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Academic snakes and ladders

The Chicago Guide to Landing a Job in Academic Biology

University of Chicago Press: 2007. 176 pp. $140226101304 9780226101309 | ISBN: 0-226-10130-4

At one time, academic biology was the province of those willing to work long, irregular hours and to wear threadbare jackets with elbow patches. Overachievers with an interest in biology generally went into medicine. Academic jobs were few, but demand was low. With the advent of biotechnology, the sequencing of the human genome, and overhead charges on government grants, faculty positions in biology have now transformed from a calling into a well-paid career. It was perhaps inevitable that 'how to' books would materialize to guide hungry job-seekers in what has become a competitive market.

The Chicago Guide to Landing a Job in Academic Biology is a nuts-and-bolts book, full of practical advice such as how to construct an application that won't be thrown out, how to give a seminar, and how to complete the interview process successfully. Some will profit from its advice and will be glad that they read the book. Others may be disturbed by its implicit message that landing a job in academia requires a careerist mindset and not just raw brilliance.

The book has a limited target audience — the fraction of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows that actually want to carry on in academic research. Starting with the assumption that the reader wants an academic job, the authors go into great detail about how to get one. What should you put in your cover letter with your job application? What should you wear at your interview? How many jobs should you apply for? The advice is sensible, being based on years of reading flawed job applications and watching candidates make fatal errors.

For someone who has already been through the process, it is hard to read the book without pondering the bigger questions. Is this really the best process for choosing faculty members? Does it select for the best researchers and teachers, or does it generate careerists who are good at applying for jobs? Does it favour advisers who are willing to write exaggerated letters of recommendation, thereby gaining a reputation as a good career-promoter? In a training process that may take six years of graduate school and four years as a postdoctoral fellow, whose interests are really being served?

As the authors point out, a biologist undergoes a lengthy apprenticeship that rarely includes advice on training for a job per se. Speculating why this should be so is beyond the scope of the book. The answer may be that for an adviser to discuss the issue in any detail is like a parent talking to a child about their mid-life crisis. The job application process can itself be embarrassing — many applicants are unsuccessful and the present system breeds conservatism. More to the point, any realistic discussion on the topic should also consider unfairness, bad luck, poor choices and compromise. A book that simply describes the mechanics puts the onus on the next generation to refocus the process in a way that nurtures excitement about the unanswered questions in the biological sciences.

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Silver, P. Academic snakes and ladders. Nature 449, 662 (2007).

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