Out of context!

It’s time for some self promotion coupled with the release of frustration. Back in December, at the Annual American Society for Cell Biology meeting in Philadelphia I met Jenny (Rohn) and suggested an idea for something that might be of interest to the readers of LabLit.com.

For many years now–in fact since my Masters degree when I published my first paper–I have been continuously barraged with an array of applications for postdoctoral positions. Until eight years ago, when I received the reins of my own laboratory, these applications were nothing but a futile footnote for me. Recently however, the styles, content and general lackadaisical appearance of these applications by so-called professionals had begun to irritate me.

Out of this primordial soup the idea to write an instructional/comical blog: “How NOT to get a lab job” was born.

Jenny, of course, did a great job editing and arranging the piece, which consisted of nine letters (applications) that I received verbatim (without names or institutions, of course), along with a translation of how a PI would view such a letter. A few of the letters were graced by cartoons drawn by my daughter.

I was thrilled when Jenny wrote to me that the piece appeared to be quite popular and was receiving a lot of traffic.

I was less than thrilled when I began to receive e-mails accusing me of being disrespectful to other cultures, insensitive, not at all funny, and even–yes even chauvinistic.

I know from experience that every time one takes a stand–one way or another someone will find a reason to be insulted. However, I also know that by not taking a stand and keeping my mouth shut I will also not be immune to criticism.

I went back and read all of the letters and my “translations”. I read the introduction and the summary (that Jenny had me write) again and again. In summary, I had written the following statement:

“There is an old story about the mother who takes her child to kindergarten on his very first day, and says to the teacher, ‘My child is extremely sensitive. If he ever misbehaves, please reprimand the child next to him – that will be enough to make sure he gets the message.’ So, I hope that those of you planning to go out on the job market will take this into consideration and learn from the examples of how not to get a lab job.”

I answered a few of the angry e-mails, doing my best to convince the authors that a cartoon of a woman holding onto her husband’s tail as he peers through a microscope does not mean that I think the male component of a couple is necessarily a better scientist. This cartoon merely accompanied a very poor letter written by the female component of couple who made no attempt whatsoever to explain why she deserved or wanted a job in my lab, except for the fact that her husband received a position in my Institute.

It’s easy to take an isolated letter–or in fact just the cartoon and the situation– completely OUT OF CONTEXT and turn this into a vendetta against a male chauvinist. After all, politicians are experts at this type of manipulation.

But I sincerely hope that those of you who know me and have had a chance to look at the context will realize that these letters and my portrayal of the authors has nothing to do with chauvinism or disrespect–but merely an opportunity to explain and teach others the importance of carefully crafting proper job application letters.

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of about 10 students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery that is now in press! All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising. http://www.stevecaplan.net
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24 Responses to Out of context!

  1. “This cartoon merely accompanied a very poor letter […]”

    Maybe too much information about the specific case in there? 😉

    You could always bolster your arguments re trailing spouses with a few carefully chosen links to Female Science Professor – she’s been in that situation, and she has tips re how to do it right.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Perhaps too much info–but to me it seems more likely that some readers read this out of context or were looking for a point on which to be combative. I read and re-read the specific letter posted, my “translation” and looked at my daughter’s cartoon (her idea, by the way) many times. I showed it to numerous friends and colleagues, and without exception each and every one agreed that this is an “instructive” letter, precisely because it shows exactly how a spouse (male or female) should NOT approach an employer about a job.

      The comic illustrates how this appears to a prospective employer–it is not supposed to reflect a bias in me that women are less likely to be good scientists than their spouses.

      I have pretty thick skin, but I feel that I have done my best over the years to promote equality, and some of these e-mails “bit me”. Both my Msc. studies and PhD were done in labs run by a female PI, and I feel that I am both gender- and color-blind as far as running my own lab. All I care about is merit.

      At my own modest level, I also do what I can to promote gender equality at the faculty level (http://occamstypewriter.org/stevecaplan/2011/01/17/translating-words-into-action%E2%80%94trials-of-a-male-feminist/). But as I said, you can’t please everyone…

      Thank you for the tips about FSPs blogs, which I’ve bookmarked and will definitely read. Much appreciated!

  2. cromercrox says:

    It’s very hard to say anything negative about anybody these days, even if it i fully deserved. In my short spell teaching in a US university I was advised that if a student didn’t get an alpha for an assessment they’ be quick to complain.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Perhaps that is the source of the difference between US and European recommendation letters: in the US a “strong letter” needs to say exceptional things, whereas a weak letter says good things but leaves out certain important points. European letters are far more direct and to the point–often a cause for misconceptions when US academics are evaluating students/postdocs from Europe.

    • “It’s very hard to say anything negative about anybody these days”

      Heh. Doesn’t seem to have stopped the people doing my ‘Performance reviews’ over the years…

  3. Hi Steve – I’m so sorry you’ve got flack over this, but I stand by the publication of this piece in LabLit.

    Unfortunately the readers who’ve complained are doing something very common – conflating your description of how something is coming across with how you actually feel about the underlying issue. To me it was very clear that you were only illustrating how the letter came across: if a candidate says she only wants to work with you because her husband got a job in the same city, it indeed highlights the fact that (a) the woman’s career is secondary to her husband’s, and (b) the woman doesn’t necessarily want to work with you – any lab in the right place would be fine. By sending this up, you are not saying that it’s funny that the scientific profession makes it difficult for couples – you are just pointing out how not to write a letter when you’re in that sad situation. End of. I think you’ve done a good job of defending this and if people still don’t get the humor, I think you need to shrug it off. You’ve done a good thing by highlighting this extremely common problem and you might just save a few people from making that mistake.

