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Gerty-Z

I am starting my lab as an Assistant Professor at a Big Research University (summer 2010). I have a super partner and an adorable kiddo, Mini-G. I tend to rush into things and then figure them out as I muddle along. I'm sure that will be true here, too. I hope to use this space to maintain my sanity and share my perspectives on science and academia. These perspectives may sometimes qualify as rants. There will undoubtedly be some crazy times on the tenure track. Gmail me [at] primaryinvestigator

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Saturday, November 6, 2010

A few days ago I learned the number of applications we have received for our TT job in my department. It was A LOT, which led me to write a little post about how, from what I can tell, we are going to sort through this giant pile to come up with a short-list. This post was written from a very one-sided perspective (mine, right after a faculty meeting). Odyssey jumped in with a more thoughtful and excellent post about how to make your application stand out. If you are going out on the job market go read it! Then Prof-Like Substance raised up something unexpected, to me at least, first in a comment at Odyssey's and then a whole post. PLS asserted that the fact that we wrote a fairly general job advertisement that it suggested the department was dysfunctional. I started to comment over at PLS's place, but it turns out I have a lot to say about this so I moved it over here.

First, I think my current department is pretty great. One of the main strengths, IMO, is the the fact that we have very diverse faculty research interests, yet the group is very collaborative. This has led to some interesting science that may not have come up in a different environment. We did discuss whether to make a more directed advert this year, but decided against it. We are looking for a colleague that can interact with all of us, whether a NMR spectroscopist, geneticist or cell biologist. The dearth of junior faculty is a problem-but not one that arises from dysfunction. It turns out that our department went through a major expansion in the 1950's. Then there were some hard times during which hiring was effectively shut down by the state. So now many of the faculty are nearing retirement, and we have open tenure lines to fill. Of course, I didn't include those details in my original post, so I can see how other interpretations were possible.

I would like to specifically address some of the points that PLS makes to clarify what I was trying to say.
"What a candidate reads – Divided department can’t or won’t decide on a specialty of interest for this position."
I don't think we are "divided" so much as "diverse". Even though it is more work, I was very much against a narrow search. You never know who is going to be on the market, and I really think that we could miss out on someone that would be a good fit if we went in with blinders on. And, it is much easier to discuss the merits of individual candidates rather than "sub-fields". It would be hard to decide whether we were going to hire a developmental geneticist vs. crystallographer in the abstract, BUT, in the past the structural contingent has happily supported developmental geneticists that they felt would make a good colleague (and vice versa).

"“Good science” will be arbitrarily defined by a small number of overburdened committee members looking for any excuse to toss your application."
I suspect this is true no matter if there are 250 applications or 600. In fact, the "search committee math" that Prodigal Academic describes for how they narrow the candidate pool is very similar to what I was trying to explain. To clarify how our search works: First, there is a quick triage round to get rid of applicants that are clearly not qualified or in the wrong field. We are a biomedical dept., so you have to at least hit that target. We require a PhD and at least one first-author publication from postdoc to get past this round. If you make it over this bar, I will assign your application to one of the "sub-field categories" based on a quick overview of your research statement. Yes, this will take < 2 min per applicant. Each sub-field group of applications will be read by faculty in that field, who will identify the top 10-20%. This is where Oydessey's advice really comes into play. Your application has to really stand out to rise to the top of this pile. I would argue that if you haven't caught my attention within 10 minutes you are probably not going to make it. So, yes, spend time crafting your application - research, teaching and CV. Make sure that the important points that show how awesome you are are easy to find impossible to miss and easy to understand. When the pool has been narrowed to the top 10-20%, the search committee members will read all of the applications and rank them. This will be the starting point for the discussions that will end up with a list of folks that we will have out for interviews.

We loosely define our needs because we don’t care about your time, your letter writer’s time (because we probably want LoRs up front) or that of our own administrative staff who have to process all this shit.
Wow. We clearly read job application advertisements differently. I never even considered this as a possibility when I was applying for jobs last year. In fact, I always liked the more general advertisements because I felt like they were willing to at least consider the possibility that there was interesting science outside of what was already represented in their department. For the record, LoR are submitted electronically so I'm not sure that it is such a burden on the writers. I remember being concerned with the burden to my writers last year and was informed by every last one that it was not a big deal. As for our administrative staff, they don't deal with the search at this stage. All the files are electronic, so the chair just scans in the few letters that will inevitably be sent on paper, and then sends them along electronically.

p.s. If you don’t make the short list don’t expect to ever hear from us again.
I only ever heard back from ~25% of places that I didn't get an interview. Even when I did get some form of rejection it was always a crappy form letter. So I don't really know if it matters. But, I hear that we do sent out the form letter so I guess everyone will hear from us at least one more time. 

p.p.s. We also hate the environment because we’re printing all these apps out in triplicate for the committee.
Really? Who doesn't do this all electronically these day??

