Reader Question: Recent PhD Grad Seeks Advice on Job Hunting

Reader E has a question for the blogosphere. I am retelling the original email to better anonymize the case (as per E’s request). I think I managed to capture the gist of the experience; E, if something is incorrect, please let me know.


E completed their PhD in a physical science field at a tippity-top university (ranked 1 or 2), it seems quite recently. The first three years were spent on experimental work, while E was supported on a fellowship (I am guessing NSF); by the end of the fellowship, external funds for the continuation of the project did not come through. In the meantime, the advisor took a part-time position elsewhere and has been largely unavailable to E. At the end of the fellowship, E was advised to leave due to lack of funding, then it was decided E would switch gears and do computational work (I was unclear how that was funded, I am guessing on advisor’s other funds or perhaps a TA-ship). So, E spent the last 2.5 years learning how to do computational work with the help of another senior person (not sure if another faculty or postdoc/researcher), because the advisor does not have expertise in computation.

While E completed the computational project successfully, and defended their PhD recently, they don’t feel like the PhD experience has made them competitive for jobs. “While I produced several articles (2 journals, 1 proceeding), I wouldn’t call any of them career producing (the best was a mid range journal).”

I feel like I learned how to apply a very narrow set of computational skills to an even narrower problem. I have a hard time showing employers (postdoc, industry, gov, etc…not picky at all at this stage…have a growing family and need a job) that my skill set would be beneficial to them. My advisor has no way of helping me get employed (knows no one in the computational field…) and my mentor [the person who helped get E started on the computational front] is too busy with new professional developments. I would like to know, do you offer students (without a network to rely on) and struggling to get employed how to sell themselves? I would love to stay in science, but accept the fact that it is very unlikely that someone will take a chance on me.


I will leave this open for blogosphere discussion. But I can get the discussion going by sharing what I do with my students.

I tell this to all of them, early and often:

This is not MIT or the like, and I am not famous. Just getting a PhD from here with me as advisor does not magically open doors. I tell them that I am very good at what I do and we will do good science together and that they will be well trained to be good PhD scientists and communicators, technically strong, who can write and present their work. But, I tell them that I also really want them to be able to get jobs when they are done. So they are encouraged from the get-go to get an MS in another field of their choice in addition to the PhD, and to take classes in other areas. I seem to be unusual in this respect, as I recently found out — most of my colleagues seem worried about productivity and want their students focused on research 100% of the time. I don’t. After the first 2-2.5 years, the students are done with classes for the major, and the resulting lack of class-induced structure to their days and weeks can be disorienting. I strongly encourage them to take 1 and sometimes 2 classes per semester in whatever they want until they are done; not only does this increase their knowledge base and potential employability, but I strongly believe is helps productivity on their main projects (alternatively, they TA when they are senior; regular contact with chirpy undergrads is good for the grumpy senior grad student). Nearly all of my students have taken the opportunity to get an MS in another science or engineering field while doing a PhD in our field (and also they get a “MS in passing” in the major, but that’s rather trivial for a well-performing student, just a bit of paperwork).

I also have some (not many) connections in industry (e.g. my grad school buddies and other people who were students when  I was), and now that I have placed some students in industry, they could (and do) further help other students. From my standpoint, all I can do is help as much as I can with the connections I have, and otherwise let the students know early on what the lay of the land is, and then let them figure it out for themselves. I am about to graduate a student who has a job lined up at a major software company. It has been a great experience: he interviewed, they gave him an offer, he asked and they agreed on a start date several months into the future, so he will both finish his project and his dissertation without a rush, and will then start at his great new job.

My industry students seem to do a few interviews to get a job, but not many. 1-3 is the norm before first offer. I had only one student several years ago who had like 12 interviews before the first offer, and eventually landed at a company that he had always dreamed of working for (I helped there by forcing him to go give a talk or two at venues where I knew the company would be having representatives). It has never been an issue that my students can’t get interviews. The student who is about to graduate, the one I mentioned in the previous paragraph, is part of an international community, and he appears to have access to a lot of job opportunity announcements through the network of his compatriots. Kudos to him, I say!

I think it’s impossible to get a job without some sort of network, but I it needn’t be your advisor and his buddies. Former group members are great, compatriots are great, checking websites of companies in the area or the companies you’d like to work with in general is great. In my experience, while job search is scary, it has always ended very well for my students and it didn’t take long. As advisor, I know that the last 6 months of their time here will be low productivity, because they are distracted and interviewing, and that’s fine; I plan on everything being done beforehand anyway.

As for postdocs, those are either awesome or awful in the physical sciences (I don’t have experience in the biomed world, but it sure seems to be a strange and scary place, based on the blogosphere). A great postdoc will propel you, an awful one will kill years of your life and, in some fields, might make you less employable in industry.
The worst part is you don’t know that postdoc opportunities are available until they are (i.e. notice of funding comes through) and then they are filled quickly and usually through personal connections (e.g. I will prioritize a student from a group whose leader I know and respect over a random other applicant).

