How to talk with former trainees

I’d like some advice on this one. I’m not sure I’m doing the right thing. I’ve got a former student who is a strong and good researcher. This person (I’m trying to keep gender out of it) has a great CV, lots of good pubs, including 1 glamour-ish one. They’re doing a postdoc in a really great lab, learned new skills, mentored undergrads, works harder than three other people combined, etc. They’re getting many interviews for good jobs. What’s the problem? This person is a royal pain in the ass. High maintenance.Prima Donna. Gets asked back for a second interview and makes unrealistic demands for seed money, for space, for time-specifics. Once, about the time they left my lab, we had a talk about this. It degenerated quickly, and was pointless. Since then, I’ve just backed off. It’s easy to send a relatively neutral letter – here are the good things, period. Call if you want more information. I’ve had a few calls, in which I have been more forthcoming. I’m not inclined to get more involved, and re-open communication. Its been three years of looking for a job, I’ve sent about 30-40 letters, lots of interviews and nothing. But, as a mentor, should I write a letter to the traineeĀ  and say “look the reason you don’t have a job is that you are basically an asshole and everyone in the field knows it” (except with nicer words)? Or let sleeping dogs sleep?

30 responses to “How to talk with former trainees

  1. You’re the one who’s sent 30-40 letters?

    My inclination is that if they want to know, they’ll ask. If they aren’t asking it’s because they believe there’s a conspiracy against them.

  2. Yup, I’ve sent those letters. In this day and age, its not a hardship – all electronic. In the beginning I crafted letters to fit the job. Now, I’ve got a standard pdf that just gets emailed. Thanks for the input.

  3. I would not say anything unless he/she asks – then be (supportively) completely honest. But, it sounds like this person is adept at ignoring social cues and even if you advise he/she how to succeed at the interview stage, might be a complete pain in the ass as a colleague somewhere….

  4. You have sent 30-40 letters? That’s quite a lot.. This person should at some point realize that there is something wrong with their attitude. I would’ve started doubting myself after the 10th or even earlier I guess… (and ask my former mentor how he feels, whether he can give me some tips!)

    I guess I wouldn’t call to talk about this; indeed they would’ve asked if they had wanted to know… Sounds like this person will be resistant to your advice anyway.

  5. Dudes, 30-40 letters is not that many. If that’s over the last three years, then ze has only been applying to a little over 10 jobs/year. I applied to about 30/year on average, and last year I applied to about 70. FFS, I know that fields are different, but I don’t think sending out 30-40 applications should be considered “a lot” for today’s economy.

    Also, on the asshole thing, that’s an excellent question in terms of what to do. The thing is, I’ve seen a lot of assholes get hired, so maybe it will happen for your postdoc, too. They tend to be very attractive people for departments that already have a lot of assholes.

  6. Did this person exhibit the same behavior as your trainee? Did you have “the talk” about it at that time?

  7. I know plenty people of either chromosomal combination that fit this description.

    I would get him to ask you what is wrong and make him think it’s his idea. Easy peasy, and people are much more receptive to advice if they ask for it themselves. My guess is he already understands, just does not want to face the facts.

    He also needs to understand that his prospects are getting worse over time – postdoc getting longer, letters that are not personalized any more, the drain of interviewing … it’s not easy.

    Regarding those numbers of apps … 1) I am glad to have a job I like, and 2) how do you write a good application if you do 70 of ’em? Little less is a lot more, no?

  8. JB – some of my apps were for non-academic jobs, so they did not all have the classic combination of cover letter, CV, research statement, etc. Indeed, some of them did not have a ‘written’ part at all, and likely my references did not actually have to submit letters for them.

    In terms of writing a ‘good’ application, I don’t think that there’s a general agreement on what defines one in academia (although we are all good about saying what not to do). I did get very fast at picking out special features of each college/university and mentioning them in my cover letter (and I am a fast writer in general). I stopped personalizing my research statements and teaching statements beyond the level of school (undergraduate/Master’s only/PhD granting) and the types of courses they wanted. I got 10 phone interviews, 3 in person interviews, and 2 job offers.

    Some people get jobs with many fewer applications, some people can put in that many applications and still not get a job. In general, I’m not sure that me getting a job had to do with how ‘good’ my application was. I think it had a lot more to do with an interaction between my C.V., the economic climate, and what schools were looking for last year.

