I was recently helping a friend with her search for a position as a junior researcher in European academe. This was not my first exposure to things as they are with regard to such positions -- I had just landed a similar junior position in the Netherlands myself, and I had seen dozens, if not hundreds, of advertisements for such jobs previously. But it was the first time I ran across a seemingly unimportant practical issue with this kind of advertisement: when preparing a cover letter for the application, we had no idea whom it should be addressed to. I checked the advertisement again, from the very top to the bottom, and there was not a single word in it about the principal investigator or, for that matter, any other person directly involved with the project.
The solution to our problem was pretty straightforward: we simply opened the letter with a generic “Dear sir/madam.” But it suddenly dawned on me that a large chunk of such advertisements I had seen contained no information whatsoever about the PI or the group. This wasn’t a big issue for my friend. Her field, seismology, was so vast that chances were she had never heard the PI’s name in any case. And the information in the advertisement was sufficient to pique her interest in the position -- even if she couldn’t do a scientific-background search on the PI.
In tiny fields like mine, however, it is a wholly different story. My area of expertise is early Islamic history, a subject on which barely a few hundred scholars are working in Euro-America. When you are active in so small a field for a few years, you get to know most of those people -- or at least the bigwigs who lead projects -- and it’s also possible, if not inevitable, that you will stack up histories with some of them. That means that you can’t work with just anyone in the field, and, as such, you cannot apply for a position without knowing who the person running the project is.
But this is not a question merely of personal histories. There are dozens of people who are more senior than me but whom I wouldn’t want to work with, for a variety of very good reasons. There are people in my field whom working with would be tantamount to professional suicide, just as there are people whom associating with might pose personal, material risks to me. And these are secondary to the purely academic issue of being able to get along with this or that scholar’s line of research or approach. On occasion, you simply can’t work with someone because of differences in worldview, scientific outlook or approach to source material -- no matter how amiable both of you are in personal terms.
The advertisement for my own position did give the name of the PI, but it did not say anything about the involvement of a second person in a supervisory role. I am not sure I would have applied for the position without knowing under whose tutelage I was going to work. But I was lucky enough to find out, through a back channel, all the details about the position and the project before applying for it -- which is why I failed at the time to take notice of the existence of this omnipresent problem with junior researcher job advertisements.
Since becoming alive to it, I have been paying more attention, and it turns out to be much more widespread than one would imagine at first sight. Many PIs generally seem to content themselves, presumably inadvertently, with putting out a call giving the descriptions of the project and the requirements for the position, without thinking of giving any information about themselves -- not even their names. At times, some names are given within the body of the advertisement, but it is not clear what exactly what role the people mentioned play in the project. At other times, only a name or email address is given for making inquiries.
It’s true that the number of full-time academic positions is dwindling rapidly against the number of people who have the required qualifications for them. But this overcrowded labor market doesn’t give us leave to impinge, wittingly or unwittingly, upon the rights of our would-be employees. A Ph.D. candidate or postdoc spends a few of their best years on a project that is not of their choosing, so the least we could do for them is to give them as much information about what they are going to sign up for in advance. Applicants, including junior scholars, have a right to know about their prospective jobs. We must respect that right.