Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Return on investment, limited ressources and impossible hedges: the postdoc job search

I submitted my first job application for a faculty position last week. It's the first of around 30 opening I currently have listed. The application package (the American Standard: CV, cover letter, research statement, statement of teaching philosophy), took about a week or two to craft. I looked back over old letters I had written three years ago (for which I had already studied the internet intensely), judged them poor, rewrote them. I solicited, and got very good, feedback from my PI and two other professors in the department who know me. One is an associate professor, mid career, established in his field. The other is a pre-tenure, but very successful, assistant professor. The job itself was a neurophysiology position at a research school with a significant budget. And so all the materials will have to be recrafted for the more teaching focused schools, or the anatomy departments, or the more evolutionary and paleontological positions.
While I am working on these job packets, I am hard at work keeping the analysis and writing momentum we have developed in the group. I submitted my second first author paper from my postdoc for review last week, and next week I will take three days to finally revise and resubmit my third dissertation paper (which has been sitting on my hard drive for a year at this point). We have just finished a run of animal experiments, and there are at least two more first author papers (and several middle authors where I will be called upon for analysis) sketched out that could be ready by january.
My PI came and talked to me a couple of days ago. The R01 I'm on is in its final year, and we have not yet had a renewal. She informed me that my position is funded for certain until January 2017. If she gets refunded, the pressure is off. If not, I think that a few favours can be called in to complete that year, but no guarantees. To all intents and purposes, it is in my best interests to get a job this year, after two years in the postdoc.
Academic job applications are laborious, more so than private sector ones. More information is requested, the process is more drawn out, a greater research investment is expected at every stage of the process. And yet all that work is ancillary. Or, more specifically, it is icing. Grant, publications, research: those are the hard substrate you need for the crafting of the job documents to be even worth the effort. All these things take time, huge amounts of time. As a graduate student, or a postdoc, especially in a one grant lab like mine, time can suddenly become an exceptionally rare commodity. Like at the end of graduate school, I am on a timer if I don't want to face a serious gap in income. I have to maximize the ROI on the time I have. And knowing where to maximize that ROI is... non trivial. Obviously, more papers is better. But at this point, most papers I submit now will not be in press by the time applications close on most of the jobs I have lined up. Is a big list of in reviews worth it? How much is it worth relative to getting half a dozen more jobs applications out? After all, publication from the lab will help my PI's grant efforts, which also are of concern to me at this point.
I was in a similar bind at the end of grad school: I had no publications, my dissertation was unfinished, and I had no job lined up, a year away from cessation of funding and the end of my F1 visa. How to maximise my time? In the end, I wasted a few months on job applications: I got the very firm message that an ABD grad student with no pubs was not a hirable commodity. So I finished the dissertation, and headed back to the UK to live with my mother. I spent a year unemployed, applying for jobs and getting my first two papers out. It was not ideal, and owing to life circumstances not a scenario I can afford to repeat.
Which brings me to my next point in this rambling post. I have to prepare for the eventuality that I won't get a faculty position. With the current data on postdoc placement rates, all graduate students and postdocs need to hedge against not making it in academia. Yet what constitutes a good hedge? From my experience outside academia (which was before the recession), I know that field moves without experience are difficult. Again, you need to invest either capital (ie a nest egg to tide you over, difficult on a postdoc salary) or time to build useful contacts and experience. Time, which as I have mentioned, is a limited commodity when on a fixed term appointment.
I maintain that the challenges faced by people like me are not unique in kind to academia. Fixed term gigs, low starting salaries, competition for permanent positions, the open ended nature of projects that can expand to fill all available time, the constant need to re-invent yourself,  even the need to be highly mobile, can be found in so many other industries where young graduates now end up (law, medicine, consulting, finance, tech, game development). But the degree, and specific combinations of these factors, combined with an idiosyncratic job application process that is mostly useless for getting jobs outside of academia, do present unique challenges that can hamstring young people in academic science trying to keep their lives together. And the combination of lack of capital and lack of time means that efficiently hedging for the high likelihood of having to operate a career move is a unique challenge. On this, young academics are in need of mentoring.

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