Wednesday 27 March 2013

Finding your next post-doc lab is like getting a date for Saturday night (sort of)

A colleague and I were discussing the woes of post-docs trying to find their next job, or a tenure-track position. My colleague was relating the story of a mutual friend who recently published an excellent first-tier publication and was still having problems finding a junior group leader position. She’d said to me that “If so-and-so could not find a job what was the chance for the rest of us mere mortals” implying that you can only get on with multiple Nature, Science or Cell papers!

I prefer to look at the problem in a different light; that of a softly-lit restaurant, darkened theatre or strobe-lit club!

In the wonderful book The Undercover Economist Tim Harford describes research by Michèle Belot and Marco Francesconi who looked at speed-dating and tried to understand how people decide whether to ask someone on a date or not. The results were surprising but on reflection perfectly natural, they discovered that speed-daters systematically change their standards depending on who shows up for the speed date. Men averaged around 10 dates and women only 6 but this was irrespective of the "quality" of possible dates.

The authors suggested that there was a simple explanation for these results. Faced with normal, good looking or less attractive possible partners the number of dates arranged was the same. The choice of partner was less important than the hope of finding one person to date from the event. Speed-daters want a date irrespective of the quality of possible dates. If you are holding out for Hugh Jackman or Tooney Deschanel you’re going to be left on your own most Saturday nights!

How on earth does this relate to your next post-doc position: Let me be clear this is meant to be a light-hearted post!

For me some of the difficulty so-and-so was having finding a tenure-track position was about how choosy this person was being than their ability to secure a position. The same could be said for our ability to get papers published, by holding out for top tier journals we are stopping ourselves from getting lots of lower tier publications. It’s a choice of quality over quantity.

If so-and-so decided to get a job in an Institute "one rung down the ladder" they’d almost certainly have landed a good job already. At the end of the day we make personal choices, so if the star post-doc in your lab is struggling to get their first group leader position don’t be too disheartened. Try to look and see how high they’ve set their sights and think realistically about your own options. It is not all doom and gloom.

What about a scientist’s chance of speed-dating success: There are niche dating sites out there but I’m not sure there is one for scientists. Many years ago my wife worked in an airport and worked in a team of largely 20something single girls, whilst I worked in a lab with an over-supply of similarly aged single blokes. It seemed like getting the two together would be the sensible thing to do. We never did, but others have tried, why not have a go at OK Cupid's "could you date a PhD student" test!

Perhaps NewScientist will find dating-site success out of the current trend for Geek-chic? Many of us in white lab coats and safety specs don’t even realise we’ve got it!

PS: No I will not reveal the name or sex of the post-doc looking for love a job!

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