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August 21, 2011

All Job Ads Should Be Like This

Posted by Tom Leinster

I wouldn’t normally post a job ad here, but if you read this one carefully, you’ll see why I made an exception. It’s from Neil Ghani at the University of Strathclyde, which is in Glasgow city centre.

6 month postdoc position

Mathematically Structured Programming Group, University of Strathclyde

We have the potential to apply for funds for a 6 month post doctoral position. The idea is that the successful candidate would spend those 6 months writing a full scale grant to fund themselves for the next 3 years. The postdoctoral position would be within the Mathematically Structured Programming group at the University of Strathclyde whose research focusses on category theory, type theory and functional programming. Current staff include Neil Ghani, Patricia Johann, Conor McBride, Peter Hancock, Robert Atkey and 6 PhD students. The candidate we are looking for should be highly self motivated and appreciate that without beauty, we are lost.

Unfortunately, the deadline is extremely short and so any interested candidates should contact me immediately. I can then tell you more about what we would need to do.

Professor Neil Ghani (ng#cis.strath.ac.uk, with obvious change)

Posted at August 21, 2011 9:14 PM UTC

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Re: All Job Ads Should Be Like This

Just to be clear, the thing I particularly liked about the ad wasn’t this:

The idea is that the successful candidate would spend those 6 months writing a full scale grant to fund themselves for the next 3 years.

I don’t know how serious Neil was being there: he surely doesn’t expect someone to spend an entire six months writing a grant application.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on August 22, 2011 3:50 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: All Job Ads Should Be Like This

I think it is intended to convey to prospective postdocs that he does understand the implausibility of doing a serious piece of new research in 6 months, while simultaneously moving to a new home and finding the next job.

I haven’t yet had the pleasure of meeting Neil Ghani personally, but I do know some of the others at Strathclyde and can confirm they are excellent people, in addition to being excellent computer scientists. I would be very pleased at the opportunity to work with them.

Posted by: Neel Krishnaswami on August 22, 2011 5:00 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: All Job Ads Should Be Like This

Ah, yes, that’s a plausible explanation. Thanks.

I should add that there’s a bit of interaction between my department (Mathematics and Statistics, University of Glasgow) and Neil’s (Computer and Information Sciences, University of Strathclyde). I go to their seminars sometimes, and Neil and I organize the Scottish Category Theory Seminar together (along with Alex Simpson in Edinburgh).

Geographically, the universities of Strathclyde and Glasgow are about 45 minutes’ walk apart, or four stops on the subway. So it’s in my interest too that someone good ends up in this position!

Posted by: Tom Leinster on August 22, 2011 5:14 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: All Job Ads Should Be Like This

I think it is intended to convey to prospective postdocs that he does understand the implausibility of doing a serious piece of new research in 6 months, while simultaneously moving to a new home and finding the next job.

This is why I had wondered by private email why “all job ads should be like this”. (Which is what Tom is reacting to above).

I can understand that in a globally tight situation this may be the best that one can make out of a bad situation. But I’d rather see a job ad not mentioning the beauty of science if instead it gives the applicant a realistic chance to actually experience it!

(But then, I don’t know the details. Maybe the chances to get that 3 year prolongation are so good as to be almost certain?)

Posted by: Urs Schreiber on August 22, 2011 5:45 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: All Job Ads Should Be Like This

Though it looks like from the comments that spending that significant portion of the 6 months for writing the applications is not the true intention of the statement about it, in some other cases, especially in biomedical sciences there are people who do grant application practically full time – applying to very many grants to get something out of available pool. I have some friends who were in the environment where postdocs were doing the research and the boss was doing only the grant applications and occasional review of what postdocs have done (where he usually did not understand).

As far as the 6 month if this is what Urs refers to “the best one can make”, not for everybody. Some people for family or health reasons can not go abroad or so, and can afford only short postdocs. If I were to go abroad, the only things I can afford is either permanent position at a place with direct flights to Zagreb, either a short leave up to maximum of 6 months.

Posted by: zoran skoda on August 23, 2011 10:02 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: All Job Ads Should Be Like This

@zoran:
in the environment where postdocs were doing the research and the boss was doing only the grant applications

and the boss gets his name on the paper, often up front

Posted by: jim stasheff on August 23, 2011 12:39 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: All Job Ads Should Be Like This

a short leave up to maximum of 6 months.

