“One-third of our job searches fail”

September 19, 2007

The DM has been talking, I think, about career progression in research focused tracks. This got started by some discussions around the usual blogs and even Science/Nature on the age old theme of “We’re producing too many Ph.D.s (or MD/PhDs) for the available jobs…it’s a crisis!” This is an issue that overlaps with traditional professor type job seeking. [UPDATE: 9/21/07, Chad Orzel has two thoughts on suckitude in the physics job market.] I’m trying to reconcile the usual thought that every academic job posting results in 200+ applications with a story I’ve heard twice in recent months.

The story is the quote that titles this post. I’ve heard it from two colleagues now which is why it sticks in mind. To expand, from the departmental job-search perspective, the applicant pool is not, repeat, not very deep. This is coming both from a heavy research focus University (R1 is the term, I think) and a private University with next to no research mission and a heavy teaching focus. The point, as I gather it, is that these departments will go to the considerable effort of a job search to end up with a “failure”. Which expresses itself as 1) hiring nobody because they couldn’t find the right candidate, 2) hiring nobody because the “right” candidate(s) went elsewhere instead or 3) hiring someone who didn’t fit and was gone within a few years.

Say what?

My perspective for some years now has been exclusively from the applicant viewpoint. I’ve not been on any hiring committees and I tend to talk mostly to trainees and jr faculty peers who are complaining about the dismal job market and the “hundreds” of competing applications for the same jobs. So the above is quite a surprise.

The big caveat is that this refers to the same type of Department. One which tends to be a little, shall we say, old fashioned in outlook in many institutions. So this is not a good general example of the modern biomedical science / NIH supported scenario. Still, the R1 department has NIH grants and they hire people with great research records and prospects. So there may be some general application. Not to mention that many of the reasons I suspect searches may go off-track is in satisfying Departmental politics, which should generalize well.

I’ll have to do some more opinion seeking on this. By all means chime in if you have experiences from the hiring perspective. But absent additional info it seems that we have some rules for job seekers:

-Keep applying. Jobs aren’t always filled from a given search. The same candidates are the “top” at multiple places and they can only take one job at a time.

-Use your networks and contacts to see how a Department views their recent searches, it may give you clues as to how to present yourself.

-Hundreds of apps to end up with maybe 5 applicant shortlists from which the Department can really only agree on 1-2? Suggests this ain’t about the usual objective qualities over which you obsess. There is a whole ‘nother game at foot in which things like schmoozing and interpersonal relationships matter. A lot. The phone call from your high-falutin’ supervising PI is only the start of this process.

-Women and minorities aren’t even on the radar. My wonderful state U. system outlawed affirmative action years ago. Things weren’t very balanced back then anyway but now? Forget about it. The upside being that if you are a woman or a minority that is competitive, you are going to be in very elite company indeed. With search committees that value diversity, you are going to be a very precious commodity.

30 Responses to ““One-third of our job searches fail””

  1. PhysioProf Says:

    I am at an R1 medical school in a basic science department, and have served on multiple search committees. We typically receive more than 100 applications. Of those, only about fifteen will even be credible. We will invite five or six of those to interview, and based on the interview process only one or two will be seen as suitable members of our department.

    Advice for job seekers:

    (1) Apply to as many searches as possible, including every single search that seems even remotely appropriate relative to your own research area. Job ads are designed by committee, invitations are given by committee, and then offers are usually decided on by the entire department. There is no telling what sort of internal dynamics can occur at each of these stages, and so it is foolish to take the detailed specifics of a job ad too seriously.

    (2) In our department “schmoozing” and “interpersonal relationships” are not so important. What is important is having reliable people be willing to vouch for the candidate.

    (3) The research plan and CV components of the application are absolutely critical. A credible applicant must have proven the ability to publish in high-profile journals. This is a pre-requisite for even becoming the subject of discussion as to whether an invite to interview is forthcoming. The research plan must be tailored to be appealing to the intended audience. And it must be layed out and written to be as easy as possible for the search committee members to read and process.

    (4) The interview process–which for us includes (a) formal job talk, (b) informal “chalk talk” to present and defend the research plan, and (c) one-on-one meetings with faculty. Each of these elements must be nailed to get an offer. The formal job talk must be the correct balance of background, experimental findings, and discussion of implications, and must be tailored to the particular audience.

    In our department, we pepper all seminar speakers–and particularly job candidates–with questions throughout the seminar. Some of our faculty get pleasure out of “scoring points” against the speaker. If you can’t handle this with humor and calmness, you are screwed. And you have to be able, of course, to think on your feet, and have reasonable answers for *any* question, no matter how absurd.

    In the informal chalk talk, the key is to present a credible research plan, be able to think on your feet, sound excited about your plans, and appear like what you are proposing is going to be fundable by NIH.