  9. Being a good mentor means telling the people you are mentoring the truth, both pleasant and unpleasant, and regardless of whether they ask for it.

  10. Viola-

    yeah, agree on that. The reason i have my job is because it was such a good fit. The reason I am happy is in part because I was honest about who I am.

    Congrats on getting a job!

  11. Would this person listen to a neutral third-person more than to a former mentor or any feedback from current applications, which he/she may see as biased?

    eg. Are there not organisations that ‘help’ or ‘train’ people for interviews, and videotape them at mock interviews and critique their performance? If you can google such an organisation in the area where your former trainee lives, perhaps you could suggest he/she attends one of their training courses because there ‘may be’ aspects of his/her interview technique that is putting people off. If appropriate (and i don’t know if it is, so long after the event), you could relate back to your talk with the person.

  12. Tell them! You don’t have to actually say “you’re an asshat” you can say “you’re coming across as someone who will be difficult” or “most departments are used to a bit more give and take” – whatever phrasing works to get them to see it’s in their best interests to tone it down. I’m pretty responsive to critiques but if some called me an ass I would probably tune them out. After all that’s a criticism of me not of my behavior and if I am fundamentally an ass I probably can’t change that but I can change my behavior – there’s a big difference (e.g. I can’t change being short but I can change how people perceive me by wearing heels). This person’s life is being damaged by their failure to understand and follow social norms and that’s deeply sad. People really only care how you behave – you can have the most bone-headed thoughts you want and if you keep them to yourself you can still be a good colleague. Now that this person has had some smack-downs from the market they may be more responsive to your suggestions and you could change their world with a short conversation. If they don’t listen – well then that’s a reasonable time to write it off but it seems like good timing to maybe make a difference.

  13. It sounds like you’ve already done it. You broached the topic at the end of their time in your lab and they responded defensively, like a child, not a near colleague. You’ve sent out the reference letters as asked. You’ve done all that is your responsibility to do. I realize that what you want to do is help them, but you’ll likely get the same response as when you tried to have this talk the first time. Or worse, if they really are that clueless and think that much of themselves, they’ll tell everyone within earshot how horrid you are.

    And, like others have said, 30 applications in a year is not that many. Folks who are job hunting in our lab have sent out 50-70 applications each the past two years.

  14. From your post, I am guessing this person is now in a different lab, and must have been your graduate student. Do you know this person’s current mentor? Why isn’t current mentor stepping up and doing something? In my own job search, I had plenty of interviews, but could not get to the offer stage. I had no idea what, if anything was going wrong. It was extremely frustrating. I was also frustrated by the fact that my supervisor back then sort of had an “oh, well” attitude, and everyone I spoke to agreed that the supervisor should have been more proactive in seeking feedback on my behalf. I am the type of person who gets along with everybody – so my situation is a little different from the one you describe. I finally did ask the supervisor to get feedback from a few people – the reason for asking this (instead of doing it myself), is that the feedback could be more candid, anonymous, etc. I found out that I was getting asked for interviews because my research interest was so intriguing that the department wanted to find out more. But in the end, they felt that it was too risky or somehow didn’t fit in well with the rest of what the department was doing.

    Anyway, I feel that your concern should also be the concern of the current mentor. I guess if I were in your shoes, I would ask this person why they think they are not being invited back and see if their answer is consistent with reality. If you know any of the people who you are recommending this person to, it may actually be helpful to get feedback from them. I’ve done this (for my own student), and have gotten feedback that I did not expect, but found it helpful anyway and was able to advise the student for future interviews.

    Finally, if your former student is really an asshole, whatever position they are applying for just may not be suitable for them and they should seek an alternate career path. The asshole aspect of the personality is unlikely to change, and for a position that requires interpersonal skills, forget it.

  15. I read it as though Isis has sent 30-40 referee letters – this is not the same as the applicant applying for 30-40 jobs. Not all applications result in a request to referees; perhaps only 1 in 10?. If I am correct, then 30-40 REFERENCES per year is, indeed, a hellava lot. It is also a hellava lot of work on Isis’ part.

    Maybe I am mis-reading.