Another issue: when it comes to advising, it seems to me that people with fellowships, especially graduate students but sometimes also postdocs, tend to have a crappy time disproportionately often. Unfortunately, I am guessing it’s the case of “well, I don’t have to pay the kid, so why not?” My rule is that if I wouldn’t work with a student/postdoc under the assumption that I am paying them off my grants, then I don’t take them (this doesn’t imply poor quality of student postdoc, but rather that they may be a poor fit for the group, or that I already have too many people and cannot effectively mentor another one). The same thing holds for the research topic: too often, people on fellowships end up working on advisor’s pet topic that may or may not be half-baked; they also end up being poorly supervised, because there is no funding-agency pressure that the advisor feels for regular grants. Obviously, that’s a recipe for disaster: before you know it, three years have passed, and the student has spent them on a poorly defined project with inadequate advising. Likely, it doesn’t help that most fellowship holders flock to tippity-top schools, which are competitive places and not known to be the oases of  warmth or fuzziness in student advising.

So, what’s the moral of the story?

E, I am really sorry for your experience. But, you got a PhD from a fancy school, and that won’t hurt in the long run.
Right now, pull all the strings you can — whomever you know, whomever they know, look at online postings, anything you can find. You don’t necessarily expect people to get you jobs, but rather to help point you towards jobs or places where jobs might be opening, and generally just meet people. It’s never too late to develop a network, and a network can be built in ways that you don’t expect: e.g. there are lawyers and doctors and professors and entrepreneurs among the parents on my kid’s swim team; sure, I know them because of swimming, but I know them now, and didn’t before, and if need be I could and would call upon our acquaintance in another context, and I would be happy if they did the same.

I also recommend consulting this great book “Navigating the Path to Industry” which helps exactly in your situation: finding a job upon leaving academia, as written by a biotech manager (the writer is awesome IRL and online, and sometimes comments here under a pseudonym, but I know doesn’t want to link work with personal blog, so I am not linking here).

Blogosphere, what say you? Do you have words of wisdom for E?

The Life and Times of TT Academics: A Stream-of-Consciousness Post

Psycgirl had a couple of posts on mentoring that made me think about my own experiences.

A while ago, I wrote a book review of Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In”. There are several things I still remember about the book, and one is her view of mentorship: Mentors are problem solvers, give them a problem to solve. Don’t use them to vent your frustration, use their time wisely. People mentor those in whom they see something; unfortunately, the last one, more often than not, translates into people mentoring the likes of themselves; we all know how well that works out for underrepresented minorities.

There are many people who do very good, solid work. However, most of them don’t get much recognition; instead, only a select few get all the recognition. You could argue that it’s because they are the best of the best, but in my opinion that’s not true. I have met a number of people who are young superstars in their fields, and for the most part they are not all that better than many others who are not equally recognized. However, while people are comparable at 30 or 40, by 60 or 70 that means the select few are National Academy members, while most others are not. What really makes a difference is being networked with the people who have the willingness and ability to champion you, who recognize the importance of having junior colleagues nominated for stuff early and often, and who will do it for you either on their own or without much prodding. Getting recognition early is a prerequisite for getting it often, because awards beget awards.

The point is that you have to be meritorious, but you also have to have someone who will be happy to nominate you, proactive about doing it, and who knows how these nominations are written. And it needs to start early, as early as possible. Before the PhD, actually (so yes, foreigners are a bit screwed right there.)

I work with a woman who is considered a superstar, so I am closely familiar with how she does things. I can tell you that she most definitely keeps an eye on her CV and makes sure that she gets nominated for something every year, and has a great network of intra- and extra-departmental supporters who are very happy to write these nominations for her.

I work with a young  male superstar with very high energy. Recently, I watched his PhD advisor give a plenary talk. The man showed the pictures of all his students, and specifically highlighted my collaborator and a couple of others who are professors, mentioned their recent achievements, and for my collaborator used the words “high-impact assistant professor”. You cannot buy type of promotion. The collaborator’s PhD advisor is a really big name, and gives many talks, everywhere, which means that my collaborator gets this type of lip service in a lot of places, including at federal funding agencies.

I got my TT position straight out of grad school, so my PhD advisor remains someone who I presume is the person most invested in my success. Unfortunately, he is of the mind that going after awards is in poor taste, and that you do good work and the recognition will come (this is a man who really should have been in the National Academies, but is not because of personal conflicts). So when I ask him to nominate me for stuff, he does it, but he never thinks about doing it on his own. (Cue: Feel free to think I don’t deserve it; I think that all the time.)

I have various colleagues and collaborators who are happy to contribute letters of evaluation for me, but they are not invested in my career. People are too busy taking care of their own careers, and hopefully the careers of their own academic progeny, to worry about mine. Another aspect is that my immediate scientific community is truly international, with more than 50% of people in Europe. The importance of a steady trickle of recognition is probably less important, or differently important, outside of the United States.

