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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In honor of Hallowe'en, I'm going to talk about the TT job search. If you are a postdoc that wants to stay in academia, thinking about a job search may be a scary proposition. I remember being a little freaked out by the whole process. After you spend several years trying to do kick-ass science (6 for me), you spend a summer writing up your work and thinking about your future plans. In 5 pages you try to capture why you are awesome, what you think is cool and how you are going to be a RockStar within 5 years. Then you send this out...and wait. Spooky, right?
I remember. Last year at this time, I was in the process of sending out job applications. LOTS of job applications. Now, the tables have turned. My department is hiring again this year, and I'm on the search committee. And I am finding this even more spooky.
We had a faculty meeting last week (kinda freaky, but not the really scary part). At the end, we had a discussion about our search this year. Turns out that we have almost 600 applications. And we haven't made it to the deadline yet!
I'm sorry, what? how many!?!
(It's more spooky with a black cat, yes?)
The large number of applications stems from the fact that I am in a pretty basic dept. that is looking for someone that "does good science". Anyone from a molecular biophysicist to systems biologist to development geneticist to a physiologist could be at home here. That is part of the reason I like it so much. But that means that everyone has apparently responded to our advert. Oh yeah, and the reason that we are hiring again this year, even with the crappy economy, is that our dept. is in desperate need of junior faculty. Which means that there aren't many people to sit on the search committee. In other words, only 2-3 of us are going to sift through this giant pile. Our first task is triage: apparently it will be relatively easy to "weed out" at least 150-200. I say "apparently" because I have no experience with this yet (we are waiting for the deadline). I've been told not to spend more than 2 min per application.
Yep, you read correctly. In less than 2 minutes one person is going to decide if anyone will ever actually read your application. Those that are not "out" will be assigned to themes and circulated to appropriate faculty to identify the top 10-20%. This is what really terrified me. Some applications may get read here, but I wouldn't count on it. I am told to expect to spend ~10 min per application at this level. In other words, if you make it past triage you have 10 min to convince someone you are the best thing since Howard Hughes.
So, what is the moral of this story? I promised some nuggets of wisdom, but this is all I've got:
1. if there is something that you want me to read, make it easy to find!
2. Use bold judiciously. If you bold something that I find irritating, that is bad.
3. pictures break up pages of text and are usually more memorable (this can be good or bad)
4. The first thing I am reading is the research statement. The first 2 sentences better be really good!
5. Make it clear how you are going to distinguish yourself from your advisor. No one believes that you can compete with an established lab right out of the gate.
Seriously, how did I ever get a job?!
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Again, I ask why anyone ever decides to go down the TT track. It's not like they give you a gold plated Lexus once you get an offer either. You still have to fight it out, work your ass off and hope for a little luck along the way.
NIce post, Gerty-Z! As someone who's not in the biomed, I wonder if you can you tell me how long are a typical PhD and a typical (total) postdoc experience before one gets a TT position in the biomed? (Anecdata's fine.) Do you know what the min and max durations may be for PhD+postdoc before getting a TT and how much variability there is among different subfields? What's a typical number of pubs a student has leaving PhD and how many more when they apply for TT? Thanks! And happy trick-or-treating with Mini G!
Great advice! The thought of 600 applicants applying already though is pretty damn scary, there's A LOT of competition out there, useful to get some insight from those who've been through it!
Great post G! Terrifying indeed. Maybe you should tell them to send a bribe? Like, maybe some bacon? Just a thought.. :)
Brian Krueger, PhD said:
Not every tenure-track position gets that many applicants. Everyone hears those horror stories because they're so memorable. But they rarely hear about the cases where nobody gets hired because the applicant pool wasn't deep enough.
I like it! Everyone likes bacon!
Meh. If they can't appreciate the lovliness of bacon, then they're crazy!
First of all, if someone can figure out how to get me bacon through the online application site, I think they would definitely get some extra attention from the search committee. I do love bacon.
