Reader Question: Recent PhD Grad Seeks Advice on Job Hunting

Reader E has a question for the blogosphere. I am retelling the original email to better anonymize the case (as per E’s request). I think I managed to capture the gist of the experience; E, if something is incorrect, please let me know.

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E completed their PhD in a physical science field at a tippity-top university (ranked 1 or 2), it seems quite recently. The first three years were spent on experimental work, while E was supported on a fellowship (I am guessing NSF); by the end of the fellowship, external funds for the continuation of the project did not come through. In the meantime, the advisor took a part-time position elsewhere and has been largely unavailable to E. At the end of the fellowship, E was advised to leave due to lack of funding, then it was decided E would switch gears and do computational work (I was unclear how that was funded, I am guessing on advisor’s other funds or perhaps a TA-ship). So, E spent the last 2.5 years learning how to do computational work with the help of another senior person (not sure if another faculty or postdoc/researcher), because the advisor does not have expertise in computation.

While E completed the computational project successfully, and defended their PhD recently, they don’t feel like the PhD experience has made them competitive for jobs. “While I produced several articles (2 journals, 1 proceeding), I wouldn’t call any of them career producing (the best was a mid range journal).”

I feel like I learned how to apply a very narrow set of computational skills to an even narrower problem. I have a hard time showing employers (postdoc, industry, gov, etc…not picky at all at this stage…have a growing family and need a job) that my skill set would be beneficial to them. My advisor has no way of helping me get employed (knows no one in the computational field…) and my mentor [the person who helped get E started on the computational front] is too busy with new professional developments. I would like to know, do you offer students (without a network to rely on) and struggling to get employed how to sell themselves? I would love to stay in science, but accept the fact that it is very unlikely that someone will take a chance on me.

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I will leave this open for blogosphere discussion. But I can get the discussion going by sharing what I do with my students.

I tell this to all of them, early and often:

This is not MIT or the like, and I am not famous. Just getting a PhD from here with me as advisor does not magically open doors. I tell them that I am very good at what I do and we will do good science together and that they will be well trained to be good PhD scientists and communicators, technically strong, who can write and present their work. But, I tell them that I also really want them to be able to get jobs when they are done. So they are encouraged from the get-go to get an MS in another field of their choice in addition to the PhD, and to take classes in other areas. I seem to be unusual in this respect, as I recently found out — most of my colleagues seem worried about productivity and want their students focused on research 100% of the time. I don’t. After the first 2-2.5 years, the students are done with classes for the major, and the resulting lack of class-induced structure to their days and weeks can be disorienting. I strongly encourage them to take 1 and sometimes 2 classes per semester in whatever they want until they are done; not only does this increase their knowledge base and potential employability, but I strongly believe is helps productivity on their main projects (alternatively, they TA when they are senior; regular contact with chirpy undergrads is good for the grumpy senior grad student). Nearly all of my students have taken the opportunity to get an MS in another science or engineering field while doing a PhD in our field (and also they get a “MS in passing” in the major, but that’s rather trivial for a well-performing student, just a bit of paperwork).

I also have some (not many) connections in industry (e.g. my grad school buddies and other people who were students when  I was), and now that I have placed some students in industry, they could (and do) further help other students. From my standpoint, all I can do is help as much as I can with the connections I have, and otherwise let the students know early on what the lay of the land is, and then let them figure it out for themselves. I am about to graduate a student who has a job lined up at a major software company. It has been a great experience: he interviewed, they gave him an offer, he asked and they agreed on a start date several months into the future, so he will both finish his project and his dissertation without a rush, and will then start at his great new job.

My industry students seem to do a few interviews to get a job, but not many. 1-3 is the norm before first offer. I had only one student several years ago who had like 12 interviews before the first offer, and eventually landed at a company that he had always dreamed of working for (I helped there by forcing him to go give a talk or two at venues where I knew the company would be having representatives). It has never been an issue that my students can’t get interviews. The student who is about to graduate, the one I mentioned in the previous paragraph, is part of an international community, and he appears to have access to a lot of job opportunity announcements through the network of his compatriots. Kudos to him, I say!