    The other key aspect of the chalk talk, is that the faculty will be trying to figure out exactly what aspects of your post-doctoral research you actually did yourself, or at least have enough experience and familiarity with that you will be able to employ these techniques in your own lab. This is to weed out applicants who were the first author of a collaborative interdisciplinary paper, but really only have command of some narrow aspect of the methodological bases for the work, and would not be capable of initiating and directing a research program based on the work as a whole.

    In the one-on-one meetings with faculty, our tradition–as at most departments–is that faculty give their own little presentation of their work to the seminar speaker. As a job candidate, you must demonstrate interest in the research of each faculty member, be able to ask interesting questions of them, and make it clear that you understand what they are talking about. These people are trying to figure out if you will be an interesting person to have around and have conversations with.

    “I tend to talk mostly to trainees and jr faculty peers who are complaining about the dismal job market and the ‘hundreds’ of competing applications for the same jobs.”

    If you are really a credible candidate for an R1 job, you will have at least one–and most likely two–first-author papers in high-impact journals. There are not hundreds of people who are credible candidates for these jobs; there are maybe a few dozen. Applicants who are not in that echelon are not really competing for R1 positions, even if they submit applications.

    It’s like a typical running race: there may be thousands of people registered for the race and running down the road, but only a very small fraction are really “in the race”, competing for the money prizes. The number of people solely with publications in lower-impact journals who submit applications is irrelevant to the competition among those who have publications in high-impact journals.


  2. Neuro-conservative Says:

    How high is high-impact in your book?


  3. PhysioProf Says:

    My department has not hired any tenure-track assistant professor in the last 10 years who did not have at least one first-author Science, Nature, or Cell paper. (This is not “my book”; this is just reality.) My impression is that this is close to universal for basic science faculty in R1 institutions in the biomedical sciences.


  4. drugmonkey Says:

    “My impression is that this is close to universal for basic science faculty in R1 institutions in the biomedical sciences.”

    Either we are not using the same definitions of “basic science”, “R1 institutions” and “biomedical sciences” or you are, um, flat out incorrect. You may be in an institution that shoots this high for all subfields. And sure, I’m familiar with departments that go for this.

    But in the, say, NIH top 20 funded universities this is by no means the “requirement” for being hired in the diversity of bioscience which is funded. Not even close.

    However, for those trainees that might be reading, PhysioProf touches on a good point which is that some departments and perhaps even whole subfields are going to have categorical cutoffs like this. Yet another way to thin the herd from their perspective. This is part of knowing what the standards are for your field. If you are targeting one of these types of jobs eventually, well, all the arguments in the world about the relative scientific quality of your full-story meticulous papers are going to fall flat if the standard is “C/N/S or bust”.


  5. PhysioProf Says:

    “Either we are not using the same definitions of ‘basic science’, ‘R1 institutions’ and ‘biomedical sciences’ or you are, um, flat out incorrect.”

    I did say it was my “impression”, so I fully accept that I could be wrong. I did take a look at the NIH funding list you linked to, and I do stand by my contention, at least in relation to my own subfield (which I’d rather not divulge). In my subfield, the only people who get tenure-track positions at those institutions are those who have Science, Nature, or Cell papers. This subfield is highly reductionistic, molecular, cellular, genetic, and physiological.

    Here are my definitions:

    “basic science faculty”: By this I mean non-clinical faculty who are doing laboratory research in basic science departments: physiology, pharmacology, neurobiology, biochemistry, genetics, etc., or in non-medical school biological sciences departments.

    “R1 institutions”: The most prestigious echelon of private and public research universities: Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, University of Pennsylvania, Johns Hopkins, UCSD, UCSF, University of Michigan, Northwestern, Duke, etc. (This is meant to be a representative list off the top of my head, not implying that any of these insitutions are more prestigious than others I didn’t list.)

    “biomedical sciences”: any sciences that are biological and/or medical.


  6. drugmonkey Says:

    I think the trouble comes in when you use broad terms like “biomedical sciences” and “basic science”. Clearly from your definitions we are talking about the same thing. However, from your examples, well you exhibit a sort of reflexive ignorance and/or snobbery. Common enough, the pure number of scientists engaged in these versus other fields explains a lot of it. So I’m not really faulting you. But you overlook evolutionary/ecological bio (yes, some of which is lab-based), the entire sphere of human and animal behavioral science, and possibly a great deal of anatomy, physiology, neuroimaging and the like. You may argue, sure, that if you don’t use molecular and cellular techniques you aren’t really doing science worth talking about. if so fine and I take your (fairly common) position, but believing this doesn’t make it so. there are still thousands of scientists laboring away on NIH funded projects that don’t include much, if any, of that sort of thing…

    However it does speak to your point about job search requirements. The point being that if you are doing molecular, cellular and genetic “basic science” work, you are in fields in which, yes, there are some expectations of very high profile journals appearing on the CV.

