Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Posts tagged ‘Postdoc applications’

Choosing an Advisor: Choosing Wisely

indiana-jones-last-crusade-grailRemember that scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when he makes it through all the trials to the room full of “Holy Grail” cups? When the old knight who kept watch on everything tells them to choose a cup and cautions them to “choose wisely,” and the Nazi totally screws up and picks the prettiest cup, and he basically melts into a puddle of Nazi-scum. Then the knight says, obviously, “He chose poorly.” Then Indie comes along and chooses an ugly, small, little cup, and he drinks and is fine, and Capt. Obvious lauds Indie for choosing wisely? Why am I bringing this up? Because, you need to choose wisely when choosing an advisor. There are many time points when you will choose an advisor including undergraduate, graduate, and postdoc. Interactions with your advisor can make your job a joy or a living hell. So, choosing wisely is very important.

I was asked to write this post months ago, and I went out to a number of students and postdocs to get their opinions. Unfortunately for you, dear readers, none of them responded. So, you will have to hear my personal opinions. Maybe by writing things, some of which they may or may not agree with, they will be prodded into the act of writing? Maybe not.

OK, so here are my *pearls of wisdom* for you.

  1. Work-Life Balance. If you want to have work-life balance, make sure that the advisor you pick has work-life balance.  If they do not, they will not allow you to have it. Warning – just being a woman or having kids does not mean the person has work-life balance. My first time out, I picked an advisor who was a woman with a kid, and she had no concept of work-life balance. She was also very unsympathetic toward people without children trying to have work-life balance (see this recent post). She felt like people without kids should just work all the time.
  2. Type of criticism. Science is critical. See this post about taking criticism (post). Different advisors deliver critique in different ways. You need to find one that you can tolerate. Advisors are like coaches. You should see them that way. Like a coach or piano teacher, they will always find something wrong, even when you do it great. There is always room for improvement in science – especially when you are still learning. But, if someone delivers the criticism in a way you cannot tolerate, you will have a very hard time taking it.
  3. Time to degree/completion & post-job placement. How long is it going to take for you to get your Ph.D? How fast did previous students graduate? Do they have one paper? Several papers? What do they do when they leave the lab? Do they get good jobs? Do postdocs get jobs as faculty, if that is what they want? Do they go to industry? Where? Do grad students get good postdocs? Do undergrads go to good grad schools?
  4. Funding. Some people put this as the most important thing. I agree that if you have to TA the entire time as a grad student, it will limit how fast you can get your thesis done. And, if a person doesn’t have money for a postdoc, they obviously can’t hire you for one. The advisor needs to be successful at getting funding. Will they train you at getting funding yourself (fellowships or scholarships)?
  5. Resources. Funding is one type of resource, but are there other resources available? Is there time on the equipment? Or too few instruments to get on to do your experiments? Is there money to go to conferences? What about other knowledge or skills? What happens when the advisor wants to do learn something new? Do they let you flounder? Or send you to learn it from another lab?
  6. Other students. To me, this is the most important thing to do when visiting a lab. You must talk to the current students about the lab. They will likely be very frank with you about what they like and dislike. How happy are they? Do they have work-life balance? What do they not like about the advisor? When trying to decide about an advisor, I would definitely try to have lunch with the people already in the lab to see how they like the advisor. Ask about how the advisor gives criticism? How well other previous students have done with finding jobs after? How well is the lab managed for resources? Is there enough equipment? The right equipment? If you have to do something new, does the advisor let people flounder? How are new skills brought into the lab? How are the lab meetings run? Do people cry or get upset often? How does the advisor handle conflict in the lab? Avoidance? Do they micromanage? Does the advisor listen to complaints and criticism themselves? How does the lab operate? How do they give instruction? How do they set expectations? What is the make-up of the lab? How many undergrads, grad students, postdocs? I recommend having a list of questions for the lab members and making sure they answer all your questions.
  7. Advisors are not perfect. They make mistakes. If you found someone who is genuinely interested in your development as a scientist, they will probably still have a lot of other aspects you don’t like. As they say in the Muppet Movie, “peoples is peoples.” To me, that means that everyone has strengths and weaknesses. You are not entitled to a perfect advisor. Nobody is perfect. You are entitled to a certain level of respect and civility from your advisor. You are also entitled to expectations being set. You are entitled to progressive discipline if you make a mistake. The advisor is also entitled to respect because they have achieved a lot to make it to the professoriate. They are able to fire you if you are insubordinate – not even a union can protect you, if you do not do what is asked of you.
  8. How to work with a difficult advisor. I should write a whole post about this – hell, I should write a whole book about this – and I probably will someday. Let’s be honest, even good advisors can say and do stupid shit that pisses you off and is disrespectful. I apologize for anything I have ever done like this, and I know I have done it. If the advisor is mostly good, you can forgive these transgressions.  If you are having a hard time with your advisor, I suggest speaking to them in private about what is bothering you. But, you don’t want to come off as entitled or complaining. I suggest trying to come up with a solution and bring that to the meeting, as well as your complaint. Believe me, I have tried other things, and this works best. It can be hard to do, because they have power over you, in the form of your letter for future jobs. It can also be hard because many advisors have egos and some are really big egos. A bad advisor will not care what you think or have a problem with regarding the lab or his/her management style. A good advisor will consider your words, and see if it is anything that can be done (sometimes there is nothing that can be changed). But, letting something that is bothering you go and fester can make everything worse. Also, remember that your advisor is not thinking about you all the time. Remember, professors have all-consuming jobs, so they really cannot and should not be thinking about you all the time. So, return the favor, and don’t worry about what they think about you all the time. This will help your relationship.