I am now at a  position in my career where I am no longer junior, which is fine. But, I feel like I am entirely alone, that I really don’t have a community or a support network in my field.  I can see how people turn into the jackasses we know from conferences, who seem to be in your shit because you didn’t cite their paper from 30 years ago and who put down your work. It comes from realizing that they are isolated, that nobody cares about them or their work, and their options are to either get demoralized and quit working (hence deadwoodification) or they realize that the only way to keep going is to emotionally distance themselves from everything and everyone about their work, rely on their own devices, put their head down, and plow. The deadwood/jackass are two possible outcomes for smart, passionate people, who invest a lot of energy into their work but who keep getting overlooked. Sometimes they quit or retire early.

According to my unscientific observation, most men on the tenure track seem confident about what they do, most but not all women seem fraught with doubts about every aspect of their work.  For instance the first few years on my TT were really stressful for me, probably because I started out right of grad school and quickly realized the job was very different than what I had envisioned. I have no idea what I had envisioned, really, perhaps what astonished me was the sheer amount of work, the unrelenting demands on faculty time. It was a very steep learning curve, but one of my redeeming qualities is that I generally know when I am in over my head and I seek advice. In other words, I have never had the problem of being overconfident about something, and I always look for ways to improve, and then I do.  (In contrast, a supremely confident guy who started the same time as me didn’t get his contract renewed after 3 years. Some men don’t ask for help or take advice even when they really, really should. )

Unless I have a great track record doing something, I generally assume I don’t know squat, then I ask and I learn. But, a side effect is that the people I asked for help now think I don’t know squat and they will take it into account when evaluating me in the future. And this is the double-bind (or is it triple?) of asking for help, especially while female, where the default assumption is “incompetent until proven otherwise”: if you need help and ask for it, you will get it but be held in low regard for asking, which will then lead to reduced support, and could result in failure due to this second-order effect. If you need help but don’t ask for it, you will either figure it out on your own, which will generally take more time and energy than necessary but then you will succeed, or you won’t figure it out and you will fail due to incompetence.  When you objectively don’t know what you are doing, there is a small chance you will do fine by persevering on your own, but a high chance that you will either ask for help and be resented for it, or that you will downright fail.

Many young women in academia lament the lack of support (emotional and practical) for the struggles they are facing. Here is my attitude. Your department colleagues, those who evaluate you, are not your friends. They are your colleagues. They should not know your innermost dark secrets and doubts. THEY WILL EVALUATE YOU. So be prudent about what you discuss with them. I am not saying that there are no exceptions, that you can’t have real friends in the department, but it’s probably safest to do it after you are both tenured.

Who do you vent to? People who really love you, even if they don’t understand what you are going through. Then, people who really care about your success, even for selfish reasons [e.g. your former advisor(s) or non-departmental collaborators]. Then, a peer, ideally from another department or discipline, or another university; someone who is in the same boat, but with whom you are not in direct competition.

I think the key to a good peer relationship in which you can vent is that there is no power differential and that you both need each other for venting, at least at times. For instance, there is a relationship I have with a so-called peer mentor (a person a few years ahead of me career-wise), and the person never wanted to break the facade of infallibility with me, I think because it was important to them to remain superior (or just because it’s WASP thing, who knows). Since I have a deep belief that we are all human, and that we all have flaws and fears and doubts, and that everyone’s $hit stinks, I decided I wasn’t going to keep pursuing an honest relationship with someone who insisted on keeping their guard up. End of story. We now have a nice arms-length relationship, where my shell communicates with their shell, exchanging content-free sugary pleasantries. The relationship is so warm, there are icicles on my sleeves after every interaction.

I have a good mentoring relationship with a couple of senior faculty, who are so senior and so well-established that there is no way in hell they would ever consider me as an equal. But that’s fine, as I get good honest advice from them as they would give to a daughter. One is my PhD advisor, another a very senior collaborator. They are the only ones with whom I don’t mind sharing doubts and insecurities; they enjoy dispensing wisdom, and I take what makes sense and discard the rest. With everyone else, I assume they would judge or dismiss me for showing weakness, or I had already made the mistake of oversharing, which resulted in uncomfortable squirming, followed by them indeed judging and dismissing me.

(Of course, I am talking about colleagues. My DH is very supportive and listens to 100% of my whiny $hit, on repeat. He is as clued in about the life of women in academia as any man on Earth. Thank you for putting up with me, DH!)

So what’s my advice on getting mentored and championed? Based on my own experiences, this is what would say:

Get as much help and advice and learn as much as you can about being a TT professor before becoming one. Afterwards, seek help at your own risk — past the first year or two on the TT,  people will take it against you if you ask for advice about doing your job. Your colleagues will take your insecurities to mean that  you don’t have what it takes. Separate asking for specific problem-solving advice  from asking for moral support. I have found that the long-term acceptable questions have to do with personnel or university politics, because everyone assumes all scientists and engineers are clueless about dealing with other people.

