Thursday, September 25, 2008

Where to begin? The Search for How To Search

So I've been thinking about it, and unless something really more catastrophic happens in the next few months, I should be starting to apply for jobs.

I had to be completely honest with myself: I think I've been putting this off partly because I just don't know where to begin.

Some of you might recall that when I first started this blog, I kept a log of rejection letters from my first attempts at applying for jobs.

That time around, I basically applied the generic formula my own advisors followed:

1. Put together packages
2. Send out packages in response to ads in Science and Nature
3. Wait

My memory of that time was just that it was a waste.

It was a lot of work, and a waste of time when I should have been working on other things (like publishing more papers in C/N/S journals!).

Funny, though, how re-reading old posts about rejection letters did not make me feel bad. Or rejected. I don't think it's that I fear rejection. So in a way, that was kind of a liberating realization.

But for the last couple of years I've applied to only a handful of places that had a deadline and I knew they wouldn't have another opening in my field for a while.

The only feedback I've gotten on ANY applications has been vague or limited to the single comment: that I need to publish at least one more first-author paper.

Or that, while I was on the short list, someone else "fit better".

Hard to argue that I could do anything about that particular criticism, short of being an apple who dresses up as an orange?

So while that "at least one" paper is not yet published, but the time is ripe for applying, once again my funding is running out, and deadlines for applications are passing me by.

I've met with various people and had them look over my application, and mostly gotten not much in the way of feedback.

Mostly, people are kind of baffled that I haven't had a single interview. Not a one.

And when I say "people", I mean my Department Chair, my advisors past and present, friends who are young faculty at various institutions, and collaborators at various levels (mostly full professors).

The only consistent piece of advice is to get a C/N/S paper in press.

But I've gotten mixed feedback regarding that, and everything else, from both the real world and this blog.

Many people have told me to apply anyway, but I think I'm just reluctant to repeat my past mistakes.

So if I'm going to do it, I don't want to do it the same way.

I should do the following, because I think I can do it now and save myself some stress later, although I can't quite get up the nerve to start just yet:

1. Start calling faculty and committee chairs and talking to them about what they're looking for and if they think I'd "fit" in their departments.

These articles that the Chronicle has been running on "fit" have made me feel like I will never, ever get a job in academia. They really do make me feel like there is no reason to even try.

Just being honest here, people. You want to know why women leave science? Because we feel unwelcome.

Very unwelcome.

2. Start talking to my letter-writers about what they're planning to say in their letters.

If there's one thing I can't confirm, but suspect, it's that certain buzzwords were missing from my recommendations. I also know that at least one person said something inappropriate and incorrect to a search committee chair about my personal life (e.g. implying that mrphd would need a job and that they would have to find him a position).

But honestly, here again, one of my problems is that I fear the people who wrote my letters in the past were not completely honest with me about how much they did (or did not) support my career ambitions.

Or maybe they just meant well and didn't consider the consequences of their word choices?

One of my fears is that if I can really force these people to be honest with me, we'll end up having more of those talks about their regrets, and how they just can't see why anyone would want a faculty position.

And where does that leave me? While I do have some choice about who I ask to write my letters, there's only so many people to choose from.

I read an article the other day about how it's good to choose your letters based on where you're applying, because it doesn't always make sense to use the same generic letters from the same group of people.

I thought that was interesting and made sense, but in academia, certain letters are expected. I know that in industry and in some other kinds of careers, it's not uncommon to get a 'character' letter from a friend or neighbor. But for a faculty position? Don't they have to be from, uh, faculty?

Wouldn't it be considered a bit irregular to get a letter from, say, a former student or a fellow postdoc or a former colleague who is now in industry? Do people ever get jobs that way?

3. Revise and update my Research Plan.

I've been working on this for years. It's quite funny, because once a year when I revise, I've already done half the things on it, even when I thought at the time there was no way I'd be a postdoc that much longer.

Ha ha ha. So I need to update that.

But I'm never quite sure how much detail to put in. I've tried both the Big Idea style, with fewer details, and the more practical what-I'd-actually-put-in-a-grant style, with more immediate plans. And I've tried mixing them, trying to have a clear timeline to show I'm thinking about both now and later.

