Monday, December 11, 2006

Money matters, Nerdiness is never good, Alcoholics excel in academia, and networking de novo never happens

These are the new rules.

Allow me to elaborate (or stop reading, up to you).

1. Money matters.

In order to get a faculty position, you will need several High Impact Papers.
In order to get High Impact Papers, you will need the following:

In vitro studies (purified proteins)
In vivo studies (cell culture model or something equivalent)
Structural studies (crystal structure, mass spec)
Dynamic studies (something with movies)
A screen, preferably RNAi
Microarray data of some kind
A specific drug that inhibits your pathway and can cure the nearest relevant human disease
An irrelevant animal model (not a mammal)
A mouse model
Patient samples

In order to have all of these things, you need a lab with either a ton of money, or a ton of rich, famous collaborators (preferably both).

I realized today, much to my horror, that I can't remember the last time I knew of someone who got a good faculty position at a Research 1 university for doing solid, low-budget but elegant work in a lab that didn't have a lot of money for direct costs.

I'm so screwed.

2. Nerdiness is never good.

I'm a well-rounded geek. I do lots of things besides science, and while I strive to be social, I suck at being phony and I hate schmoozing.

I've finally decided that ultimately it's just like in elementary school. Despite my hopes that science would be different, nerds are still excluded. You have to be Sufficiently Cool to hang with the Cool Kids, and I'm not.

For example, in my field, many of the Cool Kids and their advisors congregate at a couple of summer programs. Since neither my advisor nor I have ever attended this summer program, I'm simply not in the same job pool as they are.

2. Alcoholics excel in academia.

I don't particularly like drinking to get drunk. That's not to say I never do it, but I don't like being hung over. To me, feeling that awful is a message that I'm ingesting something poisonous and shouldn't do it (thank you, mother nature).

However. I'm coming to the inevitable conclusion, from looking around at the faculty and the postdocs who are getting jobs, and they all LOVE to drink. To excess or near that point.

Someone actually told me that to get a job, I should buy a bottle of expensive liquor, target the chair of a search committee or department chair, and spend the evening getting them drunk.

I think in this scenario I'd have to be able to drink them under the table for this to work, otherwise I'd be passed out and they would take my expensive bottle and leave. However, since this method has apparently worked in the past, while applying to ads alone does not work, it seems safe to say that the whole "apply to ads you see in ScienceCareers and Nature magazine" is not a good protocol.

3. Networking de novo never happens.

So I'm trying hard to meet people at conferences and get them excited about my work. But I ran into yet another friend today who is slated to begin a faculty position next year, and he said the same thing everyone else says: your advisor has to know someone on the search committee.

So here's the mechanism:

Head of search committee calls your advisor or runs into them at a meeting.
If you're there, your advisor introduces you and tells them a little about your exciting work and how wonderful it has been having you in the lab, but that you're clearly ready for the next step.

Alternatively, if you're not there, your advisor tells them you (and not some other guy in your lab) are better than sliced bread.

Assuming you get to this step, it's a foregone conclusion:

Your advisor tells you to apply.
You apply.
Head of search committee tells the committee you're getting the job.
You interview, along with three other poor schmucks who aren't getting the job.
You get the job.
(Bully for you.)

Here's what does not work:

You introduce yourself to strangers at cocktail parties where no one is wearing a nametag.
They haven't heard of your advisor, but they nod politely.
They try to look you up in pubmed and spell your name wrong, and find 2 papers instead of 12.
When your faculty application shows up, they have no idea that they ever met you.

Thus, I am forced to conclude that useful networking at the postdoc level requires a nucleation event, namely an aggregation of your advisor and several department chairs/search committee heads, in the presence of vast amounts of alcohol.

Copyright YFS Current Protocols.

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At 8:08 AM, Anonymous TW Andrews said...

I know you're going to hate me saying this (again), but I think you'd find yourself a lot happier in industry.

There's a lot less cliquishness; unless you're part of the sales team, alcoholism isn't a path to success; nerdiness is at worse respected, at best venerated; networking is relatively easy.

