Sunday, 5 March 2017

Advice for early career researchers re job applications: 1. Work 'in preparation'

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I posted a couple of tweets yesterday giving my personal view of things to avoid when writing a job application. These generated a livelier debate than I had anticipated, and made me think further about the issues I'd raised. I've previously blogged about getting a job as a research assistant in psychology; this piece is directed more at early career researchers aiming for a postdoc or first lectureship. I'll do a separate post about issues raised by my second tweet – inclusion of more personal information in your application. Here I'll focus on this one: 
  • Protip for job applicants: 3+ 1st author 'in prep' papers suggests you can't finish things AND that you'll be distracted if appointed

I've been shortlisting for years, and there has been a noticeable trend for publication lists to expand to include papers that are 'in preparation' as well as those that are 'submitted' or 'under review'. One obvious problem with these is that it's unclear what they refer to: they could be nearly-completed manuscripts or a set of bullet points. 
My tweet was making the further point that you need to think of the impression you create in the reader if you have five or six papers 'in preparation', especially if you are first author. My guess is that most applicants think that this will indicate their activity and productivity, but that isn't so. I'd wonder whether this is someone who starts things and then can't finish them. I'd also worry that if I took the applicant on, the 'in preparation' papers would come with them and distract them from the job I had employed them to do. I've blogged before about the curse of the 'academic backlog': While I am sympathetic about supporting early researchers in getting their previous work written up, I'd be wary of taking on someone who had already accumulated a large backlog right at the start of their career.

Many people who commented on this tweet supported my views:
  • @MdStockbridge We've been advised never to list in prep articles unless explicitly asked in the context of post doc applications?. We were told it makes one looks desperate to "fill the space."
  •  @hardsci I usually ignore "in prep" sections, but to me more than 1-2 items look like obvious vita-padding
  • @larsjuhljensen "In prep" does not count when I read a CV. The slight plus of having done something is offset by inability to prioritize content.
  • @Russwarne You can say anything is "in preparation." My Nobel acceptance speech is "in preparation." I ignore it.
  • DuncanAstle I regularly see CVs with ~5 in prep papers... to be honest I don't factor them into my appraisal.?
  • @UnhealthyEcon I'm wary if i see in-prep papers at all. Under review papers would be different.
  • @davidpoeppel Hey peeps in my labs: finish your papers! Run -don't walk -back to your desks! xoxo David. (And imho, never list any in prep stuff on CV...)
  • @janhove 'Submitted' is all right, I think, if turn arounds in your field are glacial. But 'in prep' is highly non-committal.

Others, though, felt this was unfair, because it meant that applicants couldn't refer to work that may be held up by forces beyond their control: 
  • @david_colquhoun that one seems quite unfair -timing is often beyond ones's control
  • @markwarschauer I disagree completely. The more active job applicants are in research & publishing the better.
  • @godze786  if it's a junior applicant it may also mean other authors are holding up. Less power when junior
  • @tremodian All good except most often fully drafted papers are stuck in senior author hell and repeated prods to release them often do nothing.
 But then, this very useful suggestion came up:  
  • @DrBrocktagon But do get it out as preprint and put *that* on CV
  • @maxcoltheart Yes. Never include "in prep" papers on cv/jobapp. Or "submitted" papers? Don't count since they may never appear? Maybe OK if ARKIVed
The point here is that if you deposit your manuscript as a preprint, then it is available for people to read. It is not, of course peer-reviewed, but for a postdoc position, I'd be less interested in counting peer-reviewed papers than in having the opportunity to evaluate the written work of the applicant. Preprints allow one to do that. And it can be effective:
  • @BoyleLab we just did a search and one of our candidates did this. It helped them get an interview because it was a great paper
But, of course, there's a sting in the tail: once something is a preprint it will be read by others, including your shortlisting committee, so it had better be as good as you can get it. So the question came up, at what point would you deposit something as a preprint? I put out this question, and Twitter came back with lots of advice:
  • @michaelhoffman Preprint ≠ "in prep". But a smart applicant should preprint any of their "submitted" manuscripts.?
  • @DoctorZen The term "pre-print" itself suggests an answer. Pre-prints started life as accepted manuscripts. They should not be rough drafts.
  • @serjepedia these become part of your work record. Shoddiness could be damaging.
  • @m_wall I wouldn't put anything up that hadn't been edited/commented by all authors, so basically ready to submit.
  • @restokin If people are reading it to decide if they should give you a job, it would have to be pretty solid. 
All in all, I thought this was a productive discussion. It was clear that many senior academics disregard lists of research outputs that are not in the public domain. Attempts to pad out the CV are counterproductive and create a negative impression. But if work is written up to a point where it can be (or has been) submitted, there's a clear advantage to the researcher in posting it as a preprint, which makes it accessible. It doesn't guarantee that a selection committee will look at it, but it at least gives them that opportunity.