And since there's nothing consistent about what schools ask for in their ads, some want short (2 pages) and some want longer (5 pages or more). This makes a huge difference in how much to put in. Some also want a personal career goal statement in there along with specific research plans, and some don't.

My impression is that nothing I say in this portion of my application will GET me an interview, although it might PREVENT me from getting one.

I say this because I've seen the research plans of ~10 people I know who have gotten jobs, and none of them were impressive to me. At all. I found them hard to read, sometimes impractical, sometimes full of typos. All of these people got faculty positions anyway.

Ideally, I can see how a really good research plan would make the search committee say, "Boy, we have GOT to meet this person! I can't wait to hear her talk!"

But in practice? It's pretty hard to stand out that much from a pile of 250 or more applications.

The only single example I've heard of someone who thought they got a job because of their Plan was the recent commenter, who heard at her interview that they were impressed with her writing.

If 1 in 10 people who get jobs got them because of their writing, I would probably not be that 1 person.

But I strongly suspect it's not 1 in 10, and that person who got the job at her alma mater? Had more working for her than she realizes. My guess is that someone made a phone call on her behalf.

And hey, more power to you if that's what happened. Right?

4. Revise and update my cover letter.

This is another thing where I've had lots of people look at lots of versions, and nobody ever really had strong opinions about what does and does not make a difference.

Make sure it's addressed to the right person and lists the actual job you're applying for. Nobody likes getting a letter addressed to a different school. Check.

The main piece of advice I got here is to not say anything that will put you in the trash bin right away, and to make sure to put in buzzwords in case it's being screened by an admin/HR person who doesn't actually know anything about where your research fits.

Sound, you know, enthusiastic about the place.

5. Suck it up and send them out.

But for this, I think I have to wait a while longer. My advisor can write a strong letter swearing up and down that my paper(s) will get into the right places, but I just don't know if that would be enough.

I'm hearing that lots of places having hiring freezes right now, not just because of the mortgage mess, but because of state budget shortfalls, people not retiring, etc. The kinds of things that have only been made worse by the mortgage mess.

So ironic that, after all this time, of all the times for me to be thinking about applying, it would be now. If there were ever a good time, this is not it.

I guess one of my big problems here is that I usually follow my intuition, and that is almost always right in science, and always at least partially right.

I don't like doing experiments that won't yield data. My past experiences with job applications yielded experience, I guess, but no data.

I guess I'm worried that this is sort of like trying to use someone else's system to do an experiment in your lab.

You've read the paper, you have your doubts about it, you've pointed out all the potential pitfalls, but your advisor just won't listen.

So you're stuck doing a doomed experiment just to prove that it won't work. Does that get you anywhere? No, not really.

I guess the question, as they say in the Matrix, is choice.

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At 11:33 AM, Blogger Drugmonkey said...

It is really hard to address your questions without knowing more about your CV and the level of job you are considering.

With the clues of comments you've made in the past about what level of position you seek and about needing a CNS pub in press to be competitive, I'm going to suggest that you are shooting too high.

Not that you shouldn't try the highest positions. But if you are really serious about getting on the job path you need to also consider everything that is possible. Everything. Even if it will be a dramatic reconfiguration of what you "do" scientifically. I see this latter as a big stumbling block to many postdocs IRL, btw. Postdocs who have great CVs if they would only focus just a tier or two lower in expectation than their current PI's position.

FSP,I think it is, and other bloggers speak to how they have shifted from Uni to Uni once or twice in their careers and alluded to perhaps the first job being at a lower Uni than is ideal (see River Tam on this latter point).

Some of these jobs may not be listed in Science or even the Observer so prowl departmental websites too.

At 12:55 PM, Anonymous Betsy said...

I would also go back to those people who are surprised you didn't get interviews and talk to them about your search. If they know you're actively looking, maybe that will get them thinking about where you might be a good fit, and they might know someone there who could put in a good word with you. Don't forget that it really is all about who you know. I've also seen some people have success contacting department chairs in places where they thought they'd be a good fit and asking if they have anything (even if they don't have jobs posted). Just get the word out that you are looking and see if it spurs anyone to help out.

I'm really glad to hear you're looking--best of luck to you.

At 1:55 PM, Anonymous Alex said...