    Neuro-con: Your ? may have been somewhat rhetorical but possibly for others, I have the following thoughts. Looking on ISI’s impact factors for the categories of neurosci, physiology, psychology, pharmacology, cell bio and multidiscipline we get the following for non-review journals:
    Science (30), Cell (29.2) and Nature (26.7) are, as expected, distinguishable as special. This why we get the specificity of the C(ell)/N(ature)/S(cience) descriptor. shouldn’t be any arguments here.

    then we get to the Genes&Develop (15) Behav Br Sci (14.9) Nat Neurosci (14.8), Neuron (13.9), etc cluster (there’s a few more in here with the cell bio focus).

    I would think this latter range tends to get included frequently when people talk about “high impact” and are not meaning C/N/S specifically.

    next we have the big pack in the 5-10 Impact range, meaning a big block of 6-8 IF, a few 9-10. Whether someone calls this high-impact or not depends on point of view but I’d say it is always a qualified use at this point. basically in a case where it is higher impact than expected for a given field where the typical pub might be in the 2-4 IF (typically society journal) range. but mostly this is mid-impact or at best “higher” impact. I will note that there are certain subfields that are generally going to categorically peak out in this range of J Neurosci, Brain, Neuropsychopharm- unless the work is really particularly special in terms of the ideas (as opposed to the techniques). The point being for those types of jobs, these may form the “1 first author paper in Journal X criterion” as PhysioP constructs it for C/N/S type departments/fields.

    Then we get to the 2-4 which is not the last stop for peer-reviewed research but it is getting close. IME, down around 2 is about the starting point for someplace you’d want to bother submitting. This is, of course, arbitrary. There will be very small subfields with perfectly good articles which get very little activity because the fields are so small. say, primatology, animal behavior and zoology for example. However, as a grant reviewer if I’m seeing only journals below 2 IF my eyebrows start going up.


  7. Psych-o Says:

    DM, Does it make any difference then along the 2-6 Impact Factor range? I can think of one behavioral pharm (I think it is in the 2 range) that is widely considered a journal of last resort after getting rejected elsewhere. Another one, only a point or two higher is considered good because it has a very narrow category which it heads. Then there are a bunch of different pharm journals that inch up in Impact but never get much higher than 6. Who cares? Is it worth the gamble of getting rejected and losing ~5 mo time for a 2 point increase in journal Impact?


  8. drugmonkey Says:

    Psycho, I can offer a few thoughts.
    Yes, higher is always better so whenever all-else-equal, sure, opt for the higher IF. You can rail about the stupidity all you like, I know I did. I don’t like any part of this. But c’mon, sometimes you have to face facts and we are moving toward more and more dispassionate quantification of your CV. So you want your life averages to be as good as possible.

    Two, I know a lab which almost universally starts “too high”- I don’t know for sure but I think their rejections per MS rate is greater than 1. I have a hard time getting my head around this practice as it seems like a waste of time; one wants to see the finished MS in press asap, no? Still, I’ve had a recent experience where I thought something had no chance at a higher-than-my-ave but not a complete stretch J and it went in easy as pie. After I got done with the slapping forehead and go-figgers this went into the maybe-I-need-to-reconsider file. I’m slipping toward the shoot-too-high philosophy…

    Finally, you have to have a pub rate. and no, a movement of 2 points in journal Impact is not worth having a year with no pubs on your CV. So sometimes the prospect of the time to be lost in review dictates more of a safe-outlet approach.


  9. PhysioProf Says:

    “You may argue, sure, that if you don’t use molecular and cellular techniques you aren’t really doing science worth talking about.”

    This is not at all my opinion, and I’m sorry if I gave that impression. I was just trying to be as specific as possible so that the limitations on my own perspective are clear to anyone reading this discussion.

    “Two, I know a lab which almost universally starts ‘too high’- I don’t know for sure but I think their rejections per MS rate is greater than 1. I have a hard time getting my head around this practice as it seems like a waste of time; one wants to see the finished MS in press asap, no?”

    One wants to see the finished MS published in the highest possible profile journal, no matter how long it takes. Spending a lot of time in the “trickle down” process has to be weighed against the risk of getting scooped, in which case the trickle becomes a flush.

    “Finally, you have to have a pub rate. and no, a movement of 2 points in journal Impact is not worth having a year with no pubs on your CV. So sometimes the prospect of the time to be lost in review dictates more of a safe-outlet approach.”

    I believe that this factor is greatly over-rated as playing a role in assessment of scientific productivity. I do, however, agree that a 2 point swing in impact factor is not worth concerning oneself with, unless you’re already down in the basement.


  10. Neuro-conservative Says:

    My question was far from rhetorical — I was actually interested in exactly the discussion that is happening here.

