Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Ask CJ: anyone else get random applications from postdocs?

A very interesting question from the inbox, written by IFB (lightly redacted for privacy, edited for formatting)
I am an assistant professor at a primarily undergraduate institution (PUI), starting [recently].
We have undergraduates and masters students at my institution, and we focus mainly on teaching, but we do have a strong research component and involve our undergraduates and masters students in cutting edge research. Our department does not have a PhD program. Postdocs and other hired/non-student researchers are pretty much non-existent (our university encourages writing grants to hire them if we get funding through large grants, and I will consider it in the future, but it looks like a relatively uncommon practice).  
Over my short time here, I have received many emails asking to do a postdoc in my lab, or to do research in my laboratory (from undergraduates/masters students who were never enrolled in my institution). Some of the people emailing me have CVs and experience that is quite extensive (and in some cases h-indexes and publication lists much larger than mine), and I am surprised that they do not already have a more permanent position. Talking to other faculty, they also get these requests. In the postdoc cases, the postdocs are often applying for a 2nd or 3rd postdoctoral position. In my responses to them (I would feel bad just to ignore them), I explain the type of institution I work at, wish them luck in their job search and offer suggestions to look at more permanent positions. 
I think this possibly speaks to a few things:
  1. These researchers may not be aware of the type of institution that they are applying to, 
  2. Perhaps they were not well mentored in their previous postdoctoral positions (In my opinion, your graduate and postdoctoral advisers should help mentor students during their jobs searches and help you think about your future) 
  3. The economy is bad enough that these individuals are so desperate they are emailing anyone whose name pops up in their area, and finally 
  4. Some of these researchers could be frantic due to the need to secure visa status (at least one has expressed that to me).
Is this a common experience (both from their end as a research and my end as a professor at a PUI) based on what you have heard from the chemical community? What do you think about it?
I've heard about this sort of thing, but I don't really know what it is about. I think it's a combination of Factor 1 (not knowing enough about the positions you can apply for, the institutions that supply those positions) and Factor 3 (they cannot find other work.) (As I have asserted in the past, I suspect that for a large majority of Ph.D.s in chemistry, postdoctoral positions are inferior goods, i.e. they're positions that you take, for lack of a better position.)

I think there's a significant (60+%?) percentage of these applications are immigration-related, i.e. it's a foot in the door to coming to/staying in the United States. But I'm just guessing. Folks, is this your experience? What have you found? 

37 comments:

  1. "…I am surprised that they do not already have a more permanent position." - survivor bias

    "The economy is bad enough that these individuals are so desperate they are emailing anyone whose name pops up in their area…" This one sounds about right.

    This is just more evidence of a STEM shortage. I dream of the day when I can pull up to the Home Depot with my pickup and point at a group of postdocs to jump in the back to do some day laboring in the lab.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I've been at a similar institution for over fifteen years and I've received applications like this (almost always from international applicants) since I began, so I'm not convinced it's just because the economy is bad. I think it's more that they send out such a large volume of requests that they have no time to investigate each in detail. I usually just send a brief "sorry, no positions at this time" reply and leave it at that. I only offer more detail if their letter suggests that actually spent any time trying to learn about my research or my institution, but that's pretty rare. And I don't feel bad about ignoring blatantly vague and overly general cover letters.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Even I get these every once in a while - and anyone who spends 10 seconds on my web site will know it is a waste of their time. I think they are not just shotgunning to everyone, and hoping to get lucky.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I see a zillion foreign-born immigrants working as post-doc/research associates in the labs in the R1 research institution I work in. I also know with the loss of grants that a number of them are out of work, and looking for jobs. In the lab I work in (for over 10 years), there was a Chinese and Russian-born immigrant that worked in this lab and have been unemployed for 1 and 2 years, respectively. Since both are in their 50's its hard for me imagine that they will be scooped up by a company of any sort, their best chances are to find a position in an academic lab.

    I suspect the letters are from, in part, the likes that used to work with me and are now unemployed. Just a suspicion.

    ReplyDelete
  5. The Iron ChemistMay 20, 2014 at 1:52 PM

    I receive a ton of these applications as well, and they are overwhelmingly from international researchers. In fact, I can't remember getting one from a domestic student in the past five years.

    I suspect that all four of the above explanations are in play, with the poor mentoring likely exacerbating the tendencies of the applicants to not properly research the prospective position. I only reply when it looks like the applicant's made some sort of effort to figure out who I am and what I do. I consider the rest to be spam. Yes job-seekers, failing to adequately research your potential employer can bite you in the rear and cost you an interview.

    I might differ slightly with IFB with respect to the quality of the applicants. Some applicants do have nice-looking records, and it is a shame that I cannot hire them. Most of the ones with lots of publications, however, have their names buried deeply within overly long author lists and have had their work published in mostly lesser regarded journals. When I was able to hire a postdoc, I talked to several such applicants and came away disappointed. If you do everything your advisor says, you can get on lots of publications, but you need to show that you can think and work on your own if you want to move beyond that.

