A pants leg can only accommodate so many Jack Russells

October 7, 2014

Some DAOTI asked a silly question


got the simple answer of “no”, demanded data and was summarily mocked. For this he got all fronty.

because of course he already knew the answer he wanted to hear in response to his question.

This all arose in the wake of an article in the Boston Globe about the postdoc glut that contained this hilariosity.

“They really are the canary in the coal mine,” said Marc Kirschner, a professor of systems biology at Harvard Medical School whose lab of 17 scientists includes 12 postdocs. “They decided they’d go ahead and try to understand why a cancer cell is different from a normal cell, and here they are a few years out. They knew it was a competitive situation, and they were going to work very hard, but they didn’t see the whole system was going to sour so quickly.”

I bolded for the slower reader. My initial reaction was:


On to the point.

The world of “R1, TT” positions in science is incredibly diverse, yes, even within “biomedical” or just plain “biology”. I repeatedly urge postdocs who feel helpless about the glut of postdocs to start by doing some research. Find out ALL of the people who have recently been hired all across the US in jobs that are somewhat remotely related to your skillset. Note, not your “interests”. Your SKILLSET!

I follow this up with a call to do the same on RePORTER to find out about the vast diversity of grants that are funded by the NIH. Diversity in topic and diversity in geographical region and diversity in University or Department stature.

This is even before I tell people to get their “R1” noses out of the air and look seriously at Universities that are supposedly beneath their notice.

So what makes for a successful “competitor” for all of the jobs that are open? Is it one thing? Such as “vertically ascending eleventy systems buzzword biology science” training? That is published in Nature and derives from a 12+ postdoc lab with everyone busily trying to hump the same pantsleg?

“Everyone” here is, guess what? Your competition. And yes, if you choose to only seek out “R1, TT” jobs that are in a University that boatloads of people want to work in, applying techniques to topic domains that a dozen fellow postdocs are also doing right beside you, chasing CNS “gets” that a few scores of labs worldwide are also chasing…well, yes, you are going to be at a disadvantage if you are not training in one of those labs.

But this doesn’t also mean that making all of those choices is not also putting you at a disadvantage for a “R1, TT” job if that is your goal. Because it is putting you at a disadvantage.

Vince Lombardi’s famous dictum applies to academic careers.

Run to Daylight.

Seek out ways to decrease the competition, not to increase it, if you want to have an easier career path in academic science. Take your considerable skills to a place where they are not just expected value, but represent near miraculous advance. This can be in topic, in geography, in institution type or in any other dimension. Work in an area where there are fewer of you.

Given this principle, no, a big lab does not automatically confer an advantage to obtaining a tenure-track position at an R1 university. According to Wikipedia the US has 108 Carnegie-approved “Very high research activity” Universities. Another 99 are in the next bin of “high research activity” and this includes places that would be quite reasonable for someone who wants to be an actual teaching + research old school professor. I know many scientists at these institutions and they seem to be productive enough and, I assume*, happy to be actual Professors.

Would coming from a big lab be a help? Maybe. But often enough search committees at R1s (and the next bin) are looking for signs of independent thought and a unique research program. That is hard to establish in a big lab…far easier to demonstrate from a lab with one or two concurrent postdocs. Other times, the “big labs” in a field (say, Drug Abuse) are simply not structured like they are in cannon-fodder, bench-monkey, GlamourHumping, MolecularEleventy labs. Maybe this is because the overall “group” organized around the subject has Assistant Professors where those “big labs” have Nth year “postdocs”. Maybe it is because this just isn’t the culture of a subfield. If that is the case, then when an R1 is hiring in your domain, they aren’t expecting to see a CV that competes with three other ones just like it from people sharing your lab. They are expecting to see a unique flower with easily discernible individual contribution to the last three years of work from that small lab. That type of candidate has an advantage for this particular job search.

So yeah. It is a stupid question to ask if [single unique training environment] confers an “advantage” for some thing as general as a tenure-track job at an R1 University.

I’ll close with a tweet from yesterday:

and a followup

This all reminds me of a famous Twitter “independent scientist” jackhole who applied to a few elite Universities, couldn’t get an offer and summarily declared all of science to be broken, corrupt, crowded with “diversity” riff raff and all sorts of other externalizing excuses. Make sure you don’t fall into this trap if you are serious about succeeding in an academic career.
*actually, they say so.

21 Responses to “A pants leg can only accommodate so many Jack Russells”

  1. AcademicLurker Says:

    I’m always surprised when I hear that someone only applied for the 3-4 jobs that seemed like a perfect fit. Dude, you know that if they made the ad that specific then they already had someone in mind, right?

    I applied to anything that seemed credible. And this was when a lot of places hadn’t made the switch over to online applications yet. I gave the post office a lot of $$ back during my postdoc.


  2. FGD Says:

    A-fukin-Men to this.

    I’m still learning some of these lessons now, after I was lucky enough to land a TT job.
    I’d gladly trade my current TT job at an R1 research institute for a traditional supposedly “second-tier” high-research-activity university position. You know… be careful what you wish for and all that.


  3. eeke Says:

    “Seek out ways to decrease the competition, not to increase it, if you want to have an easier career path in academic science.”

    Ha! In practice, this doesn’t really work if you’re starting out in a fresh new lab. I’ve received comments like “you can’t do this because it hasn’t been done before” on both grant applications and manuscripts. It’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to get reviewers to accept a new concept, new model, etc., even with the data right there in front of them. Especially from a noobie type. Forget it. Mainstream and dogma rule.