    In my subfield, very few papers are going to the top- and second-tier journals (Neuron and up). Thus, there are perhaps more gradations in the ranks between IF=2 to IF=10, and I think 2 points can be worth fighting for.

    I personally draw a sharp distinction between the 5+ journals and the 2-4 journals. There is objectively a strong inflection in the number of journals that exist with IF4.5. Also, I have enough time each week/month to keep track of new online articles in the former, but not the latter category — so if an article emerges in the lower tier, I might not notice it until I happen to be doing a PubMed search.

    I recognize that their is tremendous variance across subfields, however.


  11. Neuro-conservative Says:

    One sentence got a little mangled above. Should read:

    There is objectively a strong inflection in the number of journals that exist with IF>4.5 vs. those less than 4.5 or so. Also, I have enough time each week/month to keep track of new online articles in the former (4.5+), but not the latter category.


  12. bikemonkey Says:

    Twwwwwweeeeeeet! Timeout. Fun’s fun with the IF obsession (DM I’m looking at you) but can we get back to the main point?

    PhysioP, you said only about 15 apps for a job would be credible. Okay, maybe you use the C/N/S as one screen but what else? Who are these applicants that don’t have a chance?

    This is relevant to mentoring, etc. about when it is time to job seek. I mean, is time post-doc’ing relevant (no chance for new PhDs)? Are you seeing apps with no first-author pubs? Etc.

    I may not be saying this well but for real world mentoring and applicants, it makes a difference if someone is going to hit the 10 apps just off the shortlist or if they are mired back in the 50-60th position. The former can maybe be addressed by small tweaks for the next cycle, for example. Those are cases where one more pub might make the difference, or one year of hitting every meeting, etc.

    What further gradations can we make between the short lists, the in-the-running and the no-way candidates?


  13. PhysioProf Says:

    “What further gradations can we make between the short lists, the in-the-running and the no-way candidates?”

    Any one of the following will make a candidate “no-way” for my department:

    (1) No post-doctoral training in the United States.

    (2) No first-author papers as a post-doc.

    (3) Area of research is not even remotely close to what we are looking for.

    (4) Research Plan is written with abysmal spelling and grammar.

    (5) No letters of reference from faculty at a United States institution.

    You would not believe the applications we get. The majority take 15 seconds to categorize as “no-way”. We are a basic science department in a medical school, and we will get applications from people who have just received their PhD in plant breeding from a rural university in a foreign country and have never published a paper in an English language journal. (I am not criticizing people who have just received their PhD in plant breeding from a rural university in a foreign country and have never published a paper in an English language journal. The only point is that they are not even close to suitable to be faculty in a basic science department in a medical school in the US.)

    The difference between “short-list” (which I take to mean, “invited to interview”) and “in-the-running” (which I take to mean “subject to discussion by the search committee but not ultimately invited to interview”) is much more subtle and subjective. Important factors are as follows (in no particular order):

    (1) Letters of reference: Since there is massive inflation of opinions in letters of reference, even the slightest hint of reservations about the ability of the applicant to create and sustain an independent research program is taken seriously, as are any hints of character difficulties. A supportive letter from someone important in the applicant’s field, but who has no personal stake in the success of the applicant–i.e., not a former mentor or collaborator–is a very good thing.

    (2) The research plan: How well written is it? How interesting does the proposed research sound? Does the candidate seem to have a big picture view of their field?

    (3) Publications: With one first-author Science, Nature, or Cell article, depending on the other factors, you still might not get an interview. With two, you will get an interview. Obviously, some indication of productivity, meaning additional publications in decent journals is useful. Additional publications in low-impact journals (IF < 4.5) are not really useful.

    (4) Proven ability to successfully compete for grants: NSF graduate fellowships are nice. NIH individual NRSA fellowships are much more helpful, as are Burroughs-Welcome post-doc/junior faculty transition awards. Already having a research grant or other funds to bring with you is irrelevant. It is not the possession of funds that we care about; it is the proven ability to get them.

    (5) The area of research: This is a very subtle one, and is in part the reason for my suggestion upthread to send applications to *every* search that is even remotely relevant to the applicant’s area of research. The job ad only tells part of the story of what a department is looking for in terms of research area, and there is no way for the applicant to know what other things are going on in a search committee and/or department as a whole, in terms of factions, individual differences in opinion, etc.

    For example, there are several faculty in my department who have a philosophical objection to job searches targeted to a specific subfield within our field. They want “the best possible candidate” in our discipline, regardless of subfield. So even though as a matter of departmental policy we might decide we want to shore up our representation in a particular subfield, these faculty will support or fail to support candidates without taking the subfield into account.

    The language in job ads is usually generated, or at least agreed to, by committee. This means that different members of the search committee can have different understandings of the meaning of the language, and different perceptions of what sorts of research areas are within its scope.