Dr. Zen is right-this is an unusually large applicant pool. Like I said, our dept. is very broad and we had an intentionally vague advertisement. But, they did this last year, too, when I applied. And there are ~150 more applicants this year than last year. From what I understand, searches in other departments of my school that are more narrowly focused usually have far fewer (but still upwards of 200) applications.
Unlike Dr. Zen, I have never heard of a search that was unsuccesful because the pool of applicants was too shallow. This likely is a result from my limited experience and perspective only from large research-intensive institutions/universities. Every unsuccesful search I have witnessed from grad school through postdoc was due to the top candidate (or two) taking jobs somewhere else.
GMP-thanks! Mini-G had a fantastic time with the trick-or-treating. Toward the end I had almost got her convinced to say "thank you" before yelling "I GOT TWO MORE!!!". I can tell you what I am familiar with (basic science in biology-related fields). I have not seen major differences in programs from Biophysics to Neurobiology to Molecular Biology. I'm sure others could chime in with anecdotes from other subfields.
how long are a typical PhD and a typical (total) postdoc experience before one gets a TT position in the biomed?
PhD programs that I am famliar with have an average of 5.5 yr for a PhD. The first year is generally rotations. Postdocs are typically 5-6 years. I personally don't know anyone that came out in less than 5...but if you take more than 7-8 it may be concerning. I don't really know how the 2nd postdoc fits into this, as I only know a few folks that have taken this path. It seems that one postdoc is usually 1-2 yr and another is 4-5. But my n for this is really low.
Do you know what the min and max durations may be for PhD+postdoc before getting a TT and how much variability there is among different subfields?
From what I have seen, I can't imaging anyone getting a TT job without at least 8 years of PhD+postdoc. I don't know if there is a max, but probably nothing past 8+8?
What's a typical number of pubs a student has leaving PhD and how many more when they apply for TT?
This is really variable, and I don't think there is such a "typical". It is pretty easy to tell who "walked in" to a project and just started cranking out pubs. On the other hand, I think that I got some extra attention because I started two new projects as a postdoc, got them both funded and published in pretty good journals. I think that you probably have to have at least 4-5 (PhD+postdoc) to be competetive at my top 50 research intensive school. But I suspect the variation in that number is really high.
That is truly scary, but sadly unsurprising. I wonder if I applied to your department?
So, what should go into those first two sentences of the research statement? Mine just kind of dives in with a summary statement, "My research is on X and Y, and how they mediate Z and Q." I figure, put it out there, then back up and describe why. For my grad school apps, it was my personal statement's opening line that got me all my interviews, I'm sure of it.
Thanks for the insight, G-Z, even if it is scary. I've heard the 250 applicant number for some of the more "focused" positions I've applied for, so I figured the number for some of the broader positions had to be upwards of 500. I'm curious about Dr. Becca's question, and I also wonder how much networking might help in a situation like this. I recently met a senior faculty at an institution to which I'm applying (one of those very broadly-defined positions), and she offered to help keep my application out of the triage pile. I don't really know how much she can do, but I don't think it can't hurt...
It's not just your experience. Searchs that don't result in a hire are just not discussed because people are afraid that they reflect badly on a department or institutions. You can imagine the comments:
"You couldn't fill a tenure track position? What is wrong with you people? Did you chase candidates away with pitchforks and torches?"
Not all black cats are spooky, you know! I took this pic of mine last night. She is so sweet, and fashionable! :)
You couldn't fill a tenure track position? What is wrong with you people? Did you chase candidates away with pitchforks and torches?
Wait. We're not supposed to do that?
Before I start, I apologize for the weird quoting issues. I was a little overambitious and now it is all wonky. Please bear with me.
Probably! Everyone else did!
The best first two sentences that I have seen (not my application, but I tried to use it as a model) laid out the important biology that this person was studying - the big question- made it clear why I care and then convinced me that they had a a sexy new way to approach the problem. OK, it may have been 3 sentences.