I know that you don't like industry out of what comes across as "profit-is-bad" principle, but I think you'd find it's a lot better than you imagine.

At 2:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wait, science actually works like this? I've been through this end of the job search process twice now, once when I was looking for a faculty position, and once when my spouse was. I don't think that other than criteria 1, we had anything going in my favour. Yet here we are, both with faculty positions in great departments.

My impressions

1) Get that high impact paper (easier said than done!)
2) Make sure it is in the right field at the right time

The rest I don't think actually matters. I had never met a single person in my current department before and what I do is so alien that I am still shocked that they hired anyone doing this kind of work. Ergo, right place, right time. In fact, while some of my colleagues who were hired at the same time worked for famous people, the only common thing that links all of them is the quality of their work (criteria 1). Networking, alchohol or any such quality played no role in their hiring.

But my impressions are based on a small sample, so take it for what it is worth. Don't lose hope!

At 6:58 AM, Blogger CDJ said...

The hiring process can feel grossly unfair. I've been on search committees where candidates have been discarded for reasons that are completely stupid, like because one committee member didn't like someone that interviewed from that group a few years ago. If you're not from a big powerful group you're definitely at a disadvantage, some people will downgrade a file if they haven't heard of at least one person who has written rec letter.

If you want to network without drinking, try running instead. It's a common sport, at conferences there's usually a group going running all the time. May be able to get some time with the cool kids and their mentors.

At 7:50 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


This made me laugh. I can't run to save my life. I always say if I were in a movie being chased by a crowd of vampire zombies... I would get eaten.

On the other hand, once upon a time (and probably still, in some places), smoking was the thing to do to meet powerful (old white) men. So it could be worse.

One of the things about the cool kids, though, is that I don't even really like them. I'm not at all sure I want to be one.

They seem immensely arrogant to me, even when we all objectively know that my work is just as good, if not more interesting, than theirs. But that's almost irrelevant. It's the cool kid vibe they give off, and the fact that they seem to have Cool Kid Inside Jokes that I don't know about. So I worry that I don't/won't get interviews because committees worry, or worse, know, that I might not fit in with these people as my future colleagues.

Now, I'm not actually worried about that too much, but it does occur to me that it could be a factor. The cool kids I know and dislike are mostly scattered (although there are higher concentrations of them in two major cities, but we'll ignore that for now). I have to hope that, without a critical mass at one institution, they can't really afford to throw stones at little old harmless yours truly. Right??

You'd think they'd all realize that no one is immune, and I've got dirt on many of them that I'm just saving for a special occasion...!

Sometimes I do like to daydream about being on the grant review committee that gets their proposal... but then I remember, I'm not capable of sinking to their level.

At 2:34 AM, Blogger Am I a woman scientist? said...

Ah ha! There it is. Those of us who are in the alcohol club (I had no idea that made us cool... I thought it made us pathetic) fear people like you because we don't know your weakness. The dirt we alcoholics have on each other is the great equilibrator.

At 8:42 AM, Anonymous sarah said...

In general I've found networking at conferences happens in much the same way as at any other social occasions (and re. the alcohol: if you think the US is bad, try coming to the UK!). Try to look confident, chat to the people you are comfortable talking to, and have fun. There's nothing that will make you more approachable than smiling and laughing a lot.

Don't feel like you need to plunge into a discussion about your own work either. If you listen to what people say and ask questions or provide comment then people will see you as someone who has a good understanding of the subject.

Also, try to think of sensible questions at conferences. It can be nerve-wracking but standing up and speaking can be a great way to introduce yourself as someone who is serious about their work. And always be self-deprecating, say "maybe I misunderstood your method, but..." even if you know you're right.

I finished my physical sciences PhD a year ago and spent 9 months drifting around in various short contracts, getting more and more demoralised. I applied for loads of jobs without success and agree with all your comments about the recruitment process. But then I got a great job at a top European university, where I had no connections whatsoever and was up against many other candidates! So it does happen, just apply for everything that catches your eye....


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