    ReplyDelete
  6. The next question is, has anyone EVER hired a post-doc after receiving an unsolicited email? I mean, my thought on the matter was that unless it is VERY, VERY, VERY directly related to your area of research, don't cold email a professor. There is just zero chance they are going to say: You know what, you are so much more awesome than the 1000's of other possible post-docs that even though I don't need anyone, I am going to scratch up some money to hire you! That just doesn't happen. If they have spots they will likely be advertised somewhere.

    I know a former PI of mine did keep a short list of people he had gotten emails from who were outstanding applicants who had worked on closely related projects, usually just in case a current post-doc left in the middle of a funding cycle and we had to replace them quickly. But other than that, what kind of shortsighted PI would not advertise a job to get the best applicants when he had a position open, opting rather to just choose some guy who had spammed 1000's of PIs with a CV?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Funny enough. I was told by my PI never to apply to an advertized postdoc position, that a good PI would not need to advertize, since they got so many applications throughout the year.

      I applied to Professors that I had met through conferences, that were aware of my work and in my field of study.

      Delete
    2. This was my PIs approach as well.

      Delete
    3. "The next question is, has anyone EVER hired a post-doc after receiving an unsolicited email?"

      Email dk, but unsolicited physical letter can say for sure for 5/7 I sent some years ago (wow, it makes me seem old to say it, but email was just becoming popular back then. Most did reply by email, though). Note, these were all "good" PIs at top schools.

      Delete
    4. Unstable IsotopeMay 20, 2014 at 8:10 PM

      I know this is common but this does make me somewhat uncomfortable. This favors the good old boys network and makes it difficult for others to break in. Chemistry is a small world, however.

      Delete
    5. I got my postdoc by sending an unsolicited email to a PI in a similar field. I had looked into the PI's work (and about 5 other PIs) so this wasn't a spam the universe attempt. And my advisor and the PI at least knew of each other by reputation.

      Delete
  7. I hear that it is rather common. PIs at R1-type institutions frequently make offhand remarks about "receiving 1 postdoc application per day" from what I assume are international scientists.

    I've heard one story about an international student in a grad program who tried to set up their friend as a postdoc "anywhere in [our state]." What field of research did this prospective postdoc want to work in? "He's willing to do any kind of research."

    I think that a lot of international scientists want the prestige of having worked in the USA, it's just that some of them are more clued-in than others...

    ReplyDelete
  8. The Aqueous LayerMay 20, 2014 at 2:42 PM

    I work in industry and I get requests like these. Publish one paper and your name gets on the list...

    ReplyDelete
  9. Hi:

    I don't think this explains all of it, but it is worth noting that most states require you to make three or four job contacts every week in order to receive unemployment benefits. Having been in this situation multiple times, I found that applying for jobs you have no probability of landing is a good way to meet your state/federal obligations.

    -t

    ReplyDelete
  10. I get these every day and ignore them. The few that I read have little to no background in anything I have ever worked on. The vast majority are international. When things heat up in Iran I always get emails from senior people who want some kind of visiting appointment. I never reply to emails from people I don't know in countries that have tense relations with the US. Worst I ever got was one from the province in Pakistan where the Taliban was hiding out.

    ReplyDelete
  11. As an adjunct lecturer, I would get the occasional random email from India asking if I was taking postdocs.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Bring the MoviesMay 20, 2014 at 4:02 PM

    What's next in the great decline? e-mails for a post-doc to community college lecturer's?

    ReplyDelete
  13. I'm a mid-career PI at a PUI in Canada. I get 3-4 emails per week, usually for post-doc positions, but sometimes for Ph.D. positions. Almost all of them are from Indian institutions or someone with an Indian-sounding name at another (non-northamerican/european) institution. I once got one where the writer apparently forgot to use the BCC field. As far as I could tell, the address list included every faculty/staff member that had ever been listed on a Canadian department of chemistry website, including lab techs, instructors, etc.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I work in industry and a while ago I published my first article as a corresponding author. After the paper published, I started getting these sorts of emails (quite a few in the first month or so, then it slowed down). "Dear Professor." And they'd say things like they were looking for a post doc in my "esteemed research group."

    I think people are just harvesting as many email addresses as they can from journals or any other place they can find them, and hoping somebody responds. I just hit delete and move on.

    ReplyDelete
  15. During my experience as an Assistant Professor of Organic Chemistry at the University of Alaska, I would generally receive ca. 2 applications for post-doc openings/week. Those applications had several commonalities:
    (a) they were usually from India
    (b) the writers usually had studied something having nothing to do with my research program.

    On the good side, I would use these people to recruit PhD students to Alaska, by writing back to them.

    But the University of Alaska has now divested itself of Organic Chemistry, so it has become a moot point.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Unstable IsotopeMay 20, 2014 at 8:08 PM

    What would be a better tactic for someone without US contacts to find a position? Perhaps we can suggest some.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Do we really want to do that? There are enough qualified domestic candidates who are having trouble finding commensurate employment opportunities.

