The Plight of the Post-Doc


Allow me to describe my awesomeness in great detail

Ah, the art of the Letter of Application.

Most of us could probably recount without too much trouble our research and teaching experience, and even lay down with some coherence a five-to-ten year plan for all the clever and elegant studies we intend to undertake.  And our CV, well, really it speaks for itself.  But we don't live in a simple meritocracy, do we?  The facts alone are not enough--we need to Sell Ourselves, and for some reason this is really, really hard.

You already know how things went last year when I applied for a job at a Fancy Midwestern College, but what I didn't tell you is that the year before that, I applied for a job at a Fancy New England College.   FNEC asked for a letter outlining my research experience and interests, and my letter looked like this:

Letter of Application for Dr Becca, Phd

Research Experience:  My graduate thesis focused on blahblahblah.  My current post-doctoral work examines blahblahblah (3 paragraphs)

Research Interests:  I aim to manage my own laboratory where I will continue to address the issues of blahblahblah (2 paragraphs)

Of course, I heard nothing from FNEC, so when I was preparing the following year to apply to FMC I first sent the letter to my thesis advisor for a quick critique.  She said, "I like the letter very much EXCEPT [her caps lock] you should say right in the beginning that you are an excellent and experienced teacher able to teach a range of courses in neuro and phys psych, and that your research would fit well at FMC, both in topic and in technique." Wait, I'm supposed to just come right out and say that I'm an excellent teacher and scientist?  Shouldn't they just be able to tell how great I am from my CV and stuff?  Won't they think I'm...well, an arrogant asshole??  

But why are we so afraid of looking like assholes, when it should be obvious that anyone applying for any job anywhere would do best to show their prospective employer just how awesome they are?   It makes me wonder if the nature of our profession fosters an unhealthy modesty in us.  After all, most of our days are peppered with humbling experiences, be they terrible priority scores on grant applications or repeated rejections from journals (I have heard this happens to scientists sometimes).  We're basically always being told how much we suck, not to mention that we're all probably harboring deep-seated insecurities from our childhoods when we had no friends and our moms forced us to go to the school dance.  Just, you know, hypothetically speaking.

My thesis advisor is very wise.  I took her advice and jumped right into that letter to FMC with a big old "I rock" (paraphrasing), and it totally worked because I got a phone interview, which I promptly bombed.  But baby steps, you know?


As an aside,  I'd like a bit of advice from those of you who are TT faculty:  How much detail do I need to go into in my letter with respect to my research plans?  Do they want to hear actual experiments, or just general issues I'm interested in, and techniques I plan on employing?


Isis the Scientist said...

I love the advice to tell everyone how awesome you are. We're not really taught how to network as scientists and assume that our data speak for us, but packaging and presenting yourself is very important.

Dude, where's PhysioProf? DrugMonkey?

MRW said...

First, the selling yourself. Academic scientists, including myself, seem to be prone to imposters syndrome. The best thing I did for my application materials was send them to a friend who thinks far too highly of me. She sent them back, covered with corrections that mostly came down to - you're awesome, your plans are awesome, say it.


And the research plans... Is this for the letter or a separate document on research plans? If it's for the letter, closer to the issues and techniques end, but something specific enough to grab their attention, too. My only qualification for offering advice is having landed a job, though. I haven't seen it from the other side, yet, so others might have a better perspective.

Candid Engineer said...

Part of me can't wait to apply because I have come to love selling myself. It's like a game. Who wants to pay the price I'm asking?? Throw around phrases like 'impressive track record' and 'uniquely qualified'.

The fact of the matter is that people's minds are lazy, and it is better to draw conclusions for them (e.g. I am so excellent) than to leave them to draw their own (e.g. what did she say she works on again?)

AWM said...

A good letter should focus the examination of your file. Few read the letter first. Some don't read it at all. The whole process is a bullshit buffet by committee, but the first filter is getting your app distributed to the whole committee. If you can't convince the first person that is going to take the most superficial inspection of your app that you deserve additional consideration, it's game over. Point these discriminators out in the letter, the CV AND the statement. Keep it simple. If you claim excellence in all endeavours, this may not be well received, but it's not going to sink you - yet will it help you stand out? so pick your spots. If you are applying to a particular type of position, e.g. teaching emphasis, bring your interest and capacity up early and restate it at least once. Anyway. AWM

Comrade PhysioProf said...

It is more important to explain how awesome your post-doctoral work has been, and how you are uniquely positioned to leverage off of your post-doctoral training to make an impact on your field as independent investigator. This is subtly--but importantly--different than explaining how awesome you are personally, about which no one gives a flying fuck.

BTW, in the biomedical sciences, cover letters are worthless: no one reads them. The first pass of application review is based solely on the CV. If you have not been suitably productive in terms of publications (where suitable depends on the institution/department), then game over. If you make it over that hurdle, then your Research Plan will be looked at.

All the cover letter needs to say is who you are, what job you are applying for, and the names and contact information for your references.

MRW said...

Much-delayed comment, but I was talking with a colleague who was on the committee that hired me, and I was reminded of this post.

There may be some difference between neuroscience and chemistry, but I doubt it's extreme enough that *no one* reads your cover letter. Different people within a field and even within a department will place different emphases on the various parts of your application package.

There may, in general, be less emphasis on cover letters in neuroscience than in chemistry, but you don't want to give the barebones letter Physioprof recommends and end up having someone read it who actually places some importance on it.

The most important thing to do with your cover letter is to show that you're a good "fit". Everything in your package can do that to some degree, but the cover letter can do it best. Are they a department that prides themselves on teaching? Add a bit more about teaching. Are they more research-centric? Talk more about research. Are they looking for someone to fill a particular gap in their department? Explain why you fill it.

A cover letter that doesn't show you're a good fit says one of three things about you:
(1) you aren't a good fit
(2) you aren't interested enough in the department to figure out what they want or you don't really know what they're about
(3) you aren't skilled enough to even fake 1 & 2

Becca said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comment MRW! This "fitting" idea is something I've been thinking about for a while, and intend to expand upon in my next entry. Stay tuned!

GMP said...

Hi Dr Becca,

I just discovered your blog.
I am in a non-bio field, but have 2 cents to offer on the issue of cover letters.

In my field, the cover letter and the statement of research plans (or whatever you want to call it) are separate documents, and separate from the CV and the teaching statement.

The cover letter should tell them what you did and what you plan on doing (research and teaching) in no more than a page and a half, 2 pages tops. Feel free to say things such as "I am a good fit for your department because of such and such..." I am all for being matter-of-fact but confident; don't use superlatives for yourself (I am awesome, brilliant, etc) your letter writers will do that; rather, point them to the things that you have accomplished (they can look it up on CV in detail) and plans that you have (which are in your research statement in detail), and briefly justify why it's you they want ("... because I can complement and enahnce your department's effort in Gooey Hopscotch research")

Feels like I should probably post something....
Anyway, good luck in your search!

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