I think it’s impossible to get a job without some sort of network, but I it needn’t be your advisor and his buddies. Former group members are great, compatriots are great, checking websites of companies in the area or the companies you’d like to work with in general is great. In my experience, while job search is scary, it has always ended very well for my students and it didn’t take long. As advisor, I know that the last 6 months of their time here will be low productivity, because they are distracted and interviewing, and that’s fine; I plan on everything being done beforehand anyway.

As for postdocs, those are either awesome or awful in the physical sciences (I don’t have experience in the biomed world, but it sure seems to be a strange and scary place, based on the blogosphere). A great postdoc will propel you, an awful one will kill years of your life and, in some fields, might make you less employable in industry.
The worst part is you don’t know that postdoc opportunities are available until they are (i.e. notice of funding comes through) and then they are filled quickly and usually through personal connections (e.g. I will prioritize a student from a group whose leader I know and respect over a random other applicant).

Another issue: when it comes to advising, it seems to me that people with fellowships, especially graduate students but sometimes also postdocs, tend to have a crappy time disproportionately often. Unfortunately, I am guessing it’s the case of “well, I don’t have to pay the kid, so why not?” My rule is that if I wouldn’t work with a student/postdoc under the assumption that I am paying them off my grants, then I don’t take them (this doesn’t imply poor quality of student postdoc, but rather that they may be a poor fit for the group, or that I already have too many people and cannot effectively mentor another one). The same thing holds for the research topic: too often, people on fellowships end up working on advisor’s pet topic that may or may not be half-baked; they also end up being poorly supervised, because there is no funding-agency pressure that the advisor feels for regular grants. Obviously, that’s a recipe for disaster: before you know it, three years have passed, and the student has spent them on a poorly defined project with inadequate advising. Likely, it doesn’t help that most fellowship holders flock to tippity-top schools, which are competitive places and not known to be the oases of  warmth or fuzziness in student advising.

So, what’s the moral of the story?

E, I am really sorry for your experience. But, you got a PhD from a fancy school, and that won’t hurt in the long run.
Right now, pull all the strings you can — whomever you know, whomever they know, look at online postings, anything you can find. You don’t necessarily expect people to get you jobs, but rather to help point you towards jobs or places where jobs might be opening, and generally just meet people. It’s never too late to develop a network, and a network can be built in ways that you don’t expect: e.g. there are lawyers and doctors and professors and entrepreneurs among the parents on my kid’s swim team; sure, I know them because of swimming, but I know them now, and didn’t before, and if need be I could and would call upon our acquaintance in another context, and I would be happy if they did the same.

I also recommend consulting this great book “Navigating the Path to Industry” which helps exactly in your situation: finding a job upon leaving academia, as written by a biotech manager (the writer is awesome IRL and online, and sometimes comments here under a pseudonym, but I know doesn’t want to link work with personal blog, so I am not linking here).

Blogosphere, what say you? Do you have words of wisdom for E?

Ranty

I think I might explode with anger and frustration. I have a proposal due next week and I cannot get to work on it because I have to finish two nominations (including writing letters) for colleagues (no, they could not have been done sooner because everyone, including the nominees, waits till the very last fuckin’ minute to send me their stuff) and I have to sit in a meeting for a university-level committee all morning tomorrow and then I teach in the afternoon.

And this is the service that is actually not bullshit. And don’t tell me to delegate, because I am the delegate.

Sometimes there is simply too much work for the time available. And the time crunch comes about not from sitting on one’s hands but from constantly having to put out fires; urgent always trumping important, until it’s too late. 

So please, don’t give me advice on how to optimize my time. I assure you I have heard everything and am aware of all the tricks. Most “tricks” involve dropping stuff or dumping stuff on someone else. Or simply being an asshole, like some of my colleagues, and not give a damn if service obligations go to $hit.
I have already cut all that could be cut; this week alone I refused probably 6-7 review requests.

Absent dumping my work on someone else, it is the issue of simple math: there is too much work for the time that I have. And no, it is not my character flaw, or my inability to get organized or whatever. So please refrain from giving advice.

Where will I be all weekend? Right fuckin’ here, in my office, non-stop. Butt glued to the chair.

