Getting an Academic Job

The advice you won’t be getting at that panel discussion … and the article you should have read three (or more) years ago

September 18, 2011

It’s time for the yearly the academic job frenzy once again. The ads are out and the props are being feverishly written. Thousands of chemists are applying for about a hundred jobs. (If we focus on only the big research institutions, the number of jobs absolutely dwindles to around 30 – in good years – while the number of applicants stays the same.) All you can reasonably hope for in this case is a shot at an interview. And, with an average of three interviewees per opening, the odds aren’t very enticing.

Just imagine … this could be YOU some day! (Image Source)

So, how the hell does a person go about increasing their odds of getting one of these coveted on-campus-interviews? What are search committees actually looking for? And, how can you pitch yourself so that a search committee will see you in a “light” that suits you best?

Its a frustrating situation to be in. The entire application process feels a lot like a crap-shoot. There are lots of good resumés. There are countless candidates working for big-name PIs. How do these committees go about making their decisions?

Like many of you this year, I was in the same position last year (and the year before, and the year before that). And like all of you, I tried to put myself into the best position possible to give myself a shot at employment. One of the ways I did this was by attending several “Academic Jobs” panel discussions. These talks were always stocked with PIs from respected institutions who had both survived the hiring process and been part of academic searches during their careers. I went to these events expecting to come away with some foundation-shaking bit of information that would completely alter how I was going to present myself. Unfortunately, I never gleaned ANYTHING useful from any of the panel discussions.

The sage advice that was always given included:

1. Publish lots in the best journals.
2. Work for a big-name/highly recognized PI.
3. Make sure you get a set of good letters from famous scientists who know you well.
4. Did we mention … publish lots in the best journals.

What a load of bull that info was! Chances are, if you haven’t figured these things out, your chances aren’t very good to begin with. But, taking a closer look at some of this advice shows how very simplistic it is.

Let’s start with number 2: Work for a big-name professor. If we assume that big-name professor equals someone who is a PI at a top 5 chemistry institution (current list: Caltech, MIT, Berkeley, Harvard, and Stanford). There are a lot of big-named professors at these universities with enough postdocs to populate more than all of the academic job openings every year. If we expand that list to just the top 10 (Illinois, Northwestern, Scripps, Wisconsin, Columbia and Cornell) the number of potential quality candidates balloons. And that’s the problem. You can’t just work for Professor X and expect to land an academic job. It is just not reasonable to do so in the current hiring climate.

Moving to number 3: get a good letter from your boss. Thanks for that bit of advice, Dr. Obvious. As we just discussed, each PI at the top research institute likely has several postdocs going into the academic search every year. If you don’t get the “good” letter from your boss, you are not going to get an interview. Again, this should be plainly obvious to anyone and to have it brought up at these job panels is, frankly, insulting.

Now on to 1 and 4: Publish. Lots. High impact factor journals. Then. Publish. More!! Again, here’s some more info that seems to come from the land of the obvious. And, while publication record IS important, I think that there are other factors that are more important, though they may be implicit. And, its these implicit criteria that I’d like to get to in this post.

“Wait a minute!!” you say. “Haven’t you only been a professor for a year … at a primarily undergraduate institution? What do you know about anything.”

Reasonable questions, these are. I will say the following: I have been through, and observed, the application/interview/hiring process several times. I’ve learned from my own mistakes. And, I’ve been to enough conferences and observed enough interactions with “it-candidates” that I’ve taken away an idea of what search committees are really after. Also, I have no designs on making any of you feel good about yourselves. I’m going to give advice in this post. Take it or leave it. But, I believe that the advice will have much more truth to it than you are likely to see elsewhere. And, on that note, if you disagree with any of my statements or have anything to add, please add your thoughts to the comments section. This post is not for my benefit, but for those who are searching for jobs. They all need as much help as we can give them.

I’m going to proceed with this post by listing things that you have moderate control over or are of moderate importance and finish up discussing aspects that you have absolute control over and includes what may be the single most important determinant in getting you a job. (Final disclaimer: this advice is mostly aimed at people ending their graduate careers or just starting their postdocs. My apologies to those of you applying this year … but at this point, there is only so much more that you can do to help yourselves.)

Things you have moderate control over

1. Picking the right PI There are obviously lots of “right” PIs to work for. This is both a blessing and a curse. It is possible that you can end up in a situation that just takes off, or you can lose the tug-of-war over your advisors attention to your other lab mates. Part of this is what you make of your time with any PI. But, here is what you want going in: You want to work on a project that your boss is going to talk about all the time (whether or not you are working on this project). Search committees want a known entity. If they go to meetings and hear your boss talking about you/your research all the time, you will be more likely to get one of those elusive interviews. Search committees are looking for good colleagues. (Note: this theme will recur throughout this post. And, there are multiple ways for you to show this quality. You need to maximize your ability to show that you are going to be a good colleague.) The more they know about you, the better off you’ll be.