Go for advice only to people you trust to really have your back or be invested in your success. For instance, your grant got trashed in review. I know how disheartening and disorienting it may be; my heart still sinks every time I get a rejection even though you’d think I’d be used to it by now. And I am, on an intellectual level, but not emotionally. So I bitch and whine and moan to my husband, but to absolutely nobody else any more. Whining about grant rejection is, as one of my colleagues says, ‘loser talk.’  Most people think the same thing, they just don’t say it. Just like most people think men are the default in STEM and women are not “real” candidates, but can be considered if exceptional, they just no longer say it. (Yes, I am disillusioned  after spending too much time serving on the recruitment committee.) So whine about grant rejection to department colleagues at your own risk; I assure you most will think it’s your fault.

What if you crave external validation, someone to give you thumbs up that you are doing a good job? I certainly do. Here’s the deal — it’s just not coming, definitely not with the frequency or the intensity that you need. People are too busy worrying about themselves, and it is assumed that, as a grownup scientist, you are confident (hahahaha). Unless you have the right network of accolade-nominating champions around you, pretty much all you have to go on are published papers, invited talks, awarded grants. They do mean that you are doing well, or at least not doing poorly. (This is me taking myself up as much as spewing advice into the ether.)

As for me, I find that focusing on my academic kids is really fulfilling. I make a point of supporting the people who are mine to support  — my students and postdocs — in the strongest possible terms, in the way I wish I had been supported by my elders, making sure they get the recognition and opportunities they deserve. So at least my scientific progeny will be able to say there is  someone out there who looks out for their careers.


Notes from the Search

We have been interviewing and it’s been quite exhausting. But, the process reveals more about the colleagues with whom I interact in regards to the search than it does about the candidates.

My school is a large and reputable public school and the department ranks about 15th in the discipline. We are no MIT or Stanford, but we are nothing to sneeze at, so I think it makes sense to look for a candidate who actually wants to come here, as opposed to someone who is settling for us. No one knows what tomorrow brings, but I want a candidate who, at the time of signing the contract with us, is genuinely excited about joining the department and enthusiastic about all the years of hard work and collaborations ahead.

I don’t want a candidate who is taking this offer because we were the safety school and they didn’t get any offers from any of the several schools where they also interviewed, all located in a specific, widely desirable part of the country far from here. This candidate will likely be out of here before you can say “Rumpelstiltskin” because they never actually wanted to be here anyway.

One straw-man counter-argument that was raised is why would you want someone who can’t leave? You want someone who is very good and can leave whenever they want.

I don’t want someone who can’t leave. I want someone who can but doesn’t want to leave, at least not before the ink dries on the contract. Yes, I want us to hire someone who is very good and can leave whenever they want, and who has multiple offers, but who actually chooses to be here. I don’t want us to hire someone whom no one else wants; however, I also don’t want someone (no matter how good they seem) who feels that we are beneath their level and who will be looking for the first chance to upgrade.

Signing that tenure-track contract is like getting married — you better be enthusiastic about it on your wedding day, otherwise what’s the point? Sure, people “get divorced” from their institutions and move on, but if you don’t actually want to be doing it from the get-go, better not do it at all.  Start-ups cost money, searches require energy and time. I know that the loss of each faculty member due to moving or retirement disrupts the department. I don’t like the attitude that we should be grateful to get the “best possible person” if even for a few years. That argument is based on a fallacy that there is such a thing as “The One Best Possible Person”; there are plenty of very good and excellent people who would do great if given the chance.  I don’t want someone who will be entirely focused on getting out of here from day 1, I cannot imagine such a person would be a very good colleague or collaborator or contributor to the department.


Another interesting issue came up. We have a candidate who is fairly polished, but the past work is not particularly original. However, the candidate does give off the same vibe as one of our best-funded people, so I am confident the candidate will be  be successful in the game of schmoozing with program managers. Another candidate is less polished but much more creative and intellectually unique. Some people have raised concerns that the latter candidate might not be successful in talking to grant managers.

Look, I am not deluded, I fully understand that you cannot do science without money. But I really don’t understand when the ability to sell, and sell hard, became the most important criterion in recruitment. I would like to think that a person who has interesting and varied ideas and is not a douche could be trained to write grants, alone and with collaborators. I don’t know that you can actually train someone to become original or creative. Are we supposed to do the best science, and raise the money to support it, or are we supposed to raise the money, regardless of what it’s for?


Bias rears its ugly head. People are really, really drawn to the candidates to whom they are very similar.

  • For several searches in a row, a colleague always favors a candidate from the same country of origin, even when others in-area unanimously favor someone else. (That same colleague also collaborates only with compatriots and only brings in students from the same country. This cannot be a good thing.)
  • Some colleagues will penalize a candidate for having a presentation style and general demeanor different from their own; we have a subarea that is starting to look like it’s populated by clones or, at the very least, siblings.
  • Chubby candidates seem to fare worse than thin ones; I wish it weren’t true, but it is. No matter how well they present, they are never perceived to be quite as polished as the very thin ones, especially by the very thin and polished members of the faculty. This makes me want to eat a cookie.

