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Saturday, June 03, 2006

Going round in circles.

In my ongoing quest for a proper job, I am becoming something of an officianado of University websites. And I really need to let off a little steam! A few days ago, I was pointed toward a directory of PIs working in my field and have been preparing a mass emailing effort. The list contained a rather daunting 1200+ names, and so I have spent the past week whittling that down to about 100 who A) Interest me and B) aren't dead (nobody dies in cyberspace, their contact details just don't get updated). To do so, I have been visiting A LOT of lab homepages, checking email addresses etc and getting a feel for their work and their lab group.

The problem is that many University websites are absolutely atrocious. Most of the direct links from my list are out of date now (the database was started 10 years ago) and so I have to go in through the university's front page and look for the member of staff. I'm sorry to say, but our cousins across the pond are particularly bad at designing websites. Some of the biggest institutes in the world are almost impossible to navigate. Sure they look very pretty - tasteful colour schemes, photographs of an ethnically diverse range of unfeasibly good-looking students throwing their mortar boards into the air and lots of nice little icons. But navigating into the bowels of the site to find a lab's personal homepage can be make you grind your teeth in frustration.

Whereas most of the British Universities I've visited have a tab on the frontpage marked "Research", remarkably some of the world's most famous research institutes don't. One University (out of politeness I shan't name names) has just such a link, but it takes you to the page for the staff of the funding office. Now don't get me wrong, they are an indispensible and undervalued part of any research institute, but who in their right mind includes a link to the admin service on their frontpage (and after clicking every other link, I found NO link to the actual research departments)?

Another way is to search for the member of staff directly. Usually there are a couple of ways of doing this. One is to search the entire university's site for any mention of the lab head's surname. That's OK if they have a rare surname, but you can imagine how many hits you get if the researcher is "Smith" or "Jones". Several hundred hits for the surname of one particular individual at a large university had me banging my head on the keyboard in frustration. The second option is to search the staff directory. Assuming that the staff directory is available to outside visitors (it very often isn't), several of world's finest institutions returned "server down" messages. And even when the service does work, the information returned is often of limited use. Typically one gets the persons name and title, sometimes their email address, usually their phone number and their room number. That does confirm that they still work there and that their email address is up-to-date but still doesn't get you a link to their homepage, which is what I really want.

I will admit that I am a bit spoilt. At my old university, they upgraded the campus directory software to a newer version and allowed staff free reign to add extra details. They also allowed certain fields to remain invisible to external visitors eg exact room numbers - after all the last thing you want is Animal Rights Terrorists knowing exactly which office people work in. My profile had my name, title and position, building zone, direct dial numbers plus a link to my lab's homepage. Optional fields also included links to any modules that I might teach etc.

Eventually, I find the details I want, decide I like the look of the lab and its work and add it to my email list. However, one particularly irritating aspect of US universities in particular (and I apologise for picking on the US, it's just more exagerated) is their assumption that you know where they are! Many of the US' educational institutes are named after the philanthropist that funded their inception, so the name gives no clue. One particularly famous institution has several campuses in several cities. Perhaps it says more about my ignorance than anything else, but I didn't even know which end of the United States it was at! It took me almost a quarter of an hour to find what state the University was in (eventually I found it by looking to see which law firm is in charge of the University's legal affairs believe it or not!), since all of the mailing addresses were either internal or a PO Box. I finally gave up trying to work out which campus the lab I was interested in is actually situated on. I'll ask ifI get offered an interview.


That's better! I have about 50 more PIs to check, then it's time to start emailing! My CV is up-to-date and I have a basic cover letter that I will personalise to the email's recipient (stock phrases include "I am particualrly drawn to your lab because..."). If I get any reply at all from 10% of the recipients, I will be amazed. If I get any positive replies at all, I shall be ecstatic!



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