The personal touch

I am now in the midst of applying for postdocs…again.  It is embarrassing to think that this is actually the third year in a row I’ve done this, and while I think it was probably a good thing that I didn’t get anything the first time (as my thesis was nowhere near ready back then, despite what I thought) I was, mildly put, really frustrated this spring when nothing came up a second time.

I blamed the economy, of course, and so did Dennis.  I also blamed Dennis, since I felt he should have done something to promote my applications.  Not everyone agrees on the role of the advisor in this kind of professional development, though, and so I had room to blame myself as well.  I felt regret for not attending conferences where people might hear about me, and for not publishing more or having a more ambitious research program so that I could get an NSF fellowship (future rant: NSF).  I also felt angry at myself for turning down the only offer I did get, to work with Ivan Fesenko at Nottingham, because I didn’t want to make the change in direction (physically or mathematically) that it would require.  However, I reserve the right to maintain some kind of preferences in my job search, and I did not actually apply to Nottingham because I did not apply to any location outside the US (except one place in Australia, at Dennis’ urging).  I wish to remain here, and if that is insufficient devotion to my career, then I will also pay the price (currently, the price seems to be about $40,000 for the year).

However, none of these things is really the reason I didn’t get a job.  The reason is that my application strategy was doomed to failure because I did not write to people.  It sounds silly: I already submitted an application.  An application that says Harvard on it, no less.  I’m sure they’ll at least look at it, so why write?  Well, Greta wrote to people, mostly people she’d never met, and got spectacular results.  Igor Pak says with absolute assurance that this is a necessary step just for you to make it onto individual faculty’s personal short lists so that your application will even be read carefully.

And so this year, I’m writing to people.  Not just a few people, and not just at places like Harvard (to which I am not applying because it’s pointless).  I think I’ve written more letters than the total number of applications I submitted my first time.  About a third of them get some kind of response, and maybe half a dozen have been very nice responses.  Today I received this (I’m not saying from where):

Thank you for bringing your application to my attention. Our department would be very lucky to have you here. Our system is (now) based on recommendations by individual faculty for people who are actually close to said faculty member(s).  Therefore, my advice is to contact X and Y

The author is not actually really in my field, but I thought he would be interested in some of my current projects.  I did write to X, by the way (not Y).  But see what he said: our system is based on recommendations by individual faculty: if I hadn’t written, my application would probably just have been thrown out!  I can’t imagine how many other schools I wasted my opportunity with in previous years by not doing this.

Let me say that again: this is not a networking exercise, it’s not to “grease the wheels” or “get to the interview”.  It’s part of the application: you can’t get a job without writing someone you’re going to work with.  You don’t have to know them (I don’t know this guy, and I don’t know X either), and everyone knows that they’re going to be getting lots of these secondary application emails from lots of unknown graduate students.  It’s not rude, or pushy, or even exceptional.  It’s just not mentioned in the job ad.

I suppose that lots of people would read this and say “of course!”.  My father for one has been preaching that I shouldn’t just “throw my application over the wall”.  Anyone who’s gotten a job already knows this.  But you know who does not know this?  Graduate students who got into their programs on the basis of sealed recommendation letters and fixed transcripts covered in A’s, combined with some form of secret negotiations between your sponsor and their chair.  I literally didn’t have to do anything to get into grad school other than hit up a few people who liked me to write letters to that effect.  I did not go to “work with” anyone in particular, and although I was paid from Dennis’ grant, my stipend was assured and I’m pretty sure that if he didn’t have one I’d have gotten money from somewhere else without having to struggle for it.  This is a situation that, I think, is unique in top-tier mathematics programs; certainly people in the sciences join a specific lab for a specific reason.

Entitlement much, perhaps?  I’m not saying I should have been given the same easy treatment for job applications, though I certainly thought so two years ago.  I don’t even know what I’m angry at.  I’m just angry, and on this blog, that’s enough.

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