Begging for a Postdoc, Part 2

January 26, 2006

In the end, my search for my first postdoctoral fellowship in biology will boil down to one letter out of six. One letter that will make initial contact and open the door to my future. One letter that will kick-start the next phase of my career and mark one of the biggest changes of my life.

In fact, one of those letters may have already done just that. In my first column, I left off with an interview already tentatively scheduled.

But before I get to the results of that interview, I should explain how I got to this point. I began my hunt for a postdoctoral fellowship by searching for professors who were doing exciting research and were located in the geographical regions that would meet my wife's and my needs. I consulted with my no-longer-on-sabbatical adviser, decided that six professors was the ideal number with which to start, and drafted six cover letters. After attaching my CV and a copy of my recent research publication, I sent off six e-mail messages requesting an interview.

Then I prayed that I hadn't made the one little error that would torpedo my ship almost instantly, like sending Professor X's letter to Professor Y.

That may seem like an incredibly easy situation to avoid, but it's the kind of mistake I have made before in important situations like this. As an undergraduate, all of the graduate biology programs I applied to required a personal essay describing my research interests and goals. I responded with an essay describing my interests in cell-signaling and molecular biology, adding flavor by specifically saying how each university would meet my needs and desires. That meant I had several similar yet very slightly different essays.

I sorted my applications (I thought), mailed them, and didn't worry (excessively) about them until a short time later when I was organizing some papers. To my horror, I found my essay for University A in the folder for University B, indicating that I had probably mixed up the essays when I mailed them out. As I have yet to hear from University B (five years later, even though they cashed the check I sent for the application fee), it seems pretty likely that I indeed mixed them up.

This time, after sending my applications, I checked and rechecked the sent files to make sure that I hadn't done that again. It looks like I'm in the clear, but I saved a copy of each e-mail message just in case I need to check again.

Shortly after the rush of sending out my letters, I received two responses. My heart began to race. I was receiving answers already? My hand almost trembled as I clicked on the e-mailed responses and saw ... "Out of office auto-reply."

Talk about a letdown. It was short-lived, however, as the next afternoon I received a reply asking me to come out for an interview. The professor didn't even ask for a reference letter. It looked like things were beginning to roll in my direction.

I should have known that that was too easy. The remaining three professors responded with fairly standard replies asking for letters of reference and I duly notified my referees that their services would be needed. I assumed that would be a fairly straightforward process. My references had already agreed to send out letters on my behalf, so I figured all I had to do was tell them where to send the letters, and presto!

In a word: Oops.

The Oxford English Dictionary lists one definition for a referee as "a person who may be referred to for information or guidance on the character or other qualities of someone, spec. of an applicant for employment, for an academic or other award, or the like."

Sounds simple enough, right? So why would I have any difficulty in procuring three solid letters of reference?

A week after I notified him, one of my referees sent me a copy of his reference letter for proofreading. It looked fairly solid except for one glaring little detail: My name wasn't in it; my referee had put another Ph.D.'s name in the letter by mistake. I have never been so glad to proofread a document in my life.

That error was soon fixed, and in my naïvété, I assumed that his letter would most likely be the third of the three letters to go out; after all, it had been a week since I had made my request.

A little over a week later, however, I received an e-mail from one of the other professors in whose laboratory I was hoping to do my first postdoc. The professor informed me that, so far, only one letter (the one I had proofed) had been sent on my behalf. That was mildly disappointing, but I contacted my remaining two referees and hoped once again that that would take care of things.

Another week passed and I received a new e-mail from the same professor telling me that there was still one letter lagging. I pressed my third referee again, and finally, a week after that, he apologetically told me that his letter was on its way.

Fortunately, it appears that the professors I applied to did not hold the delay in getting my reference letters against me. Two of the three that requested my letters of reference still granted me interviews.

While the reference-letter situation did make me sweat a bit, the fun was just beginning. Instead of handling things via e-mail, one professor wanted me to call to schedule an interview. This made me quite nervous. What would he expect me to know already about his research? The field in general? Where I wanted to go in his lab?

This professor has a lab at one of the premier universities in the United States. Doing a postdoc there would undoubtedly open just about any door I could ever need opened. My mind kept playing out a nightmarish vision of how I expected our preliminary phone conversation to go:

Professor: Now I assume you are completely up to date on our work. What are three logical experiments you would propose as follow-ups to our research paper that was published last month?

Me: Well ... umm ... by "last month" do you mean the previous month or during the past 30 days?

Professor: You're not stalling, are you?

Me: It depends on what your definition of "stalling" is....

To be prepared, I spent the 12 hours between his e-mail and my phone call relearning as much about the field and his recent publications as I possibly could. Naturally, the actual phone call went much differently than my imagined version:

Professor: Glad you called! How does this date four weeks from now work for you?

Me: I'm free that day. Would you like to talk about some research ide-

Professor: Great! I'll transfer you to my assistant and you guys can work out the details.

And that was it. No pre-interview interview, no questions designed to screen me, nothing difficult at all. I wasn't about to complain, though, as I now had a definite date for an interview scheduled at a top-notch university located in a city that would be excellent for both my wife and me. All my criteria could potentially be met with this one interview. Within the next couple days, I was able to schedule my other two interviews for that same week since all of the labs were in the same general area. I figured getting three interviews from six applications was a pretty good start.

As I was preparing for my trip, I received one last e-mail message regarding my applications -- one of the auto-reply professors had decided that he would like to interview me as well, and I quickly added an interview with him to the end of my trip. That gave me a grand total of four interviews. I felt good about my chances and raced to my adviser with the news:

Adviser: Four interviews? That's great! But you do realize that you've scheduled four interviews in four days in three different cities, right? An interview like this is pretty much an all-day event. I probably would've taken a day off somewhere in there.

Me: Yeah, maybe I should have scheduled one. I think I'll be fine, though.

Yeah, I'll be fine. I keep telling myself that as I step on a cross-country plane the day before my first interview. I'll be fine.

David Peters is the pseudonym of a Ph.D. candidate in biology at a research university in the West. He is chronicling his search this academic year for a postdoctoral position.