How many people, though, are in the situation that they take a postdoc position as a “leave”? Most will have to go all in, family and everything, no return ticket.

Of course six months is plenty for a visiting position. No doubt about that. But for a standard postdoc position?

(Maybe I am living on a different planet than the other commenters here.)

Posted by: Urs Schreiber on August 23, 2011 11:48 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: All Job Ads Should Be Like This

Urs said

How many people, though, are in the situation that they take a postdoc position as a “leave”? Most will have to go all in, family and everything, no return ticket.

This is exactly what is my point. If the visit is very short they may be able to do an exception. The more strings you have the shorter maximum leave is possible. And this is as well true at the standard postdoc level. I know of a person who lost his job because he did not go abroad for longer although he had an excellent publication record. When I was leaving US I was also looking for a short term position in order to have something between the long state procedure for an expected 4 year position in Zagreb, and I found it very quickly, never going into multiple applications. I have a friend in Croatia who is also just now looking to go abroad (for first postdoc), but only up to a year, where 9 months would be an ideal.

Posted by: Zoran Skoda on August 23, 2011 5:40 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: All Job Ads Should Be Like This

Just to clarify, by “leave” I DID NOT mean the official academic leave, and by no means a rare luxury of sabbatical. But the leave from the place where somebody has the life: parents, wife or girlfriend with her job or other attachement, appartement, children’s favorite teachers and friends and so on. And such attachements are common, regardless if it is at first postdoc time or at later time. And many people have a reason to stay somewhere even if they do not have a full time academic job there.

Posted by: zoran skoda on August 23, 2011 5:45 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: All Job Ads Should Be Like This

@Zoran,

hear, hear!

As much as I enjoy mathematics, I love my wife more.

Posted by: David Roberts on August 24, 2011 1:56 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: All Job Ads Should Be Like This

No, you’re not on a different planet from me, at least. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a six-month postdoc. But the ad suggests that Neil hopes it will be the prelude to a longer position.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on August 23, 2011 12:30 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: All Job Ads Should Be Like This

I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a six-month postdoc.

So you’ve never encountered MSRI?

Posted by: Ben Webster on August 28, 2011 10:49 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: All Job Ads Should Be Like This

Ha! Well, I spent a happy couple of weeks at MSRI, and I’m sure it would have made me even happier if I’d had the opportunity to stay there six months. But no, I didn’t know they laid on these short fellowships. Lucky whoever-gets-it, say I.

I really don’t know what I think about these short positions. My own experience is that I had a one-year postdoc at the IHES, and despite moving country, learning (some of) a new language, and applying for the next job, I got a great deal done in that year. On the other hand, I remember feeling strongly about the EU’s enthusiasm for having its postdocs circulate between countries — it seemed callous to me, underestimating the personal toll it takes (and the consequent damage to scientific output). But then, it’s dangerous to extrapolate too much from one’s own personal experience.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on August 29, 2011 1:24 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: All Job Ads Should Be Like This

But the ad suggests that Neil hopes it will be the prelude to a longer position.

I understand. And I understand that this may be the best possible under the given circumstances.

Still, I am much inclined to exclaim: hopefully things will not become so bad as to make all job ads be like this !

I have sympathy for all the feelings about “beauty” and “havens of sanity” expressed here. But does nobody else feel that these remarks are a bit cynical towards the person who is going to be put under this time pressure in this lottery system? Remember that the first thing that the referees on the other end of that grant proposal to-be-written will ask is: “What did you publish in the last six months?”

Posted by: Urs Schreiber on August 23, 2011 1:48 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: All Job Ads Should Be Like This

hopefully things will not become so bad as to make all job ads be like this !

Of course, the title wasn’t supposed to suggest that all job ads should advertise six-month positions, or that all job ads should advertise positions at Strathclyde, or positions to work with Neil Ghani, etc … :-)

Posted by: Tom Leinster on August 24, 2011 5:09 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: All Job Ads Should Be Like This

Tom said:

Of course, the title wasn’t supposed to suggest that all job ads should advertise six-month positions, or that all job ads should advertise positions at Strathclyde, or positions to work with Neil Ghani, etc … :-)

Indeed! —you said you thought all job *ads* should be like this, not that all *jobs* should be like this.