"But if I applied for that position and got an interview, I’m still polishin’ up my eff you shoes for that trip. I’m going there looking extra hard for signs of a dysfunctional department."
I suspect that if you go into an interview wearing your "eff you shoes" that you won't be getting an offer. And I would strongly recommend that you poke around for signed of dysfunction no matter how warm and fuzzy the job advert made you feel. Every department is different and the interview process should help you gather information about how well you fit with them and how well they match what you are looking for.

"But chances are, if you rose to the top of a 600 applicant pile, you are likely to have competing offers. Maybe with departments who care more about the time and effort of 600 people."
It is true that most folks we hire have competing offers. When I went on the market, it was assumed that you would have competing offers when negotiating your position. In fact, the last 3 people my current dept. offered the job to ended up going somewhere else. At PostDoc Inst. only 3 of 5 searches that I saw ended up actually hiring someone. That is pretty standard in my field: if everyone has 2-3 offers, then 50-60% of all jobs aren't going to get filled. That is a fact of life for the TT search. And yes, this means that even though we get 600 applicants, there will be 15-20 people that get most of the interviews at all of the schools. I sometimes wonder how, in such a random process, these people always float to the top. Last year, I noticed that 2-3 other folks ended up interviewing at the same places as I did. And they were not in my sub-field. This did not make me feel like the dept. was wasting my time. Nor did it cross my mind that the number of applicants would in any way affect how much they cared about the person that they hired. There are certainly programs that "eat the young", but we are not one of them.

Perhaps the difference in perspective between PLS and me arises from our different sub-fields. I'm interested to hear how other experiences line up on this spectrum. Another interesting point, I think, is the fact that the same job advertisement that got 600 applications this year only had ~400 last year when I applied. What is different this year? Some of my colleagues think that this is a good sign that the market is loosening up and the postdocs that have been in a "holding pattern" are feeling more confident and therefore applying for jobs. The more pessimistic view would be that things are hard, and that folks can't afford to have postdocs in a holding pattern anymore...and that folks are being pressured to go out on the market even if they are not "ready".

So, dear readers, what is your perspective:
1. What do "general bio" job adverts say to you?
2. Why do you think there are so many folks on the market this year?

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Dr Becca, Ph.D.
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Awesome post, Gerty!

I don't have a great answer for your first question--since I wouldn't really fit in with a straight-up biology department, I haven't seen any "general bio" ads. And most of the neuro ads I've seen are pretty specific--they want a physiologist, they want a behavior person, they want someone studying Alzheimer's, etc.

But as for your second question, I definitely am taking the pessimistic viewpoint. I know of at least a couple of labs where funding hasn't come through, and the senior post-docs are pretty much being pushed out of the nest (myself included). It could be argued that this isn't a wholly bad thing, as holding patterns clearly aren't the solution to the post-doc glut. But still, it'd be nice to know that if I don't get a TT job, I'd still have an income...


Dr. O
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On the first question - I haven't seen any ads for a "general bio" position either; the broad ads I've seen have been for molecular biology and/or biochemistry positions. These ads all came from med schools, indicating (to me) that some relation to biomedical sciences was also important. I never read anything negative into these ads, though, other than the job was a long shot because of the potentially large number of applicants. As I mentioned in the comments of your previous post, I've heard from several individuals that even last year's very specific searches were getting 250-300 applications, so it's not at all surprising that opening up the field to a wider pool would result in many, many more apps. I put just as much time into the apps for these broader searches as I did for the more specific ones. In some cases, I've also used networking connections to try and get an idea of what kinds of people they might be most interested in (who's retiring, etc...) and to hopefully push my app through the first couple of triage steps.

On your second question, I share Dr. Becca's more pessimistic view of the increased number of applicants. Not only do I think people are getting pushed out early, though - I also believe there's a glut of people who have been on the market for 1-2 years already but haven't secured a job because of how tight things were last year. This is a good thing for the departments doing the hiring, but very stressful for us postdoc peons out here on this side of the TT job market. :(


GMP
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Great post! I completely agree with Prodigal's old post and how you described the search process here, and I am in a physical sciences field.

Actually, I would say that if the search is not broad enough you will miss some applicants who may be a very good fit. Here's an example: when I was applying for jobs, my department had a PVL (position vacancy listing), it was worded somewhat broadly but not  broadly enough so I didn't apply. I did apply to a so-called cluster hire intiative at the same university, which was a cross-departmental hiring initiative that fit my background, and was lead by a universty-wide committee whose chair (and contact person) was in a totally different department. When I got a call from my current department to come to an interview, I was like "Huh? But I didn't even apply there?", went to my spreadsheet with all the application info, and realized that I did apply to the insitution but definitely not the department. Turns out the cluster hire committee liked me and forwarded my application to the department as a potential tenure home for me. My department interviewed me an gave me an offer very quickly. I ended up not being a cluster hire but a department hire under that PVL that I thought not broad enough to apply to!

