Samantha Morris talks about getting her first faculty position at Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis.
What did you do in preparation for your job application?
It was 10 years of watching, observing, following advice, and soaking up any mentorship and guidance on how to become a faculty member. Collecting these experiences really helped. It was interesting to see that many people didn’t take a traditional trajectory into a faculty position.
When I came to the end of graduate school, a friend told me about a workshop at Harvard Medical School about faculty positions, so I dropped everything and ran there! There were 300 postdocs in the session, which was terrifying when you’re thinking about applying for a position because they’re the competition!
What was your job application strategy?
I thought I should apply to everything so I applied for 33 positions and interviewed for 15. By seeing different institutions side-by-side I was able to decide more clearly on what I was looking for. It slowly emerged that the places I was most excited about were the ones that had medical schools and close connections to clinicians. Washington University in St Louis certainly has that: many clinicians here are closely connected to the research enterprise.
What was the application process like?
I had to sit down and think about how to carve out my own research identity and do something different, which was tough. But as I started writing my research statement, passed it onto a few people, I got some good feedback. That really helped build my confidence and send out the applications. It went down well in some places. Not in others. But that’s to be expected. Once the interview invitations started coming through the confidence returned.
The interview process can be gruelling. In general, the institutions are excited to have you there. But there are also a small percentage of people that are not excited about your research or your plan.
My confidence has grown from the process. It has helped prepare me to move into this leadership position. I feel like a different person from when I first started applying in September October 2014.
What attracted you to Washington University in St Louis?
My first visit was with the Genetics department and it was the third time I’d given my seminar, so it was certainly not very polished. But the room was packed, and everyone was really enthusiastic and welcoming. There was this energy in the room that I was really struck by. The whole visit, meeting the other faculty, young and old, I felt like we could collaborate.
When I went to the Developmental Biology department there was this instant click. It secured in my mind that this was the right place for me. I collected all that data from the different institutions but it was the strong gut feeling that helped a lot.
What is going to be expected of you in your new role?
For the first few years they try not to burden young faculty too much with additional jobs, just so that we can get up and running, start generating data, get people in the lab and funding coming in. It’s my feeling that in the first two to three years it should come together.
What are you looking forward to the most?
Getting people in the lab, a good group of people. And being in a position to generate data. I’ve supervised many students over the years as a postdoc, and I’ve loved it! Especially when they brings me something new. Doing this with a team of people will be fantastic.
What are you dreading the most?
There is always that time in a lab where you have that one bad seed, or there are a couple of people that don’t get along as a team. This casts a cloud over the lab and brings with it a bad atmosphere, and really affects the productivity and happiness in the lab. I don’t think any lab is immune to this. I’m also concerned that I won’t know what is going on in my lab because I can’t keep an ear to the ground. In my experience of working in labs, people are reluctant to talk about things and go the PI with their problems. It’s something I’m very aware of.
What advice do you have for others?
If applying to one institution with a couple of different departments that are interested in you, often they will combine those interviews into one visit. I didn’t like this because often the departments can be quite different in their scope. Certainly with Washington University in St Louis, I was delighted to have separate visits because my sales pitch to those departments was very different: different chalk talks and different presentations. The institutions where the visits were combined made it difficult for me to guide the chalk talk because I had one group of people pulling in one direction and another group in the other direction.
Do not underestimate how physically gruelling the whole interview process is. It can get tiring. You fly around a lot. And with these interview days sometimes you start with breakfast at 7am with non-stop meetings until after dinner at 11pm. Make sure you take food and drink water all day – look after yourself physically. Don’t let yourself get too tired.
Otherwise, just get out and talk to people that are in the same position, and talk to young faculty. Some of the best experiences I had during the interview process was being able to get to meet the faculty who had been in my position for a year or two. We actually spoke less about the institutions or about our research, but instead about their experiences in the application processes: what they struggled with, what their successes were. I wish I had done that earlier and I wish I had found the younger faculty at Harvard and sat down with them to ask them for more advice.
Samantha’s boss, Jeffrey Millbrandt also shares the employer’s perspective.
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