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Which reminds me: I received reports from a highfalutin journal. Of the three, one was very positive and 2 sentences long. One was blanket dismissive, also 2 sentences. One was misguided and factually wrong (an example of a little knowledge being a bad thing), but at least the person wrote several paragraphs.

To all my colleagues who can’t be bothered to read the whole 4-page letter-type manuscript and who can’t be bothered to write more than 2 sentences: screw you. I always write detailed reports, especially if I don’t like the paper. I do so even if I do like the paper, so the authors would have some ammunition to fight the potentially negative reviews.

Screw you all, lazy referees. You are crappy colleagues. I hope all you receive in the next 5 years are blanket dismissals conveyed through 2-sentence reports.
You don’t deserve my time or my effort to read and understand your papers and write detailed reports.
And neither do you, unbelievably slow editor who actually lets not one but two 2-sentence reports through as actual reviews. Screw you, too.

Typesetting Grant Proposals

I am in a physical science field, addressing problems by means of theory and computation. I also work a lot with experimentalists.

When I write paper or proposals with experimental colleagues, since they all use MS Word, I use it too. I also use MS Word for a lot of small documents (writing homework assignments and tests, letters of recommendation, all sorts of administrative documents).

On the other hand, I write papers with my students exclusively in LaTeX. The students’ dissertations, which are largely based on their published papers, are also in LaTeX. There is really nothing like LaTeX for producing beautiful documents with a lot of math. And, of course, the publisher that is of greatest interest to physicists (the American Physical Society) prefers it — the beautiful REVTeX two-column template (REVTeX is a collection of LaTeX macros) is the gold standard of preprints, widely recognizable as the “template of the true physicist” (see arXiv, for instance).

I also write a lot of proposals by myself. This year is worse than average in the number that I have to submit. In the past, I have written grants in MS Word and I have written grants in LaTeX. And I have a confession to make: of late, I have been writing my grants in MS Word.

Grants are complicated documents, often bridging between disparate bodies of literature; they generally have strict formatting requirements and very high standards for readability and flow. Every grant writer will recognize the need to use the available page are efficiently, without cramming too much or wasting precious space.

LaTeX, in general, will let you format the document as you see fit, but will do so grudgingly. It always knows better than you what looks good, and it generally really does; it incorporates the best typographic practices, as it was meant as a tool that lets you focus on content while not dwelling over layout. However, writing proposals is where you need to have it your way because of the spacing requirements. I have lost a lot of time in the past wrestling with LaTeX to have the wrapped figure where I want it and not where LaTeX deems it appropriate, trying to reduce the white space around the figure etc. Also, excessive math (or virtually any math) has no place in proposals, even theory ones (typesetting math is what makes Latex superior).

While it doesn’t bother me in the least that I have to compile in order to look at the text when I write a paper, it bothers me a lot when I write proposals. The proposal is a work of both form and substance, in which text flow and layout are critical. Also, proposals are usually written (by me and the likes of me, at least) on a very tight schedule, and I find that just having one document that I can easily scroll down or up alleviates some of the tension. In contrast, when I write a  proposals in LaTeX, I usually have a master file and separate files for different chapters/sections  (which makes it easier to track content and edit), but — in the mad dash to the deadline —  working with source files in Latex  makes me feel disoriented and interferes with my work flow and thought process; none are good in a time crunch. So I go with the WYSIWYG MS Word.

So, yes; I am ashamed to say, these days I use MS Word to write proposals. *hangs head in shame, turns in physical scientist card*

I am actually a little worried about being judged for writing a proposal using MS Word instead of LaTeX during proposal review (the one I am writng now, in particular). There is a lot of “one true path” among scientists, from the choice of the operating system [e.g. real computational scientists would not use anything but Linux (Mac is acceptable, but Windows is only for the dimwitted)]  to programming language or any piece of software. I review a lot of proposals, and the ones from pure physicists, especially theorists, are usually written in LaTeX (with its recognizable Computer Modern Roman, a pleasantly plump font). I am seriously worried that my use of the Text Editor of Pure Evil will immediately dismiss me as not being a real scientist in the eyes of some who may review this particular grant. My husband thinks I am nuts for worrying about such things; of course, you’d think that the content of the proposal is what matters. But we all know scientists can be territorial, petty, judgmental, and dismissive (you know, just like other humans) and it is not inconceivable that I might be looked down up because of the non-LaTeXness of my proposal (not like my femaleness, apparent from the proposal cover page, will do much to help). Then again, it may be the nerves talking. I do tend to lose my belief in humanity and become more misanthropic than usual at proposal crunch time.