Length of research plan:

Although I'm not in your field and not at a research university, in my recent (successful!) search I got 3 interviews at 3 very different types of departments, using basically the same research plan for all of them. What I did was break it up into very distinct sections covering different levels of detail, so that those who wanted 2 pages could read 2 pages and get the gist and consider the rest as supplemental, while those who wanted 5 pages would see 5 pages. References went on a separate page, so those who wanted more than 5 pages would see 5 pages. A section on "possible undergraduate research projects" got its own page, so that those who consider it essential would get a complete page, and those who consider it ancillary would see something separate. A section on "Additional research interests", basically describing possible side projects and collaboration opportunities, was included so that there was a better chance of getting somebody on the committee interested.

Basically, I wrote a plan with lots of information organized so that everybody could view it however they want. If you have sound science in a format that works for a lot of different people, that covers a lot of bases.

At 3:00 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Yes, Drugmonkey, I oversimplified. I did troll departmental websites last time, and I will do it again this time, too. But it's good advice for anyone else who doesn't already know to do that.

And regarding the 'reconfiguration' suggestion, well, Drugmonkey, I've thought a lot about that issue, and here's the thing.

The only research that I am really interested in doing is very expensive, or at least requires some very expensive equipment, and there is really no way around this.

There are no cheaper substitutes. Either you have it, or you don't. There are cheaper or more expensive ways- build your own, or buy one- but either way, it's not cheap stuff.

It's not like I work with an expensive animal but could switch to a cheaper animal model, or plants, or something like that.

No. This is not a horse of a different stripe.

Let's be honest: I have trained in relatively elite labs, to do relatively elite research.

This is supposed to be worth something? There actually aren't that many people in the world who do what I do as well as I do it, it's just that there aren't that many jobs for us, apparently, either.

And unfortunately, there is no feasible way to carry out a "dramatic reconfiguration of what you do scientifically." In fact, as worded, that suggestion makes no sense to me. At all.

The only way I could do that would be to go work on something for which I have no training or qualifications.

Or maybe not. Maybe I can pretend to know enough about other kinds of research.

Is that what you're suggesting?

The way I think about it, the schools break down into tiers:

1) Ones that already have enough equipment that I could get by without my own (i.e. share something that is probably not close to ideal for what I want to do)

2) Ones that don't have, but would like to have, the equipment I need, and would help purchase some that could be shared, but in the meantime I'm not sure how much I could get done, since I know these things can take years

3) Ones that don't have and can never afford the equipment that I need

In the past I have applied exclusively to what I'll call tier 1 and 2 as defined above, but the tier 2 schools said they questioned whether I was a serious candidate because they couldn't see how I could do my research there, at least not right away.

I always found this out later. Not like they called me and asked!

No, they just hired someone who works on a cheap animal, and that was the end of that!

I applied to a couple of what I'm calling tier 3 schools, but didn't end up following through on the applications for a variety of reasons I won't mention here.

Basically I questioned whether I could ever be happy in a job like that, even if I were so lucky as to be offered one. I guess maybe if it were in a location I really liked-?

In other words, I might as well become a lecturer at a community college, or take some kind of position with no research involved, as try to dramatically reconfigure what I do enough to work as a 'research professor' at a tier 3 kind of school.

But I've thought about this a lot. Any reconfiguration that makes any sense scientifically would still require that I stay up in the upper "tier" research schools. And, as you know, it's BIT LATE to be doing any more dramatic reconfiguration.

Unless I'm just NOT GETTING what you mean by reconfiguration.


Yes, I will do that. Thanks.


That's an interesting suggestion for format, thanks. Maybe I'll see if I can get mine to work in that kind of organization, rather than have separate versions and getting confused about what's in which ones.

Of course I can't help thinking about my friend who got an interview, but not the job, because the committee didn't read his research plan and made assumptions about what he was planning to do, based solely on the name of his postdoc PI. It does make me wonder how many places don't bother to read any part of the application besides the CV?