In any event, I am a big fan of the short "summary" paragraph at the beginning of the research statement that addresses those three points (to reiterate):
1. What is the biology?
2. Why do I care?
3. Why you?
And you are correct, that is a very un-spooky cat. I can't believe she let you take a picture of her in that hat, though.
I'm sure that this happens. But I have never seen any evidence of it. I have witnessed (from the outside) only 5-7 searches and I know from talking to my new colleagues that my current dept. has run a search every year for the last 4 years. In every case the search was well-advertised and 5-10 people were interviewed. Jobs were offered in all instances, except perhaps 1 when the faculty split in an ugly argument between 2 candidates. I think it would be hard to just ignore them and pretend they didn't happen.
I'm curious-in these searches when a good applicant can't be found, is it because there was no one reasonable to interview or did everyone that came out bomb the interview?
Networking can definitely not hurt! I don't think it is a coincidence that every job I got an interview for was in a dept. where I knew someone and had interacted with them at conferences and such. I have seen quite a few emails shooting around that advocate for specific applicants, and I get the sense that it helps.
The initial triage will be easier than you think. In our searches last year (I was on 2 committees in 2 different departments, and my department had another search that I was not on the committee for), I found that about 1/3 of the applicants were not qualified (no PhD!, PhD in wrong field, no postdoc unless a SUPER-DUPER star, no recent publications (like in the last 5 years), or application incomplete). You can just look at the CV for that part. It takes minimal time.
Detailed post is here on my experience on search committees. Good luck!
In the cases I've seen, there were good people to interview. But if those people turned the job down for whatever reason, that was it. You were done. You couldn't go deeper into the applicant pool, because there was no second line of acceptable candidates. This can happen if the pool is small, because for any position, there are a lot of people take a crack at every job out there.
Wow G-Z! There are computer hackers who aren't as effective as you... :-)
WTF, I thought I fixed this for good!
Why did you delete all of the quote delimeters? They're there for a reason :P
I'm going to search out some bacon-infused paper to start writing grants and papers on!
Prodigal: thanks for the link! I don't know how I missed that, but I will be pouring over it in great detail in the near future!
Dr. Zen: I have certainly seen searches "fail" for this reason. It can be very difficult to go back to the pool if the search season is winding down. At that point, most of the really good applicants will already have an offer (or more). This is always a danger, and I have seen it happen many, many times. In fact, I know some people who were out on the market with me last year that are just finishing negotiating between >2 institutions for their positions. That mean some searches from last year are just now finding out they were unsuccesful!
I deleted them because when they were there it seemed even worse!!! Everything was quoted and then nested and then quoted again. I must have a special talent with f'ing up these things. Thanks for fixing it!
Maybe I need to think about how to make it look more obvious and less confusing...
@Janede You could make bacon paper, if you know how to make rice paper. Fry up some bacon, and infuse it into a neutral base like high quality vodka overnight. Add it to the rice flour and water mixture before steaming and you've got bacon flavored paper.
@JSD - Awesome! A little project for the weekend methinks. Maybe I could sell it at my local farmer's market!
Beware: if your bacon paper goes rancid before someone reads it that could backfire! Or if someone eats your application.
Oh! You'll have to strain the base. Remove the fat and bacon. Otherwise it will go rancid. It'll be all tasteless anyway after sitting overnight. All the flavor will be in the vodka.
Hrmmm...bacon flavored vodka...
Bacon-flavored vodka is a thing!
Another risk would be a committee member who keeps kosher or halal or is vegetarian...Maybe some subliminal messages in all-but-invisible watermarks on the paper?
The subliminal messages could say "mmm...bacon", or more to the point "SHORTLIST MATERIAL"
I am just curious - if you and 2-3 others need to select out your favorite 10-20% of the applications, how much overlap is there? Do you each come to the table with different piles? If so, then what?
zoubl, thanks for stopping by. There is some overlap between the groups that are selecting the top candidates, but not much. When they are all done, there will be several "piles" of the top 10-20% in each sub-field. These all get piled together and then the whole committee will have a chance to rank every application to generate a short-list.