What say you, esteemed blogosphere? How do you typeset your proposals? Do you care about how people have typeset their  proposals when you review them? 

Ah, Meetings

I am very tired, it’s been a hellish week; but, something that happened last week remains with me, so I might as well try to purge it through writing, as I have been itching to do. I am sure I wrote about similar experiences before, but here it goes again.

I am very impatient and the people who speak slowly drive me absolutely nuts. I have a colleague whom I love dearly, and I would probably hang out more with her if her slow talking weren’t so excruciating to me. I hate it when a person takes 30 seconds to complete a sentence whose conclusion I saw coming in second No. 2. I often finish the sentences of slow talkers, in the hopeless attempt that they would get to the point while we are still young. Gaaaaah! My response is visceral and hard to reason away.

I was on a committee, not chairing it, joined by two colleagues. This small committee then reports back to a larger, super-committee if you will, with the findings. The meeting went way overtime because the chair, a painfully meticulous and slow-speaking individual, honestly spent considerably more time on certain aspects of the problem than reasonable, just because the rules say so. I appreciate that sometimes it’s important to dot all your i’s and cross all your t’s, but there are situations where common sense is perfectly acceptable to apply and where we should think why the rules were created in the first place, rather than follow the rules to the letter in a situation to which they clearly don’t apply. For example, let’s say the bylaws say that in order to work at a hair salon you have to have this many years of training at a beauty school, as evidenced by certificates; what we did was the equivalent of discussing ad nauseam why the certificates of a candidate are not what we expected them to be for a hairstyling position, which is really pointless because the job description does not involve cutting hair at all, but rather working at the reception, answering the phone, and sweeping floors.

Even though I had a hard time waiting for the committee chair to express himself while going over the many, MANY, quite unnecessary details, I think the small-committee meeting went well overall. But in the larger meeting I think I might have ended up getting on some people’s nerves. First, there are a number of prim-and-proper slow speakers on the large super-committee and in my university in general; that just seems to be the way and is related to the regional culture (faculty native to the region are very measured in their demeanor and eloquent and speak sloooooowly and drive me absolutely bonkers — SPITITOUTSPITITOUTSPITITOUTALREADY!!!) During the (again) excruciatingly long meeting of the super-committee, I had a harder time restraining my impatience and I ended up cutting in a few times into the slow-speaker’s monologue to clarify, correct, disagree, and generally be a douche (side-effect) but mostly in order to move things along. I don’t think I was coming across as very nice in those meeting, and being that I am female and have been socialized to please, it bothers me that I make people uncomfortable or that they don’t like me; on the other hand, I am felling bored and generally wanting to just burst out of my skin. I seem to have come across as a buldozer of sorts, never a good metaphor for a woman. The thing is, I know I should be quiet and let the meeting run its course and not interfere, but I just cannot stop myself. It’s physically unpleasant sitting there, listening to the slow-paced bloviating; I just want to fast-forward these people, make them get to the point already. Some people really like to listen to themselves, but I just cannot be a willing participant for very long, as I can hear my hair graying, my butt expanding, and my face wrinkling while they are laboring over that perfect spoken sentence, and then another, and another…

As the friend from above said, I don’t have the personality for any kind of administration. I am probably not liked in that committee — or many other places, for that matter, which don’t recognize that I am really a force for good: annoying colleagues with incisive comments and fighting collective time-wasting since 2004.

Being liked mattered more when I was younger. I was also able to tolerate people’s narcissism, disrespect, and generally wasting my time better. With age, I am turning into a curmudgeon. Ah, the little inevitabilities of aging.

But perhaps that’s another aspect of the impostor syndrome: I would like to be respected, liked, and listened to, but it seems the first two aren’t happening. So I at least try to not be bored quite as much.