Notice what isn’t on my list? Science. Because, basically, I think the type of science you do is irrelevant. Yet, when I talk to grad students, they often say the most important thing is the science that is being done in the research group. I think this is very wrong headed. Why? Because there is usually more than one person in each field doing interesting science in that field. Chances are that some of the people in the field will be BigShots with lots of money, students, and postdocs. Some of these BigShots are amazing advisors. (Yes, they do exist! I can think of several in my field.) If you get one of those, you have hit the jackpot! Sadly, many BigShots are crappy advisors. They suck in, chew up, and spit out students like it is their job (when actually, it is part of their job to advise and help the next generation of scientists succeed).  There are also lots of little guys out there, doing good science, plugging away, and often in desperate need of smart, dedicated, and hard working students. They also often care deeply about mentoring and advising. As long as they have the resources for you to succeed, you can do great things at these smaller groups. Finally, I think there are so many great, interesting science questions out there, and you can make advances on anything. Grad school is about learning how to do a long project, so you need to go to a lab that will teach you those skills. But, I’m not sure you need a paper in Science or Nature to learn those skills.

In my time, I have picked several advisors, and I have chosen poorly and chosen wisely. The thing I was most surprised about was that many professors have big egos. Now, I am a faculty member, and students make decisions about me. I’m not exactly sure how to convince them that I am worth the risk. I have been successful with students graduating in a timely manner (five years) with several papers with mostly full funding. But, alas, they often do not care about such mundane, practical matters, despite the fact that it will affect them every single day of their lives in grad school.

I am sure there are lots of things I have forgotten to add, but these are the things I thought of first. Hopefully some other people will help by writing, too. If you have a blog post, feel free to send it to me to post. I hope to hear from you! If you want to get an email each time I post, push the +Follow button.

Applications: Your CV and cover letter

TypingWell, it’s application season again – well, it’s application-reading season, anyway. The majority of my department, myself included, are currently serving on some sort of hiring committee. This means going through hundreds of applications. We are being very careful this year. The applicant pool is outstanding, and we don’t want to miss anyone. I am not sure how all committees are run, but the one I am on is going through a series of “cut-offs” to weed down to a set of applicants we will interview online and then fewer to bring to campus.

The first cut-off is to check that the the minimum requirements are satisfied. For instance, if the advertisement requires a Ph.D., we have to check that they all have Ph.D.s. A few people were cut out at that round.

The second cut-off was to read the cover letter and CV of each applicant and look for some set of preferred attributes. For instance, if we prefer that the applicant have taught for at least one year at the college level, but it isn’t a requirement, we might rate all the applicants on teaching experience. Then, we could have a cut-off based on that score from multiple people (we have 3 readers per packet for the first two cuts).

As I was going through the first and second cuts for the search committee I am on, I am surprised at people’s CVs. I have had a post on your CV in the past (here). This prior post is about getting your CV together for tenure. I think the same basic principles apply for getting your CV together for a job application, but I am surprised that people don’t spruce up their CVs as I would have expected. I have assembled some tips for your academic job application.

