Friday, June 11, 2010

Uncommon common sense for the late-term graduate

As I fly over Alaska on my way to Tokyo (en route to Hong Kong), I decided that I've amassed a small, but sufficiently dense set of thoughts worthy of augmenting my neglected blog. Today's subject is some advice for last-year graduate students and postdocs looking for an academic career. My advice, without question, is incomplete, and should be read as something a person who has not yet interviewed says. I do, however, foresee my position benefit the advice in some ways, in that many of the not-so-obvious things become very obvious once you go through the process and one may not think to mention them later.

First, you will often be asked what your employment plans are. This is an important question to receive and answer correctly because it can put you in people's minds as a potential hire and it's good to be thought of that way as you may start getting insider information and your name may be suggested to other potential employers that you have not considered. Here's a piece of advice that is rarely given, and one that it took me some time to figure out: When an academic asks you "Where are you planning to apply next year?" what he or she is really asking is "Are you planning to apply for academic or industrial jobs?" It is amazing how many times I answered with various geographic preferences before someone explained this to me and, in retrospect, I can see that after my untargeted answer, the other party tried to steer the conversation to precisely the academia vs. industry issue. Remember, it may be completely intuitive to you that it's going to be academia (e.g., me) or it may be far from the top issue in your mind (e.g., not me), but it most likely is what the other party wants to know.

Second, you've heard the advice "practice makes perfect." This advice applies to interviewing. I've heard several times that there is value in interviewing a year early (e.g., if you are graduating and plan to get a postdoc, you could apply the graduating year, before becoming a postdoc and applying again). Even if you only interview at one place, that experience will be invaluable to you. I have chosen to take a slightly different route; I did not interview early but rather scheduled several (more than half a dozen) visits to universities with a talk and a day worth of one-on-one meetings with professors. It remains to be seen how helpful this is in terms of interviewing, but I'm of the opinion that is may be as useful as actually interviewing, aside from the lack of pressure that one must learn to deal with. One caveat to this advice is that I've heard that interviewing early may make you seem like "spoilt milk" the next year and may hurt your chances. Then again, I have also heard people completely reject that reasoning.

Third, write your research and teaching statements early. I've gotten this advice a lot and am going to force myself to write the first drafts now. Your statement can benefit greatly from being written early, without deadline pressure, and with the ability to be thrown away and rewritten completely. We are all busy and have other things to do, but I believe this to be an important enough task to recommend doing it early. Of course, I have yet to take my own advice, so ask me again in a year what I think of it.

Finally, and this is perhaps the most important thing I've heard from people, academia is a small world and people knowing you is far more important than you think. I've had multiple successful academics tell me that they only got interviews at places where they knew a professor personally (or, in some cases, an advisor knew someone closely enough to sell the interviewee). This isn't about nepotism or about places hiring friends of friends; it's about risk aversion. Academia is competitive enough that someone has to fight for you to give you even a chance at the job. Fighting for you means marrying one's reputation to your abilities. No one will do that unless they know you a bit. However, people are remarkably willing to go out on a limb for you if they've had a conversation with you and feel that you won't embarrass them. Moral of the story: talk to people at conferences; tell them you will be on the job market soon; put yourself on their minds.

Though it goes without saying, I still choose to point out that none of the above advice is a substitute for doing high-quality research on exciting and impactful problems. That is a must and no amount of name recognition is going to help you significantly if you don't. The advice above can be done in addition to high-quality research to increase your chances, but not instead.