Another little bit of control you have in these situations is to choose a PI who continually puts people in academic positions. What you want to look for most are PI’s who have placed their PhDs/Postdocs in good academic jobs most recently. I have been an applicant in the academic job pool and seen three or four students/postdocs from an individual PI all interviewing at multiple schools. Seems crazy that this would happen. But I’ve seen it happen a couple times now. If have yet to pick a postdoctoral advisor, pay attention to whose people are interviewing for jobs this year. “How do you do that?” you ask. Interviewing schools often place their seminar schedules on-line. It’s the unspoken understanding that everyone in the game (applicants and hiring committees) know who is interviewing at which schools. So, if you have yet to pick a postdoctoral advisor, use this little bit of information to help you make your decision.

2. Picking a project Echoing what I wrote above, pick a project that your boss is going to talk about. Aside from that, pick a project that other faculty members not in your field are going to care about. How can you assure yourself of this? Talk to your colleagues in other disciplines about the projects you may be working on. If they find them interesting and (especially) if they already know a bit about the details of a project, chances are that you are on the right path.

In this game of getting an interview and getting hired, there are many stumbling blocks that can get you along the way. One of the trickiest includes stubborn faculty members. If a search committee member doesn’t think that what you have done/what you are doing is important or interesting, it can completely scuttle your candidacy. You need to be prepared for this while you are applying. There may not be much you can do about it. But, working on a project with broad appeal is a good place to start.

You also want to pick a project that is going to publish a lot. This may be the biggest crapshoot of all. Obviously some PIs publish more than others. But, on a project per project basis, you really don’t have any way of predicting which individual project is going to take off. So, refer to my last bit of advice: pick a project with broad appeal.

3. Publish lots See my last bit of advice.

I have heard that one of the absolute giants in the field of chemistry tells his charges: “Search committees are dumb. They may not be able to read. But they can certainly count.” Translation: Search committees have lots of applications to look at. They may not read your entire proposal, but they will definitely count the number of publications you have.

This is certainly true. And the number/quality of publications you have is very important. But, you can’t know that a project is going to lead to Nature/Science/Angewandte/JACS/Nature Chemistry papers or if it will lead to other publications.

However, I have seen candidates who have reasonable (read: not ridiculously long) publication records end up with really good interviews and jobs, ending up at top 10 departments. I believe there is a more important factor in job placement than publications and I will discuss it later in this post.

4. Getting a good letter from your PI Again, you have moderate control here. Some PIs are just more confrontational than others. Some PIs write all of their students/postdocs the same letter. Again, there are a few things that you can do to help yourself out. The first is, again, by seeing what PIs do a good job of placing their students year after year. You should know your field well enough by the time you finish your PhD to know who is placing their former charges into good academic jobs. Don’t go into your postdoc blind. It is up to you to use this information to get where you want to go. If you want a big time position at a research institution, you can’t just expect to do good research and have good things happen. To some extent, this will happen. But, there are so many of us doing good work and putting in long hours, you need to be able to differentiate yourself as much as you can.

If you are applying for a job now, you need to lobby your advisor for support. And, I don’t mean just asking them to write you a letter. You need to pick out a couple jobs and tell your advisor: “I want THESE jobs. What do you think we need to do so that I can get an interview there. Can you call anyone at these places to push for me to get an interview.” Again, you only have moderate control over this situation. But, I guarantee that there are some PIs who are very pushy in getting their students placed. You can’t let your application be lifeless in the huge pile of applications sitting on the search committees desk.

Things you have “absolute” control over

1. Your proposals Search committees are not just looking for good scientists, they are looking for good colleagues. They want people who are going to bring money and prestige into the department. Your proposals are a good place to prove that you can do that. Now, you have two options (I think) when writing your props, and I’m really not capable of speaking to which is the best option. I’ve seen candidates be successful using either pathway.

1) Write an NIH or NSF-style proposal in order to prove that you know how to write a successful grant for a review panel. You can show off your abilities as a writer, and you’ll already have your first grant mostly written by the time you start your job.
2) Write shorter props that highlight exactly what you are going to study and why you are going to do it. The advantage of going this route is that people on a search committee might actually take time to read it. If you are a “marginal” candidate (maybe not the most stellar pedigree or publication list) this might be the best way to catch a committees attention. (Read: “Oooh … shiny … look at this).

But, the one thing that your proposals should absolutely do is reflect your pedigree. If you are going to be brought in for an interview, chances are really good that the committee is going to have a preconceived notion of “who” you are. I don’t know if its the best policy if you don’t match that preconception. Take for instance my early attempts at getting interviews. I my pedigree (PhD and postdoc) primarily fell within the world of (bio)inorganic chemistry, although my research could really be classified as biophysical. I chose to write my proposals as biophysical and sell myself that way. Needless to say, this didn’t work out well. When I reevaluated and marketed myself, instead, as a bioinorganic chemist, I was much more successful. In short: write props that a committee might expect for someone coming out of the groups where you have worked.

