realworld PhDs

A resource for job hunting PhDs.

The perfect wave

Last week, I had lunch with a friend who had recently interviewed for a dream job.  The interviews went well, she liked them, they liked her.  She was a great fit for the role.  It was the kind of organization she could see herself spending the rest of her career with.  But then?  The big no.


We’ve all had those experiences.  We’ve all had those perfect roles that fall through.  In general, getting called for interviews, being a great fit for a role, and having great chemistry with people in your field of interest are all signs that you’re on the right track, that even if this job doesn’t come through, something similar will be right around the corner.  And yet, far from confirming that we’re on the right path, these near misses can be some of the biggest obstacles job hunters experience.  It’s all too easy to feel like no position will ever be as perfect a fit as that one, so if that didn’t work out, what will?

There’s a movie from the 80s called “Summer School” - if you haven’t seen it, you should; it’s great, silly fun.  But it also has one of the best exchanges on the subject of near misses, between the story’s protagonist, a lay-about, surfing-obsessed teacher, and one of his students, who is also a surfer (the story takes place in Southern California - it’s not that weird) and who has developed a crush on him, trying to let her down easy. He tells her, “Have you ever seen a perfect wave?  And you think you’ve got it, but the next thing you know, you’re in the seaweed.  But then you see an even more perfect wave than the first perfect wave, and that’s the one you get.”

The student, unimpressed by the metaphor, replies, “Sure, I get it - you’re the perfect wave, and I’m seaweed.”

The quote always sticks with me, partly because I love that movie, but also because I think it really nails how all of us have felt, at one time or another, about near misses.  We’ve all had rejections from perfect opportunities, and all we took away from the experience was that that was the perfect wave and we’re seaweed, not, as the metaphor is meant to tell us, that success in life, as in surfing, is all about timing.  There’s a whole lot of tiny, uncontrollable details that go into scoring the perfect job or surfing the perfect wave, and even things that feel perfect in the moment can still leave you in the seaweed.  But the only way to guarantee you’ll never hit the perfect wave (to really stretch this metaphor) is to pack up your board and go home.  In order to score that perfect wave, you’ve got to stay in the water.