, , , , , , ,

About one month ago I had my exit interview with the Dean. Although I have always enjoyed a good relationship with the Dean (who hired me directly, I was not hired through my Department), I found myself growing increasingly nervous. I tried to allay my fears by conducting a Google search on exit interviews, but I could not find much information. I tried to talk myself down, but my fears grew and grew. Thus my the time D-day came, I found myself almost speechless with fear.

I arrived 5 minutes early (it’s not like I was being productive at my desk) and the Dean was running a few minutes late, hurrying across campus from another meeting. The Dean had a new secretary who was in place – a cheerful, bright soul, which was not what I needed at the moment. Feeling sorry for a newbie, I then decided to engage her in friendly ‘how are you settling in chat’ at I sat on the very edge of my seat, feet jiggling 60 miles / hour. Big mistake. My mouth and throat were dry and swallowing was a task akin to getting your first R01 (i.e. something to be worked on for years and only achievable by this every experienced). The secretary offered me a drink – given my issues swallowing I politely declined. Where by ‘politely declined’ I meant screwed my eyes up, uttered a strangled ‘umf’ and shook my head wildly.

The Dean came. She also offered me tea. I probably should have declined (see previous difficulties swallowing) but (probably to delay the inevitable) I agreed. Off we went to the kitchen and the Dean smiled and said “look, I am even washing your cup”. Tricks! Tricks! I was not falling into this trap of false kindness. I pursed my lips and grabbed the cup with a superior air. OK, OK, I smiled and simpered and gently took the cup while feeling bad, but hey, it is the thought that counts.

We sojourned to the Dean’s office and so the ‘interview’ began AKA the ‘why is my school not good enough for you after all we have done for you?’ The Dean appraised me, she raised and eyebrow, and she said “So… I understand why you are leaving”.

I. Was.Not. Expecting. That.

The Dean must have seen my surprise, because she countered “You think there is a better environment for you elsewhere. It is human nature to look around, find the best environment and gravitate towards it. I can’t blame anyone for doing that”. I was really shocked at her kindness and maturity and well… grace. Although I was nothing (relatively) to the School – one small grant, one co-taught course, not many publications, it is still seen as a loss when faculty leave. But what followed with the Dean was an open, honest, and frank discussion of what had worked for me, and what had not. The Dean said many times (in so many words) ‘I am sorry to lose you, when I employed you, I thought you were a great Scientist, and I still think that you are. I wish you would stay at the School’ and it was interesting to hear all about what she was doing, her motives and movements, her plans.

One thing the Dean said which really stuck with me (again, slightly paraphrased) was: “If you think you can do better Science elsewhere, then we have to let you go. We are a Science Institution, we have to support Science”. It was a grounding moment. Something I have been thinking about a lot recently, and may write a post on, is the ‘ego’ in academics, the ‘I’, the ‘me’ and how destructive it is. It was grounding to hear the Dean take the ‘me’ out and just focus on the School’s mission: to do good Science.

Not all my goodbyes were that positive – some, in fact, highly destructive. But I’ll remember my exit interview with the Dean as a wonderful learning / mentorship experience for me, as someone very Junior. Often, when difficult or hurtful / reject-filled situations arise at work, I’ll try to think “what is best for the Science?’.