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
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.
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.