There are some interesting issues related to the professional relationships of advisors and advisees at or soon after the end of the latter's graduate or postdoctoral programs. There are several aspects of this I want to explore in the near future. Today I will write about issues related to an advisee's job search efforts.
Some graduate students and postdocs show me their application materials when they apply for academic jobs, and I am happy to give general advice and assistance based on my experience reading many such applications. Application materials should be an accurate reflection of the applicant’s ideas and abilities, but I think it is entirely reasonable for an applicant to discuss and get input about general issues of content, tone, type and amount of information, and balance between research and teaching statements.
Some advisees prefer not to show me their application materials. At this stage, some advisees want to be more independent, and that is fine with me.
In an effort to help my advisees with the job search process, I am giving a series of informal Applying for Academic Jobs 101 talks to my research group this fall. There are also formal courses on this topic given by the university, so students and postdocs have many options for getting advice and information. Other resources are available for those interested in non-academic jobs.
Of those who show me some or all of their application materials, some show me their application materials before sending them and some show these to me after submitting them, in the latter case just as a FYI kind of thing to help me “focus” my reference letter (as one recent applicant phrased it when he sent me the cover letter for a submitted application). Either way is fine with me; it is up to the applicant to make this decision.
The conundrum: what to do if application materials have major problems.
Example: This fall, I was given a copy of an already-sent cover letter, and the letter was filled with glaring writing errors of a non-trivial sort: e.g., sentences that made no sense, missing punctuation and words, typos.
The issue is not the content of my reference letters. The difficult questions for me are: (1) if a flawed application is not yet submitted, how much help with the writing should be given? and (2) if the flawed application has been submitted, should the applicant be told about the problems?
The general issue is the extent to which someone should get assistance with job application materials in terms of writing and other technical aspects. It would be wrong for me to rewrite or provide major editing of an applicant's letter or statement, but just saying “This writing is bad” seems insufficient.
I am trying to figure out the best way to help applicants fix their applications, but without crossing a line between providing an unethical level of assistance. Ideally, I would also be able to do this without causing great anxiety at a time that is already anxious owing to the usual uncertainty of a job search process, but somehow I don't think that is possible. I can imagine how I would feel if my advisor told me that all the job applications I just sent off are deeply flawed. I would want to know that before I sent off more, but it would still be a mortifying experience.
Yes, it is possible that someone can be a brilliant and creative scientist but a poor writer, and that is the kind of thing an advisor can deal with in a reference letter. Most situations are less clear-cut, however, resulting in yet another psycho-socio-ethical dilemma for us hapless professors to confront.
11 years ago