, things will really and truly be back to "normal" at least in this part of the world. In the meantime, at least the lengthening days and warmer temperatures give some additional reason for cheer.

Space Telescope Business

After finishing up the grading for my fall course, I sort of had the notion in my mind that the rest of the spring would be relatively relaxed. During the spring semester I teach only 1/5 of a course: and while my segment of the course does come in February, it's only the equivalent of two weeks of what I do all semester for my stats course in the fall. Normally a big grant deadline lines at the star of the month, but that was suspended this year due to the COVID crisis. So I'd been hoping that this month would more or less allow me to regain a semblance of work/life balance.

As these predictions often are, this ended up being quite wrong. The main reason is that I volunteered to serve on the panel that evaluates the proposals on JWST, NASA's multi-multi-billion dollar replacement for Hubble. As I mentioned already, when I signed up for this I was hoping I'd get a free trip out of it; instead it was a huge remote-work time sink with of course no compensation whatsoever.

It was still an interesting exercise. JWST is a brand new mission representing a huge leap in capabilities in all sorts of areas, and after reading through all the observing proposals it's hard not to get excited about the new discoveries that are soon going to happen (assuming all goes well with the launch). On the other hand, fundamentally the goal of the committee is to read all the proposals and then reject 85% of them in favor of a select view - so it's a fairly big deal, and not something one wants to get "wrong". Much of the science was outside my immediate area and I was a bit worried on a first pass that it would be difficult to make these choices without investing an inordinate amount of time and energy into micro-analyzing each one. Fortunately it turned out that everyone else on the committee was quite competent and some individuals were extremely thorough in their analysis of every proposal, and mostly shared my consensus picture of each one.

It was still a lot of time; the panel meetings alone were six hours a day, three days in a row - plus a fourth day to write consensus reports and plenty of time in between to prepare for the discussions. But at least at the end I feel we did a decent job and my own contributions were significant.

Aside from that, the past weeks have also been extremely busy due to all the running around over the discovery I made a couple weeks ago that led to triggering observation on NASA's other flagship space telescope, Hubble. My target rapidly began to fade after I had confirmed that this was our target for the year and I spent many days paw-wringing and aggressively analyzing every shred of new data from ground-based telescopes about whether we'd actually get on it in time for useful observations, but in the end the data was taken and it's actually quite impressive, so hopefully there'll be some interesting science that comes out of that.

And that's about where things are. As un-relaxed as February was, looking forward to March, there are good reasons to think that this might really finally be a time to get part of my life back. Or not: last summer offered a similar opportunity, which I instead chose to pour into writing a major paper and not take so much as a single day of vacation. The same dilemma faces me now: continue to devote practically every waking moment to research in the hope of it leading to getting a better position or at least a major grant award... or give up on that race for now and allow myself to sit back a bit? Alas, I can already see myself gravitating to the first option... but, at least I have the choice.

Try again (lots of faculty job drama)

Aside from all the things I mentioned last time, there was one more big task on my agenda for the weekend: another job application.

I had figured that the application I submitted in December would be the one and only of the season, since the job-posting phase of the academic cycle is usually pretty much over by that point in the calendar. However, some surprising news triggered an unexpected but quite promising job posting this month, leading to a whole cascade of weird interactions. Explaining this requires diving deep into the faculty gossip mill, and I should be a little careful about doing so on a public (if pseudonymous) journal, but I feel obligated to do it anyway just because the whole history of this thing so perfectly encapsulates the experiences I've had on the US faculty market. So, buckle up!

A few years ago Northwestern University decided that they wanted to invest big time in observational astronomy (someone rich must have dropped truckloads of cash on them). They specifically decided to put most of it into building up a big group in supernova and transient astronomy (i.e., my research area) plus buying into some major telescope projects to provide resources and launching a fancy postdoctoral fellowship program. Unfortunately for me, the faculty hires happened mostly right after I took the job here - the very first hire in the group (which went to a theorist) was a job I applied for in the 2016 cycle, but after that the remaining hires were when I was off the market. Still, I watched them pretty closely.

