Thursday, September 22, 2016

Ask CJ: How should a candidate answer "Why don't you want to do a postdoc?"

From the inbox, a darn good question (lightly edited for grammar, redacted for privacy) from a senior graduate student we'll call EBZ:
During the onsite interviews I've had, I always get asked: Why don't you want to do a post-doc? I feel like my answers for this are never well received (I usually say that during my PhD, I've worked on a variety of different types of chemistry and I'm excited to work in the fast-paced world of drug discovery). Do you know what kinds of answers they are looking for? 
To be frank, I have no idea how to answer this question. My answer, if I were EBZ, would be something like "My understanding is that a postdoc is more training, and demonstrating that I can get started on a new project, and make an impact quickly, and I feel that I have already done that blah blah buzzword synergy disruption BOOM." (To the literal-minded: this would not be a good answer.)

Readers, do you have a good answer to this question? Help EBZ out!

*I would personally never ask such a question, because I wouldn't ask "Why don't you want to saw off your pinky toe?" or "Does this striped shirt make me look fat?" either. (Yes, CJ, it does. -ed. Thanks for the honesty! Anytime. -ed.)

28 comments:

  1. "Because I can't defer these student loan payments any longer"

    ReplyDelete
  2. it does sound like a trick question to me. "what did you do in grad school to mess up so badly that you don't want to continue in the academic system even though grad school environments encourage you to pursue that and nothing else?" But, assuming good intent, it could be a milder version of "is your decision to switch from academia an informed one and did you do your homework of assessing how you'd succeed in this environment?"

    ReplyDelete
  3. I told people the truth: I find academia distasteful with its politics and its often poorly socialized denizens. I wanted to do industrial research where my work had a purpose other than getting some professor a permanent job with limited if any accountability.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Having been a research scientist at a major multinational company and a faculty member at a university, I have to chuckle at this response. I don't want to be demeaning, but bless your heart for thinking that industrial research has purpose or direction. The simple truth is that politics exist wherever there are human beings and that you will always be doing work that someone else will eventually take credit for. I used to have a lot of respect for industrial job candidates who simply told me that they didn't want to work 60+ hours/week and wanted to make more money to fund their expensive hobbies.

      Delete
    2. I guess your experience varies. In forty plus years of being a chemist both in industry and academia, the vast majority I did in industry was directed toward a project with an intention to make a product or improving one. The stuff in academia was government funded - normally thru NSF - and had little if any real world application. Most of it was science du jour.

      The rest of your comment appears to be your using my navel for your navel gazing.

      BTW, I live in the South, and "bless your heart" is, as you know, a insult. If you want to call me stupid, have the courage to do so especially since you are anonymous.

      Delete
    3. Anonymous is right... politics everywhere, and yes... you do work others take credit for in both places. But, to your credit, money talks. Who in the f&^k would want to work for the peanuts academics get? Give me a break. The quality of science I do in industry far exceeds any academic pursuits drudged up by some arrogant professor. Academia is for the birds... bless your heart you confused anonymous... hey hey hey, smoke weed every day.

      Delete
  4. The comments I'd have I don't think would help EBZ, such as "I'm tired of eating ramen noodles in lab."

    I imagine that a post-doc would legitimately be useful to employers (other than, "Because they can.") to provide evidence that they can be successful in multiple areas of chemistry (that what they were supposed to learn in grad school - how to do research - was learned) and that they can manage at least a small group of people on a project. If this is true, then examples from grad school that can give evidence for these points would help argue that you don't need a postdoc. Alternatively, if the job you want to do doesn't exist in academia, then providing convincing evidence that you know what you want to do and that you aren't likely to get experience doing it in a postdoc might help.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Or a corollary to Hap's answer, "I'm tired on indentured servitude."

      Delete
  5. How about "I've already spent (4 to 7) years studying chemistry at the highest levels and am extraordinarily prepared for any job in chemistry. A post-doc, we both know, would be superfluous and you're only asking about why I don't want to delay a real job by indenturing myself because 'by gum that's the way it was in my day and we liked it!"

    I doubt there's much chance that would work, though. Given the plethora of chemistry job seekers willing to subject themselves to a post-doc why wouldn't companies only hire people with additional experience on paper? I've written it before and I'll do so again: scientists just don't have backbones and are happy to take whatever scraps the business/law/med students want to give them.