Following Up with New Connections

In a comment to my recent post, “Musings on Networking,” TheGrinch asked:

Any advice on how to follow up / be in touch with new connections?

How to follow up depends a little on what type of interaction you had. With some people you just had a nice brief chat, but you didn’t connect either professionally or personally. I would say you don’t have to follow up with them at all, just be friendly if you meet them again somewhere in the future.

If you connected with someone personally, like if you are both grad students and went bar-hopping, then just do the usual friendly stuff that you young folks do :): email, text, Facebook, tweet. Whatever feels comfortable.

But if you connected with someone mostly professionally, if you do similar research, that’s actually quite easy because scientists are huge geeks in the best sense of the word: they are passionate about their work and LOVE to find someone else who shares their passion. In this case, a few days after the conference, I usually send an email saying something like this (unless I get a similar email from the other party first!):

Hi NewSciBuddy,

This is Xykademiqz from the University of New Caprica. It was a real pleasure to meet you last week at the 15th International Conference of Awesome. I enjoyed hearing about your research on superawesome spins and ultraawesome laser pulses. As promised, I am sending you a PDF of my presentation, as well as the preprints of the Glam Mag and Reputable Society Journal papers that I mentioned when we spoke; they are about to come out in the next month. 

[Optional 1: Invite  them to come give a talk at your place, such as “Would you like to come give a talk at UNC? Our seminar series is on Tuesdays. If you are interested, send me a few dates that work.” If they tentatively invited you to their institution and you really want to go, you can throw it out there and say “About me coming to give a talk at your place, I could do mid-April or early May. Let me know which dates would work. Thanks again!

Optional 2: Insert joke about weather/sport/food in exotic locales/travel/something not entirely technical that you might have discussed.]

Best wishes/regards, 


When someone I know sends me their papers, I always at least briefly take a look, and I think most people do.  I have several colleagues with whom I have a relationship where we will just send each other our new papers that we think the other one might find interesting, accompanied by  a few pleasantries and general information about life (for instance, if you send your new papers, you might also add that you are moving institutions). Then, we hang out whenever we meet at conferences again, but usually not all the time, a few meals or coffee breaks. With a few colleagues the relationship has become a tad closer, in that we will actually send each other emails to the effect of “Long time no see, what have you been up to?” In that case, I would say mentioning that you got married or pregnant or that someone close had passed away would probably be OK. A couple of my European colleagues send me Christmas cards. With quite a few I have an open invitation to come and give a talk whenever I am in Europe, which I did take advantage of once or twice.

Also, if you see the other person’s new paper in a journal, that’s an excellent excuse to ping them  (“Just saw your paper in Nature, congratulations!” ) The same holds if you see they won an award — be happy for them and let them know you are!

Overall, try to keep it friendly and light, perhaps a little aloof.  You certainly shouldn’t push anything. 

I will shut up now and let others chime in.

What say you, blogosphere: Once you have met new people at a conference, how do you stay in touch? 

Musings on Networking

Presenting work at conferences is an important part of being a scientist. It falls under the broad umbrella of making your research known to the scientific community. Being able to create and deliver a good presentation is an inherent part of graduate and postdoctoral training.

Let’s say you are a junior scientist — a graduate student or a postdoc — and you are attending a conference. Generally, your primary purpose is to present a paper (otherwise it would be considerably harder to justify your expenses to the university financial services and therefore harder to get your trip reimbursed on the professor’s grant). You present a paper and hopefully do a decent job. The probability of having a talk versus a poster depends on the field and the particular conference. In some communities posters are looked down upon; in others, poster sessions are a very important mode of interaction among the conference participants. If you have a talk, ideally you practiced in front of your group members at least once (“the dry run”); in my group we do it once for senior grad students and postdocs, usually more than once for inexperienced students.

So you survived the talk and/or your poster session. What do you do the rest of the time? Are you alone at the conference, without anyone you know? Do you perhaps have some of your group mates around? Is the whole group attending, including your advisor/PI? If there are other group members around, you may even go together to do some sightseeing. Also, it is important to actually take advantage of the technical program and attend the talks and poster presentation of other people whose work relates to yours.

But whether you are attending the conference by yourself or are there with the group, conferences are your chances to meet other scientists and enhance your professional… NETWORK. (bwahahahaha!) Networking is considered a dirty word among many academics, who seem to viscerally reject it as being a gauche corporate term for schmoozing, something that the presumably intellectually pure ivory-tower dwellers needn’t engage in. In my opinion, it just means meeting people, getting to know them, and generally trying to not be a douche to them, whoever they are. Some small fraction of the people you meet may turn out to be professionally useful to you. Others, not so much. But spending a few minutes chatting with someone need not be torture.