Incidentally, it has dawned on me over the last ten years or so that Neil is spectacularly altruistic about working hard to secure money for people in non-permanent and/or non-standard situations. I have no doubt that this particular case is very well thought-through.

Posted by: Eugenia Cheng on August 24, 2011 10:16 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: All Job Ads Should Be Like This

Dear Urs,

Can I assure you my intentions are not cynical towards any potential applicant. I fully understand the difficulty of the situation and would do my greatest to help anyone who applied to make the best of the situation. For example, I would not demand they reach unrealistic goals, I would give them plenty of my time and, most importantly I would treat them like people rather than academic slaves. I hope this convinces you that I am not being cynical here.

I do completely agree with you that better conditions should be available. But our university is offering some of these 6 month positions. It may not suit everyone’s needs, but it may suit some people’s. Is your position that such an offer should not be made because it is not appropriate for some people?

All the best
Neil

ps my first postdoc position was for 3 months and my second was also for 3 months. So I also have some understanding of the difficulties involved and this helps me be more sensitive to the problems to which you allude

Posted by: Neil Ghani on August 25, 2011 12:23 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: All Job Ads Should Be Like This

Hello Neil,

In my opinion it is OK to offer such positions.
This is somewhat independent of the question wether it is good that there are more and more jobs of this kind.

As an example: A girl-friend of me wrote quite some months (I think more than six months) at an application for her own 3 year post-doc for the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) in the humanities. It would have been good for her to have some funding for doing this in her city. She partially financed writing the application with academic jobs and waitressing. She has three kids and her partner lives on temporary jobs in the creative industry - it was a real hard ship for the whole family. Unfortunately the acceptance rate of these kind of applications is not so high, especially not in the humanities. So in fact her application was turned down. (side remark: I heard (from somewhere) that in the humanities these kind of DFG applications have a fail rate of 60% and a pass rate of 40%. Is this correct?)

But as I wrote below it would help potential applicants to know more about their prospects, like how many hours are you expected to write at this application (in your job offer it sounds as full time for six months), how long does it usually take until an application is approved, how big is the pass/fail ratio of applications of this kind. If you don’t know all this than this would also be an information for a prospect candidate. But it seems you know at least something since you wrote:

“For example, I would not demand they reach unrealistic goals, I would give them plenty of my time and, most importantly I would treat them like people rather than academic slaves.”

So I think it would help to specify this a bit more in the job offer.

Posted by: nad on August 25, 2011 4:16 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: All Job Ads Should Be Like This

In the link below I wrote: “There is a QUITE a qualitative difference between a secure steady salary (even if it is small) and no salary at all - especially if you have kids. “
Just to make myself more clear - with small salary I meant here -in the context of Neils letter - a typical post doc salary in the lower range (which is of course still somewhat fuzzy). However everybody knows that a salary can even be smaller than a post doc salary. And there are certainly limits, where a salary shouldnt be called anymore a salary.

In the turn if Neil Ghani would offer the double of a typical post doc salary then of course this could be seen on average as a steady post doc salary for the 6 month application writing and a 6 month (?) gap between handing in the application and its (non)-approval. So may be it is useful to write something about the salary into the job offer.

By the way the academic teaching jobs I was talking about below (“Lehrauftrag”) are (at least in Germany) often not paid in a way that you could talk about having a post doc salary. In the humanities there are actually people, who teach for free.
Usually a spouse helps out in these cases. People who have these kind of jobs are often called the academic precariat.

It would actually be interesting to know how big this precariat is in Germany and how the german academic system would look like without it. Does anyone know?

Posted by: nad on August 26, 2011 1:30 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: All Job Ads Should Be Like This

…without beauty, we are lost.

Is Neil trying to revive The Aesthetic Movement? Perhaps we need a new Walter Pater:

Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life. How may we see in them all that is to to be seen in them by the finest senses? How shall we pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy. To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.

