Useful Career Advice to New PhDs

This is basically a very modified version of a convocation speech I gave a few years ago, the occasion being the graduation of a bunch of new PhDs in biomedical sciences. So anyway, I am an older scientist/professor who went through all the typical career nonsense of grad student > postdoc > ass professor > asso professor > full (or fool) professor > beyond. Here is my somewhat cynical but I think quite accurate take on the academic career.

So, students, you have just got through graduate school- this was a fun time- you got some training, got a lot of new friends, no doubt had all kinds of travel, alcohol, drug and sexual adventures and actually may have done some serious lab work. By graduating you showed you have the ability to do something in the lab and, importantly, write some more or less plausible and coherent record of it afterwards. This sounds simple enough but a surprising number of people just cannot do it. I have friends who started their PhDs with me, way back in the 80’s, and I still see them sometimes and ask them “how’s the thesis going” and they go “great, making real progress”, or “I’m now on chapter 4” or somesuch- this being about 40 years on. It seems unlikely that they will graduate before they retire, but they might, who knows, so then they would be ready for a 40 year post doctoral fellowship I suppose. By the age of 100 they could be ready for an assistant professorship, but getting tenure at the age of 140 is a stretch unless there is some big breakthrough in gerontological research. So rejoice in the fact that you really finished, PhD of course actually stands not for incomprehensible Latin gobbeldygook but “Phinally Done”.

Which reminds me of a joke. How many graduate students does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: one, but it takes at least 8 years to do it. Thank you Garrison Keillor.

The Post Doctoral Fellow

Your next step is likely a job as a post doctoral fellow. This is the best period in your scientific life, so enjoy it, it won’t last. You are trained, can write, don’t cost much and will leave fairly soon, so your mentor can be really nice to you and has a reasonable chance of getting you to do something more or less substantial. This is the time in your life when have great potential and only a small record- as you get older your potential declines and your record may go one way or the other, but is statistically unlikely to be Nobel prize winning stellar, so make the best of where you are now. It’s likely the only time in your career you will be in demand on the job market. Somebody else set up the lab, pays the bills, does all the administration, so you can just mess about on some project or other. No teaching. No real responsibilities. I used my postdoc period to go off and live in another country, Germany, which was cool, in fact it was mostly freezing. The lab I went to was the very best in the world in what I was interested in at the time, and I wondered if I was going to make it there or not, as I was unsure if I had any real talent for science. I figured that if I made it, fine, and if I didn’t then at least I would quickly know that I should take up some other line of work, like construction or something. So I think it is good advice to try to do your postdoc in the very best lab you possibly can. Whatever royal exudate the best labs secrete will be bounteously deposited on you and the lavish aromas and unguents will carry you for many years after you leave. This is of course not the way things should be, but, well, it’s the way they are. Aim high… As Peter Ustinov said “there is nothing worse than aiming low- and missing”. Try to cut down on the booze, drugs and sex as you should now be demonstrating to the world that you can do something or other useful- nobody expects too much from a grad student, but a postdoc should produce a few decent papers, especially if you managed to insinuate yourself into an excellent lab. So if you are lucky after 3 years or so of cheap labor you should have a few good papers some in very good journals and with excellent coworkers, which is why you tried to get into an excellent lab in the first place. So you might now actually be a viable candidate for a real actual full time academic job.

The Interview for Assistant or Ass Professor

In academia the first real job is the assistant professor- this is a big step. Here are some excellent pieces of advice on how to game the system to your advantage, hell, they worked for me.

