Advice for the academic job search


star searchFor many of us in the biomedical research field, we have always wanted to be a professor and run our own research lab even if it meant the gauntlet of the dreaded academic job search. For some it is fair to say that that goal is really a passion, a dream. However, to achieve that end sometimes seems like a mindboggling maze of a task. First, there is graduate school, then doing at least one postdoc, and then comes the biggest hurdle of all: getting an academic job. How does one go about doing that?

The process of getting an offer for an academic job, say a tenure track Assistant Professor position, is no piece of cake ever, but has been even more challenging in the last couple years because of the terrible economy.

When I began job-hunting about 7 years ago, the jobs sections in the back of Nature and Science magazines were thick, and the job search was tough back then. These days, they are quite thin. There are hints that institutions are starting to hire at the faculty level again in higher numbers, but the job search is still extremely challenging.

For whatever it is worth, here’s some advice. I have been an assistant professor for almost 5 years so the job search is still fresh in my mind, but I have also been around long enough to have seen things from the other side being on numerous search committees. Here is my top 10 list of bits of advice for the academic job search

1. My first advice is do not bother applying for jobs that are not in your area of interest and/or expertise. This is a waste of your time and everyone else’s.  Even if by some luck you were to score an interview for such a position, believe me you will not get it.  Even if you did, you wouldn’t be happy. Universities are looking for scientists in specific areas for good reasons. If you are not a scientist in that area, move on to another job ad. Don’t try to be something that you are not.

2. Funding is more critical than ever. Before you even think about trying to make the jump from postdoc to PI, you should be trying hard to get funding as a postdoc.  It could be a postdoctoral fellowship, but even better is a K award from NIH some of which you might be able to take with you.  Increasingly, search committees are asking whether applicants already have funding. If you do, you have already gotten the attention of the search committee, which is a major hurdle. Keep in mind that the payline for funding for K awards often is around 10%, but if you don’t try you’ll never get it.

3. Don’t apply to kajillions of jobs. There are only going to be a few job openings that are truly a good fit for you. Focus your efforts on applying to only a handful of jobs.

4. The process by which faculty positions are filled often begins months or years before the job is even advertised. It begins by networking and getting to know people in your field. Going to meetings. Forging collaborations with people. Being generous with reagents. Science is a very small world, but even so it is too easy to be an “unknown” applicant and if you are, you are at a major disadvantage.

5. This goes without saying, but it is so important I’ll say it anyway: publish. If you have few to none first author papers as a postdoc, you are going to have serious trouble finding an academic job. Middle author papers barely count.  Even better than a first author paper is a paper on which you are the corresponding author. This may only be possible as a senior postdoc and for research that you truly pioneered in that lab.

6. Talk to your mentor. Some mentors are extremely helpful with the whole process of job hunting. Their assistance can come in the form of advice on the application process or even more helpful is them putting the word out that you are looking for a job and they think you are awesome.  Some mentors won’t do this, but it doesn’t hurt to politely ask.

7. If you score an interview, learn as much as you can about the place and people before you go. Prepare questions to ask ranging from science to practical issues. Simple things like asking “What’s the weather like here in Timbuktu?” are better than stony silence, which can often be interpreted as a lack of preparation or interest.

8. On your visit, give a seminar that you have practiced many times, hopefully in front of an audience that gives you frank feedback, even brutal feedback. Better that your friends and peers do this, than the search committee thinking it in their heads. The seminar absolutely should not be more than 50 minutes.  Going on for 65-70 minutes is a very unwise thing to do. You make people think you are unprepared, arrogant, etc. and you tax their patience. You get decision makers annoyed with you. You screw up the timing of your schedule. You don’t allow time for questions.

9. If you are scheduled to give a chalk talk, realize that this is even more important than your formal seminar. This is the chance for a dialogue. Getting back to the early point about funding, show that you are aware of the importance of funding during your chalk talk. Organize it like you are presenting the aims of your first R01. Be prepared to say why you want to come to U. of X, but also what you bring with you.  If you are not going to give a chalk talk, then spend the last 10 min. or so of your formal presentation talking about future plans.

10. This may seem counterintuitive, but try to keep in mind that you are interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you.  This is not a license to be arrogant, but rather is a reminder that an interview is a two-way street. As much as you should be trying to impress them, you are also interviewing them (delicately) to see if this place would really be a good fit for you. What are its strengths and weaknesses as a potential place for you to start your career as an assistant professor? In fact that is a totally reasonable question to ask people during the interview. But also be prepared to be asked why you think this place would be a good home for you. People want you to have done your homework.

Good luck!

1 thought on “Advice for the academic job search”

  1. Funding is more critical than ever. Before you even think about trying to make the jump from postdoc to PI, you should be trying hard to get funding as a postdoc. It could be a postdoctoral fellowship, but even better is a K award from NIH some of which you might be able to take with you.

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