They hired two people in the 2017 cycle. Hire #1 was a junior postdoc (3 years younger than me) who worked in almost the exact same area as me, and whom I knew quite well and have worked with on and off. She's a very nice person, and during many of our interactions at conferences and elsewhere she told me how much she is impressed my work. So I was happy for her when she got the job - but my competitive side was also a bit miffed to see someone with the same research interests land a position so superior than mine at a much earlier relative career point. There were no hard feelings in the slightest, though, especially when she even went as far as including me on some of her proposals as an outside expert as she learned to use some of the telescopes I previously had access to.

Hire #2 also worked in the same area as me. She was a bit more senior - the same career stage as me. There's no question she deserved it; she's extremely hard working and motivated and productive (her CV reads almost exactly like mine, at least with regards to the numbers: for example her h-index is 59, mine is 60). Still, I again felt a bit jealous - not only was it obviously a better position, but she was actually poached from another R1 university that had also offered her a job (I believe she deferred it from the previous year), and as part of that, she got all sorts of startup funding and such out of the bargain on top of the department's complement of resources.

They made a third hire in transient astronomy last year. Before I get to that, a brief aside. Every PhD program has "that student": the one who dresses inappropriately, works bonkers hours, disappears on vacation for a month without telling their supervisor, and has seemingly been around for generations because they just can't seem to finish their thesis year after year. "That student" on my graduate program at Berkeley was an observational supernova astronomer - very smart, but could never seem to finish projects or write papers (or his thesis). Still, I got along well with him - he had some of the same social awkwardness I did, liked the outdoors, and given his complete disinterest in relationships I'd long figured (although never asked) that he must be asexual, or maybe closeted gay. He finally finished his PhD a few months before I did (11 years after he started...) and lucked out with an off-cycle postdoc hire at Harvard that came through when the preferred candidate pulled out at the last minute. He was somewhat more scientifically productive as a postdoc than as a student, but unsurprisingly he had his own struggles on the faculty market. After many unsuccessful years of deparately applying everywhere he finally got an offer at an obscure university in Appalachian Ohio with a heavy teaching load. So while I never really talked to him about it, and while his difficulties had an easy to identify source (poor reputation as a student), I always felt that he was sort of a kindred spirit at least in terms of his general experiences.

Anyway, flash forward to mid-2020. Turns out I had pegged him quite incorrectly, because gossip started floating around that he was engaged... to none other than the Northwestern's Hire #2! Furthermore... it also quickly emerged that he had just been offered a faculty position at Northwestern himself (that mysteriously had never been advertised anywhere that I or anyone else had seen)! Considering he's only published one paper since starting his faculty career in 2016, it is hard to see this as anything else other than nepotism. Still, whatever, ultimately I was happy for him.

So, what does this have to do with me for this year? Well, it turns out that despite having just managed to secure a cushy faculty position for her fiancee, Hire #2 was just poached again: this time by none other than Berkeley, my own PhD program. Now, to Berkeley's credit, they are only offering some sort of temporary position to her trailing spouse (I don't think the Berkeley faculty could stomach their infamously lazy 11-th year student returning as a faculty colleague), but apparently the prospect of moving back to the Bay was strong enough that he's giving up his tenure-track position and they're moving out together.

Hence, there's a job opening at this super-rich university in exactly my area of research and I'm applying for it.

However, there is yet more to this little saga. When I heard that Prof #2 was moving to Berkeley, I coudn't believe it - first, because of the cushy spousal arrangement she'd secured at Northwestern; second, because back in 2019 my own PhD advisor at Berkeley gave a tepid reply when I asked about whether they were considering hiring in my area. Prof #2's research interests and mine have converged further over the past few years and we basically work on exactly the same things (we wrote competing papers in 2018 on the exact same event). We also still have almost identical publication histories (number of papers, citations, h-index, etc.), are the same age, etc. - though she has a team of postdocs to help her and I had only a single PhD student. She gets headhunted by Berkeley, one of the top schools anywhere; I (for now) languish at a small obscure university abroad, with my best hope to take up a job she is leaving behind (I was rejected from the Carnegie position). This also probably closes off my long-term aspiration to return to the SF Bay as an academic, since there will definitely be no more hires in this area either at Berkeley or Santa Cruz. More jealousy.

