[Virtual Physics]

number 11, October 1, 1996


a forum for virtual meetings of scientists and students involved in a research activity on

Marcel Ausloos, ausloos@gw.unipc.ulg.ac.be, Institut de Physique, Université de Liège, Belgium,
Kenneth Holmlund, Kenneth.Holmlund@TP.UmU.SE, Umeå University, Sweden
Cameron L. Jones, cjones@swin.edu.au, Swinburne University of Technology, Australia
Zbigniew J.Koziol, (Editor-in-Chief) webex@ra.isisnet.com, WebExperts Inc., Canada
Michal Spalinski, Michal.Spalinski@fuw.edu.pl, Institute of Theoretical Physics, Warsaw University, Poland
Krzysztof P. Wroblewski, chris@nmr.biophys.upenn.edu, University of Pennsylvania, U.S.A.
Copyright (C) 1996 by Zbigniew Koziol.


[0] Contemporary Problems in Science Jobs, by Arthur E. Sowers
[0] Resarch and Funds, by Alex Braginski
[0] Two Postdoctoral Positions: Nonlinear Laser Spectroscopy and Solid State Modeling, Argonne National Laboratory, by Guokui Liu


Contemporary Problems in Science Jobs

by Arthur E. Sowers, PhD

Part 2. What Good CVs Look Like

(The Science Career Path Reality)

My 9 years in industry, 5 years in academia, and 4 years as a postdoc tell me this about getting a regular (tenure-track) faculty appointment:

On a very simple level, one who wishes to be in lofty pursuits (an academic position at a research institution, where the goals are noble and the intellectual rewards are pure and at least some people respect you) would follow this conventional-wisdom paradigm:

Get i) PhD (or MD/PhD), ii) get a postdoc, and then iii) get an asst. prof. position. After that things are supposed to be more or less automatic. Right?
Bzzzzt. Wrong answer!

In 1977 I got my PhD and did a postdoc (1978-1981) and then began to learn how all of this really worked.

The situation back then was, as it is today, about 200-300 applications per entry level (assistant prof) tenure-track slot. What I saw then (doing a postdoc at UNC, School of Medicine, Chapel Hill) was that the CVs that rose to the top, indeed, had or tended to have certain "obvious" characteristics:

A1 - Ivy league, big 10 or big 20 institution names for the PhD.

A2 - Places that are "exotic" for a postdoc to be from: eg. Rockefeller, Max Plank, Cold Spring Harbor, IN ADDITION TO the usual.

A3 - Publications (about 2-3 per year) in, yes, Science, Nature, Cell, PNAS

A4 - An existing, transferable grant (usually NIH, and $60+K of indirect costs).

A5 - A specialization that fit in with the specialization that was desired (i.e. as advertised).

A6 - A specialization that could be a natural integration for one to two existing faculty for the purpose of becoming a co- investigator on future grant proposals (such arrangements can be great since you have enthusiastic "partners" to help with writing, but can be bad if the other guys let you do most of the work and they take the credit)

A7 - (thanks to Ken Steele [at: steelekm@appstate.edu] for this one). "The homeboy factor is stronger than many imagine" quoted with permission. Basically, some selection mindsets operate on what I will call the comfort principle: A few guys in the department are from some region, school, or have a religious factor in common, and this is what they look for, or notice, in an applicant pool, and, ergo, true merit gets lost in the dust (I am not arguing for or against this, it all depends on your perspective). A variation on this may be found by looking in college and university catalogs in your libraries. Look at the faculty list and see if they show where the faculty got their degrees from. Ivy league schools usually recruit from other ivy leagues. Small, elite colleges often recruit from prestige schools (eg. ivy league), and state schools recruit from all places. Teaching institutions often recruit for teaching promise and experience while research competence means little or nothing.

A8 - Small elite (or even not so elite) colleges are not going to be research career focused. Rather, they will be more concerned with the commitment you have towards teaching and the small college ambience and culture. In other words, how you look as a researcher doesn't matter much, but if you have no teaching experience AND don't have anything on your CV or cover letter (or the rest of your application package) that really shows an interest in teaching, then your CV is going to end up in the trash (or the fireplace).

There were anti-selection characteristics, too:

B1 - Subject areas not in "square" with job description (eg. an entomologist applying for a job in an anatomy department).

B2 - Anybody higher than associate prof, and including chairmen, and people who were only at teaching institutions, and people who were not young, fell off the list, quickly, on the first round.

B3 - Anybody who was already asst prof at 2 or more other institutions. This is because the people on the sellection committee figure that there is something wrong with you because you did not get tenure.