Unless there are specific hiring initiatives (building up a new area, specific money for specific specialties) it is my impression that FUNCTIONAL midsize and large departments leave their PVL's very broad in order to get the broadest selection of candidates. (For smaller departments this may not be the case, as it is likely that they have strengths in a smaller number of select areas and will hire accordingly.)

Departments have priorities (some area is a priority for hire this year, some other next year) but a large enough and strong department will always want to snatch top candidates in any of their active areas who are on the market that year. That's why a small number of candidates in any broadly defined area will have multiple interviews and multiple offers; they are simply top picks on the draft that year.

Regarding the number of applications you got this year: I don't have an explanation, but I can tell you that in my department and several others there is a dramatic increase in the number of students, both undergrad and grad. I don't know if there is a correlation with faculty hiring (we are not hiring this year so I can't give you the number of applications), but it seems there is still an overall lack of trust in the private sector which sends people to school and perhaps also pushes some people, who'd otherwise go work for a company, to apply for faculty jobs.


Prof-like Substance
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We must buy our eff you shoes from different stores, because mine are the sneaky type, not the overt type.

 

My point was that it would be really nice for departments to at least consider the applicant's perspective once in a while. The way your department is going about the search is a bit too much "throwing bread to the hungry and seeing who fights the hardest" for my taste. Call me idealistic, but you can't seriously think that it's no big deal for 600 applicants and 1800 LoR writers to spend their time working on something just because your department can't have a difficult conversation and sort yourselves out. The whole "we just ant the best science" thing is a rose colored glasses glossing over of the fact that your department would rather waste the time of >2000 people than come up with some sort of vision for the direction y'all see yourselves going. Sure, talking about a more directed ad and deciding not to do it sounds great, but it's just lazy.

 

Gerty-Z, you know I love you and I have nothing against your department, but it's easy to forget where you came from much more quickly than you think. If you wonder why postdocs get disillusioned with the hiring process, look around you.


GMP
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I am wondering how many of the 600 applicants are really qualified for a faculty position anywhere (from PUI to top R1's.)... Probably no more than 150. (Please feel free to correct my numbers in the following.)

Of the 150, the creme of the crop are those with the right pedigre, lots of quality papers, stellar recommendations, and in biomed I presume their own funding. I am guessing there are no more than 20-30 of these people in the best of years; they get most of the interviews and multiple offers. Failure in any of the above criteria will lower the rank of school you can expect to get interest from -- e.g. you can counter lack of pedigre by over-the-top publication record or the other way around. But if you are lacking in both pubs and pedigree, you are toast. So of the 150 who are qualified, the 120-130 who are not universally sought, some have done a good job with the application package and have good ideas on their research plan. They will get interviews at non-top5 R1's. Some have done a crappy job with the application package and will not make the first cut most places. Some will make it to the interview but will blow it (I have a brilliant colleague who's also a sweet guy, but is devastatingly awkward and even a bit scary in social situations; had lots of interviews over the years but never received an offer.) So how many overall get jobs anywhere, of the 150? Maybe 70-80, maybe 100. Most of the jobs are not at R1's. The rest of the 150 had poor application package or just poor luck or were unlikable or happened to run over the recruitment committee chair's dog.

What about the other 450 people who applied, but who will never get any interviews? Have you ever tried telling someone who is dead set on getting a tenure track position that you honestly think they don't have a shot? Shattering people's dreams -- not a pleasant activity...

Comrade PhysioProf

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I sometimes wonder how, in such a random process, these people always float to the top. Last year, I noticed that 2-3 other folks ended up interviewing at the same places as I did. And they were not in my sub-field.

This should not be a mystery to you. It is because it is obvious within seconds of looking at CVs that only a very small handful of individuals are likely to have what it takes to succeed at a t-t faculty member in the biosciences, and those are the small handful of individuals who get all the interviews. About 90% of the applicants to any given broad search can be excluded instantly: no first-author papers in top quality journals, been a post-doc for ten years or more, no PhD from a country with a reputable academic system, didn't write research plan in idiomatic English, etc. (BTW, funding that will extend into the independent phase like K99/R00 is nice, but is not that important.)

My point was that it would be really nice for departments to at least consider the applicant's perspective once in a while.

Departments do, and the relevant perspective is that t-t track jobs in elite institutions are *extremely* desirable and there are *way* more applicants to those jobs than there are positions available. In such a labor market, why the fucke should departments give a flying fucke about making things "convenient" for applicants? And BTW, as someone who applied to many dozens of job searches when I was a post-doc--which was when applications and letters of reference were mailed in on fucken paper--I have absolutely zero sympathy for the idea that it is a burden to e-mail your fucken CV, research plan, and letters to as many places as you want.

