Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Response to Comments on Cover Letters


Thanks, that helps a lot! I guess when I applied for jobs before (after my first postdoc publication, as suggested by Anonymous #1), I did write kind of a mini-scientific biography of where I came from, why I got into science and why I'm currently in my particular field, what got me interested in that, etc.

I think I will have work on how to making it sound short and sweet, even though it's a little more complicated than that.

Someone said to me the other day that I'm "too honest." So there you go: I suck at lying. That must be why I find this part difficult. But see the comment from Anonymous #1, who thinks I should quit academia just because I find this part difficult. Challenging. Let's say it's challenging.

Anonymous #1,

You come off sounding pretty negative but I don't think you mean to be. Yes, this part is painful to me. That's partly because I'm doing it with very little mentoring/support.

No, I don't like the attitude that just because one part of your job is hard you should run away from it. Most things that have been hard for me, I've gotten better at them through practice.

Actually you might have seen, there was a little blurb in Science recently about how chess masters are good because they PRACTICE. Past a certain point, everyone is talented. The ones who win are the ones who practice the most. This is my general approach to life.

Yes, I have long suspected that some people don't read cover letters at all. But I know some people do. However, you make a very good point to try to include any pertinent information in the research proposal even if it's in the cover letter, since they are more like to read the research proposal than the cover letter.

Anonymous #2,

I didn't think it was limited to females, but it is always comforting to hear that other people have had this problem. I find it interesting that your committee helped you with this, though. Maybe I wasn't like this in grad school, but my committee, while generally helpful scientifically, was no help whatsoever on career advising. The main thing I got from your comment is to discuss "motivations" and "help from other people."

One of the things I've been struggling with is who would actually be willing and able to help me with my application package. The first time I applied for jobs I had at least two new Asst. Profs look at my research proposal, and I took all their advice but didn't get any interviews. Needless to say I won't ask them again, but seeing how they just went through the application process, I guess I thought they would know, and they were very willing to (try to) help.

This time, I was thinking I would try to get people who have done the hiring rather than the applying. But I don't know too many people who have sat on hiring committees, at least not in my field, and the ones I do know are not good mentor types. At all. Either they're not available, or they're incapable of giving advice.

You know, the kind who think that good professors are just born knowing how to do everything, not that any of this can or should be taught. What are people like that doing in academia, one might ask? But they are pretty good at research, and they were hired in an era when mentoring wasn't even a vocabulary word yet. They certainly were never trained in teaching or mentoring!

Phd Mom,

That's awesome, I will definitely try that. I do think the righteous indignation concept works. I fall into this trap a lot, that I've done a lot more than I have effectively broadcasted, because formal communication in science is pretty limiting, in my opinion.

So unless someone asks, I might not have a way to tell them and they would definitely not have a way to know.

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At 12:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, I am Anon #1. Basically you only responded to part of what I wrote. I was not at all suggesting you give up, geez far from it. All I was saying was that this is the EASIEST it will be for you as far as proposal writing and self promotion go. I spent an entire summer on both my first and second NSF proposals (that is, two summers), while I spent a fraction of that on my job application. When I was a postdoc, I had no teaching, no graduate students (I love them, but they take time), and no committees. I expect to spend two months on my first R21 and 6 months on my first R01. This year, I've taken three days off, and I've put much more back on working Sundays.

The main point I want to make for those applying (as I now sit on the other side) is that you should spend 99% of your time on your proposal, which is the only thing you can actually control at this point. The letter and CV are just facts and should not take more than 30 minutes. You should definitely say who you are, where you came from and what position you are applying for (many depts. have several searches even if you don't know about them).

Also, you need someone who has been through writing proposals a few times to read yours. Even someone a few more years seasoned than you will be able to help a lot. I understand that you didn't get good help from the new hires. That is why your community of mentors needs to include older and younger people. It is very important to try to develop a network of support (such as former supervisors, Ph D, undergrad, etc.). When I was applying I solicited advice from about five or six professors at my grad institution. You might also consider using seminar speakers who visit your department--ask if you can get a meeting with one closest to your area.

Your letters of reference are absolutely critical to getting an interview. I don't know how much more plainly I can put it. The first thing I look at is who your current supervisor is and who you did do your Ph D with. Then, what kind of letters did they write. Only then do I read the proposal. I'm sure there are others who do things differently, but my experience has been that the letters are key.

I'm sure you will be successful, but the thing to watch out for is that you also have to be happy. I am constantly reminding myself of the myriad ways I have failed and am inadequate, but I am optimistic--it's the only defense.

At 6:31 AM, Anonymous hollsterhambone said...

Hi, youngfemalescientist. I was searching online for grants (I work for a health disparities dept. at an NCI cancer center) and I came across your blog. I forwarded it to my partner (who works as a research assistant for a PI at the same cancer center) because as I was reading your posts I had uncanny feelings that my partner, male, had been blogging, unbeknownst to me, as a female authoress! What I mean to say is that I have heard concerns and thoughts similar to the ones you voice, here, and I sympathize. By means of introduction, I blog elsewhere (Livejournal) under the handle “hollsterhambone.” My partner will more than likely use his Livejournal handle if he comments: arsemuffin. He’s English, hence the “arse,” and I have no idea where “muffin” came from.

We’re both academics, although I chose not to pursue a TT job in my field (literature) because it would most assuredly mean my partner and I would not be living in the same state.

And I hope you chose the beer, not the work.


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