Begging for a Postdoc

October 20, 2005

When I was a new graduate student in biology, just getting started in my adviser's lab, he offered me a small piece of advice:

Adviser: Everyone starts out their doctorate loving their adviser. By the middle of their doctorate, they will hate their adviser, and eventually get back to a working relationship by the time they're done.

Me: Err ... OK.

While it was nice of him to offer that pearl of wisdom, I would have appreciated it more if he had informed me that much of my frustration with him would be due to the yearlong sabbatical that he would take during a rather critical time of my graduate career. And while I've never hated my adviser, there certainly have been difficult times, most of them stemming from his sabbatical, not the long nights of measuring enzyme activity and gene expression levels.

Taking a sabbatical is not an uncommon thing for a professor to do, but your adviser takes one on the other side of the country, it certainly makes it difficult to resolve matters that are best resolved by sitting down and discussing them.

It also does not provide an easy means for a student to obtain advice. The information age is great and all, but there are some obstacles, like a time difference of almost half a day, that are difficult to overcome. Then, when you add in the tendency of my adviser, like many others, to respond only to those e-mail queries most pressing to his mind and not mine, getting simple advice about a job search can be a bit challenging.

Given that my current job search is the beginning of a pretty big transition in my life (from graduate school to the "real world"), I would like all of the advice from my adviser that I can get.

I will be earning my Ph.D. this year, and I'm seeking a postdoctoral position at a reputable university or research institute. I'm not looking to make a major change in my research focus, but I do want to make a bit of a course alteration. If my research could be described as South Carolina before, I'd like to be in North Carolina now.

In the end, I'd like my next research project to be something I want to focus on for the rest of my career in biology.

What is making me nervous about the job search is not my goals but the search itself. It's not that I'm a stranger to the recruiting process; it's just that I've never quite experienced this dynamic before.

Coming out of high school, I was an athlete recruited by a few universities. The ones interested in having me compete for them would arrange for me to spend a weekend with the team -- on their dime. That made sense from a business standpoint. The university had a recognized need and wanted my services, and I certainly wasn't about to complain about a free trip.

In my other interview experiences, I was finishing college, and the graduate programs into which I had been accepted were all competing for the same students. In that situation, it again seemed logical that the "interviews" were more like recruiting trips, with the programs paying my way out to visit their departments and meet their professors.

But now I will be applying for jobs that aren't technically open or advertised, and then asking for my prospective employer to pay for me to interview with him or her. For some strange reason, that is how the postdoc hiring process works.

I have this vision in my head of how a dialogue with a prospective supervisor would go:

Me: (in a cover letter) Dear Professor X, You don't know me, but I'm perfect for your lab, even though I haven't really worked in your field and I may not be familiar with how you go about doing things in your lab. You're not actively seeking new postdoctoral fellows right now, but you should still hire me anyway. Care to pay for me to come see you and tell you why?

Professor: (sound of my letter in a shredder).

But that's how the process works, so that's what I will do. (Now if I can only find a top-quality research institution in Bermuda where I could spend a week interviewing.)

Another factor that affects my job hunt is that I am married. Fortunately for me, my wife is self-employed and will be able to move fairly easily. The catch is that her profession is such that she will do much better in a large city than a small town. Since postdocs don't exactly command high salaries on the open market, and we will need her income, large city here we come. But I'm betting that factor is not one I should mention in an interview.

Professor: So, why do you think you would like working in my lab?

Me: Because you're in Metropolis, and my wife will make more money here. ... I mean, the science you do is really, really, interesting! Honest!

The second challenging issue is that, most likely, I will have to choose our next location without my wife having ever seen it. I don't expect too many professors to reply favorably to a request to pay for both my wife and me to visit, so I probably won't ask for that. However, that means my wife must place a lot of trust in my ability to pick a good city and neighborhood to work and live in. ("Guess what, honey? We're going to live here for a few years. Hope you like it! And don't worry about the train, it only comes by once a night.")

So where does all of this leave me? My adviser has recently returned from his sabbatical, so the job search that I should have started in earnest a few months ago is finally under way. I've mailed out my CV a few times, and even have an interview tentatively scheduled. I have yet to receive a flat-out rejection to an application, although I have a sneaking suspicion that some of the "out of the office" automatic replies I have received are just professors ducking out on having to give me an actual response. A few other professors have asked me for letters of reference before reaching a verdict.

Somewhere out there is the lab that will meet my needs and interest me, and I am going to find it.

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