At 3:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know your situation, and I'm in the humanities instead of science, so take this with a big grain of salt...but what you said about your letters stood out to me. If other qualified people have looked at your dossier and can't see why you're not getting interviews, I think it's got to be the letters. I knew a brilliant woman in grad school who got no interviews her first year on the market; she found out through the grapevine that her main advisor had written a ridiculous letter extolling her "nice personality" and "charm," and hardly mentioning her (amazing) research. She got another faculty member in the department to look at all her letters and contact her letter-writers for any needed revisions. Her advisor made the changes because someone else asked him too, so he didn't feel especially threatened by the request. Is there anyone to whom you could have your referees send their letters, who could look them over and tell you (in very general terms) what's going wrong, and even suggest to the referees that they revise the letters? Obviously, a letter has to be honest; but sometimes writers don't realize they're writing a letter that doesn't make a good impression. If this isn't possible, could you come up with a list of specific accomplishments that you'd like the letter writers to remember when they're updating your letters for this year? Most people aren't offended by receiving something like that -- it makes the letter-writing job easier.

Oh, and regarding letters from students and others: these can be very appropriate as supplements to your main letters. If you're applying for a teaching job, it's good to have letters from a student or two. And I assume a letter from industry would be good if it speaks about the specific research you're doing and doesn't just talk about your lab skills or work ethic.

Anyway, I don't know if that's helpful, but best of luck to you!

At 3:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ditto X 5 for your list with me feeling the same way. I just read an article in Chronicle about "what happened to hiring diversity?"... uh, it stopped. Like uh, 2 decades ago. I laughed out loud reading about how schools were COMPETING FOR DIVERSITY... yeah, where? on what planet?

The ads I'm seeing aren't getting me excited at all... and there's alot less it seems than this time last year. Yes, old fogies aren't retiring AND are collecting big bucks for doing nothing as usual. Yes, state budgets are in debt. It sucks all around and the damn hill keeps getting steeper for everyone, but especially for women. You're right, we don't fit... period. If we did fit, talking about women in science would be a non-issue. I keep asking myself why I want to fit or if I want to fit? And I keep sucking it up and applying. ho hum.

I had some success with my application layout last year... here's what I did. I have had a few interviews but I didn't want any of the jobs (they didn't fit me). During interviews you will get asked "where do you see yourself in 5 years?"... I want to say "you men will be deciding that, so you tell me how intimidated or scared of tenuring a woman you are and where you'll be along your evolutionary path from ape to man in 5 years!" or "why don't you show me exactly where the bar is first and we'll start there on our fantasy trip through Tenure Candyland." And I hate interviews in general... being paraded around from dead wood to dead wood to dead wood so they can look you over and have an opinion which means jack shit to me but hey, they get a vote on MY future??!! Knowing what I know about backdoor search committee antics, you have to give a great talk, period. You have to make people feel like they will work with you (that doesn't mean you want to work near or around or on the same planet as them). Yes, big game nonsense which we both LOVVEE.

For my research statement, I personalized them to the school. So, I had a general paragraph of how I was going to build on my previous publications. The second paragraph was set up like a list of places to target for funding (I had NSF, one another fed agency, and one local for most) with a tentative title and purpose/objective/deliverables/outcome type statement with each. I put in hot topics that might interest folks in the dept (hopefully those on the search comm). Those would be proposals I would submit in the first years. The last paragraph was a general "I am open to everyone else's shit", I love undergrad researchers, and think it would be great to collaborate with Big Institute on Cool Shit. And mention some high school outreach and service type activities you could foresee yourself doing.

During my seminar, I addressed the research plan stuff to try to gauge excitement for the direction my research was going and it gives people things to ask me, rather than "so, how bout them bears?" - ugh. Chalk talks are good for that, but not many people show up... or the committee decides to evaluate your teaching instead, so you might want to have a lecture or two on standby for interviews.
Good luck.

At 5:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sometimes it's a question of applying enough times until the right position opens up. How many times have you applied so far when you feel you were qualified for one of these positions?

At 5:52 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anon 3:11,

I would love to do that. I just don't understand the mechanics. I think my letter writers, especially my advisor, would be insulted to think they're not writing good enough letters. I don't know how to go about getting them to take constructive input. And I don't know who to ask who would know how to tell if that's the problem, or what to say to fix it.

But yes, that is probably exactly what I need to do. I just don't understand how.

Anon 3:13,

Sounds like you know what you're doing. None of these things come naturally to me. But it sounds like you have it all figured out. Maybe I would have gotten interviews if I had known some of this sooner.