    Since the applicant has no way to know any of these factors, it pays to send out as many applications as possible.

    (6) Schmoozery: The more people you have pulling for you, and the more weight is given to their opinions, the better off you are as an applicant. In my department, this tends to not be so important, though, and even candidates without “big gun” supporters can do very well in our searches, and be hired by our department. (This was the case for me.)

    (7) CV: There has been some discussion of CVs over at Young Female Scientist (who, incidentally, seems to be censoring my posts, so I stopped posting there; I guess she thinks I’m a post-doc hater), in relation to including things like conference posters, conference talks, invited seminars, manuscripts in preparation, participation in peer review, etc. Speaking solely in relation to entry-level faculty job searches, the only things that are relevant are (1) history of education and training, (2) awards, (3) grants, (4) papers published in the peer-reviewed literature. Nothing else matters to us, including teaching. And we don’t care at this point in the process what your hobbies are, whether you are married or have kids, when you were born, or whether you are healthy.

    (To head off any concerns: This is the practice in my department; I don’t know if it is universal. Based on hearing things pursuant to my own job search, and from faculty who have participated in job searches at other institutions, however, I am pretty sure it is not totally outside the range of typical practice.)

    (Also, I am not expressing an opinion of whether this is good/bad, fair/unfair, or nice/naughty. I am just describing reality.)


  14. drugmonkey Says:

    -moving this one over from another thread.

    “Okay, BM, let’s talk turkey then. Let’s take a case study of say the UCSD Psych Dept. Just pullin’ this out of thin air, I SWEAR! LOL.

    They’ve had jobs open for pretty much the last 5-7 years I think and they’ve hired a few people. But WTF are they looking for? (I mean, this is a department founded by the likes of Tony Deutsch for chrissakes. George Mandler, Ed-freaking Fantino!) UCSD is R1 for sure. But then all the current mid-to-senior types are specialty-publishers. Impact is clearly not an issue as they are split off into various subfields like psycholinguistics and what have you. Biopsych has been pretty much nonexistent for years (did I mention Tony Deutsch? You can’t go through the history of just about any area of biological / neuroscience-y psych without tripping over him!) and now they are hiring again. So WTF? How to tell if one is in the running for what they want? Do a bit of research and you’ll see that Impact Factor and NIH grants are clearly not a big deal. The most important in their subfields? Well sure the mid-to-senior people have big names but all their recent hires are not particularly impressive. Not that they won’t become luminaries but this doesn’t help with interpreting who is in contention for a job…”


  15. drugmonkey Says:

    The “area of research” and “job description by committee” thing is a great point and it applies to nonacademic jobs too (if to a lesser extent). I often find postdocs looking desperately for the one job ad that fits them exactly. I know I had this approach. As luck would have it I didn’t actually have to search that hard for a job. But I was doing the prelims and was looking for the perfect fit at one point.

    Now, I find my eye is automatically more generous when looking over the Observer or back pages of Science. I look at things and say “that’s for me” when before I’d think “well it isn’t a very good fit for my research and CV, wah there are no jobs for me”. It can be as simple as the job descriptor, the department searching or the supposed qualifications. They seem like rule in / out criteria but they often are not.

    The point that PhysioProf is making and I’ll underline is that search committees are often willing to get excited about someone who is… exciting, even if the research plan doesn’t fit exactly with their preconceptions.


  16. Anon dean Says:

    I’m at a top-quartile-but-not-top-tier research university, and believe PhysioProf’s comments and numbers are about right. In all of our searches, the great majority of applicants are not really credible: they are not in the advertised subfield or at the right level, they have no high impact pubs, they have not shown real independence in their postdocs, or they don’t have letters making a strong case for the candidate’s future success in a competitive research and funding environment.

    A pub doesn’t have to be in a high impact journal (C/N/S) to be high impact, but there must be a strong case made in letters by credible people for the importance of the work. And in most (but not all) of our departments, most (but not all) of our hires are of people with first author publications in C/N/S (or Phys Rev Letters, or similar journals in other fields).

    When hiring junior faculty, departments are, in the end, looking for the same thing that the editors of these journals are looking for: research with broad impact on the field, and of broad interest. So it isn’t too surprising that there is a strong correlation between these kinds of pubs and success on the job market. But I don’t think it is accurate that a filter is generally applied based on journal names, and I think in most cases a candidate is better off spending more time on the research itself and less time fiddling with exactly where the research is published.


  17. drugmonkey Says:

    “Not that they won’t become luminaries but this doesn’t help with interpreting who is in contention for a job…”

    BM may not want to chime in too much for obvious reasons. But this latter thing is general and too important to pass up.