    That said, a PDF in a good lab at a good school in a nice place is in some ways more fun than the workaday world in the same bland business park in Cambridge or SF (though both actually not bad places---clealry same does not apply to NJ or RTP).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. BTR although I like your response for honesty, agreeing it would not be appropriate, you again call scientist wimps which I take offense to since know scientist really are not "happy about taking whatever scraps the business/law/med students want to give them". The majority of scientists know they do always have much control over their fates or circumstances so there are frequent complaints, why do you think MBAs get vilified so much, but mostly internalize since see serious lack of any real power to alter the system controlled largely by types you identified, who rarely wield their power equitably. Please tell us how to meaningfully impact this imbalance of Dominance because if we start acting like the S0Bs our spines might give illusion of strength while our job prospects disappear even more rapidly. Otherwise stop repeatedly posting this annoying statement.

      Delete
    2. I've seen enough ginormous academic groups (usually total synthesis) run on the "slaves on the plantation" model to agree a bit with BTR's "wimp" statement. There is a surprisingly large number of a-holes who are propped up by the fact that no one wants to challenge them or do something they don't like. And if you talk to some of these a-holes, it's hard to avoid coming to the conclusion that belligerence was mistaken for intelligence at some early point and things just grew from there.

      How do you fix this? Well, you don't play that game, that's how. Tons of talented students have come to the conclusion that they're too talented to be some jerk's (un)glorified slave. How come this hasn't changed any behaviors? Well, you don't miss what you've never had.

      Oh, and with respect to the original question. "My past experience has already qualified me for this position and I see no need to sacrifice time and earnings to address a non-existent deficiency." Note that you have to actually be qualified for the position for this to work.

      Delete
    3. "all scientist wimps which I take offense to" Just my opinion, which may or not be correct and, like all sweeping generalizations, is incomplete. I do think scientists are less sure of themselves than those who go into fields like business, and this results in chemists being 'happy' to get a post-doc at a poor salary despite years and ears of training. One person standing up for themself will unlikely change the system, but many people doing likewise will. I truly don't know how to foment that.

      MBAs may "get vilified so much", but they also demand respect in the form of compensation and they get it. Given what a joke b school is (from experience) this makes no sense to me, but for certain B students do not lack for confidence and would never take a temp job paying <$50k/yr, even after only 2 yrs of education (an MBA is really 6 months of material crammed into 2 years).

      Delete
    4. BTR & Anon 8:16AM you both make the point regarding (mis)treatment of scientists as inherently system based which I attribute more to those with power (jerk PIs or "(over)confident" MBA types) than lack of backbones in scientists (and IMO BTR is not correct thus perturbs me to keep reading the statement) because if were not submissive to line up with systems expectations they could be worse off (particularly with view as so replaceable, especially grad students). I too can generalize that scientists may often have personality tendencies that are more introverted and less assertive however does not support conclusion they are wimps when compared to others who chose paths (often tending to have extroverted and aggressive natures) where direct financial rewards appear disproportionately higher (and those traits viewed as acceptable standards). Ultimately it is unfortunately correct that individual actions of not playing the game will not be able change behaviors or the fundamental system inequities and I am also at a loss how actually encourage a shift.

      Delete
  6. How about, "Why do you think I should do a postdoc?" Then, you can respond with reasons why you think you don't need it (like Hap says).

    ReplyDelete
  7. The question really is "Why should we hire you without a post-doc?"

    That said, it's a stupid question. If they are bringing this person in for an on-site, clearly they are impressed. If they thought he/she needed a post-doc, they wouldn't have gotten an interview.

    Maybe the interviewers suck at small talk and revert back to stock questions....

    ReplyDelete
  8. I answered that question with something like this: I find research in industry more meaningful than in academia. I believe that in industry I can see the real impact of the research we do as a team faster than that in academia. I guess it worked because I got hired as a fresh PhD with a 6-figure salary at a Fortune 500 company.

    I think some companies want to hire fresh PhDs rather than postdocs because they can give them the training necessary to be in industry, I don't think more academic training (a postdoc) will prepare you better for industry, unless you will be working in that specific subject. What is probably true is that you could make more connections at your postdoc and use the good name of your PI to find a job. However, I have seen many friends getting jobs as fresh PhDs in industry coming out from a non-top university and non-big name professors.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Warning: rant approaching.

    This is a genuinely stupid question. Do they also ask BS candidates why they didn't stay another 2 years to get a double major? Or a Master's? I didn't do a postdoc because I didn't think it was necessary to spend another couple years doing long hours for low wages just to check a box on your employment application. Obviously I was a little right since you called me for an interview, dumbass.

