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THE BLACK HOLE

The academic job hunt – keep it simple

Focus your efforts and don't waste other people's time.

By DAVID KENT | FEB 12 2016

The words stick in my head because of the fury they inspired when they were uttered. One of my closest academic mentors gave me advice about job hunting during my postdoctoral fellowship: “Don’t mess about with lots of possibilities. Just apply for what you want and then get it.” Sounds simple, right? I didn’t think so. But, as it turns out, after considering a lot of possibilities, there really weren’t that many jobs that I did want within academia and messing about with the sub-optimal job applications would have wasted a huge amount of time.

When reading Jonathan’s excellent series of articles on the academic job hunt over the last few months, I felt tired for him – what an enormous effort. I guess it’s a matter of preference and everyone goes for a slightly different strategy – Jonathan’s was extremely organized and his net was cast wide in order to assess what possible opportunities were potentially available. Mine was a little different, much less formalized and much more haphazard. I spoke with lots of colleagues over my entire academic career, sought general advice, and ended up putting in a formal application to one position that I interviewed for (twice) and eventually got.

Some of the advice I received was from some pretty high-up people in my field and it was a lot simpler advice than I would have suspected. One of the most important for me was: “The real thing to consider is whether or not you want to (or are willing to) move. If you are able to move, the next question is where – which of course includes where would you like to live? Would you like to spend your weekends walking in the mountains or stuffing your face with artisan cheeses and visiting art exhibitions? Do you want a three-bedroom detached house or an urban apartment?”

Understand what you want

It turns out that the scaling down of possibilities was a “me” thing and didn’t rely on the opportunities presenting themselves, but rather relied on me determining what I wasn’t willing to do. I didn’t really want to leave Cambridge and I wasn’t keen on commuting to London from Cambridge (although I could have tolerated this and did consider some options). I considered whether I would like to move to Germany, Sweden or the U.S. and none of these particularly appealed to me at this stage of my life. If anything, I would have moved back to Canada, although this presented its own set of challenges.

Don’t waste other people’s time

In the end, it did not feel “worth it” for me to apply for jobs in cities that I simply did not want to live in. In the penultimate year of my postdoctoral training, I was giving a talk at a research institution and ended up in the department head’s office afterwards. He asked whether I was looking to set up my own group, I said “yes, eventually.” He asked if I would like him to consider me there and I said not just yet because I wasn’t quite finished in Cambridge. Realistically, I respected him and the operation he was running – I didn’t want him to have to set up a day’s worth of interviews, pay public money to house me and move me around when there was a low likelihood of me actually considering the position. Some people think this is crazy, I just think it’s realistic (and efficient).

It turns out that life advice did a much better job of narrowing down my search than anything scientific could have ever done – scientists are people, too. This allowed me to focus my efforts on making things work where I wanted them to work. It also saved an incredible amount of my time, as well as the time of those that would sit on panels evaluating my formal applications.

ABOUT DAVID KENT
David Kent
David Kent is a group leader at the University of Cambridge in the Cambridge Stem Cell Institute. His laboratory's research focuses on fate choice in single blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David is currently the Stem Cell Institute’s Public Engagement Champion and has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. Peter / February 19, 2016 at 15:57

    Hello,

    Thank you for sharing your experiences.

    I see that you obtained a position in the same city that you did your postdoctoral training in. Did you find any stigma attached to this? I ask because I look around academia and typically people move countries (or at least cities in the same country) after their postdoctoral training to obtain their next position. I feel a sense of being “incomplete” because I don’t want to move, as if academia expects that moving (for the sake of moving) is essential.

    As well, focusing on specific and a small number of positions in the same city you did your postdoc work in seriously limits the number of opportunities available (which could already be quite small). To me it seems you were a “lucky one” to not have to move, but the vast majority of postdocs do need to do this, and so your advice to focus on specific and a small number of openings presents huge difficulties.

    I would appreciate your thoughts on this matter.

    Thanks,

    Peter

    • David K / February 19, 2016 at 16:17

      Hi Peter,

      The message of keeping it simple is one that I would still give – it gives you the time and energy to focus on the jobs that you want and allows you to put a much stronger application forward (eg: researching 3 departments instead of 17 departments in depth). I don’t think staying in the same place changes that logic.

      That said, I can say from my experience that staying in the same city has benefits and drawbacks and the road to getting the job was quite difficult – for example, the institute I moved to made me interview in two consecutive years with the result from the first year being “looks good, but not quite there yet, go get another paper or two and come back to us”. Not the easiest message to hear, but it turns out they were right and I managed NEJM, Blood and Cell Stem Cell first author papers in the subsequent year.

      There is definitely a stigma (some people will always see me as my old supervisor’s post doc) but the advantages are many as well – I have strong clinical links as a basic researcher, I understand the political landscape of the university and I don’t lose the time that comes with moving.

      Obviously, I’d already made a big move (Canada to UK) and this helped my case since what institutes really seem to be worried about is streamlined thinking (eg : no new blood/ideas). I needed to show that I was distinct from my postdoctoral supervisor and that Cambridge was a better option for my research than other places.

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