How’d I get this job anyway…

MsPhD asked how I got my job so here’s the lowdown, in one word, networking.  Seems pretty strange to say that since about 10 years ago I was a shy, stuttering dude who figured I’d make a decent scientist but never figured I would be able to overcome my social anxiety.  Truth is, I still stutter and I’m still shy but I don’t give a shit about it anymore. Here’s why…

I have more or less always wanted to be a scientist, at first an astrophysicists and later a neurobiologist.  Would have been cool to be a professional athlete but some nasty injuries killed that dream before I got to college.  As I progressed into the PhD and started to go to meetings it became pretty clear to me that if you wanted people to know who you were you had to speak up.  Now, don’t get me wrong, quality work and good papers are still numero uno but there are a whole lot of good scientists out there with some really nice papers on their CVs.  Networking is a way to really separate yourself from the pack.  

For us neuroscientists SFN is a big deal but you get lost in the sea of humanity so I decided to focus on the pain-centric (I do pain research) meetings were my social anxiety was more overcomable.  Moreover, I was fairly sure I wanted to stay in that field so it seemed like a good place to start…I’ve never been to a talk that didn’t leave me wanting to know more and if I have a question chances are that 10 other people are thinking the same thing, might as well be me to ask the question.  So despite my racing heartbeat and the increasing degrees of sweatiness I forced myself to start walking over to the microphone and say “Hi, I, I, I I’m x from u, u, uni, univ, university of y, here’s my question”.  Almost immediately a strange thing started to happen to me.  I would get invited to discuss further after talks, strangers would ask if I’d like to join them for a drink or dinner and others would thank me for raising points that they were also curious about. 

All of this served several purposes: 1) I got over my social anxiety, 2) I developed personal relationships with my peers (and potential employers) and 3) people in my field were able to put a face with my name.   All of this may seem trivial, but, fast forward to time to start looking for the tenure track position… 

I was a productive PhD student and PostDoc with an above average number of papers and some of those papers were in big impact journals but no C, N, S papers.  I applied for 4 jobs (all for searches that were looking for pain people, but not exclusively for pain researchers).  I got invited to interview at all 4.  I got offers from 2 of them rather quickly.  One of those happened to be where I am now and it was my first choice so I terminated the whole thing and took that job, after some negotiation.  I subsequently learned that I didn’t get an offer from number 3 because of a total fluke situation, otherwise I would have.  Number 4 was still interviewing but I have been told I had a good shot there too.   At all 4 of those places I knew the majority of the people I interviewed with and I knew most of them pretty well.   Some of that was due to my mentors who were always great advocates for me.  Another strong contributor was the networking.  

Most interviewers knew what I was doing before I gave my talk because I had already given talks on the subject at other meetings.  I had also submitted grants to the pain society granting agencies and many of my interviewers were on those review panels.  Basically, when it came time to get my career started all of those terrified moments had paid off more than I ever expected… there is nothing like being able to walk into an interview to talk with friends. 

Three final notes.  
1) All of this was possible because of one thing: Fellowships.  In order to network you have to have travel money. That can (and should) come from the PI but no one can expect for the PI to send them to all the meetings you want or need to go to.  I had a PhD and PostDoc NRSA and some society money all of which paid my way to get in the door of these meetings.  Trainees must apply for Fellowships.  They are easier to get than almost any other type of grant.  There is no excuse.
2) There is much more to all of this than just the networking (obviously).  Physioprof and DrugMonkey (see the blogroll) have covered most of these types of things (like the job talk and how to interview) in detail.  I’d give my advice but it comes largely from them anyway so I suggest you take some time to peruse their site if you want to know more about the dos and don’ts of interviewing and giving a job talk.  
3) Choosing your postdoc mentor is a crucial decision.  I’ll do a post on this later.  My choice and the reasons for that choice also played a huge role in me landing the job I wanted.

17 responses to “How’d I get this job anyway…

  1. I think you make a very good point about the usefulness of networking. It’s something many (most?) scientists aren’t good at, myself included, since extroversion isn’t a particularly common personality trait in science. Additionally, I know some scientists who fundamentally don’t believe that who one knows should play any part in an academic career. But ideal or not, I learned firsthand how important these connections can be when I applied for a postdoc. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  2. I look at it this way. There is nothing wrong with introversion or social anxiety but it is something that one can overcome. Working to overcome it is hard but has a big pay off. I think physioprof once said that if you don’t like to talk science, especially your own, then you’re in the wrong profession. He was right. There is a difference, though, between wanting to talk and being able to do so. I hope that sharing stories like my own in a positive light can help provide some impetus for others to do the same.

  3. This is great advice about something you’ve clearly thought about a lot. Sounds like you’re going to be a great mentor.

