Friday, October 07, 2005

Scientists Behaving Badly

I'm writing this offline because Blogger is misbehaving. That's the second time in a week that I've had problems with the website.

I've gotten so many responses to a previous post ( Well-meaning bureaucrats ) that I want to discuss some of the righteous indignation over, as one person put it, the farce that science has become.

First of all, one of the goals of this blog is to dispel naive misconceptions most people have about how science actually works. So if it's news to you that these things go on, then I'm doing my (self-described) job.

Second, I'm just being honest. There are only so many battles one person can fight. Criticizing me for accepting my PI's sometimes questionable policies is not going to change my behavior. Obviously I'm aware that it's questionable, or I wouldn't be writing about it. I feel I'm doing some service to the world by documenting the fact. But overall, I'm just grateful to have an advisor who likes me and is willing to look over the letters, make minor changes, and sign her name. My previous advisor flatly refused, and that's why I left his lab, and it's also why I have a gap in my CV. It's not like I'm spineless, people!

Third, arguing about the best way to get recommendation letters is extremely naive. Clearly you don't understand that looking a gift horse in the mouth- especially a PhD horse with a PhD mouth- would be ridiculous. Jobs are so very scarce these days. An immense amount of anxiety goes into collecting these letters and sending out applications. For example, a few of the schools I'm applying to want 4 letters, not 3. Now I'm faced with the additional anxiety of trying to find a fourth person who knows enough about my current work, and likes me enough, and has time and is responsible enough, to fill that role. I don't have time for that! So I have to decide if there's any point in trying to apply to these places.

I talked to a friend yesterday who, for personal reasons (translation: wife can't relocate yet, she's still in grad school) turned down a couple of really awesome job offers last year. Instead he took a postdoc position, which is relatively unusual in his field, just so he could put off relocating for another year or two. So this year he'd like to apply for jobs again, with the aim of moving next year, but now he's really gotten himself into a bind. While he was a stellar grad student and had job offers even with no postdoc experience on his CV, now he's concerned because he thinks his postdoc advisor isn't too happy with him, and he's worried the guy won't write him a good letter. To me, this is an incredibly depressing story. But it's true: depending on how you're perceived at a personal level, getting more experience can actually hurt your career.

Fourth, and here is where I have to say that fundamentally I agree with the righteous indignation: why do we get jobs based on recommendation letters at all? On the one hand, we pride ourselves as being oh-so-objective as scientists. But the fact of the matter is, science is done by people. There is really no getting around it, at least until the protein folding problem is completely solved and predictable. Until every last base pair of every last genome is sequenced, until cancer and alzheimer's and parkinson's are all cured, science will be done by people, not robots. And working together is something scientists traditionally suck at. Collaboration has only recently become "the" buzzword of the job search.

So in my view, hopefully the recommendation letters are there to give some indication about how you are to work with, as a person, and maybe something about your independence and creative thinking abilities, which is to say, that your work was your own idea and not the PI's. But I don't think letters should be making any kind of subjective statements about the quality of your actual work. Your publication record should be the best statement about that. But I see all kinds of abuses in the system when it comes to letters. For example, I've seen people claim that their postdoc is on the verge of getting a Cell paper, when they were really nowhere near any such thing.

That said, anyone who hires someone for a faculty position based solely on their letters is a moron. Have you seen the statistics on the failure rates for young professors in getting and maintaining their first NIH grants? It's shockingly high. And it's hard to know if that's because young people are writing crappy grants, because nobody ever taught them how, or if it's because the system is biased in favor of the more established folks. It's probably some of both.

But based solely on the success rate of young professors at getting grants, one could hypothesize that these people suck, and they were hired for the wrong reasons. So then one must conclude that the hiring system is supremely flawed (she says, but if she gets a job, she will claim that it's working just fine!). I'd like to think that my friends who have jobs will mostly figure out what they're doing and manage to succeed, whether they're really prepared for what they've gotten themselves into, or not. But maybe some of my friends- and I can think of one, particularly whiny and arrogant one in particular- are exactly among those who will not get their second or third NIH grant, and won't get tenure. Only time, or majors changes in the system, will tell.


At 1:39 PM, Blogger John said...

I'm writing as someone who just left a lunch meeting searching for someone to fill a faculty position. Although this is a particular faculty position, the steps are the normal ones at my university.

We first met as a search committee, and generated a list of 30 names of candidates, then by consensus culled the list to 15 names. Someone on the search committee contacted each of the 15 to ask them to apply. Then we advertised widely, and received 30 applications, one of which was from our list. We selected 6 for visits, of which the first is next week. One dropped out (the one from our list) having already lined up a job better than anything we could offer.