Be honest even if it does not come naturally: So look at the various adds for jobs and get together a good looking CV and send it off to any job that looks halfway interesting, you never know. One important piece of advice is never put anything on your CV that is not actually true. Your CV might be a bit exaggerated, that might be OK, and you might miss out things that don’t make you look good, like that unfortunate armed robbery incident, but don’t lie. If there is a single lie on your CV and a reader notices it you are done. One lie brings into question everything else and you won’t get an interview, and word might get around so you don’t get interviews in other places either. When I was looking for a job it was much harder to check things as you had to go to the library and open actual journals to see if an article existed or not. I knew a couple of scientists who put non-existent papers supposedly in high profile journals on their CVs, banking on people not bothering to check, or, if they did check and couldn’t find the article, figuring that the journal number or pages must have been typed wrong. With the internets you can’t get away with that any more, and even then these guys eventually got found out and booted out of science. The other thing is if you put on your CV you are an expert in something, sexing rotifers or whatever, don’t do that unless you actually are. A lot of people will say they did this or that, when what they mean is that someone in the lab did this or that but it seems like they could bloat the CV by taking some credit for it. Elon Musk says when he sees a specific claim like that he asks a lot of detailed questions about, in this case, sexing rotifers, and it soon becomes apparent whether an individual has actually done it themselves and knows exactly where a rotifers testicles and other whatnots are or just listened to people in a bar talking about it. So don’t bullshit, be prepared to answer very detailed questions about whatever you claim to be an expert in. Again, if you are obviously a bullshiter in one part of your CV a search committee would think the whole thing is likely to be totally bullshited from top to bottom, and you won’t get the job.

Timing of your interview: So you send in your CV and you get some invitations for interviews. Find out when the series of interviews are happening for each job and say you are very busy and find out when the latest possible date is that you can be interviewed. This creates the impression (entirely incorrect in my case) that you are very busy and much in demand, and also ensures that the search committee has you fresh in mind when they finally meet to figure out who to offer the job to. I sort of figured this out myself as outlined below, and was quite interested to find out recently that some actual data shows that in a typical university hire the person hired is almost always one of the last three interviewed, and the last person interviewed is more than twice as likely to get hired as the first. In fact this is generally true for any kind of job search as I found out from this article. A typical university search looks at 6-8 candidates over several months and by the end of that the search committee, who are usually only human and may well be alcoholics, drug abusers or just plain senile, will have basically almost no recollection of the first couple of candidates.

Dress well: So dress well or figure out how to get away with not dressing well. When I first came to the US for interviews I had been told that ‘Mercans were very informal, did not dress up, scoffed formality etc. So for my first interviews I showed up in tatty jeans and tea shirts in some cases with more holes in them than were necessitated by the various relatively normal protuberances of my body. This seemed to surprise my hosts a bit, and I clearly remember a look of shock and/or horror when I identified myself to one chairman who was waiting for me at an airport and could not believe that this apparent derelict was somehow a candidate for a job in his prestigious department. So you are clearly expected to show up in some sort of poncy suit at least for the interview itself, and you also have to do stuff like comb your hair, wash your neck and do other cosmetic things that have no bearing on whether you can do the actual job or not. On that particular trip I was in the car with the chairman going back to my hotel on the second day and he told me we were going to a real fancy upscale restaurant and could I get a collar and tie. Of course the search committee like to go to fancy restaurants since they don’t have to pay, so I should have anticipated this. But I was somewhat stuck as I had neither a collar nor a tie- in fact at the time I did not even own a tie. So just before the car stopped I said to him, “er, I forgot to pack a tie, do you think I could borrow one?” He said, yes of course. And I stood up to get out of the car and looked around the down town area, and realized it was late in the evening, shops were basically closed, Siri was not invented yet and so I said “oh, and one more thing, can I borrow a jacket?” So anyway he sorta looked at me very strange, but said yes and he did bring along a jacket. Unfortunately he was a big fat man so I looked very strange in this monstrously oversize jacket which drooped off of my shoulders and engulfed my skinny arms. Anyway I did not get that job, but I did notice I was the very first one interviewed, which got me thinking a bit. So for my next interview trip I thought I had better buy a suit and also try to get interviewed later in the pack. I just hate suits, I always look like a strangely dorky stick insect in one and I feel like a total fraud, as I am just naturally a slob and a suit is just hopeless attire if you want to take the engine out of a motorcycle, chop down a tree or make a hybridoma, which are things I do, but not while wearing a suit. In fact I generally avoid anything that requires any formality at all. But anyway, a mans gotta do what a mans gotta do and so I bought a suit, and I looked like a giant prehistoric grasshopper in it. So I went off for my second round of interviews, making sure I was the last candidate. So I met my future chairman at the airport, who was I think also a little surprised at my as usual disheveled appearance as I was traveling in my usual slobby jeans and tea shirt. So I was talking to him at the baggage collection, and joy of joys, the airline lost my luggage! And my ridiculous crap suit was in that luggage!! So I had to do my interviews and seminar in my slobby clothes and I even got brownie points for putting up with this problem, when of course I was delighted about it. They were saying “he lost his suit and he didn’t let that phase him at all, what a guy!” So I’d advise you, if you don’t want to dress up in this fake and pseudo way, pack your important stuff in a carry-on bag and pretend to loose your checked baggage, that’s what I will do if I ever need another job.