Posted by: David Corfield on August 22, 2011 4:52 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: All Job Ads Should Be Like This

I’m sure Neil would be delighted to know that he’s suspected of an attempt to revive the Aesthetic Movement! My own theory is that he was just rebelling against the bureaucracy of it all. But your theory is much better.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on August 22, 2011 5:08 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: All Job Ads Should Be Like This

Dear All,

Thanks for your kind comments. While not intending to start a debate on metaphysics, can I simply say the single greatest impediment to the experience of beauty is our own timidity, fear and blindness. So our research group tries, in its own little way, to create a haven of sanity where Angels may walk tall. I hoped to give applicants the confidence to open their heart, feel the fire raging within and not be intimidated by those of bitter minds and smaller imagination.

Screw the economic indicators - Viva Yoneda!
All the best
Neil

ps David - Thanks for your poetry. In return, may I offer you a portion of Blake’s revolutionary anthem. Interesting second line, wouldn’t you say?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

Posted by: Neil Ghani on August 22, 2011 11:10 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: All Job Ads Should Be Like This

Chariot of fire

is that the original use of the phrase?

Posted by: jim stasheff on August 23, 2011 12:40 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: All Job Ads Should Be Like This

The Bible describes a chariot of fire in Elijah’s ascent to heaven.

Posted by: David Corfield on August 23, 2011 12:48 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: All Job Ads Should Be Like This

Neil Ghani wrote:

-The idea is that the successful candidate would spend those 6 months writing a full scale grant to fund themselves for the next 3 years.—–

I don’t know how fast british authorities work, but I could imagin that there could be a more or less long period between the submission of the grant application (at the end of the 6 month post doc period) and its non/approval, so I guess you rather mean “The idea is that the successful candidate would spend those 6 months writing a full scale grant to fund themselves for the 3 years after the approval period, which may take about ….. months”

6 months positions seem to be not so uncommon.
That is I was two times on such 6 month positions. The first was actually not a post doc, but a full time application writing position (TU Berlin) after the Diploma. Amongst others I wrote there an application for my Ph.D. funding. At this position there was some extra-funding for the period until the application was approved. This extra period was about 7 month. But as said, may be the british system is faster. The second position was a 6 month postdoc with teaching (LMU Munich).

And as you may know there are next to the normal post docs teaching positions, which are even less long, like I had a teaching appointment (6 hours lecture a day) for two weeks.That is one semester was put into two weeks.

From 1998 until 2008 my husband and me lived on rather short time academic positions with two kids. One major problem with these types of positions are the gaps in between, short planning periods and the unreliability of some fundings (that is fundings/positions which suddenly turn out not to be there). There is a QUITE a qualitative difference between a secure steady salary (even if it is small) and no salary at all - especially if you have kids.

In particular constantly moving around costs a lot of extra money and bureaucracy. The kids had visited 6 different schools on three different continents until the age of 9. As you may know there is no such thing as a “relocation manager” available for post docs, that is searching for appartments, schools, daycare, caring about transportation, assurances, tax declarations (really fun between continents!) etc. has to be done next to writing new applications, teaching and research.

Since 2008 my husband has a permanent position and this is quite a different live.

Posted by: nad on August 24, 2011 5:02 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: All Job Ads Should Be Like This

Neil’s passing reference to the importance of beauty was the most heartening and life-affirming thing that I have read since reading that El Sistema started with just 11 children in a garage.

That sentence alone would have convinced me that I wanted to work with Neil, were it not for the fact that I’ve been convinced of that for some time already.

I have decided to adopt “Without beauty, we are lost” and “11 children in a garage” as my two mottos for the approaching academic year. The first, I have added as the subtitle to my first year lecture course, Numbers and Groups. The second, I have made into a poster and stuck on my wall.

Posted by: Eugenia Cheng on August 23, 2011 9:54 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: All Job Ads Should Be Like This

PS If I ever have a wife I promise I’ll love her more than I love mathematics.

Posted by: Eugenia Cheng on August 24, 2011 10:19 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: All Job Ads Should Be Like This

I’ve had “Without beauty, we are lost” on the front of all my lecture notes since Neil’s famous job ad, so I’ve had no chance to forget it. But I had forgotten his brilliant expansion above:

“The single greatest impediment to the experience of beauty is our own timidity, fear and blindness.”

Posted by: Eugenia Cheng on December 12, 2012 6:33 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

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