The Plight of the Post-Doc


What happened last year

A lot of the job openings I hear about are forwarded to me by my graduate thesis advisor, who gets the ads from her colleagues at other schools. I realize that it's in her best interest for me, her progeny, to succeed as a scientist, but still it makes me feel good that she's thinking of me and my career five years after I've left her.

It was around this time last year that she forwarded me a job ad for an assistant professor position at a midwestern liberal arts college. Now, I am a real east coast kind of girl, and would not normally give much serious thought to moving to the midwest. I'm not even sure I could identify all of the midwestern states on a map. But this particular school is one of the absolute best in the country, and I had this romantic vision of myself, probably in a corduroy blazer, sprawled in an idyllic quad with 8-10 of the college's top neuroscience students. We're deep in conversation, and I'm challenging them and expanding their minds as autumn leaves fall quietly around us.

So I applied. Applying for faculty jobs is actually not that difficult--most simply require your CV, a statement of some sort that outlines your experience and goals, and reference letters. Once your statement is written, you need only do minor alterations for each school, being careful to remove all mention of what a great addition you'd be to the Dept of Psychology at University of Central Springfield in your application to the Neuroscience Dept at Camden State College. It should be noted that at the time, I did not yet have any publications from my post-doc work, so my CV was...concise. I was not optimistic.

One day, I was on the subway when my phone rang. This is very rare, as there is no cell phone service in the NYC subways. Once in a while, though, the tracks are so shallow that you can pick up a signal, but the chances of this coinciding with you receiving a call are, I'd imagine, on the order of nano. I didn't answer it because I knew I'd lose the call within a few seconds, plus it was an unfamiliar area code so I figured it was my student loan provider or someone similar demanding money from me. When I got out of the train there was no message, confirming my suspicions. I missed another call from the same number later that day, again no message.

A bit later, though, an email popped up in my inbox that said this: "Dear Dr Becca, This is Dr ___ from Fancy Midwestern College (FMC). We've been calling you at (718) xxx-xxxx to ask you a few questions, but haven't been able to reach you. Please get in touch and let us know if there's a better number at which to contact you."


FMC has questions for me! This means that they (at the very least) were not snorting with laughter as they dragged my CV file into the Trash. But what does "a few questions" mean? It all seems very casual, no?

As it turns out, no, "a few questions" is not very casual. When I called FMC back, they asked:

-What kind of research would you plan on doing here?
-How can you incorporate undergraduates into your research?
-What courses would you like to teach?
-Other Serious Interview questions

I was caught completely off guard, and that combined with the fact that I was FREAKING OUT with happiness that they'd actually found my application competitive enough to warrant a call made for a terrible, terrible phone interview. Like, really embarrassingly terrible.

I got a letter a few months later informing me that they'd filled the position, which I expected, and was fine with, really. It was a great lesson, which is that you should, at all times, know who you are and what you want to do with your life. You should also be prepared to describe those things to people--without warning--in complete seriousness and sincerity. This year, if (and hopefully when) I'm asked for an interview, I'll allow myself to feel flattered for about half a second, and then I'm going to move on and tell my interviewer in concrete detail about what a great scientist I'm going to be.


Arlenna said...

Dr Becca, if FMC is who I think it is, believe me: you probably do NOT want to start your TT career there. Unless you're ready for plenty of self-torture and hostile colleagues. Your vision of the lovely corduroy blazers and lounging on an attractive quad with genius students? More like having your department head smile at you every day and then give you a shitty 3rd year review even though you have >500K/year in active funding. More like having few to no collegial committee members for your students to engage, meaning they end up with 8 year PhDs because everyone is always arguing about when they can be done. I did my postdoc there and it was an amazing place for a TEMPORARY experience. I am still rehabilitating from the environment to this day.

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