Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Investing in Postdocs and Giving Thanks

I received an email yesterday from someone I had not spoken two in probably six months.

Back in April I gave a presentation to the postdocs at the University of Florida.  It was advice about communicating their science, sharing their science, and thoughts on job interviews.

Such things are sorely needed.  We produce way more Ph.D.s than the number of jobs to support them, so we end up with a large number of postdocs in circulation. These folks are professional scientists, as good as they get.

We just don't have enough jobs for all of them, so it is not unusual for a Ph.D. scientist to be making $35,000 a year, six years after the degree is over, with no hard promise of a job.  Interviews are ultra competitive and skilled scientists often fail at that last critical moment-- impress the committee on paper and get the interview, but fall short in person and don't land the job.

After the seminar I was approached by a 5th year postdoc.  We can call him Dr. S, since he has a very distinct name and I don't want to embarrass him.  He said that he has a great record on paper, that he gets interviewed for every job he applies to, but never gets selected for the position.

Clearly, Dr. S has some academic firepower but was lacking tools and coaching on how to communicate his science.

We spent three sessions going through his job talk.  The first one revealed why he was never chosen.  He talked over my head, lost me in the first slide, and his entire presentation was good, but didn't connect.  I didn't fall in love with his science and didn't imagine him as a good colleague.

Over two more sessions we adjusted the talk.  We changed his approach to the talk, developed a sense of audience, helped him connect as a person, built a new philosophy toward the interview, and talked about how to answer questions.

I received this yesterday:

One of the many days lately where I need a science kleenex.

This is just a reminder that science needs to flow in order to work.  How many talented scientists are trapped in jobs they don't want because they simply lack the courage and training to tell others about their passions and ideas in a human way?   How many could land the job if they realized that a job seminar is not about beating scientists to death with data-- they want a clever colleague, a friend, a solution maker, someone to complement their department's expertise. 

It is a classic case of forgetting why you are doing a job talk and who the audience is.  They want you to succeed, they want a new colleague, they asked you to try out for that part!  Rather than blinding them with brilliance and science-- simply share the work you care about.  

Don't be the unreachable scientist on a stage. Be the clever friend down the hall. 

It worked for Dr. S, and maybe it was just his time and had nothing to do with my help.  However, I was grateful for the letter.  It turns out to be probably the best three hours I invested in 2014. 


Micah Shearer-Kudel said...

This a fantastic anecdote, Kevin.

I have reached out to peers in my network as I continue my job search and I believe it will be the difference when I find a new opportunity. I agree with your thought that it might be the best investment of time you made this year. It makes me exuberant to see people with the ability to help doing just that.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

Kent Wagoner said...

As I read this, I was reminded of the CBS News story about the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science ( I can't help but wonder if all of those involved in science (maybe even non-scientists like me) could benefit from it. There seems to be some kind of disconnect between those attempting to communicate science and their intended audience.

BTW, I just this morning found out about your Bio-talk-knowledge-y program. I wish there was going to be a session closer to me. Looks like it should be helpful.

Best wishes on that project and glad you could help out "Dr. S." Keep up the great work!

Chuck Lasker said...

You are an inspiration to thousands, scientists and non-scientists alike, Kevin. Your words have changed my life, too, not as directly as Dr. S, but in leading me to being intellectually and ethically stronger. For that, I thank you.

The Bug Guy said...

Great story and good to hear about supporting postdocs. However, considering how we are producing far more PhDs than there are faculty positions, I would encourage you to help your students and postdocs to explore the many employment options outside of academia that would value their knowledge and training.