My fear is that, like you, even if I got some interviews, I won't be happy with my options, and I just can't see taking another job I hate after the endless misery I've been through already. But it's either that, or some other job.

I keep thinking those coffee shop jobs sound really good.

This is why I don't want to apply. I'm just not sure there's anything in it for me. Between that and people telling me to lower my expectations, I think I just wanna take my toys and go home.

The whole thing feels like an enormous game of keep-away. I'm never going to get the ball, I'll just be jumping in the middle, watching it go over my head.

I'm tired of jumping.

At 7:11 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anon 5:42,

That is a positive spin, but I've heard it before.

And pretty bleak. Most of these places don't do rolling applications. It's really quite ridiculous, or as one astute commenter said on the Chronicle's website, ANTIQUATED.

In terms of feeling qualified, vs. looking qualified, I don't really think it matters how I feel.

All I can say is, I've seen a lot of people get invited for interviews, or even hired (e.g. found out what happened with the slots I applied for) and wondered why.

But I know why. They worked for the right people (pedigree) and in some cases, brought the right technique (although everyone swears up and down that's not how they hire and that's not how you should write your application, it's definitely a factor).

At 7:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am in a similar situation. My research projects require the use of extremely expensive equipment. I have three options: (1) apply for TT jobs at a BigU with existing resources, (2) hope I can buy said expensive equipment (fat chance), (3) bite the bullet and take a "lesser" research/facility position. I am leaning towards (3), partly because I now favor family (and time spent with family) over fame.

At 8:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi! I'm totally rooting for you. Since you are willing to consider not applying, or to consider this your last round of applications, I say GO FOR IT in all ways. Especially find a way to review your letters, as suggested. I know it's uncomfortable, obviously, and I wouldn't want to do it either. But what do you have to lose? There must be someone you can trust to do this for you.

Hey, I know, ask your advisor if he/she would do it for you, or if they don't have enough time, to suggest someone who could. I know that your advisor's letter could be one of the problems, but pretend like that's not the case- explain that you really want to give it your best shot this time and want to make sure your letters are strong. Maybe it would whack this person on the side of the head, and they would think "gee, is my letter strong, or do I call her charming?". Then you wouldn't worry about offending him/her... and maybe get some real help with your other letters.


At 8:36 PM, Blogger yolio said...

I found the book "How to get an academic job in biology" to be useful. Not all of their advice was on, but they included examples + dissections of successful applications. This really helped me feel like I was hitting all of my bases.

Also, you are in a competitive area. You can put together a perfect, flawless application and be the perfect candidate, and this puts you in the running. But after that, there is this BIG random component that determines who wins the game. You can't control that, you can only make your peace with it. Put together strong applications, and then don't assume that that there is any real reason that they are unsuccessful. Lady luck can be cruel and she can be kind. All you can do is about is drink cosmos.

At 8:59 PM, Blogger yolio said...

Now that I've looked at your comments more closely, I realize that my husband is in a similar boat. He specializes in a very cutting edge elite type of research that requires VERY expensive instruments that only a handful of institutions have access to.

Now, this is not a great career situation to be in. The options in academia are damn narrow, and this condition narrows it even more. So he developed a second line of research that does not depend on these fancy instruments, and that he can more or less do anywhere.

He only did this because of me. Several years ago we sat down and made the LIST. This is the list of places where we could both do our stuff contentedly, and one look at this frighteningly short list made him start rethinking some of his research choices. Since then, he started up this second line of inquiry.

This work isn't as cool as his primary work, nor as cutting edge, nor is he as good at it as the primary. But it does open up his options, a lot. In his case, if he were to land a position at a sub-optimal institution he could maintain the first line of research through his collaborations. Therefore, ten years down the line, if the perfect situation opened up, he would still be positioned to make the jump. That is the (as yet untested) theory, anyways.

At 6:09 AM, Anonymous expat postdoc said...

Here's my limited experience (only 15 months of PD) ... don't focus on a C/N/S paper so much ... focus on developing and selling a research program to your potential employers.

I think the trick is to develop a palpable sense of excitement after capturing the faculty search committee's attention.

