Friday, February 01, 2008

Competition, Survival, and Academic Niches

None of my graduate students graduated in 2006 or 2007. Apparently they were all waiting to graduate in 2008, an auspicious year in which 5 of my students may obtain graduate degrees. This is going to be the biggest year yet for students graduating from my research group.

2008 will therefore be a momentous and exciting year, but it will also mark a huge change in my research ecosystem. I would prefer that my group change more gradually, with intermittent degree-obtaining by my senior students at about the same rate that new students join the group. It's impossible to plan these things, though. I am very fond of my research group now, so my pleasure at watching my soon-to-be-former students move on to new and interesting activities will be accompanied by a hint of melancholy. Perhaps this melancholy will be assuaged by a new group of excellent students.

It is entirely selfish to feel sadness at the graduation of one's students, but I do think that the intermittent-graduating-student model would also be better for the group as well because it would then avoid the situation of people in the same group applying for the same positions. That can be stressful for all concerned. Fortunately, each one of my students has their own specific expertise and skills, and so, if required, I can 'compare' them in reference letters without saying that one is better than the others. Even so, I'd rather not compare them.

When I was a grad student, two of my office mates were applying for the same very small number of faculty positions in their specialty. This was at a time when the number of available faculty positions was exceedingly small, and these two office mates were very stressed out and essentially stopped speaking to each other. Even worse, we all shared a phone, and the ringing of the phone became a very traumatic time for everyone in the office: Was one of them going to get The Call? -- inviting one for an interview but not the other? offering one of them a job, but not the other? For some reason related to stress and their temporary loss of sanity, neither of them would answer the phone. I became terrified of answering the phone because one of these office mates often yelled at me for not answering the phone in a professional enough way, as if my casual phone-answering style would cost him his tenure-track position. (In the end, both got tenure-track positions.) I don't think things are quite at that level of stress in my group right now. Hooray for e-mail and personal phones and staying sane and collegial during a search for faculty jobs and postdocs.

When I was a postdoc, a group of us who had the same supervisor -- including several current and recent postdocs -- were applying for the same few faculty positions. Another postdoc and I had great fun discussing who was our supervisor's favorite postdoc, second favorite postdoc etc., as we tried to imagine what he was writing in his reference letters for us all. We both agreed that the wild-and-crazy brilliant guy who liked extreme sports and long nights in the bar was #1, but we disagreed about who was #2. My friend said it was me because I had the most publications (and our supervisor worshiped publication quantity), but I said it was him. I had compelling evidence: my friend was given the better office, was paid more (for the same job), and spent more time hanging out with our supervisor (beer, sports, science-talk etc.). Also, our supervisor kept telling me rude jokes about feminists and I didn't think any of the jokes were funny, thereby proving to him that feminists don't have a sense of humor. And, as if that weren't enough, our supervisor once somehow failed to notice that I was taking care of a grad student's very large cactus while she was traveling, and, during a visit to my office, he leaned back against the cactus and .. It was like something out of a cartoon, although I did not laugh in any obvious way at the time, probably because I am a feminist and lack a sense of humor. Later, I suggested to my fellow postdoc that he should offer to help pull out the cactus spines, thereby vaulting to the position of #1 postdoc, or at least cementing his position as second-favorite postdoc, but he declined.

If that last paragraph has a point, and I'm not sure it does, it is that members of the same research group can 'compete' for jobs and still have fun and remain friends, even while staring possible career extinction in the face.


Anonymous said...

Isn't the number of graduates related to the number of new students you admitted to your lab? If you admit them at the rate of a few each year, then you presumably would have a few graduates each year. I'm not sure why this is a problem.

Cheer up, maybe your students won't get jobs, will delay their graduation and will thus still be around next year.

When I was a postdoc at Harvard there was an article published about the high rate of suicides among grad students, attributing it in part to mentors who played favorites in their labs, paying attention only to one or two students and leaving the others to believe they would be given luke warm recommendations that would undermine their career prospects. Ugly, but consistent with what you describe as if it were benign.

Anonymous said...

I once arrived for an interview for a tenure-track position and in the parking lot bumped into a friend who just finished their interview for the same position. We had a good laugh and both thought it was lame that the department scheduled us so closely.

Another institution sent out a mass email to the 20 or so who made the first cut and neglected to hide the email addresses.

In the end, science is a small community and for any given job or grant opportunity you almost always know your competitors, who are often your collaborators or collaborators with former students, postdocs, or mentors. Learning to deal with this is an essential part of success in science.

Vodalus said...

I did some simple word-substitution on one of your sentences:

Also, our supervisor kept telling me rude jokes about Jews and I didn't think any of the jokes were funny, thereby proving to him that Jews don't have a sense of humor.

Also, our supervisor kept telling me rude jokes about African-Americans and I didn't think any of the jokes were funny, thereby proving to him that African-Americans don't have a sense of humor.

Also, our supervisor kept telling me rude jokes about homosexual people and I didn't think any of the jokes were funny, thereby proving to him that homosexual people don't have a sense of humor.

I don't understand how sexism is so much more publicly acceptable than other forms of bigotry.

Thanks for another good post.

Rod said...

Replying as a retired Professor who worked his apprentiship in the 1950 s, I would point out that we that we were lucky to complete our first postgraduate work within ten years. After that, competition was So fierce that we were known to resort to drugging the coffee of others on the day of interview!

ExtraordinaryCollegeStudent said...

I think it is completely normal. I am in the opposite position, I am a student about to graduate, and I feel sad that I will be leaving my professors. I have been somewhat shaped by my professors, and I feel sad that this part of my life is about to be over.

Female Science Professor said...

I agree with Anon #2.

The perceptive reader will note that I did not say that my postdoc supervisor played favorites. My fellow postdoc and I dealt with stress about our futures by joking about the situation. We all got jobs, and still joke about who is first-favorite, second-favorite even today when we see each other at meetings.

Ms.PhD said...

This post made me laugh.

The comments didn't.

Anonymous said...

What on earth is there to laugh about in the post?

Anonymous said...

This post made me laugh.

The comments didn't.

I totally agree. I suspect that some of the angry anon commenters are in the middle of really terrible job searches?

butterflywings said...

Dammit, if you are a feminist you *have* to have a sense of humour.