  16. On the one hand, I do think there’s a level of mentorly obligation there to say something.
    On the other hand, it’s a huge pain. You have to first ascertain what are the generally objectionable things this person does that cause annoyance (not just the things that push your personal buttons), and then you have to come up with a strategy for how they could behave better. “You’re an asshole” is useless as feedback. (“Find a job that doesn’t require interpersonal skills” is also useless advice- do folks even realize how many computer programmers and accountants and others are sick of the socially inept cast offs? Newsflash: people who think of themselves as social butterflies are already generally going into things other than science. Sad truth is- there really aren’t a lot of jobs for the genuinely socially developmentally disabled. Which is all the more reason to hope, for all the assholes sake, that they can learn.)
    That said, something more like “You come across as entitled and need to really work at directly addressing other people’s needs when you communicate with them” is at least possible to act on. And yes, whenever you give feedback like this, the person does need to be in a receptive phase… the only positive thing I can say about that is that sometimes trainees are like adolescents and maybe they can grow out of some of their defensiveness? It’s been known to happen, anyway. Criticism at the end of your PhD from your mentor can be hard to have perspective on. Maybe the odds are better now? And after all, if it doesn’t work, and they think you’re mean and avoid you, it’s no great loss if they’re as big a jerk as you say, right?

  17. I’m terrified that I have some flaw/habit/manner that’s problematic for my career that no one will tell me about. I’d want to be told. Maybe your trainee is mature/beaten down enough after a few years looking for jobs that now is a good time to have that conversation again.

  18. I don’t think mentoring completely discontinues after a person graduates/gets a job. If only for yourself, whether this person listens or not, I would tell them. Every new step a person takes requires a new set of rules that they won’t know, and should be guided. If the current postdoctoral mentor is not advising, then they need some help. That being said, if this person is one of those that feels entitled, the advice will probably hit a wall. That is not your problem and at least you tried.

    If they don’t take the advice and continue to shoot themselves in the foot, it saves the rest of the PI’s in the department the trouble of having to deal with an asshole.

  19. I also think that it matters WHY they’re an ass. Are they socially inept, narcissistic, or secretly insecure? And, this would inform how you would approach the person.

  20. Why do you want this person to be successful in landing a job? Sounds like you think this person is a fairly significant jerk with traits that can’t help but be disruptive to a department. Screw ’em. There is an oversupply of equally awesome candidates.

  21. anonymous postdoc

    I think the comment from sciliz brings up an important point. My PhD mentor is someone who I deeply appreciate and care about and remain on very good terms with…but at the end of my dissertation I was Done With Her for a few months. Its a stressful process/time and people aren’t always at their best. I knew it was childish and I knew I just needed a bit of space – and after I got it, I have been able and willing to seek her mentoring and appreciate it wholeheartedly.

    I would not take this person’s rejection of personal criticism (and it is extremely difficult for any of us to accept that our personality is bad) at the end of the dissertation as an eternal rejection. It may be that this person is now feeling the same kind of frustration with their postdoctoral mentor, since they are the one they are currently dealing with at this stressful time, but you may be able to discuss this with them with the appropriate emotional distance. And it seems like all they really need to hear is that they are too brash during sensitive negotiations. If they really are a prima donna you aren’t going to stop this person from having outsize hopes for what they can get, but you can hope to stop them from turning people off with ridiculous demands.

  22. If you’re writing “neutral” letters and being more forthcoming on the mentee’s faults in phone calls, you are effectively killing their candidacy (without any additional information). If that’s your goal, because as DrugMonkey says above, you don’t think this individual would be an asset to a department, well, then you’re succeeding. If you’d like this person to find a job, on the other hand, you need to do something different. Approaching the conversation with — why don’t you think you’re having success after your call back? and then, you say the things you’ve said here as part of the conversation. Once you’ve said that you’ve 1) told them what they may need to fix — a job of a mentor and 2) told them that you are telling people that, and, so, if they’re not planning on addressing any of the issues you perceive, they should consider finding another recommendation letter writer.

  23. zbreeze brings up an important point. You are effectively vetoing the person’s job application. Maybe that’s a good thing, for the reasons that others gave, but you are definitely doing it. Let’s not dance around that.

    If a different blogger were to describe taking such an approach with a difficult trainee, I wonder how people would react to her (or him).

  24. “different blogger”, Alex? As in GMP?