Here's two data points that support my hypothesis:

1. One person I went to gradschool with is now an assistant professor at HMS with three first-author papers out of his postdoc. All of these were in a mid-range journals at a large state university in the midwest. However, he was excellent at generating interest in his project and it was quite evident that he was able to formulate ideas, testable hypotheses, write grant applications, and carry out the research. Furthermore, he was able to convince most members in the audience (of his job talk) that what he studied would be the "Next Big Thing (tm)."

2. One person I currently PD with has had 10 papers during their postdoc ... 5 PNAS, 3 Nature, and 2 JBCs (some first-, some middle-authorship) and hasn't had a single offer from a US institution (the group is located outside the US).

I guess that, in summary, I'm suggesting the you sell a complete package after attracting the attention of the search committee. Furthermore, I'd pull every networked connection you have to get a feeling for what each university is looking for and how your application "fits" their institution. Unfortunately, as you previously mentioned, this is where having a well-known mentor/PI/boss comes in very handy ... and I assume it's the origin of "pedigree."

Also, if you really want the position, don't give up and keep trying until to are in the position to run a new group, then change the system from the inside.

Best wishes!

PS - There is some really good advice in Anon 3:13's post. Furthermore, you should be able to do a chalk-talk to outline your specific aims. Most places seem to do this as a private seminar for departmental faculty ... think of another oral PhD defense, but defending your research plan instead of a dissertation. In this case, it's good to break it down by specific aim and which agencies will be tapped into for funding each specific subaim. Be sure to address how you'll avoid overlap between individual grants and between agencies.

Good luck with the process!

At 6:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Regarding expensive equipment. I know a few researchers at Amherst College who have established ties with research groups at U. Mass. Amherst, allowing them to get time on the $Big$ $Fancy$ $Equipment$ they need for their projects.

I don't know whether such a set up is possible for your particular type of science, but this type of arrangement is one way for people at primarily undergraduate institutions to do equipment intensive research.

At 7:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

During interviews you will get asked "where do you see yourself in 5 years?"... I want to say "you men will be deciding that, so you tell me how intimidated or scared of tenuring a woman you are and where you'll be along your evolutionary path from ape to man in 5 years!"...You have to make people feel like they will work with you (that doesn't mean you want to work near or around or on the same planet as them).

I just do not understand some of you people. These faculty thought highly enough of you to bring you in for an interview. Why not suspend your sexist loathing of them long enough to at least meet them? Alternatively, if you already know how horrible they're going to be, how resentful you're going to act in front of them, and that you're not going to want the job anyway, how about not wasting everyone's time in the first place and letting them interview some other woman without the huge chip on her shoulder?

At 10:31 AM, Blogger Professor in Training said...

Glad to hear that you are planning to hit the job market. While I hear what you're saying about doing expensive research that requires expensive equipment I also think that DrugMonkey has a very good point. At this stage, you need to make a few decisions about whether you would be happy moving to another, less expensive line of research (obviously not given your comments above) or perhaps setting up collaborations with people who have resources you could use (ie Superexpensive Machine).

Unless you miraculously pull in some major grant $$$ in the next year or so, you will never get the job you want. At this point, it looks like compromises and collaborations are your only options. We can't get everything we want in life.

Just my 2 cents worth.

At 12:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know at least 2 people who work at a biotech company who have jobs that allow them to be a PI. They both still publish regularly. They both have families and work a 9-5 job. And the benefits of working for a company like salary, paid vacation, health insurance, 401K...

Are you sure you want to agonize over the perfect TT job???

At 10:33 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anon 7:22,

I think if you favor family, and that will make you happy, then do that. Personally, I need to have something other than family. I've been calling it 'career', and before that 'school' but it might end up being 'hobbies.'

Anon 8:25,

Thanks. I might try that. I'm biding my time to have That Talk with my advisor about what we can control in this process and what my strategy should be.


I thought I had looked at this book you mention, but I don't recall there being dissections of successful applications. Maybe it was too biological to be useful for me? Or maybe I just need to look at it again.

You're right though, luck is definitely a factor.

Anyway I think your husband has made a smart choice to have a more affordable side project. My side project is, ironically, more expensive than my main project. But it is more fundable. It's not like I don't have more than one thing that I do. It's just that it really never occurred to me that people would be telling me, "Look, compared to all the other people applying, you just kind of suck, so you should lower your expectations a lot or you won't be doing science at all."