1. What are you applying for? Your CV should play up the aspects of your career that directly pertain to the position you are applying to. Does that seem obvious? Not to many of the applicants I have seen. If you are applying for a faculty job that will be research-intensive and require significant teaching, don’t discuss superfluous stuff up front. For a research-based faculty job, I want to see your research accomplishments up front. Don’t hide your publications at the end! Make it clear if you already earned some fellowships or grants. Showcase your invited talks at conferences or departments. If you are applying for a lectureship where you will be teaching and not doing research, don’t talk about your passion for research. Put your research accomplishments, but after your teaching experience and accomplishments.

2. Your CV should be well-organized.  It should be easy for people to find what they are looking for in your CV. You should use headers that distinguish different parts of your CV. The font should be clear and large enough to read. CVs can be longer, so just let it be long, if you have a lot going on with your work.

3. The cover letter and extras. In prior posts, I thought that cover letters weren’t as important, but I want to revise that. If you are applying for a position and there is no requested statements, the cover letter may be your only time to actually convey your desire and passion for the position to which you are applying. Also, almost all application systems allow you to upload extra documents. So, if an advertisement for a job does not ask for a research statement or a teaching statement, you should still provide one. If they don’t want to read it, they won’t. But, they might read it and want it. Now, if the hiring committee get a few of these and want them from all, they may come back to ask for it from all applicants. If you already have it in, you will have a leg up. If you get it in, they will likely look at it. Even if you don’t put in an extra document, you can always get your enthusiasm and excitement across in your cover letter, so use it.

On a similar note, I am also reading postdoc applications. Many of these same issues are important for cover letters, CVs, and extra documents are true for postdoc applications, too. Most importantly, putting your publications up front is essential! A postdoc position is (typically) a research only job, so you need to emphasize the research you did. Don’t hide your research accomplishments.

Anything that you have noticed that can be weird or awkward about job applications? These are my impressions from my limited view of this year’s applications, but perhaps others have advice from many other application seasons. Post or comment here. To receive an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

Dear Sir

Power of WordsToday’s post is again about application season. It comes from another WomanOfScience, and discusses an issue of sexism that applications should consider when submitting materials for graduate studies, postdocs, or faculty jobs. Enjoy the post! Remember that you can follow this blog by clicking the +Follow button.

It’s academic job application season and search committees are busy poring over applications to find the best candidates. As a repeat member of my department search committees, I am always surprised at how many cover letters are addressed as, “Dear Sir,” or “Dear Sirs.” Is it so inconceivable that there are women on the search committee or should their input just be deliberately ignored? Does the idea of a woman evaluating your application fill you with revulsion or fear? This bad habit of addressing letters only to my male colleagues is especially ridiculous given the goal, or in some places, the mandate, of gender balance or proportional representation on search committees.

Do people write “Dear Sir” because it is tradition? There are many traditions we have abandoned because they are sexist or exclusionary, or just because there are better ways to do things. How many people addressing their cover letters with “Dear Sir” are still characterizing organic compounds with a continuous wave NMR? You perform up-to-date experiments and theory, why not update your attitude about letter writing?

You might say, well, how else to address a letter to a group of people who are unknown to you? Here are some options: Find out who the chair of the search committee is and address your letter to that person. Or address your letter as, “Dear Search Committee” or “Dear Colleagues.”

I regularly receive letters of application to work in my lab, which are addressed only to me, with the salutation “Dear Sir.” I am a woman. Those get deleted or recycled immediately. Why would I hire someone who is not observant enough to figure out I am female? That doesn’t exactly indicate future success in science. Furthermore, why would I hire someone so unprofessional as to address a letter clearly meant for one person, who is known, with a generic salutation like “Dear Sir”?

We have to stop thinking of the default scientist as male. To examine your own implicit biases, you can take the Harvard Implicit Bias test at: http://implicit.harvard.edu. We all have biases. To overcome them, we need to be aware of them.

I have colleagues who don’t read the cover letters, preferring only to count up publications and evaluate the research statement and reference letters. I read the cover letter first. Cover letters generally give the committee members a good sense of what the candidate is like as a person, what they value by what they choose to highlight and how they describe it. Unfortunately in the case of candidates addressing their cover letters as “Dear Sir,” the sense I get of them is easily summed up as: “sexist.”

So, what do you think?  Post or comment!

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