It’s About Luck!

By Franziska Hartung, part of The Summer Series of guest posts

I have two pieces of advice:

  1. Use social media for staying up to date and being visible to others
  2. Don’t look for a job, look for a good fit

Get on twitter!

When I tell people that I found my current job on Twitter, I usually get surprised looks. Many underestimate the reach and impact of social media when used professionally. I started using Twitter actively during my third year as a PhD student (passively during my second year) and it has been a valuable source of information ever since. I use Twitter to find new literature on topics I’m interested in, resources for and perspectives on current issues and policies in the science community, news about important conferences and meetings, connecting with researchers around the world, and finding jobs. The academic community on Twitter is extremely active and uses this great tool to exchange important information and connect globally. If you follow the right people, you will be up to date to the most important things going on in your field. If you also use Twitter to actively engage with the scientific community, you will soon find yourself connected to an international network of interesting and relevant people whom you might not know of otherwise.

And this is exactly what brought me to Penn. When I was looking for a postdoc position during the last year of my PhD, the lab I now work in was not on my radar. My field of research (cognition, language, and the brain) is broad and split into many highly specialized sub-disciplines which for the most part don’t interact much with each other. So it is very common to be unaware of relevant research by labs who go to other conferences and use different keywords. But on Twitter, our networks (as reflected by interests and whom we follow) still overlapped. In this case, I followed a really big (and popular) name who is a very active hub on Twitter. One day, this post popped up in my feed:

Well, this was me. This guy was looking for me! After 10 minutes of research about the lab and their research interests, I emailed him for more information. Within a few email exchanges, I knew I wanted that job. Until two days before, I was not planning to go to the US at all. In fact, I had excluded it systematically from my job search. But this lab seemed to be the perfect fit for me. I had a good feeling about it from the start. I applied. There were interviews with the PI and other people in the lab. We had a click. I got offered the job. I didn’t think for a second before accepting the offer.

My take home message #1 is: social media can be extremely helpful if you use it professionally. I recommend keeping your personal and academic accounts separate. Besides Twitter, I find research related groups on Facebook and ResearchGate helpful.

Don’t find yourself a job, find yourself a career.

My ‘Twitter helped me find a postdoc job!’ story is the shiny happy end of a success story, but getting there was not all smooth and peachy. The road to successfully getting this position was plastered with failure, self-doubt, and financial worries (the latter almost made me quit my PhD but this is a different story).

Until I got this offer, I had applied for about ten postdoc positions, a few lecturer positions, and had reached out to several PIs I would have liked to work with. The outcome of this job search was one part-time lecturer position (which I took between PhD and postdoc time), and three PIs who were openly interested in working with me but in all cases I would have had to change my field of research (which I was not willing to do). The reasons why I did not get the other positions were that (1) I was too junior/inexperienced, or most often (2) I was not a good fit. Back then, getting all these rejections was a depressing experience but in hindsight I am so grateful that none of these applications worked out. The reason why DID I get the two job offers despite my lack of experience was (at least that is what I believe) that I was a good fit.

If I had to give one single advice to academic job seekers it would be this: Good fit is (almost) everything (my take home message #2). Good fit makes you find mentors and fruitful collaborations, helps you develop your strengths, gives you motivation, and courage to go beyond your (research) comfort zone. I now know that all these rejections were not personal (though some of them were mean and unprofessional). They had little to do with me being a failure. PIs as well as job applicants have their own goals and there is only a win if these are compatible. If I want to develop my skills and expertise on topic X, but the PI is interested in pushing the program towards Y, this can only work out if X and Y have significant overlap.

In one skype interview, I could pinpoint the exact second in which the PI figured out I was not a good fit. All went great, we had an amazing click. I could tell he really liked me. It was one of these moments in which you are about to fall in love intellectually. Then he asked me how I could use the paradigm they had developed in their lab to study what I was interested in. I didn’t know. I was planning to develop new paradigms and work in parallel on related but different topics. The conversation still went on, but the magic was gone. Needless to say, I didn’t get the job. I would not have been the right person to develop their paradigm further. It would not have been the right lab for me to develop my own research interests and my full potential. PIs know that. If they don’t immediately read it out of your cover letter, they will figure out during the interview.

It takes a while to figure out where you want to go and whose team you should try to get on. Use failed applications to figure that out. You will learn something new every time. And don’t underestimate the role of luck in this process. You need to be lucky to find a position and lab which fits you and also happens to be hiring when you are available. To reduce the mere luck factor, you have to be up to date. About jobs and about funding opportunities. And you have to be visible. Connect, both on social media as well as personally wherever you can. Let people in your network know what you want to do and that you are looking for opportunities. Make sure to get every chance to be lucky!

2 thoughts on “It’s About Luck!

  1. Pingback: Summer Series | My Scholarly Goop

  2. Pingback: Summer Series Summary | My Scholarly Goop

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