Image: Father Knows Best (1954-1960)
Any extended study in my field — evolutionary biology — should leave you deeply skeptical about advice-giving. That’s because evolutionary biologists spend a lot of our time thinking about the fundamental randomness of history.
Most people, musing over their morning croissant and coffee, might think the history of life on Earth is one long preparation for the eventual emergence of bipedal apes capable of building civilizations, reshaping the planet’s biosphere, and completing a crossword puzzle in the Sunday edition of The New York Times. But that is not actually the case. The ascendancy of Homo sapiens as we know it depended on any number of happenstances and contingencies — from the global extinction event that cleared the way for mammals some 65 million years ago to the millennia of competition with other, very similar species of bipedal ape. Our species hasn’t been successful simply because we’re so smart and adaptable; our ancestors were the right kind of lucky, many times over.
As with evolutionary lineages, so with academic careers. Making it into graduate school, completing a dissertation, finding a good postdoctoral position, and landing a tenure-track job is dependent, at every step, on the support and goodwill of mentors, on opportunities that arrive at the right time and place, and on the ability to cultivate that goodwill and take advantage of those opportunities.
The challenge with receiving and applying advice is to distinguish real, general principles from what may simply amount to another person’s recollection of a series of events that ended well. Imagine walking into a casino and interviewing everyone lined up in front of the slot machines to figure out how to win at the slots. Some folks will have won big, and will assure you that it’s because of the particular machine they chose or the way they pull the handle. Some folks will have lost badly, and tell you what they had for breakfast so you can avoid their mistake.
Certainly in academia, as in any career, there are habits and choices that improve the odds of survival from graduate school to tenure. But simply making it to a particular stage doesn’t actually mean that you had all the right habits or made all the right choices — or even know which habits and choices will work for most other people.
Here’s a very specific example that is much on my mind of late: applying for tenure-track faculty positions. Every application package I’ve put together requires a cover letter. What should go into that letter? Across the Internet, you can find wildly divergent answers just within my field. A successful cover letter should be no more than one page long, “350 words or fewer.” It should include detail like what research journals you’ve published in and how much you’ve been cited. No, wait, it should run to a second page, highlight your competency to teach the right courses, and avoid boasting about citations and awards, which are already covered on your CV. The cover letter should prove that you do the kind of research mentioned in the job ad — or maybe that doesn’t matter as much as you’d think.
If you read enough advice columns and ask enough people, it’s possible to work out that different descriptions of the ideal cover letter are associated with different contexts. Faculty at small, teaching-oriented colleges tend to like longer letters with more detail, which makes sense in small departments where hiring committees may include members with very different expertise from what’s requested in the job ad. Large research institutions get more applicants, and faculty at those universities like brief letters that highlight things they can use to winnow down the pile of applications to a smaller set for in-depth consideration.
I’ve balanced all of this advice in very different ways over multiple years on the faculty market. One year I aimed for a one-page cover letter on all applications, and landed just a single on-campus interview with a letter that one mentor described (after I’d already submitted it) as far too brief. This year I’ve surrendered to cover letters running to a page and a half or longer, including specific mention of grants and awards received, journals where my work has been published, and how many times my papers have been cited — and I’ve had an order of magnitude more interviews and invitations to campus visits, at places ranging from small liberal-arts colleges to land-grant universities.
Unfortunately, the way life works provides terrible experimental design for determining whether a longer cover letter truly made a difference. There were too many other factors: This year I also wrote a longer research statement, and revised my teaching statement to mention some interdisciplinary research I’ve done. And I was applying with an additional year of research experience, from the vantage of a second postdoctoral position at a university that (rightly or not) might be seen as more prestigious than the one where I worked last year. If I really wanted to know whether the cover letters made a difference, I would have had to randomly assign different types of cover letters to different applications — and that’s only something I’d be able to do if I didn’t care whether I landed any interviews this year.
Much the same way, biologists can’t turn back time and rearrange history to see what would have happened if dinosaurs hadn’t gone extinct. Instead, we look for “natural experiments,” comparing evolutionary lineages that start from similar places and experience different conditions. That strategy works with career planning, too. It may not be very useful to know exactly how one person made it to a faculty position, but if you hear from a large-enough sample, you can start to see the general trends, the possibly predictive factors. It helps that there’s an emergent strain of scientific research on exactly these factors, from the general odds of winning a professorship after earning a Ph.D., to the effect of where you earned that degree, or the continuing tightening of the faculty job market and its effect on the postdoctoral experience and publishing rates of new hires.
Of course you should also collect your own data, too. One person’s experience may not provide any useful guidance, but every additional job history you hear makes the others you’ve heard that much more valuable.