Being as I defend my masters thesis in November, I recently started looking for a PhD position.
I wasn’t looking hard: most positions being advertised right now start in the fall, which I can’t do because I’ll still be working on that thesis. I assumed I’d finish up, move home and spend a few months with my parents while I searched for my next job. I just wanted to keep an eye out for what was being posted.
So I was surprised when I saw an advertisement for a position studying something I was interested in, starting in January. The lab’s research topics were like a list of my own favorite concepts in ecology. The supervisor wrote a widely-read and sometimes witty blog about theoretical concepts in ecology. It was in Canada, and I had just spent a few e-mails discussing with my friend Jean how happy she is in her PhD at the University of Manitoba and how she feels that in some respects she is ahead of her peers who are at American universities.
The posting was like an online dating profile of a match designed especially for me. If this was Tinder, I would have swiped right immediately. I was excited. (was I being catfished? stay tuned)
It wasn’t Tinder though – it was a slightly more involved online dating program, with more than a one-night stand on the line. What I had to decide was whether I would be auditioning for the chance to be married to this guy for five years. And I did want that. I wanted to reply right then, right away – pick me!! But you don’t want to seem too desperate when you’re marketing yourself around, do you? You have to play hard to get, nonchalant. I waited a day.
(just to be clear: I have no romantic designs on any potential supervisors. this one, in fact, is married.)
The PI (principal investigator) had set out a series of questions for potential applicants – what are your interests? your background? your goals? your math skills? send some unofficial transcripts too, please. I spent one weekend evening crafting an introduction letter, answering each question in turn, then realizing that an entire 15-line paragraph for one question was too much and cutting it down. My tone was lighthearted and I joked around, but then I wondered if I wasn’t being serious enough. I didn’t want to depict myself as boring, either, though. Luckily my fingernails were painted a blaring warning-red color at the time or else I would have, unnoticing, bit them down to the nubs as I wrote and rewrote each sentence, wondering if it was good enough.
I attached my CV, my million transcripts (three universities during my masters alone), contact info for my references, and a project proposal from a recent grant application to prove how I thought about experimental design. It was Sunday morning. I hit send.
Immediately I was overcome by nerves.
Would I get a first date?
On Monday, I got a reply to my e-mail. The PI wrote that I was “clearly bright and experienced, and you have a very clear-eyed sense of yourself” and he was interested in learning more about whether we’d work together well.
He likes me. I felt a flush of pride and validation. Lately nobody had been telling me I’d been doing a good job at work, because my current supervisor doesn’t even usually read the methods sections for the analyses that I do for him. He’s the equivalent of a deadbeat boyfriend in that regard.
But this new guy? He had picked me out of a crowd. Yeahhhhhh.
The response included a few more questions, as well as asking if I had any questions for him. I tried to think of good ones: how does funding work in Canada? What is the department like? How big is his lab and what is their working style? What about the school or the city make you want to stay there? Would there be money for me to go to meetings and conferences, or to external courses if I needed to learn a new statistical technique that nobody taught at the university?
Again, I had to delete about two different versions of this e-mail so that I wouldn’t seem overeager. Maybe my perception of the first date and his perception of the first date were different. I didn’t want to demand a second date, like, tomorrow. Maybe he was just being polite when he told me he was impressed with my CV; maybe he was telling that to all the other girls (um, I mean applicants). How many were there, anyway?
After I fired off that missive, the PI told me he’d start looking into my references and get back to me later. I fervently hoped that they’d say nice things about me, and then began to worry that they wouldn’t say the right things.
I also began to do my own homework. After all, me and this PI were about to get into a pretty serious relationship. It would be a five-year partnership – that’s longer than 20% of marriages last in the US – and breaking up would be hard to do. This has got to be one of the very few fields where you make such a long, binding commitment to someone after knowing them only very briefly. Seriously, it’s like getting married – and in a hurry. You see the person almost every day, and your success depends to a huge extent on them. If the relationship sours, or never even starts off right, a quick divorce looks a lot worse on the “education” section of your CV than it does in a real-world dating scenario.
Worse, you can’t make it through life just being single, which has been my (non-)dating approach for about four years now. You have to have a supervisor. You can’t do an independent-study PhD.
This was a lot of pressure. To put it differently: in no part of my life have I ever made as large a commitment to anything as I am potentially about to make to a PhD supervisor. And I hadn’t even talked to the guy yet. Our relationship was online-only.
I found that I had two friends who had worked in the department at various times, so I began asking them what they thought of the PI. It was like asking your buddies about that cute guy you hung out with at the last party, but aren’t sure if you should call. “Well he seemed nice, but I only met him that one time – what do you guys think?”
They – and their friends they put me in touch with – had decidedly mixed responses. Some thought he was a nice guy, a great explainer of ecological theory. Others thought he was not a good supervisor. They pointed to potential red flags I should pay attention to, like how some of his students had dropped out.
(That’s not unusual, exactly, and in case I end up working with this PI I won’t go into too much detail about my deliberations and conversations about his relationships with his students….)
After all of this, I was intrigued. The university and its city sounded like great places to work and live, and I have other friends living in the area. There was nothing about the PI that made me feel like running in the other direction. One friend said she thought I’d be “a great candidate to have a healthy relationship with him”.
Apparently my references/friends also said nice things about me. Later in the week, the PI asked for a skype meeting. It happened. We were both nervous and very awkward when we picked up the phone (er, the webcam). In the middle of the call, his computer crashed, although I didn’t realize it right way. All I saw was that our call was dropped, and I freaked out wondering if it was my fault and if he was offended. Hanging up on your boss isn’t exactly a good interview strategy.
We spent a lot of time talking about ourselves, trying to make ourselves appealing to the other person. Actually, this is kind of the part of dating that I find disgusting and hate.
“Well, I’m a pretty strong writer, or at least a fast one so I don’t think that finishing my manuscripts from my masters thesis will be a problem,” I said at one point, before turning bright red because I hate giving myself compliments and sounding like a self-congratulatory asshole.
“Wow, that’s something most students don’t say about themselves,” he laughed. “That’s great.”
But things seemed possible. The project seemed right up my alley. He invited me to come to the university to visit his lab.
Wow, our relationship was moving quickly.
Then he offered to pay for the trip.
$1500, it costs to fly from Stockholm to this part of Canada on two weeks notice. Yeah, our relationship was moving really quickly.
I’m excited to go on the trip, but at this point I face an emotional conundrum that has ensnared many a woman. I like the research and learning opportunities that are being offered to me. I’m not sure yet if I will fit in well with the lab and the PI. Obviously, going to visit is the best way to find out, and even if I decide “no”, it will be really useful for me in my future searches. Free vacation! (actually, a whole day flying, two days there, and then another whole day flying – not sure that counts as a vacation)
But it’s like when you get taken out to a really fancy expensive dinner. At the end of the night, the enlightened feminist in you thinks, “I don’t owe this guy anything, we just enjoyed a lovely evening in each other’s company.” The vestiges of female guilt bred into us for generations upon generations make you think, “wow, this guy just spent a lot of money on me, I probably owe him at least a kiss.”
Basically, if I fly to Canada on this PI’s dime, he’s probably expecting me to put out. i.e., take the PhD position.
Should I go if I’m not completely certain I want to do that?
Am I using him if I spend $1500 of his money and eventually say “no”?
What kind of person am I? Do we have any independence in this life?
Ah heck, I’m going. I’m sure even shotgun weddings occasionally have runaway brides.
And maybe I’ll decide that we will have a fun and productive five-year PhD student-supervisor marriage.