Ask good questions: On interviews you will be wheeled out in front of all these people you have never heard of who were doing things that you likely will have no interest in or knowledge about whatsoever. These will typically be back to back 30 minute or even longer sessions with a plethora of faculty taking up two entire days. So they will be talking in great detail about guinea pig gall stones or grasshopper knee caps or something that you know nothing about, and in fact you likely prefer it that way. In my case I was also jet lagged so it was extremely difficult to figure out what the hell they were talking about or to show any interest at all. Also, I’m fairly sure I am an undiagnosed ADHD sufferer, having this well before it was fashionable, so I can’t normally focus on anything for more than about 15 minutes, even when not jet lagged. In my case after the first few minutes of each session my mind kept going completely blank, they could have been speaking Klingon for all I knew. But eventually they will stop talking about whatever it was and they will expect you to ask intelligent questions. So you could ask “what was all that about?” or “why are you even doing any of this” or “I don’t comprehend any of that so could your repeat it all very slowly”. But of course you can’t be actually honest, especially if you really want the job. However if you are really stuck there are a few questions you can ask; my favorite is “what’s the time course of that?” Whatever it was they were talking about it has to have some sort of time course. The guinea pig gall stones have to get bigger or smaller with time as do the grasshopper knee caps, or maybe they even stay the same, but they still have to have a time course. So they will then go on for 5 minutes about how they get bigger or smaller or stay the same or whatever, so you can phase out again while nodding vigorously to make out you are actually listening. You can then ask “are you going to publish this?” this creates the (likely erroneous) impression that you think whatever it was might be worth publishing. They will then go on about what they published already or why they didn’t or what they are writing up now or will write up or whatever, so you can fix them with an apparently interested stare for a few more minutes with your mind back firmly in neutral. So these two questions will likely keep them going on for the 5 -10 more minutes you need to get to the end of the 30 minutes, when you can then go on to the next interview, where you do the same thing again. So the search committee will get together after you’ve gone and they”ll say “yeah he seemed interested, he asked some questions”. Hopefully they won’t realize it was always the same two questions.

Marital status: The search committee is of course mostly older men so you can use that to your advantage. If you’re a man, claim to have an attractive wife, and complain that you are very happily married but you are very worried as she has this thing for older well educated academic men. Then show pictures of her in a swimsuit, and you should be able to download a suitable image from Backpages if you don’t happen to have one. If you’re a women, you could make out that you are single or separated and you have a thing about older academic men which you can’t seem to control. In my case I was a single man, about 30, and several times I had to make it clear I was not gay, which was a no no in those days. So I had to say I did chase women, but obviously not very successfully as I had apparently not actually managed to snag one yet. So I was not in the optimal position as the mostly male members of the search committee had no apparent possibility of sleeping with my wife or girlfriend, but I might want to sleep with theirs. So I just had to make out I worked all the time, didn’t have time for women or sex, especially including wives of faculty members. Perhaps nowadays being a gay male might be advantageous, especially, as is increasingly likely these days, if some of the search committee members are proudly and rampantly gay males. A gay female might have a harder time as heterosexual or gay male committee members would not get anywhere with her, and there is not likely go be a gay female on the search committee.