Seriously. If someone had told me that a while back, I might have had time to do something about it.

But I'm not convinced that's the case. I think nobody in science expected there would be a massive financial crisis right now and that money would end up being more important for this year's job market than ever before.


Well, I think I have that. But they are saying I need more papers to show that my story is working and fundable enough.

At 10:43 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

ack, I hit return and wasn't done yet.

expat, re: your ps, I'm not sure it's smart to mix agencies and subaims.

But if I could get to the chalk-talk, I think I'd consider that a major step in the right direction. I've done a practice one and everyone said that was a good format for me to talk about my ideas and plans.

Anon 6:54,

Yes, for some things that is sufficient. And it depends on how close by you are. For my stuff, some things could be done that way, but for others, not so much.

Anon 7:09,

It's not a 'chip.' Some men really are like that. Now, these in particular, I don't know. But I knew exactly what this person meant when she wrote that. And I wouldn't want to interview at a place like that if I knew it going in. Sometimes you don't know until you step off the plane or eat your first meal with these people. But it doesn't take long to figure out who is going to be receptive and who is NEVER going to let you out of the "What could you possibly know little girl? box.


NO. At this stage, it is WAY TOO LATE to be changing to a less expensive line of research, and NO, I can't do what I do via collaborations.

In fact, I am the one that does this part of the research with lots of other collaborators. They come to ME to do this part. Not my advisor, ME.

In fact, the equipment I've been using does not belong to my advisor even now, and did not when I was a grad student. I have always to borrow time on other people's instruments.

And yet, somehow these other people all have their own equipment, and as far as I know, that's because they were smart enough to negotiate the money to buy/build their own when they were first hired.

Unless you miraculously pull in some major grant $$$ in the next year

There is ZERO money that I am eligible to apply for as a postdoc, or that my advisor/university would help/let me apply for.

So I guess I will never get the job I want, according to you.

But thanks for the negativity! You might be completely right.

At 11:42 AM, Blogger Professor in Training said...

So I guess I will never get the job I want, according to you.

But thanks for the negativity! You might be completely right.

I wasn't trying to be overly negative, just realistic. You have stated that you don't think you will be considered for positions because you need to use ultraexpensive equipment and that you need CNS papers, neither of which you have.

I was also very limited as to what funding I could apply for as a postdoc (even more so being a foreign national) so I went on the job market with NO funding to my name. I got the interview and job because my cv was well-rounded, I have excellent communication skills, a ton of teaching experience, awesome letters of recommendation and I had a unique, do-able and potentially fundable research plan. My PhD and postdoc are from very respectable schools with respectable advisors/mentors, but neither are ivy league pedigree so that wasn't a factor in my job hunt. The fact that I was the top candidate out of >100 applicants was due to a combination of all of the above.

My point is/was that you need to be realistic about your options and plan accordingly. If you limit your options to a few elite schools/programs where you are not one of the frontrunning candidates, you will only end up without a job and in tears. I'm sorry if you took my comments as criticisms - just trying to be helpful.

At 8:30 AM, Anonymous JaneDoh said...

I don't remember if you mentioned this before YFS, but have you considered trying for a national lab position? I spent several years in a national lab as a postdoc and then PI. It allowed me to establish myself as an independent researcher with good ideas who can get things done and write good papers. National labs also have TONS of equipment and not enough people to use them. And you can do biomedical type stuff at places other than NIH.

When I went on the job market last year, I applied to ~30 positions in a mix of departments (I am interdiscplinary), all at bigtime R1s. Without any Science/Nature/PNAS pubs, I had lots of interviews and several offers, before I accepted one and pulled out of the remaining searches.

Pedigree (or lack hereof) can be overcome by good science. My PhD advisor is emeritus, and doesn't work in my area. My postdoc advsior worked at my national lab. Even so, I had enough of a reputation in my field(s) that people had known of my work before I applied. As an earlier commenter stated, that seemed to be the key. I got a letter from a giant in my field, who admired my work (I met him at conference, and we had some great conversations). On one of my interviews, the dept chair mentioned that he thought I could probably get letters in support of tenure already, since I had a good reputation, and several papers with 50+ citations. These came out of my work at the lab, not from academia. Just a thought.