Indie Movies and SF Books for a Grumpy Traveler

I am on my way back from a conference. Yet again I wonder why we spend so much time and money on this stupid conference travel.

I got up at 3:40 and I am quite grumpy, so be forewarned.

I had an invited talk at this meeting that’s very large and fairly prestigious to be invited to speak at; that’s a shiny bullet on the CV. However, since they are large and prestigious, they cover very little  for invited speakers, so this endeavor was at nearly full conference cost, which approaches stratospheric. Also, it’s the middle of the semester, so I left on Sunday and am coming back today (Tue), in order to teach my Wed class (my graduate student taught my Monday class). The outgoing and return trips lasted nearly a day each; each direction included two long flights and a couple of hours of driving to/fro the airport so I could get the best-priced ticket. So that’s 3 days of my life, 2 on the plane, 1 at a conference where I worked on my talk in the morning and in the afternoon gave a talk and attended the rest of my session, then chaired another session, and that was basically it. My invited talk was well attended, as was my whole session; however, in the session I chaired thereafter, by the end there were about 5 people in the audience. Tell me how is it worth to any funding body to spend over $2k in order for that speaker to deliver a talk to such a tiny audience? Sure, the speaker gets to hear others, but I fail to grasp how this mode of transmission, which works so well for small meetings (you talk! others talk! you hear cool things! you meet other people and talk with them!) can be justified for gigantic meetings with many parallel sessions and a high sticker price, other than as a way for the organizer to raise money.  Indeed, conferences have become ridiculously expensive,  and you see the effect in many cancelled talks — people decide it’s simply not worth it to travel.

On one leg of the outbound flight I swear the air smelled like farts. You would think my nose would adjust over the 4 hours on the plane, but no such luck. Prior to the return trip, circa 5:30 am and before the caffeine kicked in, an old dude sitting next to me at the airport farted, loudly. What the… fart?

I was supposed to meet a bloggy friend for dinner, but she’s ill (get well soon, L!) so I planned on writing up the homework solutions for my class after the talk and maybe reviewing some proposals, or at the very least working on the award nominations for two my colleagues. Every fuckin’ thing is due this Friday. Oh yes, I also have to create the midterm, also due on Friday. In the light of the mountain of impending work, I decided to watch movies on Amazon prime instead. It was an excellent idea and an apparently much-needed break.

A Big Love Story (also here) is a very sweet movie. It makes you smile and feel very warm and fuzzy, as a good rom-com should, but unlike most of the genre, it has an appealing story, it’s not formulaic, it’s well acted, the leads have great chemistry, and you end up caring for all the characters (leads and support actors alike) as they all feel real.

A Big Love Story (2012) Poster

Falling… (also here)  A beautiful medley of a number of short stories, with unusual story telling, and each cast member in two different roles; the movie has a very indie feel, with very understated acting. I enjoyed it.

Falling... (2012) Poster

On my way to the conference I finished “Ancillary Sword,” the sequel to Anne Leckie’s “Ancillary Justice“. I greatly enjoyed it, even though the writing was somewhat redundant at times (e.g. Kalr Five’s affinity for ancient china was truly beaten to death; everyone has a bit too much tea). However, I love the character development, the details that go into the narrative. Breq remains a compelling protagonist for whom you can truly root,  and there are several new characters that you get to know and care for (the new Ship, Mercy of Kalr; Liutenant Tisarwat; Translator Dlique; Medic; Kalr Five).

Ancillary Sword Orbit cover.jpg

On the way back I read “Yesterday’s Kin” by Nancy Kress. It was interesting, the plot is pretty cool, but considering that many seem to think she’s among today’s best SF writers, I was definitely not blown away. Honestly, it feels like she banged the book out in a week; that’s fine, people have to eat/pay mortgage/whatever, but the book turned out meh. The plot is compelling, granted, and it’s an easy read, but there is minimal, seemingly pro-forma character development and it feels very shallow. I can assure you I did not grow to give a rat’s a$$ about any of the characters in the book. However, it reads as something that is Hollywood-ready, easy to mold into a screenplay for a summer blockbuster with scientists, aliens, and a potential end of the world.

yesterdays-kin