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I will be graduating with a PhD from a US institution in computational sciences. I have published 10+ papers in peer reviewed journals in the field I am applying for jobs. I have been interviewed by some PIs, and after interview, I have been asked to submit a few hours of tasks for further evaluation. I was wondering if it is normal these days in hiring process to assign some work/test to evaluate the candidates on top of interview presentation. Anyway, I found the assignment interesting and have decided to work on it.

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    I don't understand why you plan to submit the report. A postdoc is a collaborator, supervision is minimal...if that's how this PI choose a collaborator, it's a major redflag. – Emilie Oct 31 '19 at 18:15
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    @Emilie, I think that the level of supervision is probably something that differs by field and place. – Buffy Oct 31 '19 at 18:39
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    Yes, this happened to me recently, and I was applying for a somewhat higher ranked position. However, the exam question was very thoughtful so I decided it reflected positively on the employer. – Anonymous Physicist Nov 1 '19 at 0:37
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    I've interviewed CS PhD's, with publications, that couldn't code their way out of a wet paper bag. I work in industry rather than academia (except for adjunct positions), but this doesn't strike me as unreasonable. It's an exam. If you can do the work, what's the big deal? I've also met people whose publications, source, etc. were generated with a lot of undocumented assistance. An exam is a good way to detect that. – 3Dave Nov 1 '19 at 19:02
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    It's important to remember that while you may list many things on you CV (and some of those may be easy to check for validity), not everyone tells the truth on their CV and so the institution may have decided this step is necessary to avoid CV fraud, particularly if they've been bitten in the past. In one of my former jobs, we brought someone in who, on paper, was excellent, but actually they were a terrible researcher and had just been lucky with getting first authorship on some papers. – n00dle Nov 2 '19 at 7:32
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It is highly unusual. As you note, the PI has plenty of "standard" information (publications, recommendation letter, CV, etc.) that can be used to assess your potential as a collaborator and independent scientist. This is what most PIs will use in the hiring process. Some will ask you to give a seminar or do an interview by phone, video, or in person.

How the PI evaluates you as a candidate will reflect how the PI evaluates you once you are an advisee. This is especially true if they ask you to do something unusual, which is certainly the case here.

You are being told that the work you have done in the past, the good credit that you have earned with your previous advisor, your attendance and interaction at seminars... these are unimportant factors compared to whatever skills this "exam" is testing. It sounds like you do not agree with that attitude. That is reasonable, and if true, I suggest that you and this advisor may not be a good match.

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  • I don't know that presenting a seminar to a potential employer is any easier (or preferable for the applicant, even if easier) versus doing some data analysis. – A Simple Algorithm Nov 1 '19 at 15:55
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    Good point, but the academic world does generally judge people and work on the basis of seminars and presentations, not technical exams. My point was about whether the applicant and PI agree on the relative importance of these assessment methods (not which is more fun for the applicant). – small_wayne Nov 1 '19 at 17:27
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    "Some [PIs] ask you to... do an interview." A postdoc is a job. I've never heard of anybody being hired for a job at anything other than a tiny organization without having an interview. – David Richerby Nov 2 '19 at 9:36
  • @DavidRicherby I definitely agree that it seems like a good idea! But whether it is done seems to be field-dependent. For instance, I submitted my postdoc application by email and was accepted within 12 hours without any questions. In my PhD lab (chemistry), about half of the ~20 postdocs were interviewed in person before hiring, and the others were not. Many of the latter brought external funding and had excellent recommendations from prominent scientists. I would have still interviewed them because none of that says anything about whether they would, for instance, be toxic personalities... – small_wayne Nov 2 '19 at 14:30
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    @MAPK I'm fully aware of that. That's why I posted a comment addressing this answer specifically, and quoting the exact part of the answer that I'm talking about, rather than posting a comment below your question. – David Richerby Nov 4 '19 at 19:30
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I find it a bit intriguing, actually. Though unusual. And, of course, if you object to it, move on now without another thought.

But perhaps she just wants to know how you will attack a new and fresh problem without the support you may have had in your studies. Or perhaps she and you are in a field in which a lot of opportunities pop up and there are threads of potential research that need a quick study and overview.

