By Margaret Harris
Some time ago, University of Nebraska biochemist Steve Caplan received an e-mail from someone who wanted to work in his lab. The e-mail’s beginning (“Dear sir”) was not encouraging, and it was all downhill from there – a morass of meaningless buzzwords and and vague suggestions that the writer wanted to “gain an opportunity to experience a dynamic, rigorous and systemic training”.
The writers of such e-mails don’t get jobs, but they do get a starring role in Caplan’s essay “How not to get a lab job: what your approach says about you”, which is available on the LabLit website. Most of the essay’s examples are hilarious, and Caplan’s “translations” of them are great.
Except for the third example. It’s not so amusing. And to anyone with the “two-body problem” of looking for jobs as one-half of a scientific couple, Caplan’s “translation” won’t seem funny at all. Here’s the job request:
Hi Dr Caplan,
My name is Dr XXX. I am research associate (assistant professor) at the University of Anywhere in the Department of Radiation and Cellular Oncology. As my husband Dr YYY moved in Omaha, I am also looking for a research position at your institute. Here I have attached a cover letter and my CV for your consideration.
Now here is Caplan’s “translation” of Dr XXX’s e-mail:
“My husband’s job is the important one – he is the “real” scientist. I just need to find a job doing anything – doesn’t matter what – somewhere near my husband. I’m not necessarily interested in what you do, but saw your advertisement…”
For good measure, this translation is accompanied by a cartoon drawn by Caplan’s 12-year-old daughter, in which a frilly-dressed woman declares “It’s my husband’s job that’s important, I’m just holding onto his tail!” while tied on a long leash to a bespectacled male scientist. Niiiice.
But let’s go back to the original message and Caplan’s “translation”. Dr YYY found a job, and Dr XXX, his wife, is now looking for employment in the same town, in a field that is (somewhat) related to her previous experience. How does this make her not a “real” scientist? Why does it imply she’s not interested in the work? And if she really just needed to find a job doing anything, then why was she e-mailing Caplan and not the local McDonald’s?
I’ll concede that Dr XXX’s e-mail does not shout “hire me!” It’s short on specifics (such as how her experience would fit into Caplan’s group), and the way it’s worded suggests that she wants the job for reasons other than the pure intellectual joy of working for Caplan. It’s definitely a bad idea to mention that, even if it’s true.
But most of us do consider “external” factors when we look for jobs. Maybe we want to work somewhere with good weather. Maybe we want to be near a spouse. Either way, these things matter, and although Dr XXX was unwise to draw attention to them, at least she was honest. What’s more, there are thousands of Drs YYY and XXX out there, and many of them will, at some point, have to settle for less-good career opportunities if they want to stay together. The alternative is a long commute or – in too many cases – divorce.
And that’s not a problem that deserves to be lumped in with lazy spelling.