    So don’t worry!

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Thanks for the support, Jenny!

      Anyway, none of the e-mails can compete with my all time favorite “fan letter”: a typewritten note placed in an internal university envelope in my mailbox with 3 printed words:

      “GO TO HELL”

      If it hadn’t been anonymous (although clear where it was coming from), I would have loved to reply: “Been there, done that”.

      So I should be able to stomach a few complaints.

    • What Jenny said.

      Perhaps you should have reversed the sexes in the ‘trailing spouse’ letter, Steve.

      From my perspective, I would have said it would have played exactly the same – i.e.

      ‘my spouse is moving, I’m following, that’s why I’m here, I need a job please’

      – but it would have absolved you of the (unjustified, IMO) charges of sexism.

      The fact that it is more common, to this day, with the woman as the trailing spouse does not make anyone who points this out, or who uses it as an example of how to write a letter/how not to write a letter, a chauvinist.

      • Steve Caplan says:

        You are probably correct, about changing the sexes in the letters. It did cross my mind at the time, but I decided to put the letters up “as they were sent”. I could have made them more instructive and perhaps more amusing with some creative editing, but aside from the names and institutes, I really wanted the letters to be fact rather than fiction. And the fact of the matter is that while I’ve received many such “spouse tailers” from women (with some being appropriately written, but most not), I’ve yet to receive one from a “male tailer”. I don’t think the males write better letters, but apparently a male tailing a female is less frequent, especially at the post-doc level. Posting reversed-sex letters may get me off the hook, but it won’t change reality.

  4. Oh, by the way, we get exactly the same sorts of letters in Europe and they are wrong in exactly the same way. There is no country or culture where not being able to demonstrate that you know and care what the lab works on is a good thing.

  5. rpg says:

    People are, unfortunately, raving muppets.

    It was an excellent piece, and anyone who thinks you’re chauvinistic because of it obviously has bigger issues, and is projecting their failings onto you.

    Welcome to my world.

  6. rpg says:

    Plus, saying “My husband has a job in your town. Please hire me” is hardly the epitome of feminism, is it?

    • Steve Caplan says:

      I don’t want to get sucked back into the “Beauty Pageant” argument that we had some time ago, but you are indeed correct: a gender or under-represented minority cannot only hold up the flag of “bias”, but must take responsibility not to contribute to an existing stereotype.

      Isn’t there a saying: Darwin helps those who help themselves?

      • cromercrox says:

        He says that, does he? In that case I’d love another bagel, thanks for asking.

        • Steve Caplan says:

          BTW, I’m nearly done reading “By the Sea”–very well written and greatly amusing! Loved the descriptions of the “Institute” and atmosphere–and of course, “Pickled Lily”-great name!

          I’m much less inclined to read non-fiction, but might have a go at one of your evolution books. What do you recommend, “Jcob’s Ladder” or “Deep Time”?

  7. Cromercrox says:

    Very kind of you!!! Tell your friends.

    I think Jacob’s Ladder is better.

  8. steve caplan says:

    Can’t even spell… let’s try again:

    “Tell your friends.”

    You flatter me!!!

  9. Tideliar says:

    Stiff upper lip old chap. i thought it was funny and pretty damned on point considering some of the silliness I get.

  10. chall says:

    Oh Steve, I laughed and then shook my head quite a few times reading your piece. Please let your daughter know those drawings are awesome!

    As for the other questions (“please get me a job since my SO got a job there”) it’s not only trailing spouses … I’ve read some applications lately and most often I wonder “but why do you apply for a job here?” I mean, I am aware of the “I want a job” feeling(desperation) – but still, you are going to have to spell out some kind of reason why I would hire you, and why you want to work with me. Hardly that compicated, no? “Just” saying, “I’ll be living in your town from Sep” isn’t really an explanation on your motivation….

    Although, after my recent stint as a “how did you get your job” seminar where grad students and post docs ask me lots of questions I have to say that there were a lot of questions I was quite surprised about hearing. Some of them were things in your piece….. hopefully they’ll remember some of the things we(the panel) said, as well as maybe finding it on lablit.com and realise yet again that basic facts as “where is the institute located”, “am I writing to a Sir or Madam (or ‘just’ a Dr?)” or simply writing the correct job name and spell check are the least you’ll have to get right when applying for a job…..

    [maybe i’m just picky?!]

    • Steve Caplan says:

      That’s the point–every employer is picky. So when we receive “applications”–mostly unsolicited–day after day, a sloppy, poorly worded first sentence in the e-mail will stimulate most PIs to simply “send to trash” without even looking any further.

      The key is truly mentorship, and a lot of students aren’t getting it. When my own 1st year students need to set up their very first supervisory committee meeting, I won’t let them send out an e-mail to the committee members until I have edited/corrected the e-mail–sometimes multiple times. This shows them at a very early stage the necessity for addressing scientific colleagues properly, and what my expectations are. Some students catch on very quickly, and I no longer need to censor their writings, while others need more coaching. Job applications are obviously 100X more critical!

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