The Plight of the Post-Doc


Just in time for Halloween...

A discussion on dressing up as The Scientist They Want.

I recently went back to my grad school to attend the public thesis defense of one of my good friends.  During the pre-talk mingling I chatted with a PI I'd known while I was a student, and when I mentioned that I was job hunting, he said, "Oh, do you know about the job opening at the Fancy Liberal Arts College up the road?  That could be great for you."  I had not heard about the FLAC job, and was very interested, as it really is one of the top FLACs in the country.  But then he said, "be sure when you apply that you make yourself look like a cell biologist, because that's what they want." 

Out of respect I simply smiled and said, "Oh, OK!" but what I really wanted to say was, "Dude.  I know you know that I am no cell biologist.  Sure, I'm peripherally interested in receptor signaling, but mitochondria and I do not hang.  I have no real plans to conduct research that would qualify as cell biology.  So why would I want to give people the impression that I do?"

A recent commenter said,

 The most important thing to do with your cover letter is to show that you're a good "fit". 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

My big question to this commenter (and to all of my readers) is, why would I want to fake it?   Is it too idealistic to imagine that they'd want me for me, and not for my ability to craft a cover letter that feeds them what they want to hear?  I mean, I understand the idea that if they seem to emphasize teaching, then I should emphasize teaching in my cover letter, and likewise if they emphasize research.  I've been doing that.  But I can't lie about the kind of research I'm capable of or intend to do...can I? 

At the SfN meeting I ran into a friend who's been in a tenure-track faculty position for maybe 7 or 8 years.  He had lots of great advice, but one thing he said was particularly interesting--the best possible situation, he said, is not when you can convince them that you're The Scientist They Want, but when you can convince them you're The Scientist They Didn't Know They Wanted.  We didn't get a chance to hash out how you actually make this happen, but I'm thinking this may involve perhaps a in your cover letter to get your foot in the door for an interview/job talk, where things will presumably play out like this:

Dr Becca:  And that's the end of my job talk on non-cell biology topics.
Search Committee:  Um, but we thought you said you did cell biology?
Dr Becca:  Oh, hmm...I suppose I did.  I don't, actually, but isn't this much, much better???
Search Committee:  Now that we think about it, it is!!  It totally is.  Would you like to join our department?
Dr Becca:  Yes, thanks very much.


Carl Wonders said...

Hmm..I think you raise some good points, because why would you want to BS on a cover letter just to get a job you'll potentially dislike? Personally, (1) no job (temporary) > (2) miserable job (not as temporary and usually involves going back to (1) first to remedy).

That said, I don't know if your hypothetical scenario would play out since a lot of committees might be a bit peeved to find out you're really not the person you said you were on your cover letter...

Becca said...

Right, Carl, that's exactly my point! What can be gained by making myself out to be anything but what I really am?

Anonymous said...

well, I don't know cell biology and how it might/might not overlap with your research, but there's a bit of an art in arguing that what you do is in fact in the general domain of X (even though it's Y). That is, you're not changing what you do, but you're just giving it a different label and saying that what you intend to do fits in their label. Be very clear what it is you do in specifics and proposals, but give it the general catch-all words that they're looking for, or close to it anyway. If you're asked to interview, they have decided that they want to look at someone who does research like yours, whatever they want to call it.

Candid Engineer said...

Although I mostly agree with you, part of me thinks that if you can't convince a department that you are who they want in a cover letter, then you probably aren't going to be landing a lot of grants, either. It's all bullshit, it's all a game- saying the right things (while trying to do no harm) to obtain the ends you desire.

If you're anything like me, if you can get your foot in the door for an interview (masquerading as a cell biologist or not), then your incredible personality and wit will take you the rest of the way. Despite what PP claims about nobody giving a motherfucking shit about how motherfucking personable you are. *I* believe otherwise.

Becca said...

I'm much more comfortable with the idea of bullshitting on a grant application, which I'm only putting out to a faceless study section. It's a different story with job applications, which are going to be read by people who, if my bullshitting is successful, I'm actually going to meet and who could try to engage me in a conversation on something I know very little about.

All of that aside, I do think that things would go well if I were invited for a talk. I give good talk.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Nice fantasy. The bottom line is that once you secure a tenure-track faculty position, no one who participated in your hiring will ever remember why you were hired or what your supposed particular expertise and research focus were that got you the job. All that matters is that you be productive once you take the job.

MRW said...

Faking it was probably too strong of a phrasing. Of course, don't go as far as saying anything untrue, but you can play up aspects of your research.

Why should you "fake it"?
(1) If you're going to apply as broadly as some people have suggested, you'll have to come up with some explanation of how you're a more likely fit than it might seem or you might as well save the stamps.
(2) A big part of the cover letter and research proposal are for judging how you'll write grants. When you write grant applications, you'll have to do the same thing, so it's good to show that you can.
(3) You really can convince people once you've got your foot in the door.*

As you've said, you don't want to sell yourself as something just to get a job you don't want. You need to only frame things to the degree that you're comfortable with, and it's a bit of a subjective call.

I didn't apply as broadly as most people because I wasn't comfortable stretching as far as I would have had to. I decided to save the stamps. It worked for me (the job I ended up taking was had an ad that seemed like it was written specifically for me), but you'll have to find your own comfort level.

*Some examples (of course, these are just anecdotes):
I applied to a job that was on the border of analytical and forensic chemistry. I haven't done anything forensic. I certainly never claimed to be a forensic chemist, but I did make a point of mentioning what tangential links there were between my research and forensics. They decided they liked my non-forensic research and offered me the job.
A friend applied to a school advertising for someone at the border of biology and chemistry. I don't know what he wrote in his application, but it got him an interview. The interview convinced them to offer him a job, despite his talk having no significant biology in it.

Anonymous said...

I just stumbled on your blog. interesting topic. I suppose whether you see it as faking it or not depends on your attitude:

(a) "This is who I am. Take me or leave me, you decide."

(b) "I am willing to mold myself into what YOU want, this is how."

If jobs were abundant in your field, I would go with (a). Applying for postdoc positions, sure. But TT faculty positions are a lot less abundant than postdoc postision. By now have your pet specialty that you want to do, and the department has their own pet specialties that they want to do. I think strategy A serves you well as a grad student and postdoc, but when it comes to making the switch to a faculty position it may be difficult because this limits yourself in an already very limited situation.

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