    I realize this is not helpful to EBZ. Just know that you've given perfectly good answers. If you want to try something else, maybe say that you worked through graduate school to develop skills that are a good fit for drug discovery and you're more interested in working in that environment rather than spending more time in an academic lab. I don't think this is a better answer, but it may just be framed differently.

    Sidenote: In the 90's/early 2000's, postdocs were pretty much only done by people looking for faculty positions. Everybody that wanted to head into industry got nice big offers with luxurious signing bonuses straight out of school. Ask one of these people what has changed so much that now they think a postdoc is required?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. In the 80s and early 90s a postdoc interviewing for an industrial job was viewed with suspicion - it was assumed that they were primarily interested in faculty positions and only using the industry job as a back up (clarification - I'm not referring to pharma jobs, they may have been different. I'm referring more to the rest of the chemical industry, e.g., oil and petrochem)

      Delete
    2. i was asked, in the phone interview for my previous role, "Why did you do a postdoc?"
      Ha. I am glad I did a PD in some ways, but it really wasn't my first choice.

      Delete
  10. Before you visit a good thing is to determine if you can is the company/group's attitude on added value of Post-docs: Do they pretty much mostly hire Post-docs except for those with a Big Name credentials? Do they bring in a significant numbers straight out of PhD? That may help give a context and tone to any discussion. (Question how important does that Post-doc currently appear to be as formerly is was more tendency as the Big Pharma "policy"?)

    Regardless I would position response in positive frame indicating your desire is to ultimately work in industry therefore you feel you would learn, benefit and contribute more from 2-3 years practical experience in that direct culture rather than continuing education environment as a Post-doc.

    ReplyDelete
  11. If they brought you in for an interview and still ask you this question, could it be possible that during your seminar or Q & A portion of the interview, you have not conveyed the message that you have the ability to quickly adapt to new situations, tackle new problems rather quickly and the ability to finish what you have started. That is usually what a get out of a postdoc project (you work on multiple projects on a shorter time scale compared to graduate school) along with some leadership skills. In the process R&D department I work in this is one of the key things we look for in a candidate.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I would be honest and say that apart from the pay difference, I am convinced that there is no substitute for on the job training experience, and postdocs often do not provide it because they are too academically oriented. I would say that postdoc is appropriate choice in number of circumstances (to improve one's resume, especially for academic tenure track position) but for industry, a strong candidate should be able to apply directly and as an example, that it is not uncommon for graduates from Harvard chemistry to be hired directly to senior research positions without a postdoc

    ReplyDelete
  13. This question is about balancing percieved experience and confidence. You're not skipping a useless postdoc out of arrogance, you're capturing this opportunity as a logical progression. Like other questions, you want to play to your strengths hitting on hard and soft skills.

    During my PhD, my supervisors granted me considerable latitude to pursue my own research interests. This went beyond project selection and manuscript preparation. I supervised several interns and undergrads from their initial training to the final stages of publication. As my group's expert in (my sub-discipline), I added value to a number of projects, such as in (this co-authored publication). I managed multiple international collaborations, leading a team of grad students, undergrads, and other researchers. Leveraging our expertise in (particular technique) culminated in my exchange to a national lab, generating high-impact science and an ongoing partnership. During this period, I built an effective network of contacts, which has led me here.

    It's a bit long, and you can edit out the bits you emphasized in previous questions.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Glad I grab the popcorn prior to entering the comments section

    ReplyDelete
  15. You should reject the framing of the question. "A postdoc" is a horrible hypothetical. There are only specific post-doc opportunities, and the question is how the present job that you are interviewing for compares to them. The best answer I could think of is "I'm really excited about the opportunity for job X that your company is hiring for. From what you've told me, this opportunity will demand that I use a broad range of my skills, require dedication to a team and to a larger purpose than just publishing papers, and affords the opportunity to have a real impact in . That's a challenge that's really in line with my career goals. I know there are probably great post-doc opportunities out there, especially if I were interested in an academic career path, but I also know from friends and colleagues that there are a lot of bad ones. I'm choosing to pursue opportunities like yours because I know that I can have an immediate impact. I don't want to miss a chance like this."

    ReplyDelete
  16. If the interviewer is Italian or of Italian ancestry, you might answer with the gesture shown in the link below.

    http://en.blog.hotelnights.com/italian-gesture-language/italian-gesture-money/

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Perhaps Justice Scalia's gesture would be appropriate as well:http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5312065

      Delete
  17. with the goal to hopefully avoid this situation when i get there, i have made it a point to make it clear from the beginning to others, including my advisor, that i have no desire to work in academia, & that my plan is to return to industry upon graduation.

    ReplyDelete