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Saturday, February 20, 2016

INDEPENDENCE...

This may be the most critical post you will read, because it is about what sets apart candidates who just look good on paper from those who actually do well in person.  "Independence" is one the most important criteria that you will be judged by... And when someone says about you that "he or she is not ready to become independent", that is equivalent to the kiss of death (no publications, pedigree or anything else will save you...)!   So, what is "Independence"?

Back when I was still a PhD student, I randomly walked into a career fair booth at a conference, where a department head (from a university that I don't now remember) sat at table and gave "mock" interviews/advice to candidates like me.  I, on the other hand, was completely "green", without a clue for what it means or takes to become faculty.  All I knew was that I was doing exciting work, publishing well, my professors liked me, and I wanted to continue in academia.  So, as soon as my turn came to sit across the table from him, words began pouring out of my mouth about my PhD project:

-"I did THIS, and I did THAT! Got these AMAZING results!!", I said.

When, suddenly, he cut me off, and abruptly said:  "You are in the wrong mind-set:  you started by telling me by what you DID (the past), while as a professor you should be telling me about what you are GOING TO DO (the future)".

The reason why I bring up this story, is because I just witnessed a highly-qualified postdoc, who I am sure is brilliant in what he does, crash-and-burn during his on-site interview (most likely, without even realizing it!!).  The problem is that it is a natural human tendency to continue doing what you are best at.  So, when this person gave his chalk-talk, he essentially proposed extending his postdoctoral projects further.  The whole presentation felt like a PhD student reporting to his committee during a defense, and that just NOT cut it.

You must understand that a professor in the US is effectively a "CEO" of a small start-up "company".  So to be a successful CEO, one must have: the people skills to manage personnel, the know-how to navigate the murky waters of academic bureaucracy, the understanding of the funding landscape, the
perseverance to get up when someone knocks you down hard and continue pushing your idea against all odds, the "silver-tongue" to give your 5 minute elevator pitch and attract "angel" funding (ie, talking to program officers), the spark to "infect" others with the enthusiasm for your work (convince grant reviewers to recommend you for funding), the time-management skills to do all of the above... oh-and-by-the-way, teach/publish/serve on committees/present at conferences/do science and have a life while at it... and the list goes on and on.

So put yourself into the shoes of the hiring committee:  if you had to "bet the farm" on just one candidate (out of 100 very qualified people knocking on your door) that he/she will be successful in everything I just described above, how would you choose that person who will be entrusted with ~million of your money?  How would you choose that visionary - the next mini-Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg? What quality would you look for in these people?  The answer is "Independence".

It is simply, not enough to be a good "grunt" (postdoc/student/technician).  You can be the most gifted scientist, with a stellar publishing record and a polished resume, but if you fail to project that you have a (YOUR OWN) "vision" and you can see "the big picture" (how to fund your ideas, who to collaborate with, what your strengths and weaknesses are, what equipment you need, etc).  My heart pains pains for you, but there is nothing that I can do to sway the search committees' decision in the other direction.  The opportunity is only yours to lose...

Same goes for writing proposals.  If you say that you are going to continue working with your previous PhD or postdoc bosses, you WILL get shut down.  It is almost like an eagle pushing out its babies out of the nest, so that they can learn how to fly.  Its painful, but it must be done.  So, my advice is:  seek independence, and you will be successful!

14 comments:

  1. Thank you for you practical advice. I was such a dumb candidate. I will change my mind-set from today on. I will dig into what I can do well and have to focus on from next year on. Thanks again!

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  2. Thank you for the sound advice. I have a questions regarding the thin line between defending your ground and being blunt during when they criticize your earlier work. I also heard they sometimes do that do check your temperment. Have you had any experience like this during your interviews?

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    Replies
    1. I have several things to say here:

      -I don't think Departments will play mind games like that on purpose. But I have seen instances when a professor just attacks too much, simply because that is their personality. In that case, other professors may even try to cut him/her off, in order not to scare the candidate away. After all, at the end of the day, we are interested in attracting them to our "family".

      -During one of my interviews, there was a person who didn't know anything about my area, but attacked my ideas as if he was the world's expert on the subject. That was kind of lame, but I simply stood my ground and won the argument. As you said, it is important to maintain your cool and respect your opponent in such a situation.

      -When I interview candidates, especially pre-screening over Skype, I also attack their ideas, but that is mostly to gauge depth of their knowledge by pushing them outside of their comfort boundaries. There were a few candidates that started getting defensive, and went negative on me... I made sure to report that to the search committee. But like I said, we don't create entrapment. If something like that comes out, it is the candidate's own doing. Moreover, to my surprise, the search committee did not view that as a red flag. I guess other factors outweighed the personality issues.

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  3. Thank you very much for this blog. Some recommendations have opened my eyes.

    What about candidates from Europe? Do American searching committees consider them seriously (given the competitive track record)? Thank you in advance for the answer.

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    Replies
    1. For candidates from abroad it is difficult... Aside from problems the increased costs and the logistical difficulty with bringing them here for an interview, they are not familiar with the American funding landscape. This makes their chances go down exponentially. The only professor I saw get hired from Europe, was already an established one (not at the early stages of her career).

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    2. Thanks. Not encouraging, but good to know.

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    3. A postdoc in the US solves that problem. Make sure to write grants during the postdoc. In the US, the professor is expected to be able to raise funds to pay for his research. So showing that you know how to do that is very important.

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  4. Another postdoc in the US is an unwanted route. I beleive I am at a critical point in my career now. After 4 years of a postdoc in a top group in Europe I have published a few Nature-family papers, given several invited talks, got (relatively) known within the community. At present I am actively seeking for an independent group leader position elsewhere (I don't have strong geographical bonds).

    I have seen a few position advertisments in my particular field from the US. Basically, I am wondering whether investing time into applications to these positions is hopeless waste or not.

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    1. Well, if the place is looking in your area particularly, and you are very good in it, it might be an exceptional case. The best is to email the search committee head and ask. Also, if you are going to the AICHE conference, you could request to meet with them there (or just approach them on your own). If you aren't going, it may make sense for you to go, just to get your foot in the door.

      It all depends on supply/demand for that particular place. If the are super-rich, they may not care about funding so much. Likewise, if they are a crappy school, they might have trouble attracting candidates period. So, I can see them looking at international in those cases.

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  5. ".... professor in the US is effectively a "CEO" of a small start-up "company". So to be a successful CEO, one must have: the people skills to manage personnel, the know-how to navigate the murky waters of academic bureaucracy, the understanding of the funding landscape..." Nothing about science here, only manager work. It is sad truth of modern system. Good "CEO"'s get positions even without making good science and very good scientists often expelled by academia because they can't attract enough money. That is why we have so much junk publications and fake bubbles around at all levels

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  6. Sadly, this mirrors my social reality as I contemplate applying for opportunities in Social sciences in the United States. I thought it would be great to start with colleges, what do you think?

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