Responsibilities of Advisors to Transitioning Group Members / Chris Cramer
March 20, 2013

In response to a post inquiring about postdoctoral search experiences by @Chemjobber (motivated in part by a Twitter conversation between myself and my (I hope) friend @OneSleepyNerd), an anonymous commenter said:

When I was getting ready to graduate [my advisor] never did anything to help me find a job, nor did he ever do anything to help any of the other grad students or post docs find jobs outside his lab.

You know, I don't have time to blog, I really don't, but every now and again I just can't help but spew a certain amount of rage -- in writing -- at the disturbing state of affairs in some corners of academic chemistry. Are you f%$*ing kidding me?

Now, if the above were a single isolated comment, I might (in the selfish interest of saving myself time) write it off as one possibly disgruntled student. But, the truth is, I've heard this story far more than once, and I've also seen faculty candidates come in and crash and burn in ways that made it obvious that no advisor had ever seen their presentations. Each time I've shaken my head in dismay.

Look, I'm not setting myself up as the perfect advisor by any means. Lately, I'm so buried in commitments that I see some members of my group once a week, briefly, at most.

But, and this is a big but, I consider it an absolute, unshakeable responsibility to devote myself to help every member of my group look for a next position, and indeed I am willing to say that I think that such attention should be regarded as a professional responsibility for all faculty.

If you're going to give a talk -- of any kind, but especially a job talk -- we're going to have a group meeting at least three weeks ahead of time where the whole group is going to listen to your talk, and I (and they) are going to give you detailed feedback. We are also going to listen to your revised talk a week later (unless the first one was so good that we don't think we need to) so that you feel confident when you head out. I am going to give you every ounce of my 20+ years of experience with respect to what to expect from your particular audience, coach you on likely questions and what slides you might want to keep in reserve to handle those questions, and generally do my best to prepare you for an event that can make or break your nascent career.

Am I a paragon of virtue? Based on some stories I hear, I suppose some of you might think so. But, c'mon -- shouldn't most faculty recognize that this is actually in their own self-interest? When I watch one of those flameout candidates to whom I alluded above, do you think I disrespect them? Hell no! I feel sorry for them -- it's their advisor that I think must be a complete tool.

And, finally, coming back to postdocs. There are students out there applying in the dark? Uncoached and unsupported? This appalls me!

You're my student and you decide that you want to do a postdoc? I want to see your CV and your cover letter. I give you detailed feedback on both. I schedule time to discuss with you your goals for the postdoc, offer suggestions of groups to consider, urge you to do research on those groups, inquire about your own survey of opportunities, and give you my thoughts on the pros and cons of each place. Once you decide to submit applications, I arrange with you that my recommendation letters are going to arrive within 48 hours of your initial contacts (and I spend a long time crafting that letter to best highlight your talents). If I know someone personally (which I often do) I touch base in a less formal way to impress upon them that your application deserves special attention.

Again, I'm going to note that while I think this is (i) an educator's professional responsibility and (ii) just basic managerial human decency, it's also (again) self-interest! If we were to survey a group of chemists and ask them, "Who are the 'best' academic chemists?" I would be shocked if the answer did not correlate very, very strongly with the degree to which those same individuals have been successful in placing former students and postdocs into excellent positions in academia, industry, and research institutions. That's called a legacy, and if you aren't working to create a legacy of human capital in addition to a legacy of research contributions, do you really think that your strategy is likely to redound to your own success? I'm ridiculously proud of the many accomplishments of my former group members, and to the extent that I played a small role in getting them to where they are today, so much the better! How can that not just be an obvious thing?

So, colleagues around the U.S. (to be honest, I think this is a pretty American problem -- my experience in Europe is that ties in research groups are much stronger), I exhort you to treat your students and postdocs as the most precious raw material that you will ever have the chance to refine and polish. If they do great work in your labs, good for you and them, but if you also facilitate their ability to do still better work as they transition to their own, independent careers, your opportunity to bask in their reflected glory will be at least as rewarding, if not more so. Investing time, effort, and maybe even a little bit of empathy, is simply the right thing to do. Lots of faculty obviously get this, but a disturbingly large number seem not to.

And, students and postdocs, if you're not getting that support, I'm sorry, because you certainly deserve it. But, I urge you as a first step to ask for it. Maybe your advisor actually wants to help, but is just overcommitted, and that little push of your request will ensure that he or she finds the time to devote to you. If you truly get the go-to-hell cold shoulder, then let me urge you to reach out to some other faculty member in your department that you trust. Those of us who care about students know who the bad actors in our midst are, and there's a good chance that we'll try to help you out, because we care about all of our departmental students. You shouldn't have to go it alone.

I refuse to live in a "we're all on our own" world. Supportively network #FTW. Done spewing. Thanks for reading.