    Most R1 institutions have at the back or front of their minds the idea that a new hire will eventually become a luminary. They tart it up in the promotion language with things like “internationally recognized expert in their field” and the like. So part of what they are doing is trying to locate those people who they can convince themselves will become said luminary. This has many different implications. In more empirical fields, they want to see that you are going to crank away generating lots of papers and lots of data and lots of high impact journal papers. In the more theoretical fields, they want to focus on your essential theoretical contribution. Basically, do you have BigIdeas. Testing them is nice but…:-) Your department of concern focuses on the latter, imo. There is a certain lack of interest in basic empirical research there that may have caused their uneasy relationship with the more-biological side of things. Not to mention the fact that neuroscience has metastasized at that U. and there are issues of departmental overlap. fwiw.


  18. drugmonkey Says:

    PhysioProf: “There has been some discussion of CVs over at Young Female Scientist (who, incidentally, seems to be censoring my posts, so I stopped posting there; I guess she thinks I’m a post-doc hater)”

    well for whatever extent my lifting your quote up as an example had, my apologies.

    the whole thing has been kind of fascinating. we get a ton of hits on that post from YFS, AmIaWomanSci etc suggesting the disgruntled trainee is a huge populations, but we knew that already :-). for the most part those motivated to comment here or elsewhere take the “this couldn’t possibly apply to ME!” tack.

    The CV threads have been interesting because one is sort of thinking to oneself “ok, you complain about dismal prospects and you don’t know how to construct a proper CV??!!!?!!!!!??!!!”


  19. PhysioProf Says:

    The funny thing about the disgruntled post-doc stuff is that there is a tendency–exemplified by YFS–of seeming to be more interested in getting a cookie than in getting an independent position. You’d think these post-docs would be interested in the perceptions of that category of individual whose perceptions are going to determine the future of their careers.

    Even if we PIs are total exploitative assholes who hate post-docs, what we think should still be of great interest to them.


  20. drugmonkey Says:

    well, i’m pretty sure you must’ve followed that Zuska/Rob Knop flareup as well. not that the feminist blogging perspective in academics is all job seeking but there is a similar purposing of the blogging. i.e., to rant and to get reinforced by the choir.

    ok. fine enough. I got some PI choir reinforcing going here too.

    but feel-good doesn’t get the hay in the barn. and that is what frustrates me about online discussions. progress doesn’t seem to be made. at least in terms of what the “other” side says.

    ultimately though what keeps me reading YFS is that it IS good insight into the mind of the postdoc. not all of them, sure. a little self-involved, sure. but just because I was there once doesn’t mean I haven’t forgotten some things…


  21. PhysioProf Says:

    “[U]ltimately though what keeps me reading YFS is that it IS good insight into the mind of the postdoc.”

    I actually believe that reading YFS is good insight into the mind of the kind of clueless post-doc who is focused on exactly those things that are irrelevant to her future success, and who willfully refuses to accept those features of reality that determine her future success. Her most recent post is a perfect example:

    “Several people have made comments on the CV posts to the effect of ‘Don’t do this because it sounds too desperate.’

    This is something I fundamentally don’t understand about human psychology. But it’s true. It’s true for dating, so why shouldn’t it be true for jobs?

    I understand that you don’t want someone to settle for a job they didn’t really want, just to get out of their current miserable situation, and then be a flight risk when they come to their senses. I get that.

    But, um, I really hate being a postdoc??!! And I’m not really sure that’s any secret for most people at the stage of applying for faculty positions.”

    This is so clueless about how faculty search committees think, on so many different levels, that it’s hard to even know where to start. I will point out a few things.

    What would concern a faculty search committee about a post-doc seeming desperate because she hates being a post-doc is not that she would be a “flight risk”. This is hilariously wrong. Once you are ensconced in a tenure-track assistant professor position, you are the furthest thing from a “flight risk”. You are locked in pretty tightly in such a position, and search committees know it. Anyone applying for an entry-level tenure-track position who already has one looks very suspicious, unless there is some sort of spouse/geography explanation.

    One thing that concerns a search committee about someone seeming desperate is the knowledge that–as YFS seems to recognize in relation to dating–desperation turns people off. It turns off students and post-docs who might consider working in the lab of the new PI, it turns off funding agencies, it turns off journal editors, and it turns off senior colleagues in one’s field. If the post-doc does not have the self-control to put forward a confident self-assured face towards the search committee, it doesn’t bode well for their ability to do so in other contexts. And all new PIs are desperate; they just have to make sure that they don’t ever act like it.

    Another thing about seeming desperate that is a concern, is that it suggests that the applicant does not have the emotional maturity and evenness to deal with the *many* extremely stressful situations the new PI is guaranteed to encounter. Desperation is a counterproductive emotional reaction to tough situations, and hinders the ability to deal with tough situations calmly, decisively, and rationally.

    In terms of it being no “secret for most people” that post-docs hate being post-docs, wow!

