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 little...um..creativity 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.
The Plight of the Post-Doc