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Ask A Prof: To Post or not to Post?

I'm going to prototype a new series, which may spawn a separate blog, called Ask a Professor. The idea is that I get tons of questions about careers in science, and often I get the same questions from different people. So I figure I can broadcast the advice I can offer. Any question for which I can't give a good answer, I know lots of people who I can ask, and we can learn together in those cases.

IfA last-year grad student Brendan Bowler asks: "To post, or not to post; that is the question. That is, to the Rumor Mill.  Does it have any actual influence (either beneficial or harmful) on the  decision-making process of fellowship committees?"

One thing I can say right off the bat is that this question stirs a lot of strong and passionate opinions among professors (and postdocs, and students). For this question, I think I'll present my own opinion and then revisit the question after talking to some other profs. Also, if you have a strong opinion one way or the other, please sound off in the comments or send me an email!

My answer is based on my strong belief that it is important to market yourself as a scientist. I used to get uncomfortable with the concept of self-marketing, all wrinkling my nose and feeling the urge to take a shower after using that sort of language. But my opinion changed after reading Marc Kuchner's book on the topic, Marketing for Scientists. I'm certainly a fan of this book and I recommend you check it out. 

The basic idea put forth in the book is that as a job-seeker, you are offering a product (yourself, your skill-set and accomplishments) to someone who may give you a job in exchange for what you have to offer. It's simply an exchange of benefits, like almost every other human-human interaction. If I, as a prof, post a job ad for a postdoc to help me with my planet survey, I need someone with a specific set of skills. I also need someone who will integrate themselves quickly into my group and enhance our science. If a job candidate can demonstrate that they can bring these benefits to me and my group, then I give them gainful employment. 

A fellowship program or faculty search committee is looking for a similar beneficial exchange. They want someone who is excellent in many dimensions, ranging from productivity, quality of science, the ability to write strong proposals, a good communicator, diversity and leadership. Say what you will about perusing the rumor mill, but the people who light up the job listings every year---the ones pulling in Hubbles and Sagans and Einsteins left and right---well, these are people for whom the astronomy community has come to a firm consensus on (or at least several independent review panels have come to the same conclusion). These people, by virtue of getting many strong postdoc offers are prima facie excellent job candidates.

Now, of course, there are many excellent researchers who don't light up the Rumor Mill. So I'm not advocating that search committees base their decisions on the people who show up on the Mill, nor am I suggesting that they do. This would be like using your data as both your prior and your likelihood: you'll quickly converge to a solution, but the solution is likely incorrect because the logical process used was improper. And I strongly believe that search committees know and understand this, and therefore do not use the Rumor Mill to make any major decisions. 

But might an individual on one of those committees use last year's Rumor Mill to identify good candidates that should be in the pool? Sure, why not. But once an individual is identified in that manner, or any other,  rest assured that the committee will get on the phone and call their colleagues and ask their opinions about Dr. Rumor-Mill-Star. Also, people filling seminar, colloquium and science meeting schedules might very well look through last year's Rumor Mill for the brightest young talent to invite in for a talk. I've sat on colloquium committees, and I admit that I glanced at the Rumor Mill for young talent outside of my field. 

Based on all of this, it is my opinion that one go right ahead and splash their name all over the Mill should they get fellowship offers, or short-listed for their first professor position. First, it's just good marketing. Second, if you get lots of offers, you should take this moment to shine and revel in the accolades. This sort of positive feedback is hard to come by in astronomy, so take it while you can get it and hold your head high, rather than shoving your A+ exam into your backpack before anyone sees. Note, however, that those individuals looking to switch institutions in a faculty swap may not want this information floating around. 

Finally, posting gets valuable knowledge out to an information-starved portion of our community. Kudos to the various fellowship offices that post their short lists and offer lists to the Mill! Those poor applicants anxiously awaiting news, any news, surely appreciate the knowledge that there has been an offer and to whom it was made. This is the primary reason I'm a supporter of the Rumor Mill. 

Oh, and one last note: yes, there will be jealous people. Those people might even post obnoxious things to the Mill about your achievements. But that's their problem. There will always be haters, so let 'em hate. The people in the community who care about you will be thrilled to learn of your fellowship offer. 


CyndiF said…
I never made up my mind about this, but my name has always appeared on its own (usually after someone checks the seminar list). You are correct that self-marketing is important. I was held back by an old-fashioned false modesty, I think.

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