    I really don’t have any idea whether this is the case or not. But if you don’t love doing science enough to at least not “hate” being a post-doc–even if the mentoring situation is not ideal–then maybe you’re just in the wrong business.

    Regardless of whether you do or don’t “hate” being a post-doc, it is insane to think that search committees would consider that something very ordinary and unexceptional, let alone appropriate for a good candidate. The faculty who are on a search committee almost certainly did not “hate” being post-docs, and would probably almost all claim to have “loved” being post-docs. So they will not identify or sympathize with post-docs who “hated” it. They will wonder what is wrong with them.

    Furthermore, “hating” being a post-doc will raise questions about whether the candidate will then “hate” being a PI. As a new PI, no one gives the slightest shit about you and your success (this is a partial exaggeration, but not in a way relevant to this particular discussion), and you still have to just do what it takes to succeed. If you “hated” being a post-doc, are you going to have the emotional and intellectual strength to succeed as a PI, rather than “hate” it and fail?

    To summarize, search committees are looking for people who project absolute confidence in their abilities, who–regardless of the underlying realities–project an enthusiasm and love for their past experiences as a post-doc, and who appear like they will be able to keep an upbeat, confident, and calm demeanor when the going gets tough. Appearing “desperate” or like you “hated” being a post-doc destroys this appearance, and will raise serious concerns in any search committee.

    (As always–and to ward off possible claims that I “hate” post-docs–I am not taking any position on whether any of this is fair/unfair, good/bad, pleasant/unpleasant. I am just stating my perceptions of how things *are*.)


  22. drugmonkey Says:

    hmm. okay now PhysioProf.

    ahh, first, are you sure YFS is censoring you? I’ve had the odd lost comment on Blogger sites so it may have been that.

    “and who willfully refuses to accept those features of reality that determine her future success”

    yeah. . not that we don’t all have these tendencies but this is definitely not a good trait for postdocs.


    I think the point here is more relevant to departments that are lower than the generally recognized pinnacle of accomplishment (which yours sounds like). On the extreme end are teaching-focused departments which suspect that the applicant is not quite ready to give up dreams of R1 research and feels that a few years as a titular Asst. Prof might help making the jump back to R1 (is there an R2 and R3?). I gotta say I see a lot of what appear to be jobs open to never-been-independent candidates being filled by people with a few years of some sort of lesser but definitionally independent job.

    I didn’t follow this one. I’m not sure how one comes across as “desperate” on the CV or cover letter or whatever. If I have it right this came from the issue of whether to put conference presentations on CVs to bolster the actual pubs. I guess I don’t see this in the framework of “desperate”. Likely I’m missing something here…

    “post-docs hate being post-docs”

    Tough one. If one really hates the doing-the-science part of being a post doc, you are right, this is a sign of a big problem. I don’t think this is what is generally meant however. I think the “hating it” more likely is the lack of stable career prospects. This I can understand and when you think about it might be motivated by a love for just doing the science. In between is the ego thing where people hate the fact that they are not getting the props they think they deserve, they are subordinate to a PI they disrespect, etc. I’m not as sympathetic to this train of thought because, as you say, there is a certain lack of getting real there.

    “If you “hated” being a post-doc, are you going to have the emotional and intellectual strength to succeed as a PI, rather than “hate” it and fail?”

    Good question. In fact good point for all to keep in mind. Do you do this because you like the reality of the job? or are you constantly dreaming of an unfulfillable fantasy of what the job “should be”? In this current funding climate I will admit that I may be sustaining myself on the latter…


  23. BugDoc Says:

    DM and PhysioProf – thanks for a useful discussion! I am a female asst prof starting my 5th yr doing basic research at an R1 institution. I’ve been on several faculty search committees and think PhysioProf’s description of the search committee’s criteria is pretty accurate. Although we do not require a C/N/S paper, having one will certainly will put you in the “to-be-discussed” pile. However, we also seriously consider candidates without a C/N/S publication, but with a strong record of publications in PNAS, Current Biology and the stronger Nature and Cell Press field journals (e.g. Nature Neuroscience or Neuron). Especially in this current climate of limited NIH funding, I think it is worth carefully designing a research plan for a job application to reflect what the applicant thinks their first R01 specific aims would look like. Long-term ideas and vision can be communicated in a separate section. This can help the search committee assess how well the applicant understands the scope and focus required for an initial R01 application. For a recent faculty search, we had an applicant who had done some really excellent science and gave a wonderful seminar. However, in his/her research plan and chalk talk, the research plan was interesting but much too ambitious and not carefully thought through. Needless to say, this person didn’t get the job offer.


  24. PhysioProf Says:

    “For a recent faculty search, we had an applicant who had done some really excellent science and gave a wonderful seminar. However, in his/her research plan and chalk talk, the research plan was interesting but much too ambitious and not carefully thought through. Needless to say, this person didn’t get the job offer.”

