Landing that first, coveted academic position can be difficult. Here are some tips from the experts.
Contributor Anthea Lacchia
The pursuit of science makes for an attractive career, but academic positions are hard to come by. What will really set your application apart? During the Boston NatureJobs Career Expo 2015, Esther Bullitt (Boston University School of Medicine), Rich Gurney (Simmons College), Vanja Klepac-Ceraj (Wellesley College), and Kim McCall (Boston University), shared their insights into how to get an academic job and how to keep it. The panel was chaired by Ann Skoczenski, career development programmer at Massachusetts General Hospital.
If there is one thing the panellists stressed it was the importance of tailoring each job application for the particular needs and priorities of the institution you’re seeking to join. “You have to be a good fit, so do your homework on what the department is about,” said Bullitt. “The science you do has to be complimentary to what they do,” she added, and cited her own experience hiring young researchers: “We had an excellent candidate we ended up not offering the job to because we thought he would be too isolated and wouldn’t have enough people to talk to about his work.”
Teaching experience outside of lab-based teaching might be important for some schools, while, for others, research experience is what matters. For instance, according to McCall, what counts in a school like Boston University are strong research, high-quality publications, external fellowships and “coming across as a great colleague.” A track record of funding and fellowships will set an applicant apart, she said.
Mention specific grants you could apply for in your application and state in the cover letter which colleagues you’d interact with. “Just make sure they are not ready to retire!” said McCall.
In applying to an institution that puts greater priority on teaching, it’s important to indicate what courses you would wish to teach, said Klepac-Ceraj. Moreover, if teaching will be an important part of the job, it’s a good idea to become familiar with different teaching methods early on, according to Gurney. “If your school doesn’t have a graduate program with a teaching component, then try to attend teaching seminars,” he said.
Making an application stand out starts from avoiding trivial mistakes. Committee members can’t spend too long on one application, so it is important to avoid self-inflicted wounds such as grammatical or factual errors, said Klepac-Ceraj. Applicants should pay special attention to the “first paragraph of the cover letter and of the research statement,” she added. “Ask colleagues for feedback on your application before sending it.”
Landing a position in academia might feel like a triumph, but it is of course only the beginning of a career. And the first few years of an academic position are often fraught with difficulty, the panellists said. Junior faculty members have to prepare courses, put a lab together, write grants and figure out how to mentor students, said Klepac-Ceraj. This is a daunting workload, she said, “it can take up all your waking moments.”
Coping with these challenges is greatly aided by staying connected to your mentors. “You need a lot of different mentors who’ll give you different advice,” said McCall. One may help with grant- writing, another may help you get up to speed with the politics of the department: “That’s the one you go to lunch with,” she said.
Because the workload is so heavy in those first few years, it’s important to delegate and not feel like you have to do everything by yourself. “Find out how you’ll be evaluated and divide your time accordingly,” said Gurney. Becoming known on campus outside of your department can be a good thing, but there probably will not be time to join committees during the first year in a job, he added.
It is best to start working on collaborative research early on, said McCall. Collaborations with other institutions are especially useful when applying for tenure, because such work will generate the external letters of recommendation that are crucial for career advancement. “I wish I had put more people on collaborative projects early on so that papers would have come out sooner,” said McCall.
Of course, the academic ladder is steep and full of obstacles and the prospect of staying in academia can be daunting. A postdoc who is not sure about where they want to be in 5 years should seek out the advice of a career development officer, suggested Skoczenski. “Be optimistic and don’t assume you won’t get a job,” she added. You can also use the National Postdoctoral Association checklist, said Gurney.
“Every year I sit down and ask myself if I’m having enough fun compared to how much work it is,” Bullitt said. “The answer,” she confessed, “is not yes every single year.”
The refreshing honesty of this remark reminded the audience that academic positions come with hardships as well as accolades. “It was comforting to hear that even established PIs [principal investigators] sometimes waver in their career choice,” said Krysta Engel, who has just completed her PhD at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.