B4 - Obscure, short papers in trashy, obscure journals (especially if there were, eg., 10 or more per year).

B5 - Anybody who followed a non-ideal career path. For example, a truck driver for ten years goes back to school for PhD, a woman who steps off the path to be mother for 2-3 years (yeah, I'm sorry but they see that gap as a blemish on a career trajectory).

B6 - People who had dirt on their name. Bad gossip, whether true or false, certain political problems (10-20 years ago you might have had trouble if you were very left wing - you would not get a job in science). Today, it may not be important.

B7 - Thanks to for this one and I HAVE heard about it before but left it out because I did not want to stigmatize anyone. But, we ought to tell-it-like-it-is. "Postdocs" at government labs may not be a good idea for your career. Yes, academia generally does not respect time spent at such places and that needs to be considered even though the pay might be greater. says in his private e-mail to me that "I'm one of those guys in his 50s- and its hard to believe that I might not make it in this career to retirement." and they "have postdocs..." and "But they are committing professional suicide because we are not in a glamour area of science and we are not at a fancy institution." (write to him if you want, folks, but get the help file first [send any subject any text to before you get your password or send non-anonymously, also see the help file).

People who are selected as candidates for a position had to give a seminar and spend at least a day at the institution. The seminar had to be in a quality level that I would call the "upper half" category. To fall off the short list, you had to give a really goofy or bad seminar (and this happened, too). In contrast, at a teaching institution, your seminar or (short demonstration of presentation abilities) will be more scrutinized for delivery, content, collegiality, and style.

Some real-life but non-obvious factors might play a significant role in a person being offered a position. However, these factors may never become public knowledge. Some are:

C1 - Real programmatic considerations.

C2 - Absolutely astounding letters of recommendation from luminaries (one prof at Berkeley told me this: he considered himself average, but he got the job because of an exceptional recommendation letter).

C3 - Operation in the background of a personal connection or preference of some kind (some people call this politics and it does happen).

C4 - An agenda. For example, there may be an actual preference to hire a minority or a female, or a science subdiscipline (eg. HIV science, extracellular matrix, biotechnology, etc., or some other "hot topic").
Some of these non-obvious factors may actually dominate the decision making to the point of relegating the obvious factors out of the question. Anti-discrimination laws help prevent some of the outlandish anti-sellection factor processes, but they don't seem to have much effect until someone already hired is released or denied tenure or tenure removed (see Chronicle of Higher Education all year long on this). I think not much else has changed since the mid 1970s except the much greater competition for grant funding.

This is what you have to measure yourself against.

What was the most intimidating CV I ever saw? It was just two pages long! The top half of the first page had the education. The bottom half of the first page had a list of special awards. The second page just gave numbers of journal papers, books, and chapters, not the titles and citations. The second page also had a story in which the individual said how many PhDs he graduated (it was around 40-50 if I recall correctly), how many of those went on into tenure track positions (it was most of them) and how many of those were promoted with tenure (almost of them). In other words it was an awesome success story. This guy not only did get the job, but he also got the whole floor of a building. I am sure the rest of the "package" (i.e. start up money, etc.) was also impressive.

There is also a line of thinking that is developing. Departments are not going to play a significant role as much as centers of excellence (containing 10-20 or more people). Such centers of excellence will have a "life cycle" of 12-15 years and then be disbanded.

Try not to use the above material to gauge yourself in an absolute way, because there are often exceptions to the rule in real life. But do use it as a guide.

Arthur E. Sowers, PhD,
E-mail: arthures@access.digex.net

Copyright by Arthur E. Sowers


The text by Arthur E. Sowers is a part of a larger essay.
The entire work concists of the following parts:

Job Crunch & Grant Crunch
What needs to be in a CV
Self Evaluation (things you can do)
Tenure & Terminations
Uncollegial behavior
The post-doc search (pre-PhD)
Alternatives to traditional PhD jobs
Estimate of PhD Jobs and PhDs
URLs with lists of jobs

Other places related to the subject, where copies of the essay are available for browsing:

Alternative Careers in Biosciences Jobs in Biotechnology, Pharmaceuticals and Healthcare CONTEMPORARY PROBLEMS IN SCIENCE JOBS http://www.access.digex.net/~arthures/homepage.htm


Resarch and Funds

by Alex I. Braginski alexbrag@isitel1.isi.kfa-juelich.de

Received: September 14, 1996

Re : "Resarch and Funds", by Alexander Berezin
Re : "Resarch and Funds", by Ahmad Ibrahim
Re : "Myth of Competion and NSERC Policy of Selectivity", by Berezin and Hunter, Virtual Physics No 08, 1996

Dear Dr. Koziol,

Just a brief comment concerning the interesting discussion on grant funding by Drs Berezin & Hunter, and by Dr. Ibrahim. To avoid any misunderstandings, let me start by saying that my opinions are those of an "old boy", continuously funded for about 25 years (not by NSERC), and active in a very applied segment of physics (applied superconductivity).