  4. Kevin. Says:

    I saw Kirschner give a talk a few years ago, and it wasn’t pretty. He’s one of those “idea guys” that think about problems from a very different perspective than I do. From way high up, where everything looks so small, clean, and orderly.

    I applied to ~100 jobs, got 3 on-site interviews, leading to one offer (because their #1 took a job elsewhere). Many of those jobs reported 200+ applicants, but I hear that ~50% are not really ‘qualified’ by the search committee. I don’t know if that means bad papers, bad letters, bad teaching, or bad research and funding prospects. I got lucky because I was one of the few opto-bunny-hopping-circuitry people on the job hunt last year, a statistical fluke.


  5. K99er Says:

    My own story of getting a job at an R1 school would support both the DM and chmweber schools of thought. I worked in small, non-famous labs in grad school and for my postdoc, and published good papers. When it was time to apply for jobs, there weren’t any other postdocs from my lab that I was competing with. Nor had there been any postdocs on the job market from that lab in recent years. I think I would agree with DM that this worked in my favor. On the other hand, I think that part of what chmweber was really saying is that academic pedigree matters. Even though I wasn’t in famous labs, I did work at famous institutions, and I know that this helped me in my job search. Two years later, my department chair still introduces me as, “K99er, he just joined our department from Fancy University.”


  6. Amateur Says:

    “I know many scientists at these institutions and they seem to be productive enough and, I assume*, happy to be actual Professors.”

    This was before you called them “amateur scientists” I presume?


  7. amateur Says:

    “I know many scientists at these institutions and they seem to be productive enough and, I assume*, happy to be actual Professors.”

    This was before you dismissed them as “amateur scientists” I presume?


  8. gobiden Says:

    “I know many scientists at these institutions and they seem to be productive enough and, I assume*, happy to be actual Professors. *actually, they say so.”

    This was before you called them “amateur scientists” I presume?


  9. drugmonkey Says:

    When did I do that?


  10. Bio Data Sci Says:

    Good points. However, to provide a little more context. @hormiga’s university pays a median salary of $73,500. http://chronicle.com/article/2013-14-AAUP-Faculty-Salary/145679?cid=megamenu#id=110547 And housing is more than twice the national average. Plus the teaching load is heavy. Especially if you have a spouse and kids, you’ve got to sacrifice quite a bit to take a position like that. It’s not for everybody. That’s the main reason they get few applicants. It’s not just about postdocs being snooty.


  11. eeke Says:

    Here’s a reminder, genius:


    But I’m not sure whether Amateur, amateur, and gobiden were referring to this.


  12. drugmonkey Says:

    My recollection is that I said NSF was a system designed for amateur scientists.


  13. gobiden Says:

    That comment wasn’t supposed to post three times. I got a blank white screen after submitting it, so I tried again, then again, and finally gave up.

    Anyway, yes, that is what I was referring to. Still don’t understand the point of that comment, as most of us are paid by our university to do research, making us professional researchers (and teachers) like your professor friends.

    Maybe some people don’t want to apply for certain jobs because they don’t want to be thought of as “amateurs”?

    In my grad lab, everyone was basically “top-40 program or industry”. They, and everyone who has graduated from the lab since, are all in industry now, except for the three of us that didn’t have the “top-40” constraint.


  14. drugmonkey Says:

    I think you are reinforcing my point here.

    WRT NSF, my comment was about what the system was *designed* for. This means little about the way the system is used by various stakeholders in current practice.


  15. jojo Says:

    Quite interesting. I dont’ feel I’m q uite “ready” for the job market right now, but maybe I should toss a couple Hail Marys out there (apps are starting to be due in my field in the next couple weeks) if there really are U’s that are getting only a dozen applicants??


  16. drugmonkey Says:



  17. drugmonkey Says:

    If by “not ready” you mean you don’t have a story about why you need to be a Professor (have a research plan and a chalk talk) then no. If you mean “waiting on this next paper” then go ahead and apply. Credibly.


  18. Ola Says:

    Jackhole is not the word I would use to describe Perlstein. You probably wouldn’t be able to print the word I’d use to describe him, but ‘hole’ would probably be in there somewhere.

    But back on topic, yeah, seek out the less famous places. Plenty ‘o good jobs and opportunities for getting your head down and doing some serious research. And because it’s cheaper to live, you might actually be able to afford a house on an academic salary. If’n you’re only chasing east coast/west coast prestige, you’re locking yourself out of a huge chunk of the job market, and essentially guaranteeing you’ll have to work into your 70s to be able to afford to retire. Big cities like SF and NYC are for visiting, not living in (YMMV if you are independently wealthy).


  19. drugmonkey Says:

    Oh come now. Ethan’s antics are at least modestly amusing, no? No?


  20. The Other Dave Says:

    Anyone who gets a Ph.D. these days seriously expecting a tenure track faculty position is delusional.

    The number of people earning Ph.D.s has skyrocketed lately:

    And the number of tenure-track jobs keeps going down:

    Go ahead and get a Ph.D. But do NOT expect a tenure track faculty position.

    “Oh, but I’m exceptional!”

    I doubt it.


  21. […] Bush Cricket Enterovirus D68 is spreading across the US — what we know and don’t know A pants leg can only accommodate so many Jack Russells You can’t stop Ebola at […]


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