Assistant or Ass Professor

So you may eventually get a job as assistant professor and you think your troubles are over. Forget that, this is a very tough time, even worse now than when I was one. The best advice is keep a very low profile and don’t volunteer for anything. If you do get suckered into something do it very well so you get brownie points but also make sure that you get to organize whatever it was in future so you can unload most of the work on somebody else. Either that or figure out a way to immediately get out of it by faking illness  or something similar. So one reason why assistant professors are called ass professors is that a lot of them are asses, who basically in their naive, bright-eyed and bushy tailed way get snookered into doing things. As soon as you arrive devious older faculty members will butter you up, saying how it would be great to have someone of your huge ability to lecture in this, that and the other. You are of course flattered and may be tempted to go right in and do whatever it is, but be warned, the major reason they are asking you is not because of your enormous ability but because they don’t want to do it themselves. Cunning old bastards, they want to get credit for doing this big course but want someone else, in fact many someone elses, to do the actual work.

The other reason why you could be called an ass professor is because the job keeps you on your ass most of the day. You are supposed to write a lot papers, grants, organize students, technicians and postdocs, teach, do some bullshit administration and all of these things keep you sitting on your ass all day. This is a shame, as after your graduate student and postdoc experiences you actually might be able to do an experiment without making a total botch of it, and suddenly your trained and more or less competent upper body is parked on its useless and talentless ass all day. Now your job it get a grant or two per year, write a few decent papers every year, do some decent teaching, graduate some graduate students, get invited to meetings, review grants and review papers and last and the most, bring in a lot of grant money. So you are definitely under a lot of pressure, and it is annoying that people who may get paid far more than you, who don’t have and will never have grants, are pressurizing you to bring all this money in, basically to pay their salary.

So at this stage in your career you will have to get into the unspeakable horrors of grant writing. Unlike when you were a grad student or postdoc, you suddenly now have to get your own money to run your lab. This is now a lot worse than it was, as the funding levels are way down from what they were when I was an Ass prof, and it was not easy even then. So you have to come up with some sort of plausible fiction for what useful things you would do if the grant agency gave you like $500,000 or $1,000,000 over three or so years. For me this was always an exercise in total and complete confabulation. I never know what I am going to do that day when I arrive in the lab usually quite late in the morning, let alone 3 years in the future. However I would write some nonsense about how I planned to cure cancer or Alzheimer’s or somesuch, really just a big waste of my time and the time of whatever poor asses had to read the proposal. And then, if I got the money, I’d go off and pretty much always do something entirely different. I don’t think this is a bad approach, as in research you never know what you will blunder into, and in my career I blundered into several things which I could never have anticipated but which I flatter myself were of some actual use to humanity. In contrast the things I proposed in grants were uniformly pretty boring and would now be totally forgotten if I had actually got round to doing them, which I mostly didn’t. The very best approach to get grants is to be really political. I basically hate politics, I am much too honest and abrasive to be any good at it. I am also a very poor liar and I forget rapidly what I said to who, so I am hopeless at political infighting. So I sort of naively thought that my great science would get funded with or without me kissing up to people. As I said that was in the days when it was merely difficult to get funding, not virtually impossible like today. So I did OK but today I likely would not. The most important funding agency for biomedical research in the US is the National Institutes of Health (NIH). These fund a lot of research in biomedicine and the careers of numerous university professors have been and are dependent on getting NIH funding. NIH grants are reviewed by typically a panel of about 20 scientists who know about the area of science because they are in it themselves, which of course poses a natural conflict of interest. So nowadays you have to figure out who on that panel is likely to review your grant and butter them up at meetings, by email and telephone, give them your reagents and advice, tell them what great scientists they are, let your attractive daughter or son go spelunking with them in Acapulco, but don’t actually formally collaborate with them as then they can’t review your grant. Invite them to seminars at your institute, let them sleep in your house, take them to the zoo, let them ride the Appalachian trail on your pet goat, do whatever it is to ingratiate yourself with them. There is an informal corruption that arises on these grant review bodies, which just happens as people are, well, human and they basically have self interest at heart. So if one of the reviewer grandees thinks you are like minded, respect them, think their work is great, they will likely put your name forward as a grant reviewer on the same panel. Why? Well because they want one of their buddies on the panel so that when their grant gets reviewed it will get favorable treatment. The consequence of this is that review panels get packed with people who all know each other, all owe their funding to each other, and so tend to give each other, how should I put it, more favorable reviews than they may actually deserve. So if you are not doing the kissing up you likely won’t get into the in crowd and you might have a very hard time or in fact completely fail to get funding, despite writing an excellent grant proposal. So just swallow your pride and kiss some ass, it’s an essential skill nowadays.