      Delete
    2. From other comments, why most PIs don't get emails from domestic students asking for post-doc positions? Either not enough American students studying Chemistry, or they can some what find job easily? International students have to tie their VISA with employer and there are quota of H-1B in industry every year. (IMO, pretty stupid. this allows employers to exploit the employees)

      Delete
    3. Or maybe foreigners, especially from Asia, do not have enough resources in finding jobs outside of science, be it car mechanic, waiting tables, marketing firm etc. etc. We gripe about not having transferable skills, but I think people from other countries would have a harder time.

      Delete
    4. You have to work in your field to get sponsored H-1B. Besides, not many car repair shop, restaurant want to spend thousands of lawyer fee to sponsor a minimum wage worker even with graduate degree. lol.

      Delete
  17. The email influx is also experienced in Australia, and I'm sure anywhere where money might be seen as being available.

    In terms of tactics, at the very least applicants should target researchers working in related areas, address an email to the target person by name, illustrate in the email that the applicant is familiar with the target person's work, and explain how the applicant's experience could help take the research forward. In other words, put together a decent and relevant application.

    What the applicant should not do is bulk email entire departments, address the email to the WRONG person, clearly show the cut and paste nature of the email by having fifty different fonts in the message, etc etc.
    '
    I get 10 or so of these each week, and the vast majority are in the "should not do" category. Maybe 1 out of 100 is done properly, and they are the only ones I reply to. Occasionally one will be kept on file to be contacted if a position comes up, but it's rare.

    ReplyDelete
  18. I received an unsolicited email from a prospective post-doc about 8 years ago, while I was a second-year PhD student. Sad to say I didn't have the money to hire my own post-doc at that point.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I also received a similar email shortly after giving a talk at an ACS conference when I was a third year graduate student. My thought at the time was that he was there as well and either saw my talk or just carpet bombed every email in the conference booklet in his particular area.

      Although, if he had actually seen my talk, he'd have known that I was not the PI on my own work.

      Delete
  19. anon electrochemistMay 21, 2014 at 1:40 AM

    Anon: It happens all the time. I even know a postdoc who sent an email asking for a position, and then showed up in the lab the next week without having gotten a reply, and simply dared the PI to send him back to China. The PI was too nice/busy/forgetful to do anything about it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Costanza!

      http://youtu.be/jlIMmuMQozc

      Delete
    2. Oops. I guess this clip is more apt:

      http://youtu.be/-zpOVmhkEaQ

      Either way, it seems like Seinfeld has made its way to China. Costanza could probably teach Sun Tzu a thing or two.

      Delete
  20. I just got an email asking if I could *forward* this kind of email to my PhD supervisor. A clever attempt.

    ReplyDelete
  21. The worst attempt just happened this morning. I am the organic chemist in Alaska who just lost his job for being an organic chemist. However my former professional e-mail is still active. Some Indian guy wrote me to ask me for my former job.

    ReplyDelete
  22. I'm a staff scientist at a university. I get get these fairly often, usually from India/China but occasionally from students who are in the US but are doing a carpet-bomb search. In general they tend to be in my general field.
    Back when I was in industry I didn't get very many, even though we did hire postdocs. So I think it has something to do with my email being up on a website.

    ReplyDelete
  23. I'm an alt-academic at a research institute and I've been flooded with post-doc and internship applications. Some are international but most of ours are US-based. We can only take 1-2 interns a year and have never had post-docs work directly for us (for our partners, yes, but not for us). All we can do is tell them to talk with the partners, who are all listed on our website.

    Judging from others who graduated from the same PhD cohort as myself, it's the horrible job market that keeps people in an endless post-doc loop. I'm also seeing an alarming number of people dropping out of science altogether.

    ReplyDelete
  24. I would say that one cannot generalize on foreigners applying for visa reasons. I have seen many Asians who have their permanent residency who still apply to academic labs due to their strong interest in science. These Asians are hard working and some are even smarter than their PI. I have seen cases where mentors got insecure that these postdoc if supported would be competitive to their grants. Lots of these scientist have BIG EGO and they especially hire immigrants ( from china and India) so that they can exploit them. I know postdocs who aspired to become faculty and spent years working all 7 days in MIT and Stanford, but at the end they are laid off. Due to visa situation they seek other labs and when they get their green card, already 8-10 years passed. If the second mentor is also bad, their future is pathetic. They have to leave their aspiration for independent professor and take any job to survive.


    While there are some good mentors, there are many who exploit the visa situation. Even after green card, many postdocs are still exploited as those who spent long years have to still be submissive as they need letters of reference from their professors.
    These are actually Scientists who kill the budding scientists- I know many asians whose career was killed and they sought alternative careers. Some even changed to IT field after 15 years of doing science!!!!

    Professors cant think postdocs as their labors. They have social responsibility to produce future generation of scientists- that this possible only when there is broad outlook and lack of ego which is rare!



    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "They have social responsibility to produce future generation of scientists"

      Well, yes, that would be nice. But if the immigrants could take their training back to the country where they came from, that would ease the competition in the science job market in the US. Seems like very few immigrants (as far as I can tell) want to do that however, and many feel entitled to a good job in the US.

      Delete