Like any group of people, scientists vary in their social prowess. Still, I think it’s safe to say that people in the physical sciences are not considered the beacons of congeniality. These days, however, you cannot be an extremely successful scientist without at least average social skills. For instance, I know a very successful young PI who would come to a conference with a list of people he wanted to meet, and he literally would not rest until he met every single one of them. He is supremely energetic and charismatic, probably on par with the best ad executives, lawyers, or businessmen. He also happens to be a very creative scientist, and this combination of extroversion, charisma, and technical excellence is a great recipe for his success in today’s “show me the grants” science model.

Most other scientists are more introverted or not quite as charismatic. Still, networking is necessary, unavoidable, but can luckily be even fun. Or, at least, it can be practiced to the point of becoming bearable.

— The best way to make good professional connections is at small or mid-size meetings, like workshops, where attendance is smaller but the attendees have a lot of chance to interact with one another. After 2-3 years of showing up, people will start recognizing you and saying ‘hi’ just because they have seen you around. Even if you feel awkward and totally out of place the first (or second, or third) time around, just showing up repeatedly will make people used to you and you might actually start feeling like you belong there. What I would recommend for a junior scientist from grad student to tenure-track faculty is to identify 2-3 small or medium conferences where if makes sense for you to show up every time; it is the best way to find a community where you will comfortable, and where you can feel supported, both in the abstract sense and in  terms of having future collaborators or just general connoisseurs and proponents of your work.

— You don’t have to force it. There are plenty of relatively low-effort opportunities for networking at conferences. Every conference has some sort of an opening reception, most have a banquet near the end, then there is the poster session or sessions, coffee breaks, and lunch breaks. These are all chances to talk to people if you feel like it.  I completely understand not wanting to talk to anyone, wanting to have your lunch or your coffee in peace. But try not to spend 100% of your lunch or coffee breaks alone or with the people whom you know well from your research group. Even if you aim for meeting one new person per week-long conference, that’s still something!

For instance, when you are  alone at a conference, if you pay attention you will see there are always tables with people who also seem to be there on their own. You can certainly  sit at one such table and try to start a conversation. Usually it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s no big deal. The point is to meet someone new, practice small talk, talk about what you do, hear about their work, and then move on. (The art of moving on is also a very important one and one that even many senior folks really have to master — reading cues that the interaction has run its course and you should go your separate ways. And try not take it personally.)

— Many people are very discriminating when it comes to chatting with people at conferences. Both junior and senior people are often guilty of bending over backwards to talk to someone they perceive as important , and don’t think twice about ignoring someone they consider lower on the totem pole,  unimportant,  or generally unremarkable (a student, a postdoc, a woman they consider to just be someone’s accompanying person…) . I have often been on the receiving end of people assuming I am no one of consequence — usually because they think I am a student or someone’s wife, although the former becomes less common the older and fatter I get — so I am relatively desensitized to it, I generally correct people or assert who I am, and it doesn’t bother me too much unless it’s really egregious. One example of a blatant slight was the guy I met at a recent grantee meeting for a federal agency.  We were all walking up to the cafeteria and I was talking to a big-shot graybeard from another institution with whom one of my former undergrads is now a grad student. This other guy came up to us, looked me over like I was the shit on his shoe, wedged into the conversation then quickly screened me out, first passing by me then starting to walk right in front of me and cutting me off from the person I had been talking to. You bet I will remember this guy, but not fondly. 

It is basic decency to talk to anyone like they are a worthwhile human being. But when it comes to forwarding their professional agenda, many people seem to forget this rule. So perhaps it’s useful to rephrase it in the professional networking context: talk to everyone as if they matter to your agenda, because you have no idea when a certain connection, a certain 10-min chat, may actually materialize into something that benefits you. It is never a bad idea to be kind to another person. I personally don’t mind small talk; people usually like to talk about themselves, and I like hearing their stories and learning something new about different universities and areas of research. So I just go on autopilot and ask questions along the following lines: I ask about the university, how large it is, what they do for research, how large the group is, if they come to this conference often, what are the other important meetings in their field. Then if it’s a PI at a public university, I may ask about state support, departmental size, if they have had recent hires, how are tenure criteria, then we may kvetch about funding in general if there is time, discuss where each one of us gets funding from etc. If a student or postdoc, I ask what they do, how far along the program they are, what they plan to do when they graduate, where have other people from their group ended up. If I happen to talk to someone’s spouse, there’s stuff to ask about the city they live in, how their trip was, if they have stuff planned for after the conference, sometimes we talk about kids, which I enjoy.  When you think of it, the whole small talk business is quite formulaic, and thus hopefully less intimidating. The point is that it should not be hard to spend a pleasant 10 min talking to pretty much anyone and learn a little about them. Being a listener is an excellent quality for making connections with other people.

— One  thing that someone mentioned years ago in response to one of my posts over at the Academic Jungle, I think it was Pika, is to forget about sucking up to the big guys and hang out with your peers. This is a very important point.

