Monday, October 01, 2007


A while back, LOGO hosted an interview/debate thing with some of the presidential candidates. I didn't see the original, but the Daily Show made fun of Melissa Etheridge for talking about herself too much. The supporting clips really did make it seem like she started every sentence with "I."

This topic is relevant to my current suffering: self-promotion. I hate the whole "mememememe I, I, I, I" business. I don't know how to do it gracefully so it always feels ham-handed to me. And I probably come off sounding arrogant to anyone who reads my attempts without ever having actually met me.

Supposedly this is a problem that most women have- we've been taught since a young age to always be self-effacing, which is terrible for your career, especially in science.

Today I am hammering away at updating my cover letters. The research proposal part is better in the sense that it's more about science, and less about me, me, me.

The cover letter, I don't know how much to say about what I've been doing, who I've been working with, and what I want to do next. A lot of this is in my research proposal, too, and making it all fit into 1 page is tough.

Anybody have any suggestions for

a) How to get revved up to self-promote? Do you listen to the theme from Rocky? What works for you?

b) What's the most important thing to get across in a cover letter?

I've always gotten the impression that what they're trying to get is some inkling of "fit", which to me is a totally ambiguous, touchy-feely concept that includes both what you work on and your perceived personality.

But right now- ugh. I just want to go back to bed.

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At 7:14 PM, Blogger Badbug said...

Your cover letter should be about science too, but in the context of your achievements. Start the letter by specifically mentioning the position you are applying for. Then tell the committee why you are an ideal candidate for this position based on your previous work. E.g., my graduate research focused on ....and provided me with an excellent foundation/model/etc with which to address important question xyz. I found that... Based on my interests in related field abc, I then pursued postdoctoral research in the lab of Dr. so and so on the topic of .... The major finding of my postdoctoral work is...which has shed new light on a long-standing question in the field. I am now well poised to exploit this model/paradigm/etc to elucidate this important biological problem.

Then write a few sentences about why the specific research and faculty in that department would be complementary to your research and the kind of interactions/collaborative opportunities you envision. Also, if you would offer unique expertise that is not represented in the department, don't be afraid to say so (e.g. I would also look forward to bringing my technique/area of expertise to enhance the research opportunities in the department).

Although you do have to present your research in its best light, just as you do in a paper, you should feel comfortable making the most of your work (which is different than "selling yourself")because you will not only have to do this to get a job, but will also have to do this every time you write a grant.

Good luck!

At 6:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Starting my third year as an assistant prof in the Big Ten. I look at the CV to see what papers the person published, period. Submitted or in press is ok, my field does not have super-long postdocs like bio fields. I really couldn't care less about the formatting (and I'm hypersensitive about those things in general).

Cover letter: never read it. Our faculty applications are all on line here, and I don't even bother downloading it. Anything it says should be in the CV and proposals.

Two most important things, one you can control and one you cannot: research proposal and references. Without excellent references, one has no chance. Keep the research proposal less than 7 pages (5 is better, but OK if a little longer).

Obviously you cannot write your own reference letter, but you should choose your "third" reference carefully. If you only know that person sorta-kinda, or it's been a while, send him or her a copy of your Ph D thesis, one or two great papers and your job proposal. The letter will thus be infinitely more personal.

Apply as soon as you have submitted your first postdoc paper. It takes a year to go from application to start date, so you'll certainly get something out in the intervening time.

If your faculty supervisor is not helping you, well, you didn't choose well in the first place, but now it's too late. Try to identify another faculty member or two to help with your application. There is nothing worse than the first draft of a research proposal. Don't make the mistake of submitting it.

By the way, if this part is painful to you, you seriously need to think about non-academic careers. You will spend at least 50% of your time writing hyperventilated methamphetamine-laced proposals as long as you are in academia.

Good luck!

At 7:48 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

At every single one of my committee meetings in grad school, my committee would spend 15 minutes or so telling me that I needed to do a better job of selling myself. I am a male, so this inability to self-promote is not limited to females.

What I discovered for me, was that I could create a compelling narrative about myself that explained my research and teaching motivations. This took multiple revisions and help from many people outside of my committee. The department chair and people who served on search committees provided valuable help in ways to better communicate my narrative.

At 9:43 AM, Blogger PhD Mom said...

The purpose of the cover letter is to tell the reader point blank why they should hire *you*.

I'm mostly a lurker on site, but have noticed that you seem to be very angry, with the postdoc situation, with the way funding is allocated, and research in general. I find that an effective way for me to write cover letters is to be angry. I like to imagine myself yelling at the reader describing systematically why I should absolutely be hired and am so much better than all the other candidates (at least in my opinion). I tone down the language to make sure that it is not too harsh, but this seems to work for me.

Incidentally, this strategy originated from a failed grant application where I was criticized for not doing several things that I actually had done, but not broadcasted.

At 7:55 PM, Blogger Image Goddess said...

What I find striking is that you say it is bad in science if you can't think "IIII." From my perspective this is the opposite. I've always been told when giving presentations or talking about work say "we". We did this or we did that.

Then when I went to submit an abstract and give a presentation in a more social science field my mentor kept correcting me from saying 'we' to saying 'I'. It just felt weird to be saying 'I' all the time.


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