Publications and such aren't everything. But as I feel I've been succeeding at basically every metric I can think of, it would be good to know what the heck I've doing wrong or at least form a coherent picture of what explains the way things have shaken out.

Shall I turn to my former PhD advisor for advice? Well, not likely. First, there was that fishy business when I talked with him a year ago about the Berkeley job. But much worse, when I asked him a couple weeks back if he could write a letter on my behalf for the new Northwestern job that opened up, he said no. Or more accurately, he said he was writing a letter for someone else and it would be "strategically unwise" for me to ask him to write for me too. Translation: he would prefer someone else to get that job instead of me, and feels sufficiently strongly about it to tell me so nearly outright. I was kind of shocked (this, coming from the person for whom I probably did more than anyone to ensure he got tenure by being his only student for many years). Perhaps I shouldn't have been - interactions with him have frankly been weird for years now, but in any case with the only real communications with him being cryptic expressions of non-support it's hard to treat him as a confidant at this point. I probably won't ask him for letters anymore.

So who else to talk to? Well, there is good old Professor K - my Caltech supervisor (and my PhD advisor's PhD advisor). In the past few years he has become a strong supporter of my efforts, reading my application drafts and alerting me to new positions, repeatedly telling me I have the skills and background to land a top job (quite a turnaround from 2015, when I subtly suspected that he was out to get me!) So how does he explain what's going on? I've never asked, because on my phone calls with him (which are pretty frequent, tending to happen unprompted on Saturdays) he happily likes to explain on his own: according to him, it's because departments across the country have become "possessed" with "woke" passion and see scientific accomplishment as secondary to skin color and gender (when he brings this up, it is usually followed by 5 minutes or so in which he attempts to get me to explain "wokeness" and how I feel about being victimized by it.)

Now, I have literally looked into this question myself and even published a paper - I know "diversification efforts" not to be a complete explanation for the broader situation of faculty hiring over the past 15 years. In aggregate men and women do comparibly well (and there aren't enough minorities in the search pool to make a significant difference to the hiring of whites). But of course who knows what is going on in 2020/2021 or on any specific hiring committee. In any event, his mind is made up and I don't bring this up on our calls.

Another thing I don't bring up is my own little insignificant minority status of being "LGBTIA+", because another thing that happens during the above career "chats" is some widly inappropriate unsolicited advice: I have lost count of the number of times where he has advised me that China is hiring lots of young professors, and if I moved there I could have a Chinese wife who would feed me dim sum every day. After repeating this "joke" at my expense on practically every call I had with him in November/December, he then kicked it up another notch by asking to talk to my mom when on a follow-up call when I was visiting my parents in New Mexico over the holidays, and repeated the same "joke" to her. (The grotesque inappropriateness of this is only slightly moderated by the fact that knows my parents reasonaly well from his earlier time as a radio astronomer.)

Thankfully he seems to have given up on that little line of harrassment (which is basically what it was becoming) since Christmas. And quite frankly it doesn't bother me that much; if this is the price to pay to keep a powerful person on my side, then fine, I will pay it. Still, it sure would be nice not have to suffer these indignities while watching people with outwardly similar scientific backgrounds and accomplishments breeze through the job market.

There is one final bit of awkwardness. One unsavory fact about applying for jobs from the level that I am now at (4 years into a faculty career) is that I'm competing with much more junior people for the same positions. Some of those junior people had been counting on me to write letters for them, which of course when I'm applying to literally the same position is something I cannot do. So I've twice been forced into the position of telling a young person to look elsewhere, which makes me feel bad and risks straining some of the very productive relationships I've made with some of the postdocs in my collaboration.