Everyone always tries to chat up the big shots, who might meet you but will usually forget you, especially if you are junior [unless they know of your work (i.e. they know your advisor) or you have been introduced to them by your advisor  (i.e. they know your advisor)]. It’s also quite amusing how much many of the big shots enjoy all the attention… but I digress.  So just hang out with the people your own age instead. Making friends with other young folks is not only easier when you are a student or postdoc, but those young folks are your actual peers. They are the leaders of tomorrow, and those conference connections of today are collaborative proposals, grants, and postdoc placements for your students of tomorrow.

— Finally, you don’t feel like interacting with other humans? Then don’t. If you are painfully shy, too busy,  temporarily not in the mood to talk to people, or generally misanthropic, that’s fine. It’s OK to keep to yourself, no need for to torture yourself or others; you have my blessing.

But… If you don’t actually mind talking to people, I would say just relax and talk to whoever seems interested in talking to you. That’s all you need to do, that’s networking.

Academic Job Search — Some Things That Perhaps Shouldn’t Matter But Do

Over the past few weeks I have been looking at tenure-track faculty applications. Most candidates are on their first postdoc, with some who are about to finish graduate school and some on their second postdoc, or even further in their career. As I have written before, most applications are unfortunately not competitive and will be eliminated during the initial screening process. What we look for is a fairly high publication rate in reputable journals, with clear evidence that the candidate themselves is very strong, as opposed to just having been carried along by a productive group. In general, that means we look for a number of good first author papers (ideally, we know the papers and what’s in them and how influential they have been, but in the absence of direct knowledge of the content, the journal reputation often serves as proxy in determining the approximate quality).

For candidates who look strong and productive on paper, we want to see what the people who know them have to say. Once the list is down to about 20 applications, we send out requests for letters. It’s customary to have the list of references as part of the application package, usually in the back of the CV. Typical faculty search ads ask for at least three references, and all candidates have at least as many. However, on the one hand you have a candidate with three names, either all professors from the candidate’s graduate school or the postdoc advisor, PhD advisor, and another grad school prof. On the other hand, you have a candidate with 5-6 names, of which two are the usual-suspect postdoc and PhD advisors, but there are also 3-4 other faculty, all big names from various universities  around the country. Who do you think gives off a better impression when you glance at their reference list?

What I have noticed is that US-born candidates from strong groups are much more likely to have these numerous and varied connections, whereas foreigners have fewer on average. I am sure it’s partly cultural, perhaps stellar candidates who grew up in the US have had longer to absorb the need to network and have worked on it, many of them having started to do research and present their findings at conferences as early as their undergraduate years. When I see a foreigner with a great publication record but a very brief list of references, I wonder why those advisors haven’t pushed the candidate to network more. Being a good person in the lab is great, but not enough for the junior candidate themselves. I feel that certain faculty are happy to keep a junior person in the lab, cranking out data, and don’t offer (or better yet nudge!) their apprentice to develop other aspects, such as build their own collaborations and connections. If the candidate is perhaps unsure of their English and not crazy about giving talks at conferences, or the candidate cannot travel for other reasons, such as having young children (obviously, this holds for US and foreign-born people alike), then you have a potentially great person who has not received enough exposure or had the chance to develop their own reputation as a rising star, and despite all their potential and hard work they will not do as well as they should on the faculty job market.

Then come the letters. Much has been written about how letters from the US are all glowing, gooey with superlatives, while those from Europe and Asia are more terse. In my experience, terse Europeans are perfectly capable of conveying strong support if they are so inclined, they just take fewer pages and fewer adjectives to do so.  Moreover, American letters are longer and more wordy, but they too convey their intentions just fine — there are the sparkling but generic letters of an emotionally uninvested letter writer versus those that are strong, specific, and reveal a deep personal interest in the candidate’s success.  It seems that letters have gotten longer in recent years — a strong letter these days is 3 pages long, and very uniformly so across a large sample. I hear that 3 pages used to be the considered too long, but not any more. Shorter letters are fine from the people who are a little at an arm’s length from the candidate, but your advisors and close collaborators better have a lot of specific stuff to say about you. So it really makes a difference if you work for someone who knows how these things are done and can write a convincing  letter of support, versus someone who is unaware of what is perceived as strong these days or is simply less effective at conveying their support in written form. We see that the letters from top-notch groups look top-notch, no doubt because the candidates are great, but also because these big names are aware of what people are looking for, which gives their students and postdocs yet another advantage on the job market.

So not only does your PhD or postdoc advisor’s capacity to “play the game” affect your training, i.e. your ability to do and publish important work while being funded for it, but higher-order effects, such as writing you a strong letter or ensuring you form your own network, are of considerable importance for how you fare on the job market.

Academic Job Search — Surviving the First Cut


Prof. Xykademiqz gets ready to screen tenure-track applications

I am on a faculty search committee again this year. It’s a lot of work, but as far as faculty service obligations go, this one is really worth it because you have an influence over who your future colleagues will be and where the department will go in the long run.

Here, I will be talking about a physical science field and a research-intensive institution, one of the so-called “very high research activity” or R1 institutions according to the Carnegie classification [also referred to as a major research university (MRU)]. While the process somewhat varies between disciplines and types of institutions, many aspects are probably universal and therefore  worth sharing.