2. Become an expert in your field This is the ABSOLUTE MOST IMPORTANT THING YOU CAN DO!!! I’m going to bring the good colleague bit up again. Search committees are looking for people who are going to be seen as THE expert in their field. In theory, this means that you are the first person a chemist will think of when they have a question about your little corner within your subdiscipline. In practice, it means that if a “chemist with a question” is at the same conference as you, they will come seek you out. For instance, I have a friend who is one of the go-to people in the world if you are interested in X-ray spectroscopy of metals in proteins, and coincidentally has a really good understanding of catalytic mechanisms in these types of proteins. This might seem like a relatively obscure thing to be an “expert” of, but I am fairly confident that my friend, who is on the job market this year, will do really well in getting interviews. I am confident of this because, after just attending a conference with him, I have seen multiple PIs at big research institutions come up to talk to him about things related to their own research. And, that right there is what constitutes what a search committee is actually looking for. They want you to have already cultivated this persona and these types of relationships. Remember, the interviewing process is a crapshoot, if a committee already knows that you have this type of stature within a field, they will come calling to you.

Of my friends who have landed jobs at top 20 schools recently, they had already been viewed by people within chemistry to be tops in their fields. And this has been true over multiple disciplines (solar energy, analytical chemistry of systems biology, non-innocent ligands, homogeneous polymerization). PIs already knew and respected these friends of mine BEFORE they had become independent researchers. And, this didn’t happen by accident. All of these people were brilliant at both giving talks and networking while they attended conferences. They would ask pointed questions to PIs during poster sessions. And, whether they knew it or not, they developed their images as “chemists with insight”. I can’t stress enough (to those of you ending grad school/starting your postdoc) how important this type of interaction is. If you can be seen in this light, you will do well, even if your publication list isn’t the longest. Go to conferences. Talk with EVERYONE about science. About your science. About their science. About other science as well. You need to set the stage early in order to have your application be moved off the big stack.

Another related bit of advice, go to niche conferences that are just a hair off of the scope of your own research. Present your work. Do lots of talking. Show them how your work is both interested and related to what they do. Make PIs who aren’t in your field think of your research, and you, when they reach a “wall” in their projects. In essence, convince people outside of your specialty that you are a good scientist worthy of giving advice and guidance.

I think that this is the one aspect of my graduate/postdoctoral career that I didn’t work at hard enough. I have always been a little cowed at conferences, nervous that I’ve got no business talking science/shop with established professors. But, all search committees want colleagues who can talk science and hold their own while doing it. If you can’t do this prior to your first academic position, chances are, you’re not going to be a natural when you are finally independent.

Final Notes

For those of you who are in the market now, I do apologize if I haven’t given you much to work on. As I’ve said multiple times now, you need to lay the seeds early to prove your worth as a future PI. This, unfortunately, involves much more than working hard and doing good work in lab. There are so many of “us” applying, that, in order to get an interview, you need to have a good pedigree and a good publication record. If you don’t have the pedigree, your publication record had better be stellar. (I’m not saying that this is “right” or fair. It’s just the way it is.)

For those of you who are want to some day be a PI, I hope that my advice is helpful to you. One really needs to start early. But, considering that a good scientist will be doing most of these things anyway (publishing, going to conferences, being seen as a respected researcher). Be wise in choosing your postdoctoral advisor and projects (for the reasons that I have outlined). Go to lots of conferences, small ones (like GRCs), where you can maximize the types of interactions you need to have to advance your career.

And, best of luck to all of you.


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6 Responses to Getting an Academic Job

  1. sciencegeist says:

    If you’re prepping your application package, you NEED to check out Doc Becca’s Tenure Track job search advice aggregator. It is the awesomeness, as is she. But there is loads of good advice on how to make a professional application and what to do when you get an interview and, hopefully, negotiating your starting package. This is NECESSARY reading for anyone applying for academic jobs.

  2. All good advice, except I recall many years ago reading an article on the same topic in Physics Today. You need to get on that short list. You also have to be honest. So before you apply to your best choices, you find out exactly what they want to hear, and write your proposal accordingly. You can also email or call a couple of people to ask questions, especially if you know someone. Your name gets heard and will stand out. No matter how good you are and how great your research, there are many competitors. Get your foot in the door without be intrusive and express your eagerness to join the department if offered a job. You can modify your research proposal to be in line with their needs, and you can ask the search committee when the meetings will be and when decisions are made. Even make a casual trip: “I will be in your area on such a date and would welcome the opportunity to discuss your job postings and have a look at your department.” People on search committees are people, and whether they admit it or not, enjoy a sense of power in deciding. All I am saying is a bit of lobbying can get you into that inner circle and there for an interview.

    Excellent credentials are essential, but you want the search committee to have some personal knowledge of you.

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