Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A tale of two postdocs: part 1

This week, I interviewed for two postdocs, and noticed several large differences between interviewing for a postdoc versus a faculty job, at least in my field.

1. There's no hiring process, and in fact these were not really interviews. All the school's postdocs are listed on the single website with no information about how to apply or only broken links to websites, so I contacted the directors and just sent my CV and writing sample and a very short email and in both cases got an encouraging message in reply.

For one of the postdocs (Postdoc 1), the junior faculty member who would be working with me called me and we spoke on the phone for half an hour. For the other postdoc (Postdoc 2), I didn't hear anything until apropos of nothing, a grad student organizing her research center's seminar series asked me to come speak: they would just fly me in and out for the day, but they didn't mention how much time I should allow on either side of the trip for additional meetings and it certainly didn't sound like an interview.

When I told Postdoc 1, they agreed to pay for my hotel so I could stay an extra day and speak with them.

2. I had scheduled meetings with only about five people each day, compared with at least 10 per day for a faculty job. One of the postdocs tried to stretch out the interviews so that it lasted the whole day and I spent the rest of the time with the junior faculty member, so it was even more clear that I was underscheduled.

3. Lunch both days: tuna salad. Tuna salad is just fine, and in fact once I had it for a tenure track job interview, but they took us out to dinner the previous night. One day, we had a fancy dinner, but only because there was another speaker in town and we were asked to join them.

4. None of the interviews was in-depth enough for me to get a clear sense of what I could be doing. I guess I will need to spend a lot of time online and piece together information about both research programs, past work, and make some phone calls when I get back. If it turns out to be relevant.

Despite these differences, I felt like they treated me as an equal. In postdoc 1, the woman is super super smart and productive, and she is the type of brilliant who assumes that everyone is as brilliant and hard-working as she is. So in talking to her, I felt really smart and capable and it's possible that I would even be smarter and more capable working with her than otherwise. An interesting effect.

In postdoc 2, they asked me what I wanted to study, and offered lots of options, and they also held a small lunch with me with the chair of the dept and a very senior famous researcher that even a couple of the faculty at the lunch had not met before and said they were honored to meet her; she's somewhere between 70-85 years old. Everyone was very complimentary of my talk, and I was honored that both the chair and this famous researcher paid attention and actively participated and asked lots of questions both during and after the talk, including about the research that I'd like to do. [By comparison, postdoc 1 didn't attempt to introduce me to anyone, and when I tried to introduce myself to the dept chair at the holiday party, he didn't pay attention.]

Two asides:

Aside 1: At the end of dinner on Day 1, the first postdoc people said, "We're sure we'll see you tomorrow." They're in an entirely different building several blocks away, and my talk conflicted with two other talks scheduled that day that they were each hosting and then I was going to leave. When exactly did they think we would see each other? Or was that just a way of saying, "We don't want to say good-bye."

Aside 2: I met with a grad student who is very similar to me: just defended, we did the same (somewhat elite) summer program during grad school one year apart, our dissertations were similar, we have similar undergraduate backgrounds (different from our graduate field), we grew up within 5 miles of each other, look a bit similar, and she is probably about my age and also seems single.

While she was clearly smart, she was also unbelievably condescending --- I certainly hope that's not something that I have in common with her! --- but her condescension gradually peeled away. She explained her dissertation to me very slowly, and I asked some general questions of the sort that my committee had asked me but which could also come from someone totally ignorant of the topic, and she proceeded with her condescension. Finally, she gave an opening, asking me whether I had ever heard of something, and I said that my dissertation had a chapter on [basically the same topic]. So she lifted a bit of the condescension but kept on the condescension about other issues such as how urban the area is, but no we both grew up in the same urban area, so that's not different either. And then she talked about how much she knew from her summer internship, and I asked who she worked with, and she told me the people, and I talked with her about them, and she finally asked how I knew them, and I said that I had worked with their colleagues, so that wasn't different either. It was a fun process, but then when we saw each other at the holiday party we didn't talk at all.

It appears that I totally sabotaged the reason for the meeting. The purpose of meeting with this woman was for her to tell me what it's "really" like to work with the PI and the junior faculty member, but from the first five minutes of talking about this topic, she was so relentlessly positive that I didn't think that I could learn anything interesting directly, so I wanted to see what I could learn by asking her about herself to see if I could uncover anything that way. I didn't. I just found out about her own work, which was interesting, but it's honestly challenging to have a conversation with someone who is condescending to you because it's so tempting to play the game and out-do them, even though the right thing to do is to ignore the b.s.

A key difference between the two postdocs: When asked about the role of the postdoc, the PI for Postdoc 1 said: "to promote [the junior faculty member]." I am not sure whether this is an advantage or disadvantage. The advantage is that people can work together for mutual benefit: if the junior faculty member and I work jointly on projects and become collaborators and turn out lots of good work, that could be great for both of us. If the junior faculty member uses me to do her work so that she can have first authorship, and this monopolizes too much of my time, I could lose my own career at the expense of hers.

I know many people (including advisors) in common with the junior faculty member, and she seems like a genuinely good person. She may have really high expectations for work, though, so if she thinks it's okay to give me (say) 40 hours of work because in her mind a normal person works 60-70, I may feel like I'm in real trouble because I'm not good at working for so long on a regular basis.

By contrast, postdoc 2 is very poorly-defined, which could be risky, but it also seems to mean that I can work with whomever I want in a larger group, many of whom have tenure already. They also seem to have more resources available and a bigger base.

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