The committee work involves sifting through hundreds of applications in order to choose 3–5 who will be invited for an on-site interview. We don’t do phone or Skype interviews. Our committees consist mostly of people with expertise in the targeted area within the department, but also one or two people from other areas.  In my department, everyone on the committee sees every application;  I am sure there are committee-to-committee variations, some may split the application piles so each file is seen by only one person.  The process of selecting interviewees usually involves several steps. The first cut is done by every committee member on their own. This is the most drastic cut, which the vast majority of applications don’t survive, as the several-hundred-application pile is reduced to a few tens — the long list. While each committee member has their own, it’s actually surprising how much overlap there is among different people’s long lists. Input from others in the department may be solicited at this point. Then the committee meets once or twice to discuss the people on the long lists and reduce the number to a short list of 3–5, with perhaps a couple of alternates. These 3–5 need to get approved by the department executive committee (all tenured faculty) and the college dean to be invited to an interview. Therefore, the candidates have to have some pretty apparent markers of future promise that are easily defensible in front of the colleagues and the dean.

You, the applicant, need to survive the first cut and make the long list of at least one but preferably several people on the search committee. If you make no one’s, it is highly unlikely that anybody will give your application a second look.  This process is not unlike panel review of proposals — someone has to notice you and want to champion you, or you don’t really stand a chance. 

When I have hundreds of applications to sift through and the search is defined pretty broadly, there are three things that I immediately look for: your area of expertise, where you did your PhD and postdoc, and your publication record. Which first brings us to…

Documents: Different searches request different paperwork, but every search will ask for a cover letter and a CV. Some will ask for research and teaching statements. Some will ask that the references send letters right away, some just want the names of the references and will ask for letters if you are nearing the inclusion on the short list. Always, always, submit a cover letter, a CV, as well as research and teaching statements. Even if the ad does not explicitly ask for the last two, submit them anyway. Why? Because others do, and even though your application must technically be considered if you submitted the minimal required paperwork, once you are nearing the  inclusion on the short list it helps if people know in a bit more detail what it is that you actually want to do and how.

However, in order to survive the first cut, your past record is key, so your CV is the most important document. During the first round of screening, I only look at the CV, along with a few quick glances at the cover letter. The following information gets retrieved during the initial screening:

Area of expertise: Have it prominently somewhere in both the cover letter and the CV what your subfield is, or what your 2-3 broadly defined areas of interest are. I am grateful if within 5 seconds of opening your application I know what it is that you are an expert in. Here’s the rub — sometimes the ad is vague on purpose in terms of the area, because the department wants to cast a broad net and just hire whoever looks best. Sometimes it is vague because the department did not decide ahead of time what the priorities are. Sometimes there are well-defined priorities, but they are not in the ad for all sorts of reasons. All you, as applicant, can and should do is apply if the search appears to be even remotely receptive to your expertise and then keep your fingers crossed. There is no point in trying to guess what is behind an ad. Ads are crafted as much (or more) by HR as by the department and language often leaves much to be desired. Faculty job ad craftsmanship often brings to mind the proverb “Too many cooks spoil the broth.” 

Pedigree and publications: Where you come from — your pedigree, your PhD and postdoc institutions and groups —  this is all very important. We all believe that people who went to top schools must be very smart to get in, they get quality education, and they have reputable people vouching for them, so it’s hard to deny that pedigree matters.  However, it is not enough. It is very, very important how your publication list looks. If you have a PhD and postdoc with many first-author publications in reputable journals, you are the person I want to see. So, if you are serious about an academic position in a science field and you feel you have what it takes to do that job, but you are getting a PhD at a good but not top school , then you have to publish as much as possible as a grad student, more than a person from a more prestigious school. If your field requires a postdoc, then you also need to try to get into a good, productive, and if possible prominent group at a better university, where “better” generally means “better name recognition.” And keep publishing like your life depends on it. I know, this is easier said than done, as postdoc advisors are not be the world’s most nurturing demographic, especially those who are very successful at cutthroat places.  Also,  a bad match with a postdoc group pretty much effs you over for good, which is why you need to be as careful and and as informed as possible when trying to find the optimum combination of productivity and pedigree boost. And it doesn’t hurt to be a  little lucky. 

Finally, it may seem like the first cut during a faculty search is made somewhat crudely. However, among hundreds of applications, the truth is that the vast majority are simply not competitive at all — these applicants will never get a faculty position. I am probably wrong about a handful of them, but not about most. In an ideal world, someone would tell these people that their applications don’t look competitive for the type of position they seek. But then again, all sorts of unconscious biases can creep up into this type of advice, so perhaps it’s better to just let people apply. But you, as an applicant, can certainly try to talk to your PhD and postdoc advisors and find out what a typical record of a recent tenure-track hire looks like. You can also go online and look at the websites of assistant professors at institutions where you envision  working, count their publications and see how you measure up. Good luck!