I believe that all discussion participants are right: for basic research, universities/intitutions should provide a minimum level of support necessary for STARTING a successful activity, also experimental, i.e., "fund young researchers, not proposals", but for a LIMITED PERIOD OF TIME (say, three to six years). Individuals not able to demonstrate real achievements over such periods of time should be excluded from future considerations. One could discuss whether internal university evaluation panels could obtain for that purpose some extra minimum support from contributions of funding agencies, such as NSERC. However, all "extras" and follow-up research should be proposed/applied for, and evaluated via a peer review, with funding administered by an agency. Not because it is a good or infallible system (it is not), but because all alternates are still worse. Most of NSERC or other bureaucrats are simply not able to evaluate basic work by themselves. In contrast, applied work can often be evaluated by competent agency personnel, even without a peer review. That doesn't mean that agencies have no "pets", but at least less of vested interests.

The competence, quality and objectivity of peer and other reviews are really an ethical issue. The ethics and morality of the scientific community is no better (hopefully also no worse, but I'm not sure) than that of the rest of the society. In consequence, the youngest segments of our community suffer the most. My first priority would be to make sure that they get a chance to prove to be those "best and brightest". This must take some time. However, I don't believe that ANY system can and should continuously fund anyone who likes to call himself a researcher or a scientist.


(Prof.Dr.) Alex I. Braginski, Director
Institute of Thin-Film and Ion Technology
Research Center Juelich,
D-52425 Juelich, Germany


Two Postdoctoral Positions

Nonlinear Laser Spectroscopy and Solid State Modeling
Argonne National Laboratory

by Guokui Liu, gliu@anlchm.chm.anl.gov

Received: September 17, 1996
The heavy element photophysics and photochemistry program of the Chemistry Division at Argonne National Laboratory have two postdoctoral positions immediately available for experimental and theoretical studies on defects and disordering effects in solids. The successful candidates will be required to participate in a collaborative project focused on microscopic radiation damage in crystals and glasses. The initial appointments will be for a period of one year and renewable for additional years by mutual agreement. Qualification: Ph. D degree in physics, physical chemistry or equivalent. Experience required in one or more of the following areas that focus on electronic and structural properties of heavy elements (actinides, lanthanides, or transition metals) doped into crystals and glasses: linear and nonlinear laser spectroscopy, synchrotron radiation-based studies, microscopic theory development and theoretical modeling. Additional experience in analytical electron microscopy, crystallography, or solid state EPR/NMR is an asset.
Interested individuals may contact: Dr. Guokui Liu, Argonne National Laboratory, 9700 South Cass Avenue, Argonne IL 60439. e-mail: gliu@anlchm.chm.anl.gov.

Argonne is an equal opportunity/affirmative action employer.

Guokui Liu, Ph.D
Argonne National Laboratory

Virtual Physics: a forum for virtual meetings of scientists and students involved in a research activity on CONTEMPORARY PHYSICS


Marcel Ausloos, ausloos@gw.unipc.ulg.ac.be, Institut de Physique B5,
Université de Liège, Sart Tilman, B-4000 Liège, Belgium, tel. (+32 41) 66 37 52
Kenneth Holmlund, Kenneth.Holmlund@TP.UmU.SE, Department of Theoretical Physics
Umeå University, S-907 42 Umeå, Sweden, tel. +46-(0)90-167717

Cameron L. Jones, cjones@swin.edu.au, Centre for Applied Colloid and BioColloid Science
Swinburne University of Technology, P.O. Box 218 Hawthorn, Victoria, 3122 Australia, tel. +613 9214 8935, fax +613 9819 0834
Zbigniew J. Koziol (Editor-in-Chief), WebEx@ra.isisnet.com, WebExperts Inc.,
2-6032 Compton Ave., Halifax, Nova Scotia, B3H 1E7 Canada, tel. (902) 423 2149
Michal Spalinski, Michal.Spalinski@fuw.edu.pl, Institute of Theoretical Physics,
Warsaw University, Hoza 69, 00-681 Warsaw, Poland, tel. (+48 2) 628 3031

Krzysztof P. Wroblewski, chris@nmr.biophys.upenn.edu, School of Medicine
University of Pennsylvania, Rm. C-501 Richards Bldg., Philadelphia, PA 19104-6089, U.S.A., tel. (215) 898-6396

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