Applying for a Postdoc. First, imagine you are an idiot …

Ok, just a rant.

I read the Guardian HE section, on and off, and sometimes it’s quite helpful and interesting. Not so much, today. Today we have a guide to getting a postdoc. I started reading, winced at the stats (14% of Arts and Humanities PhDs end up with research posts), and got settled in to the advice section. This is advice culled (and, I suspect, heavily edited down and decontextualised) from a group of senior academics. I’m sure they meant really well, and I’m fairly sure they don’t actually believe their PhD students are idiots, but … really?

It’s easy to be mean. “Be cautious about firing off out-of-the-blue emails” made me snort. There’s a bit of a stereotype of well-intended advice you get from your bewildered family (‘she seemed so smart at school, but she’s 29 and still just reading things’), which includes ‘couldn’t you just send Oxford your CV and ask if they’ve got anything?’ I suppose it’s nice to know that this is, like, officially frowned upon, but I kinda think most of us have worked that one out.

On the positive side, reading this article it would seem that the competition for jobs includes people who’ve completed a PhD and still haven’t cottoned on that applying using the form and guidelines provided, as opposed to, perhaps, interpretative dance, would be a great start. If these really are the hurdles at which most prospective postdocs fall, then really, we should all be celebrating.

What bothers me most about this advice, though, is that I think some of it is actually wrong. Tucked in amongst snippets I think my careers advisor told me when I was 16, there’s this:

Applying when you don’t meet the essential requirements is a waste of time. It also has reputation costs. If you get a number of applications that is not huge, you will tend to remember names from one time to the next. It doesn’t make a good impression to receive the application of someone a second time if you still remember that this person applied for another job for which he or she was not suitable at all. It sends a signal that they are not attentive to detail, which is something highly valued in academic jobs. (Laura Morales, professor in comparative politics, University of Leicester)

I see where she’s coming from with this, and I bet it is really frustrating to keep getting the same puppy-eyed candidate popping up everywhere, but I think this needs unpicking.

When I started applying for jobs, I didn’t get anywhere. Nada. Not even a call to interview. At some point, my supervisor started sending me job adverts, for jobs for which I wasn’t qualified. And I’d write back and point out, look, they’re asking me to have experience supervising MA candidates, and I don’t. Or, look, they only want someone with publications, and I don’t have any. One day, I fired off an application for a teaching job at Cambridge, for which I didn’t meet the job spec.

I can’t actually remember how I didn’t meet the spec now. I was so sure I wasn’t going to need it that I deleted the job particulars from my computer after I’d sent in my application. Don’t try this at home, kids. It’s really annoying when you get called for interview and have only a hazy memory of what you’re applying for. On a related note, when you’re in the interview and they ask if there’s any reason you applied for the one-year post and not the twenty-six month one, you should probably find something better than ‘nah, I was just disorganized’. Also, when they phone you a couple of hours after the interview, that’s a good sign. You want to be listening for your phone to take that call. You do not want to be fannying around Cambridge, such that the very kind head of the Search Committee has to ring you back at 9pm.

At every stage in the process, I did not expect to get that job. Because I’ve read an awful lot of pieces like the one in the Guardian, and they all made me feel as if I was bound to fail – for the most trivial reasons – before I’d even started.

What’s telling about my experience – other than the fact that, clearly, I am an idiot – is that an awful lot of women (and, I’m sure, some men) do the same things. We don’t expect to get jobs. We read the stats and we know that only 14% of us will get research jobs (NB: mine is not a research job). And we look at our own CVs and they never measure up to what the job is asking for.

I know there are far more very good people than there are academic jobs. I can believe it’s really frustrating to come across candidates who make the really basic mistakes described in the Guardian article. But I think there is a bigger problem with articles like this one, which don’t really provide any useful advice that couldn’t be gleaned from a sixth-form careers day. They suggest we’re all failing to get jobs because, really, we’re all a bit lazy, stupid, and unmotivated. We think too highly of ourselves and expect we’ll be considered without having the courtesy to fill in a proper application form, wait for an official job advert, or bother to get to know people in the field.

I’ve no idea how you get a postdoc. Luck, probably. But you definitely don’t get a postdoc if you keep telling yourself you’re no good and might as well not apply.

9 thoughts on “Applying for a Postdoc. First, imagine you are an idiot …

  1. There’s a number of issues there – one is that people writing job specs are sometimes a bit overenthusiastic about the essential skills, saying some are essential, when really, they’re just desirable. Another thing is the often-mentioned problem of women only applying when they match 80% or more of the criteria, and men will give it a shot with far fewer matches. That applies to all jobs, not just postdocs.

    They are right on some of it, though. The older I get, the more I accept that networking and who you know tends to be a key criteria in the jobs you get to hear about and that people will think of you for. It doesn’t matter if you’re actually the best person for the job if no one else has much idea of what you do. Which is sort of depressing, really, but it is something you can do something about, like going to conferences and so on, even if talking to people might be stepping outside your comfort zone. Perhaps that comes down to making your luck.

    • Thanks for such a useful reply. I completely agree – I didn’t probably think about how often women apply when they only match part of the spec, as compared with men, but you’re absolutely right.

      I don’t disagree with them that networking is useful – it’s just that it is something that is so, so heavily emphasised all through the PhD process, that to be honest, if someone has got to the end of it and still doesn’t know to network, they are probably not going to enjoy an academic job anyway. Because after all, an awful lot of it is directly to do with that! Or that’s what I think from my wet-behind-the-ears perspective. 🙂

  2. Yes. Yes on all your points. And, at least over here, it often becomes clear that well-intentioned mentors are telling me how to apply for a job in 1995 or 1980 or whenever *they* got hired, and don’t really get how things are today. The only job advice I follow now is (1) don’t turn down a job you haven’t been offered yet (i.e. apply for everything you want, even if you don’t think you’re qualified), and (2) don’t take it personally, it’s not about you (i.e. the market is, as you say, so much about luck). Easier said than done, of course. Yours in commiseration —

  3. Yes, regarding the comment about essential / non essential skills and qualifications when you consider that Mumsnet asks for a ‘good’ first degree from a British university for the most bog standard of internships, you’ve got to laugh. Talk about delusions of grandeur.

    I’m not an academic but this article reeked of negative confirmation bias.

    • I think that article makes a good point, and I agree with you it’s not good to frame everything women do in this context as their problem for not having enough confidence.

      But, I also think imposter syndrome is an issue. I think this because I notice that women academics are perfectly capable of assessing each other’s chances of getting hired accurately. Imposter syndrome isn’t quite the same thing as lack of confidence, I think. It involves more cognitive dissonance than that. I think it may also be more socially acceptable for women to display symtoms of imposter syndrom than straight lack of confidence, too.

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