I’m at a very large university and in the past year, I’ve been asked to be on three different career panels for three different student/postdoc groups. I was recently on a committee for our departmental retreat and the committee chair proposed doing yet another one of these career workshops for the students. I tried really hard to convince my colleagues that we could do something better, because I’ve really come to hate these types of career panels. Here are some of the reasons.
1. People are chosen/invited because they have really interesting careers. Inevitably they got these jobs because they knew somebody or were in the right place at the right time. Therefore, they rarely have anything useful to say in terms of how you prepare to get this type of job. Second, these one in a million jobs actually discourage the students because, really, how many science outreach coordinators can the local children’s museum employ?
2. I was reprimanded by my department chair for giving an honest assessment of my own accomplishments during graduate school and postdoc, which included lots of papers and fellowship funding. I also had two glamour publications during my postdoc, which I believe is now an absolute requirement for getting a faculty position at a top university. My chair was truly angry at me because he thought I was discouraging the students from taking an academic path. Are we supposed to lie to the students, when in reality, maybe one or two of them will ever get a faculty position?
3. Someone at these panels always says something like, “embrace your failures.” To me, this is the most smug and condescending thing that someone who has already made it could say to struggling students. This is really easy to say in hindsight, but totally stupid to say to people in the midst of trying to find their way.
4. The second most common thing that I hear is that you should have a file of all your accomplishments to look back on when you feel rejection to try to make you feel better. Again, I HATE THIS ADVICE. The last thing I want to think about when I’m feeling bad is how great I USED TO BE. The depressed mind is incapable of looking on the bright side, and I just don’t understand why we can’t say it’s ok to be sad and disappointed. This is what I tell my own graduate students. Give yourself a day or two to be depressed. Then force yourself to write out a plan for overcoming the roadblock. This is the only thing that can snap me out of this type of depression, and it actually makes me feel worse to hear this terrible advice to "think happy thoughts" repeated over and over again. Even if the new plan is not what you originally thought was optimal, it will instantly make you feel better to have a course of action.