Anyway, the job app is in. For all the whining above, the bottom line is that there's a position opening up at an institute which seems to want and need someone with my exact research profile, so chances ought to be good. We'll see what comes of it.

Ten days in quarantine

As is now the norm everywhere, following my arrival back into the UK I've been quarantining again. I stuck to the rules: and from last Wednesday afternoon up until this morning I did not once leave the apartment complex. The temptation to skirt them was moderated by two things: a severe cold snap, plus a surge of work.

The weather is easy enough to explain (it's been freaking cold!), so I'll instead talk about what else has kept me busy. Last year I agreed to serve on the first-ever review committee for proposals to the James Webb Space Telescope, the extremely expensive and long-delayed successor to Hubble. The invitation came in May (still in the first wave of the pandemic, but as things were rapidly improving): at the time they expressed optimism that they might be able to hold the review in Baltimore sometime over the winter and in which case they'd cover all the travel costs. That sounded pretty good to me so I said yes - the last time I did a NASA review in Baltimore was actually a great experence. Unfortunately, it soon became evident that there would be no in-person panel and it would all have to be done virtually. But I agreed to stay on anyway.

The proposal review meeting is not actually until the end of February, and I've had that on my calendar for a while, but I didn't realize at the end of last week that they wanted me to read and grade my assigned proposals two weeks before the panel (meaning, by Wednesday February 10). Furthermore, there were a lot of those proposals - 30 of them, of typically 15 pages each! I discovered this shortly after I returned to Liverpool, giving me about 5 days to read and critically evaluate 400+ pages of highly technical material!

Furthermore, that wasn't the only thing due that day: I had also agreed to be the seminar speaker for another UK astronomy department on that same Wednesday. In fact... in another surprise shortly after I retruend, I discovered that in fact I had agreed to give two seminars on the same day! (I had not previously noticed the conflict.) Thankfully the seminars were at different times of day and I was spared the embarrassment of cancelling one, but it did put the pressure on of preparing an hour-long talk to important people on the same timescale as my proposal reviews.

Fortunately, I got it all done OK. I was not anywhere near as thorough with the proposals as I might have liked, but there will be another grading round anyway. The first seminar (at Oxford, delivered online of course) had a few rough spots due to my rushed preparedness but the second went much better.

After that I figured I might be in the clear, and Thursday I did have a bit of a breather, but Friday (originally slated to be a "work on job applications day" - more on that and various other associated career whining in my next entry, probably) was again extremely busy. I have a rather speculative Hubble Space Telescope program active this year, and had been growing worried that the specific kind of supernova I wanted to observe is so rare that we might never actually be able to make use of the program. However, to my surprise some observations of a long-shot event that I programmed into our university telescope Thursday night came in early Friday morning and satisfied all the criteria I was looking for - so I spent the whole day running around talking to Hubble staff and getting the observations prepared. Unfortunately, they weren't able to program in the upload by the weekend (and unlike me, the telescope staff unfortunately takes weekends off...) so despite the frenetic scrambing the observations will be delayed an extra 3 days anyway... but hopefully will still happen in time to do the science I want.

Today I finally was able to leave quarantine and go for a walk. It made me realize that I hadn't missed much: for the hour or so I was outside, it was below freezing and howling winds, with intermittent snow flurries. It will warm up tomorrow, but I'll be staying busy for a few more days at least.

End of visit and return to England

I decided not to put off my return trip any more, and flew back to the UK on Tuesday. Whether this was the right thing to do or not remains to be seen - as of yet there's been no motion to further tighten the entry restrictions, and I probably could have gotten away with pushing the flight forward a week at a time until I truly felt like going. In the end, though, I didn't want to deal with the uncertainty, and I was feeling guilty about the timezone-induced detachment from work - so off I went.

It was a reasonably nice final week. While it has been a dry and warm winter in New Mexico in general, there was a modest storm last Tuesday and on Wednesday my father was keen to take advantage of that and go skiing (the ski areas are open, albeit with capacity restrictions). I had a meeting that morning, but we were able to get in a full afternoon on what ended up being a quite nice day - assuredly the only day of skiing I'll be getting in this year. On Sunday we headed to the mountains a second time, although this time for a hike halfway up to the summit of the nearby Magdalena Mountains (where I would go almost monthly as a kid). It was good to get outside, and independent of that I was glad to get some exercise before my impending quarantine.