Comrade PhysioProf

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Oh, and one other thing: Who gives a flying fucke if you get a form rejection letter or not?

CoR

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That pedigree shit just pisses me off. And it's true, I totally know people look at it. I worked for a relatively small name at a very big R1, then a very big name at a very big R1 that was slightly out of my field. But gave me some kickass skilz. And my work (mostly of my design) resulted in >10 first author pubs. When on the market, I had 2 interviews, and another person doing similar work but from a more recognizable big name from our field landed most of the interviews I wanted. Sour grapes and split milk, but fucke that pedigree shit! At least I have a job, I do consider myself lucky considering this economy. *end rant


GMP
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CoR, I had a somewhat similar experience. I got a TT straight out of grad school (possible in my field), with 15 or so first-author papers, having received a PhD from a good but not elite school and having worked with a well-known advisor (the big fish in a small pond kind of thing). I got 3 interviews and got offers from all 3 places. Had my PhD degree been from a more prestigious university, with the same record I would have likely landed many more interviews, just like what you said. Also, the school's pedigree did limit the rank of the schools where I could get an interview: the place where I am now is a big and well-known public R1, and it's better ranked than my PhD school. But it's nearly impossible (in my field at least) to receive serious consideration from Top 5 universties without a PhD from one of them (or a few elite international institutions).

But it's not all about the intervews: my colleague who got a PhD from MIT had 8 interviews but only 1 offer. Pedigree will get you the interviews, but it's up to you to actually get the offers. Another piece of good news is that pedigree is a case of diminishing returns. 10 years down the road it's all about what you have done.

 

Ajkl

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I have a specific comment about narrow vs. broad ads. I don't think the broad ad necessarily means the dept s dysfunctional and disorganized. It can truly mean that they are interested in good people, without limitations on field. I however interviewed for one of those positios and it was really confusing and disorganized. Each person I met with said different things, had a different idea about the search and I could tell there was no plan... It was one of my more uncomfortable interviews. although it was my "dream job" before the interview, it was not afterward... They hired noone that year for this position. I heard thru grapevine that this had happened a couple of years before, with hiring noone due to internal fighting and inability to decide on a candidate. They reposted the ad and hired none again the following year. I don't think all departments are dysfunctional when they post these ads but some are. Perhaps my experience suggests things you can do to make it clear to candidates that you're really interested in everyone on the shortlist and not a fractionated group of indecisive and/or lazy folks.


Gerty-Z
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Aww shucks, PLS! I love you, too. But, in a weird twist, I am going to side with CPP on this one. I really don't think I'm misremembering what it is like to be on the job market. Last year I sent out many dozens of applications, and I never felt that anyone was wasting my time, or even that I was wasting their time. I think CPP and GMP are right: making a short-list is really not that random. There may be 600 applications, but there probably aren't that many that will actually be competitive.

Maybe we will agree to disagree? I could use some sneaky eff you shoes, though. Mine are definitely NOT subtle!

 

GMP: I wonder, wouldn't it be more considerate to give a trainee an honest assessment of their potential for career advancement rather than letting them toil away for years with unreasonable hopes?

 


Prof-like Substance
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"Why should we care about applicants when there are so many?" Hmmm, I'm pretty sure I've heard disgruntledocs attribute this same sentiment to their frustrations if you just replace "applicants" with something like "students" or "postdocs". The attitude can be catchy.

 

Look, I'm not saying that every applicant deserves an interview or that a department shouldn't look out for its own interests, but it isn't bad for a department to realize it wields all the power in this situation and it there is some responsibility that comes with that. With that many aps you're going to get probably 20 people that would be excellent but ignore 15 of them because you didn't give them any indication ahead of time that you were wasting their time. And yes, every ap takes time to put together.

 

Whatever, I'm in the minority here, but you won't see a broad ad like that leaving my department.


Prodigal Academic
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Broad ads are super common in my field. In my department, we have 2 kinds of searches. Targeted ones (we want someone in a specific subfield) and untargeted (we have an open position, but just want an awesome person for the job). Many of my colleagues prefer for all the openings to be untargeted, especially those who almost didn't apply for their current positions because they perceived lack of fit in the ad description. I prefer a more targeted approach myself, but I am the kind of person who figures I can emphasize different aspects of my work to fit lots of places.

I hardly think printing out a CV and research plan is an excessive amount of work if you are already on the market. Tailoring a cover letter should take an hour at most, and more often 20-30 minutes. Now that I write LoR myself, I see that printing 10 or printing 50 makes no serious difference in time, which is more or less what my own recommenders told me. The hard part is writing the letter in the first place, not in sending it out to lots of places.


Gerty-Z
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Prodigal, thanks for stopping by! I think you and I have a very similar perspective.

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