    Like many introverted scientists, it’s hard for me to put myself out there and network, but I’ve been forcing myself to do it. It’s something you have to do, no matter whether you want to stay in academia or move into industry (which I did).

    You’re absolutely right about the postdoc mentor thing too–I only wish I had heard that advice 9 years ago, and chosen someone who would have been a better advocate for me. Oh well, live and learn.

    I just found your blog through the Daily Transcript. Congratulations on the job–I look forward to hearing more.

  4. Dude, you’re already doin’ a great fucking job here! Looks like the DrugMonkey monopoly is at risk!

  5. Don’t worry PP, the fashion post will come soon enough to fuck everything up.

  6. There’s definitely something for longevity with certain organizations. After 2 conferences with a particular group, I was known enough that I could honestly call my association a network. Another tactic is to try the open committee meeting format where all can share.

  7. This is an absolutely superb post. But don’t undervalue those c/s/n papers. For better and for worse, they do count for a lot.

    Also: read papers by the people you are meeting with. Show that you will be someone they might actually want to spend the next thrity years talking to. It’s no joke. They will be stuck with you, and they want a colleague!

    Another thing that is of *tremendous* importance: the ability to give a good a chalk talk during the job interview. It really is just as (or more) important than the formal seminar.

    There are three ways to prepare for this. One: participate in a journal club, preferably a highly critical one, and put real effort in to it. Learn to give background, and to speak extemporaneously. Two: give talks at meetings, and learn to defend your ideas in front of an audience durig the Q&A. Three: think about where your science is going on a longer time scale. This is a *critical* transition as you move from postdoc to faculty. You need to know what you will do with limited resources – say, just you and a tech or a grad student. And you need to project optimism, by being able to articulate what you will do as yor group and your budget expand. You need to project realism, ambition, and overt enthusiasm. You must be seen to care about what you are doing.

    One more thing about the chalk talk. A one-page handout is o.k. A laptop and a projector is not. That is why we call it a chalk talk. Every single chalk talk that I have seen where the candidate had a laptop running has been worse than every single chalk talk that I have seen where the laptop was absent. At this point if I walk into the room and see the goddamned laptop, I’m tempted to turn on my heel and leave. It is a strong indicator of lack of preparation, cowardice, or both.

  8. Thank you for useful info.
    Absolutely agree with priority of networking in science career.
    I’ll recommend to read this all of my friends who is doing PhD or postdoc.
    Very good advices.
    Keep going!

  9. Well done on the blog. Very interested in what you have to say about choosing a post-doc mentor….

  10. Nice post, and I appreciate your emphasis on participation. Anyone who’s ever taught a class has dealt with a roomful of uninterested students; even if the one who asks a question isn’t the “smartest,” it makes you happy they asked, because it shows they were listening. Same with science talks. I hate the word “network” because it reeks of self-aggrandizement, but that’s totally the right thing to do–I was also blogging about this a while back here

  11. re: #7…the chalktalk

    I was recently at an interview where I had to give a chalktalk (the only one out of six so far). I asked the chair of the department if I should prepare anything…his response “If you want a crutch you can make some slides and have them for back-up”

    Needless to say, I had no slides or any sort of handout prepared. Just me and a blank white board. It was actually very fun, almost like a committee meeting/defense for a post-doc looking for a job.

  12. Juniorprof-

    Yes, you got it, thanks!

  13. Pingback: A major accomplishment « JUNIORPROF

  14. Juniper Shoemaker

    If you do not mind my asking, what do you think of this?

  15. Resurrecting a thread after 3 years huh? That’s an interesting story, thanks for pointing it out. I suppose it supports the networking hypothesis, which I still stand by, 3 years later. I also agree with everything she has to say about parenting and science careers. I completely disagree with the vocational career idea though.
    One thing I would say about her former situation is that I have always known that an institute job is not for me. At an institute there is no fallback plan (like more teaching or service) if your research program falters. While I have never felt that I was going to fall into my contingency plan, I need to know that it is there and that it is viable. Tenure track in a basic science dept at a med school has sufficient variety in things to do that I know I won’t be viewed as a failure if I have only one 1 R01 going from time to time (although I don’t plan on falling into that situation either).

  16. The thing is, this author gives every impression that it was her own judgment of her “mediocre” career, and her lack of interest in science, that was the problem. Not external opinions…

  17. Juniper Shoemaker

    DM: It does sound as if the author purposefully conducted research that didn’t excite her as soon as she somehow became convinced of her “mediocrity”. No wonder she lost interest; most people would. And I doubt that the majority of her colleagues thought of her as a “mediocre” scientist by nature.

    JP: I forgot to thank you for bothering to reply to a comment on a three-year-old thread. Sorry about being rude. I am glad to know your opinion of this because it is encouraging.

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