Sunday, March 16, 2008

The postdoc with a chip on its shoulder

Update: I have an offer from the best university in my area. The details are not yet clear: the people that I would be working with are at a satellite campus, away from others in my area, which would defeat the purpose of being at that university (especially since the people I would be working with are the types to never be in their offices), but we'll see. It's a relief to have options.

Around the same time, I got a rejection letter in the mail from an unfortunate postdoc. Here's the story.

When I travel more than 2 hours by plane to get to an interview, I contact the other jobs in the area that I think I have a chance with, and tell them that if they're interested in meeting me, now's a good time for that. It's been a great strategy so far: the positions understand my research interests, consider me more carefully, and the strategy doesn't even cost me any money.

Diversion on interdisciplinary PhDs

Interdisciplinary PhD risk looking unfocused: I can complete the statement "I'm interested in" in 4-8 words (depending on my audience) and stay on message for days on end, and this is the research I came to graduate school for. The blessing and the curse is that I could fit not just into half a dozen departments and research centers, but also a few different "schools" within a university, as well as research institutes, government, and non-profits, all without changing my research substantially. This flexibility looks unfocussed, especially since it's the area of only 5-10% of my PhD program's graduates: most of them study an entirely different set of issues and have more clearly defined positions.

My research is usually carried out by disciplinary PhDs, and if I'd known it was a problem to be interdisciplinary, I would have the other PhD program that I'd gotten into, which was in a discipline. Instead, I chose my PhD program over the disciplinary one for other reasons (e.g., only one possible advisor in the area and I was uneasy being so dependent on one person, crime in the neighborhood around that university). The first I heard of the "interdisciplinary penalty" was, ironically, on my first day of my PhD program. The director of the program addressed us, talking about graduates' positions, and stressing that we were very unlikely to end up in a disciplinary department in Arts and Sciences; it turns out he was partially correct, since I came very close at two elite liberal arts colleges last year. (This year, the one liberal arts college turned me down without a phone screen.)

Why I ask to visit programs as much as possible:

Because my PhD is interdisciplinary, people don't come with a ready set of cues to expect what I do. Someone in a discipline can rely on everyone's prior knowledge about an area to understand their research, but I have to provide all of that context in my application as well as assurance that I'm a serious person. In my 30 second elevator speech, I am probably more persuasive about the coherence of my research than any cover letter could be --- mostly because my nonverbal cues and intonation sound directed --- and after a 10 minute discussion, an interviewer has intellectual reasons to understand my research and consider it as addressing a coherent set of questions. It's easier to be convincing of that focus in person, so I appreciate that people are willing to meet with me even when they weren't so excited about my cover letter.

The professor in charge of one postdoc even told me explicitly after about half an hour with me, verbatim, "Before you came, I didn't take your application seriously. I figured I may as well meet with you since you were already here. Now I understand what you're doing and I think you're right that you could fit in very well here. Because we didn't take you seriously before, we just set up a few appointments, but we'll have to bring you back so you can meet the relevant people." He repeated this after the half-day interview, saying that another faculty interviewer also hadn't taken me seriously before meeting me.

That's a bit extreme, but illustrates the value of finagling meetings: I wouldn't have been offered an interview, and now they are looking for money for me.

The add-on positions have always paid the marginal costs associated with the visit, such as a $100 flight change fee or a rental car, and some have even offered to pay for things I didn't need, such as a hotel when I was staying with friends.

My most recent experience

I contacted a school to let them know that I would be in the area, and she seemed willing to talk with me. She sent me two 2 hour blocks that we could meet, and I replied that I wasn't sure yet of my flight plans and would answer once I had found out., Over time she narrowed her time available to just one hour at 8 am. I agreed to the time, and just said that I'd hesitated at that time slot originally because I was staying 20 miles away and didn't know how late I'd get in from my flight. She said in that case, we should just make it a phone call. I said that I'd really like to meet her in person, but then came down with flu with 103 fever, so ended up postponing the trip and wasn't able to meet in person anyhow, so it was just as well that it was a phone call. Throughout this email exchange she kept calling me "Dr. NewPostdoc". I had started the exchange by addressing her as "Dr. Smith" since she was a bit older and I wanted to err on the side of caution. She kept it up, and so 10 emails into the exchange, I was still "Dr. Postdoc."

Once we were on the phone together, she called me "Dr. Postdoc." I laughed and said, "Please, call me New." From that moment on, she didn't call me anything. She did inform me that my application was incomplete. Apparently I had forgotten to attach the cover letter to the email; that's a huge oversight, and I've never done that before, so I apologized profusely for it and said how embarrassed I was. It was bound to happen to some school with more than 90 applications sent out, however. The general etiquette with attachments is that since people list all the components that they have attached in the short mail, the administrator would generally write back to say that they were missing one of the 6 attachments, and it's not completely unheard of, in general.

She then said, as if raising a devastating point, "In fact, your application is entirely incomplete. You didn't send in the application form." The application form asked for name, address, ethnicity, age, gender, and all the other things they're not supposed to collect on an application. I had instead attached a word file with all of this information since the application form was a PDF, but apparently they needed the form itself.

That was almost the entirety of our conversation. She attempted to talk with me about the program, but kept interjecting remarks like, "I really don't know how you would fit into our program because I haven't seen your cover letter." You would think that she would have told me this sometime during our 10 email exchange rather than waiting until the phone call to raise it since she felt it was so critical.

The rest of the conversation involved her completely misunderstanding everything that I said.

I ended the conversation with an apology for having not attached the cover letter, and that I would send it right away. She replied to this with, "You better hurry to get your cover letter in in the next 2 weeks because we're going to meet to evaluate the applications in 2 weeks." So apparently she thought that the cover letter never existed, and it would take 2 weeks for me to write it. She repeated this warning one more time before we got off the phone, in case I was hard of hearing. I sent it the same day.

Not surprisingly, I got a rejection letter from them.

I can't make sense of this in professional terms, but thankfully I've learned from dating that it almost never matters exactly what you say to someone. If they like you, they'll like what you say. If they don't like you, you're not going to change their mind. She acted as though she thought that I was an uppity bitch, and I have no idea what happened during our email conversation to lead her to that conclusion; perhaps I took too long to answer one of her emails. Perhaps she didn't like being addressed as Dr. Smith. Who knows. It's impossible to know.

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