Here is a gender correct joke to illustrate the high level of assistant professor level pressure. (although only two genders in this version). An assistant professor, his/her postdoc and his/her grad student were off to the local slop joint for lunch one day, when the graduate student saw an old brass lamp by the side of the road. So he/she picks it up and rubs it- a genie appears! The genie says “hmm, since there are three of you, I’ll give you one wish each”. So the grad student says “Me first!, I wanna go to a beach in the Caribbean with Miley Cyrus/Justin Bieber”. The genie says “your wish is my command”, and pouf the grad student disappears. So the post doc says, “Me next! I wanna be on a yacht in the Mediterranean with Lady Gaga/Orlando Bloom”. The genie says “your wish is my command” and pouf he/she disappears also. So the genie says to the assistant professor “so what is your wish”. The assistant professor says “I want those two back in my lab by the time I’ve had my lunch”.

So then you come up for tenure. This is the stage when you can get the boot without doing anything like shooting the dean or raping his/her daughter, so the University authorities nowadays can take this opportunity to terminate you with relative ease. So you have to do teaching, administration and research, and in days gone by you could maybe get through by doing only one or two of these things well, not now though unless you are a superstar. You come up for tenure in 5-7 years, though this often gets delayed and of course the whole tenure thing will likely disappear in a few years. Anyway, you have to get a lot of documents together, letters or recommendation, reports on your teaching, reports on what administration you did, reports on if you reviewed papers and grants, if and when you got invited to speak at meetings and a lot of other time wasting and long winded trivia, sort of typical university nonsense. But the promotion and tenure committee nowadays doesn’t care much about all that, but is mostly interested in one thing, which is how much money you brought in in grants. All the deans and other pointless university bureaucrats want to know this as that is what pays their ridiculously bloated salaries, and to be fair, yours as well. And it is not just grants, but overhead money. Most people don’t know this, but when a scientist gets let’s say a large $1,000,000 NIH grant, the institution gets on top of that what are called “overheads”. These could well be renamed “underhands” and are negotiated by each university and are supposed to cover things like the electricity bill, water, some administration costs and so on. At a typical institution the NIH would cough up 50% or more, another $500,000 or more to pay the parasitic bureaucracy. So while the poor scientist had to account for exactly how he or she would spend every dollar of the $1,000,000, the bureaucracy can do pretty much what it wants with the $500,000+. This led to some notable corruption in the past, with yachts, holiday houses etc. being bought with this money, but oversight is a little better now so it is harder to get away with that kind of out and out theft. The NIH, NSF and a few other funding sources will cough up this large extra amount, but many other funding agencies will only pay a much more reasonable maybe 10% on top, and some foundations won’t pay any of this, good for them. So when you come up for tenure, you may have a lab which has brought in $5,000,000 over 5 years, published stellar papers etc. etc. but if you did not bring in much in overheads, you might not get tenure. It’s sad but nowadays it is all about the dollars.

