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General Advice on an Academic Career Path

Female Academic Minions

This document contains resources and notes that I've gathered about following an academic career path (from being a graduate student and postdoctoral fellow to faculty). I should preface this by stating this advice is geared towards an applied statistics/genomics field, but I think most of it applies to a broader set of fields. Pull requests and comments are welcomed!

Advice for Graduate Students

Why do a postdoc?

Applying for a postdoc

  • 20 percent of your applications should be to to advertised positions and 80 percent should be cold emails to people who you are interested in working with (i.e. leaders in your field). It's OK to email them directly (even if you've never met before).
  • The reason is because advertised positions are usually for projects that have already been funded and the principal investigator (PI) needs someone to complete the work. If that specific work interests you, awesome! If not (or if you have another project in mind), definitely email the individuals you do want to work with and propose your idea. If they have funding and you are a good fit for their lab/group, then they will want to hire you. They may be able to find the funding. If they don't have funding, but they think you are a good candidate, they might put you in touch with a colleague of theirs who would be interested in hiring a postdoc.
  • Read about the faculty's interests and if you have ideas, be sure to propose ideas on projects that you would like to work on and how it relates to the faculty's interests.
  • If you answering an advertised position, submit those materials. If you are sending a cold email, send an updated copy of your CV and a cover letter explicitly stating why you are a good fit for their lab/group.

Advice for Postdocs

Applying for faculty positions

The application package

The application package should contain (at a minimum):

  • A cover letter. What is unique about your interest in the department?
  • Your CV. Should contain the list of references (approximately 3-5).
  • A research statement. I have found the length varies significantly from field to field (anywhere from 1-15 pages). Generally though it should contain your past and current research interests and future research plans. e.g. What's your plan for your lab (2-3 projects) for the next 3-5 years? Write a good story. What's hot in your field? What are key limitations in your field? How does it complement existing expertise of faculty in the department?
  • A teaching statement. Again this varies from field to field and what type of position it is. If the position is mostly focused on research, then a 1 page teaching statement is sufficient. If the position is mostly teaching, then this should be significantly longer.
  • Prepare 3-5 reference letters to be emailed (or mailed via snail mail sometimes) directly to the department.

Cover letters and CVs

Research and teaching statements

Interviews

If your application was well-received and you get an offer to interview, CONGRATULATIONS! You made it through the first round! Here is a brief summary of what you should expect next.

1st interview

  • It is typically 1-2 days long. You will have many, many 15-30 mins meetings with faculty. This will be exhausting and exhilarating at the same time. Ask for water and to take breaks periodically if needed. Read up on the faculty by reviewing their profiles online.
  • You will have meetings with junior and senior faculty. Ask the junior faculty if the expectations of promotion were clearly explained to them? Do they get annual feedback on what to improve/focus on in the promotion evaluation? Ask the senior faculty if/how they mentor junior faculty in the promotion process?
  • You will typically give a one hour talk summarizing your research thus far and discussing your future research plans. This is where you want to shine! You want to show that you are the best candidate for the position. Practice your talk in front of different audiences (e.g. members of your lab, your family, your friends, your cat, your dog, your hamster, whatever works for you).
  • If this is mostly a teaching position, you may be asked to teach a class on a specific topic proposed by the hiring committee. If this is mostly a research position, you may be asked to give a chalk talk. The chalk talk may or may not include slides (be sure to ask the department).
  • You will probably be given the opportunity to meet with students over a lunch or coffee break. Be prepared to ask questions about how the students view the faculty. What are things the students like or don't like about the department. This can be very insightful.
  • There will be at least one meeting scheduled with the department head/chair. Come prepared with any questions that you still have.
  • You will probably go out to dinner with a set of faculty (who may be on the hiring committee). At dinner definitely be yourself. These are potential colleagues of yours. You want to know that you can get along with them and they want to know if they can get along with you.

A few interview killers: lack of enthusiasm, inability to interact well with the faculty, do not fit the vision or direction, do not have the specific background or teaching experience, lack of original or clear research plan.

Two most important parts to keep in mind: An impressive CV or set of publications lands you the job interview, but an impressive job talk lands you the job offer.

2nd interview

  • If the first interview was successful, an offer is made. Then comes the second interview, which is an opportunity to explore more of the town you would be moving to. The department may even offer to connect you with a relator to show you around the town.
  • You can meet with faculty that you may have not had the chance to meet on the first interview. You can also ask to meet with faculty outside of the department (e.g. potential collaborators).

Preparing for faculty interviews

  • Keep your CV up-to-date and accurate. No gaps. Get in touch with references sooner rather than later.
  • Research the department: what kind of support is available for young investigators? (e.g. small grants? local opportunities)?
  • What are the disciplinary backgrounds of the faculty? Specific expertise?
  • Do you know anyone there? If so, email them to find out more information about the department.
  • Be prepared to explain what you've done up until now (PhD, postdoc? did you take time off? your most recent work?)
  • Be prepared to explain what motivates you. Have a good sense of what your ideal job is.
  • Figure out the system for academic rank at the institution or university. For example, most people at the Harvard institutions start out as instructors (not as assistant professors). Read about the promotion metrics online if available.
  • Look at the publications of lab/group members 1-2 years ahead of you and see where the bar is set.

