Postdocs take the plunge into faculty positions and share their experiences with Naturejobs.
Applying for any job can be a daunting and exhausting task, but it’s especially tough for postdocs looking to begin the step up into a tenure-track position. What really stuck Brain Kelch, an assistant professor of biology and molecular pharmacology at the University of Massachusetts (UMass), was how emotional the process was for him. “It was very confusing,” he says. “There’s this rollercoaster, with meteoric highs and crushing lows. I’ve never experienced anything like that.”
Whilst it’s tough, prospective candidates can do a lot to improve their chances when applying for positions. This could include demonstrating ability and willingness to contribute to the field and the department; publishing results and attracting financial support.
For Samantha Terry, who became a lecturer in radiation biology in September this year at the Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in medical imaging at King’s College London (KCL), landing a faculty position is all about being pro-active. “You need to show you can already do the job, before you get the job,” she says. For Terry, this meant doing as much teaching as she could in her postdoc positions, as well as setting up a committee of fellow postdocs to meet and provide support and assistance to each other, and to organize training and networking events. It also meant applying for travel and research grants, and filling her CV with as many accolades and details as she could. “It’s all about getting those boxes ticked,” she adds.
Dorothy Schaffer, who became an assistant professor of neurobiology at UMass in 2014, found that having money behind her before sending her CV was helpful. “I applied for a K-99 award the year before in the hope that I would have it by the time I applied.” It worked – Schafer says the money helped her land interviews at a few places after she had already received her first job offer.
Michelle Ma is an imaging chemist who also transitioned from her research fellowship to a full time faculty role in September 2015 at the medical imaging CDT at KCL. “It’s been fun so far,” she says of her first two months on the job. She agrees it’s important to have funding behind you before you start looking for positions, but thinks that a good publication history is an equally important aspect to consider. “It depends on the institution,” she speculates. “Some will look at funding more, and some will look at your publication history. The importance really depends on what your papers are like – if you have a truckload of high-impact papers the funding will probably be forthcoming. ”
Rafael T.M. de Rosales, also an imaging chemist at KCL’s CDT, agrees. “You have to have been published, probably as first author or at least co-first-author,” he says. Not just because it proves you have good research behind you, he explains, but because it demonstrates you have the skills to take on a full-time faculty and research position.
“You have to also really want to do it. You need to have ideas and something that is new. You need to have a good track record – the research you want to do needs to be unique.” For T.M. de Rosales, striving towards the best research, both during your postdoc and when applying for faculty, is also immensely important for your career. “Push for the world leaders in your field,” he says, “it’s only in this role you will be able to soak up all of that novel experience.”
For all five faculty members, there’s more to the job hunt than your own background. Potential candidates should also assess how they would fit into a department, as well as the emotional and mentoring support on offer. Finding a department where the research goals align with your own is key, says Ma, as the other faculty members will be able to help you develop your research goals and support you in the process. “Those people will be invaluable in helping you develop those ambitions,” Ma explains. “They’ll be honest with you, but you can use that honesty to get you to where you want to be.”
T.M. de Rosales sums up the alternative. “Some departments just say ‘Here you go. Office. Keys. See you later.’ That would be really tough”. Schafer’s best piece of advice to make sure you land the right position is to be patient. “Make sure to start early, apply broadly, and take your time in choosing a position.”
Finally, once you’ve landed the job, you need to make sure you have the money behind you to build your research properly. Make sure to check out our post next week on negotiating your start-up fund. Stay tuned.
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