Many in our institute have now read the candidates statements, perused their CVs, and await their visits. We are also acutely aware that we can still corner additional candidates, if better ones appear.

While the details of letters matter, we also have someone on the search committee who knows each letter writer. Some letter writers rose in our estimation, some fell.

While there are doubtless inaccuracies and inefficiencies in the system, we feel we are getting a good idea of the candidates.

Simply stated, the problem with you writing yourself a letter is not that you wouldn't tell the truth, nor that the search committee would misread your letter, but rather that you may not convincingly convey your own best selling points and that your advisor is besmirching her own reputation by shirking her duties.

At 3:05 PM, Blogger John said...

I left out an important detail - we asked for 5 letters on each of the 6 on the short list. As usual for our field, geophysics, the letters did not play a role in cutting the long list to the short list.

At 5:20 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


I totally agree that I can't do myself justice since I don't really know what a "winning" recommendation letter should look like, although I have seen at least one letter for one person who did get a job. And as I mentioned, she does read and edit the letters, so her assistant sends them out, not me. If she knows someone on the committee, she makes a point of adding additional, personalized comments, which I haven't seen. Unfortunately that has only happened for a small handful of the schools I applied to.

The issue of how much people's letters mean based on their reputation is an interesting one. For example, my former advisor deliberately wrote a good letter for a tech he knew was terrible, just because he wanted to get rid of the guy, and reasoned that the best way to do that was to pawn him off on someone else. But it's hard to know whether word really gets around on that level. Probably nobody knows he did that so it doesn't reflect back on him at all.

It does concern me that you've already met and picked people for your search this early in the year. It makes me wonder if I should have heard something by now. This is also because at least one of the places I applied to in August initially acted very enthusiastic and said they would be contacting people for the first round of visits in September, but I never heard from them.
Perhaps I shall send a polite inquiry to find out if they are running behind schedule, or what.

At 6:20 PM, Blogger John said...

If your advisor takes your letter as a starting point, then adds the details that you are not in a position to write, like favorable comparisons to other people, ways that you surprised her with your insight and discoveries, etc., then some of my criticisms were too strong.

Don't take much from the timing of our search - we generally advertise in the fall and interview in the winter for positions starting the following fall - this particular search is not on that cycle.

At 5:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i am the poster who commented on writing your own recommendations.
sorry for being so judgemental, but this was news to me, since I
am just a graduate student, and you never hear this stuff from
the professors and/or postdocs.. there seems to be a complicit veil
of secrecy going on.

I want to thank you for this blog.. it really is showing me how
science works. I am dissappointed though, because it makes me feel
like the odds are stacked against me.. I'm just not part of the
good ol' boy network.

At 8:07 AM, Blogger Joolya said...

I am a 4th year PhD student (biomedical sciences) and reading all this makes my blood turn cold. I kind of don't want to think about the long-term (the post-post-doc term) because it seems hugely overwhelming; but do I want to come out of my PhD with my illusions intact and be disappointed later because I didn't play the game properly?
Any advice?

At 5:14 AM, Anonymous swallow said...

I've just found your website, read a bunch, thanks...

I am a senior prof in biology/biomed, just moved from an A&S Biology dept to a Medical School.

I've sat on many many search committees, and letters are one part, but usually a very small one. What counts for getting a job: (1) publications - not just number but quality. Our search committees usually read lots and lots of papers, (2) some sign of getting small grants (no one expects major grants from grad students/post-docs (3) ability to teach - was your seminar good, have you done any teaching before, how broadly (that is can you teach freshman bio, as well as the subject of your thesis?). Letters are there, but I've never been on a search committee that wasn't acutely aware of all the problems (and more) that are mentioned here.

Finally, I recommend a pretty good book, though designed for women, its great for everyone (my foreign grad students thought it was terrific):
The Woman's Guide to Navigating a PhD in Science and Engineering.

At 12:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To Everyone reading this--I will recommend reading Science's NextWave online. Not only is it free, but it basically begins to unleash all of the veiled qualities of doing science in our times. For the most part, the PIs we work for don't understand the sheer numbers. Most are funded and never had to deal with what we are dealing with in trying to get a job. It is just another world these days. And from what I hear from various sources, things are not going to get any better any time soon, especially with the economic forces as they are. WATCH OUT.

At 12:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a postdoctoral fellow for 4 years. Many of my friends have been postdoctoral fellows for more than 6 years. Their PI keep on telling them"you are not ready to look for a faculty position?" I wonder when you can be ready to look for a faculty position?


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