Why finding a postdoc position is like (online) dating

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Finding the perfect date, science edition… Picture by Jonathan McPherskesen via flickr.

This year, I’ve received a surprisingly high number of e-mails from friends and former colleagues asking me for advice on what to do post-PhD. Now, first of all, I’ve been really honoured/humbled by this, although I wonder every time if I’m even the right person to dispense advice. After all, I don’t have a hell of a lot of experience and I certainly did get it wrong once*.  However, having now had a year of correspondence with various people, I’ve realized that I do have something to say on the topic. I have also come to realize that a lot of the advice that I dish out to people resembles things that I have heard about online dating**, and so I’ve decided to write out some of it***:

  1. Figure out what you want to do after your PhD. Before you even start applying for jobs/postdocs spend extensive time thinking about this: what is important to you and where do you see yourself in 10 years? Are you considering the next step as a step towards settling down with your family, including a decent salary and job security? Are you looking for the next intellectual high after you feel you’ve learned most of the stuff you could learn in your PhD lab? Do you want a re-distribution of roles (eg more/less people management or teaching) compared to your grad work? Do you want to do more clinical or technology-driven work? These are all important considerations which can help you narrow down your search, and keep in mind that there is no right or wrong answer: for example, you may want to look for a university (with teaching responsibilities) vs a research institute, depending on the teaching load. Or you may want to look for a job in a country with good social security/childcare/healthcare if that’s an important factor for you. Or you may eye industry more seriously, if a decent salary is equally or more important to you than the scientific question. Consider it like picking your dating site: you wouldn’t sign up for tinder if you are looking for a long-term committed relationship, and you wouldn’t pay for personalized match-making if you’re more interested in one-night stands.
  2. Finding the right PI/group: apparently, the number one thing for successful dating is the right profile picture. I think the very same is true in science, and I would say that a “profile picture” is composed of three things: 1) the publication record, 2) the group website, 3) how a PI talks about lab members at conferences. The first one tells you about the science, whether the lab is more technology-driven, how productive the lab is over time… The online presence of the lab can give you pointers what is most important for the PI: is there even an informative, up-to-date website (I find it shocking how often that’s not the case)? Is he/she trying to communicate the big picture question behind the science or more focused on the technology? Does the PI seem vested in the personal wellbeing of the people (are there pictures of lab outings, or a twitter feed highlighting recent events involving lab members)? How openly is the science communicated: eg online journal clubs/write-ups for lay-people/slidecasts about recent papers? And finally, if you get a chance to informally chat to a PI before you apply (eg at a conference or after a seminar) what kind of vibe do you get? Do they talk about the people who did the science and acknowledge the efforts or is all “we, we, we” salesmanship? Be prepared and invest the time to analyse all these aspects of the groups you could potentially be interested in. For example, when I was looking for a position, I used all three aspects as starting points: I used the literature to find groups who were working in the field I was interested in, and then “online stalked” them a little bit. I also used google searches and conferences to find PIs who seemed to be doing the kind of stuff I was curious about and then used their papers to gauge the science. Importantly, remember that the reverse will also be true for you, so make sure that your online presence looks convincing and reflects the things that are important to you. You typically don’t start looking for jobs from one day to the other, so you have ample time to polish your LinkedIn/Google/wordpress etc site.
  3. (Scientific) Dating is hard. If there is one thing I learned from season 2 of the podcast series StartUp, which follows the development of the company “Dating Ring” it is that dating is hard. In one of the last episodes one of the founders says “You know,  […] I was fairly good at it [dating] and it still took me a 115 people to find someone I loved. […] And I tell people, if you’re willing to put in that much work, I think it will work for you, too.” Those are some pretty horrible odds, and while I think the numbers aren’t quite so terrifying, the same principles do apply for academic positions. In my case, for example, I had a pretty high success rate when I applied for postdocs, but two PIs that never responded to my e-mail (one of them even didn’t respond to a second, follow-up e-mail) and these failures almost weighed me down more than the positive feedback I got from elsewhere. That’s not a 115 unsuccessful dates, but still… And especially when you’re trying to do something challenging after your PhD (eg switching fields or moving to industry) you may have a tough time getting responses and feedback, and it’s important you don’t give up on that. Finding the perfect match can take time and effort!
  4. Find out about the things you’re interested in. Sometimes this means looking for proxies. Let’s say that you’ve kind of figured out what you want to do and you’ve gotten to the point where you’re in correspondence with the PI or are maybe even invited for an interview. There’s a bunch of things you want to find out: does the lab have enough money? How does the PI treat his/her people? What’s the team like? Will you get support from team members? Now, during an interview typically everybody tries to show themselves from the best possible perspective. And so, while it can happen that people tell you in confidence that you really shouldn’t be joining a given lab (it did happen to me), more often small problems (that could be dealbreakers for you) are not mentioned and you’ll need the right questions to tease them out. Luckily, once again, you can turn to online dating for some help: The dating site OKCupid has a page called OKTrends, where they analyse the data from their millions of users: one of the posts discusses “The best questions for a first date“, and states that sometimes you need to ask proxy questions to get at the thing you want to know more about. For example if you want to know if your date will have sex on the first date (not really an appropriate question), you could ask instead whether they like the taste of beer, because there’s a really good correlation between the two. In my case, for example, I would never accept a position anywhere I am not invited for a personal interview with the group. Not simply because I would like to see the other lab members, but because I only see two reasons not to invite a candidate: the group is strapped for cash or they PI doesn’t care what other lab members think. If it’s the former that doesn’t bode well for research money either, and if it’s the latter: do you really want to work somewhere you might end up with a horrible baymate, just because your boss doesn’t care? And you can come up with similar proxies for other stuff as well: for example, look for someone who’s in a similar position to you (eg is from abroad/has kids/switched field) and ask them how they settled in etc.
  5. Listen to your own advice, and listen to the advice of others. Do you remember that guy/girl you dated, even though, if your friend had wanted to date them you would have told them it’s a bad idea, for X reasons. And how it didn’t work out for you either? Well, for jobs it’s the same: your advice comes from your life experience, so if there’s something you KNOW doesn’t work, listen to your own advice/instinct. If you feel something is off, trust your gut. Similarly, if an ex-partner told you your potential match-made-in-heaven is a psycho, you’d consider that pretty seriously, wouldn’t you. So when (multiple) lab members tell you a PI is awful, listen to them. Don’t assume it’ll be different/better with you, even if it’s tempting to let your ego get the better of you, and the PI seemed soooo nice during your conversation. Every time I have seen this happen, it’s worked out badly.

*I left my first postdoc after a year and a half, because academic politics and admin in France were so draining, and I had to fight for even the tiniest of things to get done, that I found myself at a point where I hated going to work so much (even though the group itself was great) there seemed to be no point in staying.

**Disclaimer: I have never actually done online dating, so this is purely *academic* knowledge. However, I have referenced my sources for every point that I make 🙂

***I guess this is not a 100% original, because I have certainly heard people say that you should approach dating like a job search, so the reverse should obviously also be true.

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