    That is interesting. My own personal opinion is that I don’t worry too much about the specific content of the Research Plan, so long as it is well-written and coherent.

    “Too ambitious” doesn’t worry me at all. If it is “not carefully thought through”, I guess that could be a problem, depending on what exactly you mean. If this is just another way of saying “too ambitious” or “not looking like an R01”, then I don’t care. If it means “scientifically incoherent”, then it would bother me.

    My reasoning behind this is the following: Science is so unpredictable that once a new asst prof gets in her lab, gets some people in there, and starts doing experiments, there is just no predicting what will happen and what will get interesting. So long as the person is smart, creative, resilient, and a decent manager, good stuff is likely to happen, and likely to lead to fundable R01 applications.

    An example would be my own history: I am currently nearing the end of my fourth year as an asst prof. I took a look at my job-search Research Plan the other day and starting laughing. I ended up never even attempting any of the stuff that I proposed to do.

    Here is why:

    (1) The first day of my appointment–before I even physically started my lab–I gave a presentation about my work at our annual department retreat. One of our senior faculty approached me after my talk and described a new technique she had developed that would be usefully applied to one of my questions. I implemented the technique in my experimental system and got some fascinating insight. Result: Cha-ching! Funded R01.

    (2) Towards the end of my first year, a paper was published in my field describing another novel technique. I immediately foresaw the incredible applications of this technique to my research and jumped right on it. Initial positive results led me to identify a particular subset of pharmacological agents that seemed to be particularly effective when used with this technique. Discussions with one of the mavens of this subset of agents revealed that the subset was much larger and diverse than anyone expected, and this diversity could be functionally explored using the novel technique. Cha-ching! Another funded R01.

    When I was writing my Research Plan, I *never* foresaw the existence of these novel techniques or, obviously, their applicability to my research, and where they might lead. So, when I read Research Plans, I am not terribly concerned about the actual experiments being proposed, except to the extent that they reveal something about the intelligence, creativity, and conceptual rigor of the applicant. I do care about how well the Research Plan is written and how well it is crafted.

    I am really looking to identify people who seem very “scientifically nimble”, brilliant, and have a vast knowledge of the literature in their field and related fields. This is because, in my experience, creativity is really all about taking existing ideas and combining them in lots of new ways to see if anything cool happens.

    Now one of the things that allows me to embody this notion of creativity is that most of my experimental work is performed in an experimental system that allows me to try out *lots* of different stuff, quickly, cheaply, and without any permission required from any regulatory entities, either institutional or external. If your work relies on generation of genetically modified rodents, for example, it is much harder to be nimble in this way. This is why I use the system I do.

    In my opinion, the “too ambitious” ding and the idea that the Research Plan should look like a fundable R01 are red herrings. Those considerations focus on grantsmanship, which is a set of relatively straightforward skills and rules-of-thumb that can be learned by any reasonably intelligent and diligent person. I really don’t care whether an asst prof candidate has already developed those skills or not.


  25. drugmonkey Says:

    See, now Physioprof I think each and every grant review meeting should start with this set of observations!

    It just kills me when we get so mired in the minutia of the exact set of experiments. Not that it isn’t important to be able to outline a coherent and well-considered approach. But it shouldn’t be such an obsession.


  26. BugDoc Says:

    “Not carefully thought through” meant the candidate proposed doing a lengthy and expensive set of experiments using transgenic animals that it became obvious they were not that familiar with – sloppy thinking. Actually I agree with you, PhysioProf, in that the exact plan itself is not really a critical issue and that research plans do and should change with new insights/inovations. However I disagree with you that “grantsmanship… is a set of relatively straightforward skills and rules-of-thumb that can be learned by any reasonably intelligent and diligent person.” On study section, I’ve reviewed any number of grants written by people that were clearly intelligent, but either not diligent or just were not accomplished writers. I would argue that grantsmanship (whether any of us like it or not) is a signficant contributor to success in the tenure process and as such should be an important consideration for the search committee. In my opinion, writing a research plan such that the search committee can appreciate both the vision and the focus of the proposed science is exactly the approach needed to write a successful R01 proposal.


  27. […] Posts Ageism: A 36 year old dean?The CSR peer review opinion seeking goes local…”One-third of our job searches fail”HelloHow to Fix the NIHRole for Science Blogging”Postdocs always overestimate their intellectual […]


  28. Idetrorce Says:

    very interesting, but I don’t agree with you


  29. physioprof Says:

    I have a feeling this is just whistling in the wind, but I’ll try anyway:

    What did you find “very interesting”, who is “you”, and what don’t you “agree with”? There have been 28 detailed comments here plus the original post, made by about ten different people.


  30. bikemonkey Says:

    sounds like the typical spam “comment” but this one doesn’t appear to actually have any links so that’s weird.


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