While my flight back was certainly still doable, there was one complication: I was required to take a COVID test within 72 hours of my return flight and obtain formal documentation of the result to show to the authorities on arrival. The day before my flight, I headed up to Albuquerque to stop by the airport COVID testing center (set up a few weeks ago specifically for this sort of reason). I arrived, paid $80, got swabbed in the back, and an hour or so later - and after some e-mails to the testing company to deal with an encrypted e-mail link I couldn't unlock - got an e-mail with the result. Negative, of course. So early on Tuesday I headed back to the airport and flew "home".

The trip was mostly uneventful. Looking at the flight map had led me to believe that the flight out of Albuquerque to Houston would be mostly empty, but it was fuller than I preferred and the flight to Chicago was similar. But the long international flight was empty (who would want to travel to the UK now...) and while I'd been a bit apprehensious about arriving during a lockdown when no one is supposed to be travelling, there were no issues either at the airport or on the subway or the train - which were practically abandoned.

I finally arrived home at noon on Wednesday. Next up, another 10-day quarantine...

One more week

I decided to push back my departure date, again - by one week, to February 3rd. The difference in situations between here in New Mexico and back in England is quite stark now. Things here are not good, exactly, but coronavirus cases continue to drop week after week and there is little sense of imminent danger, and even though I can't see friends or go to restaurants there are plenty of things I can still do. On Sunday I went hiking, tomorrow I'll probably go skiing; more typically I can take walks around the golf course in the sunshine (sometimes on my own, sometimes with my dad) and easily stay far away from anyone.

Back in the UK cases are also coming down - but from a perilously high level, with full hospitals and eye-popping daily death totals, and only as the result of another severe lockdown that is probably going to last until April. Either way, when I do go back I will be expected to totally quarantine for 10 days - this time in a tiny apartment. (Or worse, a hotel - the government is expected to announce new quarantine rules tomorrow, and while the speculation is that only returnees from South America and South Africa will be affected, I don't know for sure.)

Which makes it tempting to delay the return even further. Still, operating out of this time zone is already leading to some frustration (hard to schedule or attend meetings and an increasing sense of disconnect with work) and the week-to-week "should I stay or go" debate is kind of exhausting on its own. So absent something unexpected I'll probably be on my way back this time next week to resume my lonely lockdown existence.

The prospect of another dismal spring and perhaps even summer (given the rise of the new variants and the pace of the vaccine), plus my continued career and life mullings have kept me in a somewhat dour mood lately, regardless of the relative comfort of this lengthy visit. Among other things, it's still job season: I'm waiting to hear back for news on the application I did submit, and getting ready to (in all likelihood) submit another application that appeared late in the cycle. It's a really good job, back in North America - but in the Midwest. So while I plan to go for it, I once again grate at the frustration at the prospect that even if this works out, it will bring another social reset (occurring just as I was starting to build a social circle in the UK furry community). Of course, probably it won't work out at all. Either way, the one thing that I know would bring my life somewhere close to what I want - a job in the Bay Area (or Seattle, or maybe Denver or Salt Lake City or Vancouver) - still seems unobtainable anytime in the near future unless I have some extraordinary luck.

Meanwhile the motivational high that carried me through the summer and fall is definitely sputtering. The unavoidable fact that all this evening and weekend work and high stress and deadlines for years and years has brought me so little in terms of concrete life improvements is a fact that grates on me constantly and while in normal times this is cancelled out by the perks of academic work (like lax vacation rules and extensive travel to conferences) in COVID times none of those positives are there anymore and I simply am left to grind away far beyond my contract hours for what amounts to numbers for my CV which may or may not benefit me later.

Bah. Hopefully the mountain air tomorrow will be good for my thoughts.