  25. Honestly, DM, I have seen trainee vs. PI fights in many a comments section. I think I have even seen a few trainees lock horns with you on mentoring and career issues. Potnia Theron seems to be well-regarded by her comments section, and she certainly has insightful posts that merit that regard. OTOH there are other insightful bloggers who are generally well-regarded but would (perhaps rightly, perhaps wrongly) take more heat if they admitted to offering appraisals that effectively cut off the chance of a talented, accomplished, and hard-working trainee getting an independent position.

  26. First, I appeciate all the input here. Many of the differences of opinions both reflect and clarify my own conflicts. But I want to address the issue as to whether I am “killing their candidacy”.

    Anyone who does not write a letter that includes the line “please call me if you have additional questions” in letters of recommendation is screwing with both the candidate and future trainees. Anyone who does not answer blunt and specific questions on the phone honestly does incalculable damage to your future trainees. While we may all be one happy big academic family (blah blah blah), we live in much smaller subdisciplines where our reputations matter for our trainees. In one study section people were either referred to as “Santa Claus” or “Grinch” in their scoring. If you get that rep in your recommendations, your ability to help your trainees is lessened. If you are not honest (and no crap about turning weaknesses into strengths) about a trainee’s problem when asked, you will not be believed when you talk about the next one. Although, it is possible that if you dump on every single trainee, they will all seem good for having survived your personal reign of terror.

    There is a reason why Gaussian distributions are called normal. We tend to expect that. Deviate from that (all your trainees are superb with no flaws) and the world will tend to fault you, not your sampling process of all possible trainees. I am equally uncomfortable with killing someone’s chances and with lying by omission. I do believe there is a responsibility that a mentor takes on when a trainee graduates from your group, both to the trainee and the scientific world. It is easy to say “dump the fucker” when there is trouble, but in practice dealing with the left hand tail of the distribution presents many challenges of which this is only one. And for which we receive exactly zero explicit training.

  27. How people react to different bloggers and their posts has as much to do with the cumulative history of that blogger and their interaction with the community as it does with the post in question. When you read something in the context of a larger body of work, it is impossible not to use that context in your response.

    As for the question here, I think you can (and maybe should) tell them but expect little to no change in behavior. As others have pointed out, there are plenty of qualified people out there who are good and wont tear apart a department or possibly crush dozens of trainee souls. People like this tend to think they whole army is out of step with them, rather than examine what they might be doing wrong. Whereas it is not your call to make as to whether they get a job, obscuring this person’s nature for hiring committees does no one any favors.

    PT’s comment above is very insightful. We tend to view our scientifically solid trainees as those we need to keep in the field. Part of that is because we see promise in what these people can do, but another part is that a PI’s impact on their field is partly judged by their lab influence via lab spawn. I’m not saying this is good or bad, but it’s true. While it may be the best course in the long run, I think it takes a lot of guts to be as honest as possible when evaluating your trainees for potential employers.

  28. It sounds like TELLING this person something (as many comments suggest) will likely not be effective. Is there any way you can lead a conversation toward the person coming up with this idea on their own? As in “you’ve done a great job of getting interviews and getting invited back, I wonder why those second interviews haven’t materialized into job offers – have you noticed any trends in these second interviews that might be worth thinking about?” If you can get the person to recall that every Dean has recoiled upon seeing the startup request and every department Chair has grown a bit distant after their conversation about space requirements, perhaps the person will realize on their own that their approach needs some tweaking. On the other hand, if they can’t come up with anything, and won’t listen to your advice, there is only so much you can do.

    A question to the others commenting here, would you really leave a trainee hanging out to dry as some have implied? Even if he/she is a total jerk, I feel some responsibility for each and every one of my trainees. I wouldn’t support any of them for a job that is clearly not a good fit, but can usually find something that I can support them for.

  29. I am outside academia, but I cannot see that I would want someone who thought I was an asshole to be giving me recommendations. Is it appropriate to tell him to use someone else for the letters? It might be Too Obvious.

    Again, not in academia, but it does sound or me like you are nixing them being hired, because you are being honest. I do not thing you should be dishonest, I just wonder if you could be out of the loop. You could tell the person that you unfortunately cannot give the review they would like you to give and perhaps they should go elsewhere for the rec.

    Even if it would be a little fishy to not have the person in your position make a rec, it might still be better to leave that for them to explain in the interview while they provide someone else who could give a better one.

  30. Pingback: How to talk to former trainees – part the second | Mistress of the Animals

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