At 9:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

let me get this straight... you use some fancy schmancy piece of equipment to do something not very many people can do at the level you can. and yet you have no contributions to the literature that you feel meet some nebulous and almost always only anecdotally cited C/N/S requirement.

how can you possibly be doing work that is important enough to merit an independent position? no, really. you admit that you don't have a scientific back up plan. you haven't been able to get a high impact publication with your expert skill using a rare tool. are you studying the wrong problems? do your experiments actually have strong controls? can you demonstrate that your data are unambiguous using an orthogonal technique? are there other issues at play here? and how expensive is this equipment?

think about the bottom line for the department you are hoping to get hired in to. if it is a large department it maybe only has one or two openings every ~5 years, right? what can you do to help them mitigate the risk of hiring someone like you? are you going to run a center and make your skills and tools available to the community?

In any event, you need to get a new position. And you need to negotiate the ability to apply for grants. exceptions can be made to most policies, you just need to ask and be persistent. that's one of the few remaining benefits of being in an academic setting. also, don't accept that next position (postdoc, staff scientist, whatever) until you get it in writing that you have institutional support to apply for grants.

At 8:18 PM, Blogger Arlenna said...

The key is to answer the question you posed to yourself: are you holding back on this because part of you doesn't want to do it?

I asked myself the same questions on my way through my application grind. After a year and a half with no interviews and a problem with one of my PIs that was potentially totally crippling to my process, I asked myself what it would really mean to me if I never got to try the things I was thinking about. I decided that I could live with it if I never did. I set myself a deadline after which if I still did not have a job I was going to give up on it and work for my husband's company. BUT the key is, I still applied for things after I had decided that, and committed to myself that I would keep trying until my deadline.

The fates called my bluff, and everything worked out at once. Maybe I am just cosmically, unfairly lucky. Or maybe this is just what it takes to untwist oneself from the crippling feeling of whether it's worth it or not: to decide that hey, it's kind of not, but it would be fun if it worked out. And being untwisted suddenly allows you to be fabulous again.

At 10:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know that much about you - I linked over from another blog that you'd commented on. Therefore, this will not be informed by much other than "frustrated biology postdoc looking for a high-tier research position".

The single most important question when designing the application for a research university is: where do you see yourself getting research funding when you set up your own lab? In this funding environment, this question will be asked at any interview you land, and your research program needs to be targeted towards self-sufficiency.

Once you've targeted particular funding agencies, many of the agencies have set up transitional grant funding mechanisms for postdocs who are looking to establish their own careers. Getting a good priority score on these grants, or actually landing one of these grants, is the only thing I know that is _guaranteed_ to bring in the interviews.

NIH is active in biological fields, and the new NIH transitional grants are very highly regarded. Could you be considered NIH-related in any sense?

Letters - yes, you either need letters from all of your PIs, or a really good explanation as to why you don't. You sound as though you have good collaborating PIs as well if they are coming to you for your expertise - those would be your supporting letters.

Are you someone that your PI and collaborators will rank as one of the top postdocs or graduate students they've ever worked with? The % ranking holds weight with search committees. Will your PI or one of your collaborators place phone calls for you to people they know in the departments you are applying to? It says a lot to the search committee if your PI or collaborator is willing to put their reputation on the line for you.

Departments are making a million-dollar bet on new research-active faculty. They need as much of a guarantee as possible that they will get good return on their investment. This comes in the form of recommendations from people they trust, or money up front from a granting agency to demonstrate that the research project will hold its own.

Good luck in your search process.

At 8:20 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anon 10:52,

I'm written several posts about how these transition grants are not a panacea for postdoc problems.

In my particular case, it's too late anyway. I'm NOT ELIGIBLE FOR ANYTHING.

See for example:

this post and related ones around that time

and also this much earlier post about the role of PIs in these kinds of transition grants. In short, it's a complete myth that postdocs can apply for grants.

What we can, and do, apply for, are awards TO OUR PIs, or awards STRONGLY BACKED BY OUR PIs.

This is not a grant based on merit.

But as ScienceGrrl said in a comment on a recent post so plainly, it's not a meritocracy, and especially not for women.


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