Associate or Asso Professor with Tenure

Assuming you get tenure congratulations! Now you can relax and kick back a bit!! Not really, if you want any kind of decent pay raise, promotion or avoid getting lumbered with the soul destroying crapola committees and other time wasting rubbish that goes on in universities, so you have to keep at the grind of politics, grant writing, teaching, all the rest of it. Nowadays if you get one big grant you will get congratulated by the bureaucrats but they will also want you to leverage that somehow to get another one. And I would not count on tenure being forever as it used to be. Politicos like Scott Walker, the famous Wisconsin Kochroach, have been trying to end tenure in their states, and it could happen everywhere. So anyway as a newly minted asso, try to get other people to volunteer for things. So, as noted above, the poor little ass professors get suckering into doing stuff by the cunning and world weary asso professors, so the abbreviation asso professor is singularly appropriate. Asso professor is as far as many people get, as the bureaucrats will have to pay you more and take more notice of you if differentiate further.

Full (or Fool) Professor

What is the next step. Full and/or Fool Professor? To get to that level you are supposed to have done quite a lot of stuff, have a lot of papers, grants (especially) and have some sort of international reputation. This is true for some Fool Professors, but in many cases all you had to do was live long enough and not upset the administration. Of course you again have to get a load of documents together proving you did this, that and the other, and all that has to go through several committees and it takes months, like everything in a university. After you got through that, in the past you could coast to retirement as long as you kept getting your grants renewed, which you would likely do if you managed to get into the in crowd on the grant reviewing bodies as I discussed above. As I also noted the amount of money you bring in especially in overheads is of overwhelming importance to the bureaucrats and even to some scientists, so grants have to be from the NIH with big overheads to count for much. One of my colleagues retired a few years ago and I asked what were his major accomplishments, expecting something about some science he had actually done. Instead he said “30 years of continuous NIH funding”. I was flabbergasted. Surely getting funding is some sordid little prostitution type of thing you have to do in order to get funds to do some actual science. And you only do the science, demanding challenging work as it is, to discover something interesting and/or useful. Anyway, as a fool professor things are at present rather bleak. The NIH and other funding agencies have decided that they want to fund younger people preferentially, not unreasonable as there are a lot of them and some of them are pretty good. And old professors are healthier than they used to be and will go on and on and on til they drop if they are allowed to, with might take decades. So there is a large group of disgruntled older guys and gals who can’t get grants and so can’t do what they were trained to do but who do not want to retire and so are hanging on doing the usual pointless and tedious administrative nonsense that have a special place in universities.

After that

One way to avoid being a terminally differentiated fool professor is to mutate into one of administrative positions in a university. Chairman? Deanlet? Dean? Provost? What on earth do all these people actually do? All jobs that keep you out of the lab and on your ass, so if you actually like being a scientist you would not want to touch university bureaucracy, which is surely one of the most soul destroying, time consuming, boring, frustrating and ridiculous pursuits known to man, woman or donkey. However these jobs are very well paid, the reason being that university administrators set pay levels and naturally they think that university administrators deserve the most money. So that is one option, sell your soul to the devil.

In Summary

Science has many advantages, so don’t let this rather cynical diatribe put you off of it. You will have to deal with enormous mounds of rubbish in a scientific career, some but by no means all of it generated by your own incompetence or ignorance. You will need a very robust ego, as good (and of course bad and pathetic) papers and grants get rejected, students mess up, collaborators are unreliable, technicians let your precious cells lines die, experiments get botched up, reagents get wasted, hypotheses turn out to be not just wrong but idiotic, your lab people drive you nuts, great opportunities suddenly appear and equally rapidly disappear. But there is a very good side-  There is lot of freedom in terms of when and how you work and you are grossly overpaid in my opinion, though that view is not shared by many of my university colleagues. You get a lot of free trips, I’ve had trips all over without paying, to England, Scotland, Sweden, Germany, France, Switzerland, Denmark, Italy, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and China for one boondoogle meeting or another. And sometimes bad and pathetic grants get funded. And of course the science is just endlessly fascinating if you organize yourself so you have time to do any. Anyway congratulations for graduating, I hope we have generally been of some use, even if only in showing you how not to do things. Keep in touch, we will all claim to have been your best buddies if you win a Nobel Prize or something.

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