During the faculty interview

Things you may be asked:

  • "How come you only have 1 journal manuscript?". e.g. maybe the project was given to you as a graduate student or the project didn't really work out in the long run. If so, it is important to state what you learned from the project or how you moved forward.
  • "What are your key values that motivate your science?"
  • "Who are your biggest competitors in your area of research?"
  • "What specifically attracted you to our department?" e.g. pioneering department, many department resources, etc.
  • "What are the most important qualities of faculty in our department?"
  • "Tell me about your experience in teaching. What would you like to teach?" You could talk about how you've taught in a classroom and mentored PhD students. Give examples of the types of subjects.
  • "How would you see your career progressing over the next 3-5 years?" State research focus. State funding goals (e.g. R01).
  • "What are your weaknesses technically? How can you bolster those weaknesses?" e.g. you may have an inability to let go of a project that won't succeed, etc.
  • "Are there any technical skills you want to build up and enhance you effectiveness and funding capability?"
  • "How you would handle mentoring (e.g. undergraduates, graduate students)?" For example, for postdocs, it may be important to you to build a relationship, define the goals of the lab and let the postdoc innovate & gain a sense of being command of project to promote independence.

Things you may want to ask:

  • Are you happy? What is the departmental/institutional outlook on a work/life balance? Are there opportunities for building a life or family? Is there a gender mix in the faculty? Are there resources for helping young families? How much time do you spend on research versus other things (e.g. teaching, service to the department and/or university)?
  • What is the percentage of my salary that I'm expected to cover? How many years am I given at the beginning to ramp up before that starts?
  • Ask about protected time. Can you go to another institution to learn new technique/method?
  • Explicitly ask about the promotion process and tenure criteria. What are the metrics for promotion (e.g. a certain number of publications? teaching reviews? etc). Do you need an R01 grant to be promoted? If you want to take time off for maternity or paternity leave, how does this affect the tenure process? What's the turnover rate at the institution?
  • How well funded are the faculty? What is the percent of faculty funded by an R01?
  • Are there opportunities for mentorship from senior faculty (a formal or an informal mechanism)? Are senior faculty willing to help review grants and/or manuscripts? Are there opportunities for co-mentorship between faculty members of graduate students and postdocs?
  • Where do you see department going in the next 3-5 years? What are your plans for other recruitment?
  • How many graduate students does the department have? Are there training grants for students? (see NIH reporter) How are the graduate students funded? If you want to work with a student, do you need to cover tuition and/or stipend?
  • How are connections made? How are research collaborations formed within and outside of the department?
  • The chair makes a lot of decisions. Get a sense of what the chair's academic values are.
  • How are the computational resources funded? Are they provided to you at no cost? Is there an annual cost of your lab? Is there is cost per person in your group? How much?

Other important things to keep in mind:

  • Treat department secretaries/receptionists respectfully! They are your friend and there to help make the interview process as painless as possible. They also can express enthusiasm for particular candidates if asked.
  • Be enthusiastic. Body language is important. Confidence in yourself as a candidate is important. If you suffer from Imposter Syndrome, read up before the interview on books like Lean In or read more about it in #4 of my blogpost here.
  • Be specific in your goals. Verbalize why you want this job. Be direct and honest.
  • Keep in mind that the faculty you are scheduled meet with has either (1) never read your CV (most likely) or (2) quickly scanned your CV 10 minutes before the meeting (if you're lucky). Be prepared to succinctly summarize your work and research interests in a way that is relevant to the department/university that you are interviewing at. Also, there will be the 1-2 people who have spent some serious time looking at your CV and will ask some very insightful questions.
  • Do not ask about salary and/or negotiate salary, space, etc on the first interview. Do your due diligence and figure a ball park estimate for the salary of the type of job you are interested in.
  • Do not knock your present or past employer.

The offer letter

Key things to look for in the offer letter:

  • Salary (is it 12-months or 9-months? Is some summer salary included?), money equipment / supplies, support for graduate students or lab space, teaching load during 1st year and subsequent years, admin support, discretionary/startup funds, money to help relocate, starting date (this last one is typically flexible at research-focused positions and less flexible in teaching-focused positions)?
  • It's best to have a competing offer when negotiating. Talk to friends and mentors. Figure out what is "reasonable". What do you need for success? Find out if there is lab space, salary for graduate students, start up funding?
  • If you negotiate something over the phone or in person, be sure to get everything in writing before your sign the offer letter.
  • Keep in mind, you can and should ask for things that you truly believe will help you start out on the right foot. You may not get everything you asked for, but if you logically explain your reasoning behind each item, that usually goes a long way in getting some of the items.
  • Keep in mind, you can ask for just about anything (within reason). For example, a parking spot (if they are hard to come by), a spot in the daycare on campus for your child, supplemental housing support (if you are moving to a city with expensive housing), proximity of lab space to office, etc.

Advice for Faculty

For what it's worth, here is some specific advice that I've gotten:

  • Learn how to say no to almost everything people ask you to do and yes to specific things that will specifically advance your career and research goals. The majority of things you will be asked to do is extra or extracurricular with regards to your promotion. Therefore make sure to think carefully about what you commit to.
  • Find a sponsor. Someone to advocate for you, nominate you for awards and promote your work to colleagues.
  • When you are deciding whether or not to work with a potential collaborator, check out their publication list to assess what kind of productivity you should expect.
  • Get copies of successful grants. Ask people not in your field to review your grant because these are the types of people who will review your grant (i.e. avoid jargon and use simple enough language).

Examples of NSF Biosketch

Podcasts

Sources for academic job listings