I don't find it offensive. Painful to comply with, perhaps, but that is up to you. Once she is paying you such things might become a requirement, not a request.

And I don't agree that she considers your accomplishments unimportant. But if the competition for the position is fierce, she will want every bit of information she can gather on candidates.

There is no reason to do this, unless you want the position, and no reason not to, but for the time it takes, if you do.

You choose.

Not everything that is weird is necessarily bad.


I'd love to hear from her why she does this. Maybe I'd be appalled.

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  • I will graduate in May 2020 and there are other PIs who want me to start this December as they need somebody to start immediately which I could not, but I wanted to confirm a position so I could start immediately after graduation. There are lots of jobs available in my field and the PI is from medical school ranked between 15-25 in the US, so it is not "Harvard" or "MIT". Also, I am graduating with a PhD within three years timeline and she was raising some concerns about my university's policy for letting someone graduate in just 6 semesters. I think I would not want to deal with such a PI. – MAPK Oct 31 '19 at 20:15
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    No problems then. Just move on. But it might be useful for your future to send a note. "Thanks for the opportunity, but I'm exploring other options." No need to give reasons. – Buffy Oct 31 '19 at 20:19
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My former PI used to give assignments to candidates he wasn't sure about but thought they might have potential. They would generally be small problems that he would then have one of his current students evaluate to see if 1) the general approach was reasonable and 2) how realistic their evaluation of their own progress was (e.g. knowing your results were poor was more important than getting good results).

He did this because his lab was relatively prestigious and got a ton of applications. He didn't want to limit his search to "only people from top 10 institutions" or "only people with publications in top journals" and he felt this approach gave talented people from diverse backgrounds a chance. It also made a sort of filter where if the borderline candidate didn't care enough to do the project, he didn't have to care enough to evaluate it. Since this PI expressed concerns about the amount of time you spent in your degree, they may have a similar mindset as my former PI.

Personally, I didn't find the projects that useful, at least for the candidates I evaluated. Maybe I was just a tough judge, but I generally found the candidates were less "passionate" and more "desperate" as the results I got back were generally higher effort than was being requested with an overly optimistic evaluation of their own progress. Still, it may have paid off for a talented person with a middling CV who wanted to make the move to a top tier institution.

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In the professional world there are plenty of interview processes that contain one or another way of skill assessment. That's pretty normal and not a way to devalue your general expertise but a matter of establishing whether your skills do fit the exact needs of the company and typically also if your way to apply them fits the company culture / type of person the company is looking for.

Whether an exam/report is the right and (e.g. wrt time investment) fair way to check how well you match for the given position is certainly debatable and definitely uncommon in the academic world. However, note that this does not mean your other qualifications do not matter, they are the basis on which you get to the test level. Whether the job is worth the involved effort only you can decide.

On the other hand, isn't it a bit odd, that you want to complete the report while you don't want to take the position either way? That wastes your time and that of the potential advisor who will likely read it. Then again, if it is so motivating to do for you, maybe it is the perfect check whether you bring the right kind of motivation with you for the job. And it can also be valuable to you if you know the kind of stuff you would later deal with on a daily basis...

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    I don't think the third paragraph is needed, but this echoed my thoughts pretty well. Even with publications and a PhD (which OP doesn't actually have yet), in industry OP would still probably have several rounds of tests. – Mars Nov 1 '19 at 5:54
  • @MAPK While I meant the kind of task not the person, judging the personal fit is of course also an aspect and totally up to you. However, going over github etc and still wanting additional testing in some form, small project, interview day with tasks etc is totally in the normal range in the professional industry world. Indeed not so much in academia, where typically it's more giving a talk. But that alone doesn't indicate any kind of psycho mentality, if at all more an industry-like mindset. Of course the task can be way too time-intense, that doesn't seem to be the issue for you though. – Frank Hopkins Nov 1 '19 at 16:20
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How does this project fit with the PI's research goals? The answer may be surprising.

Do you think this project would lead to a publication? Is it possible this project would lead to a note or other short submission? If so, go for it. Even if you don't get the job, you can submit a paper.

If it is a throw-away project, I would avoid it, unless you need the job.

And don't forget that you may be the top candidate!

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