Modern and traditional networking techniques can help junior faculty attract top students and postdocs to their labs.
Guest contributor Viviane Callier
Recruiting a critical mass of good students and postdocs is one of the first challenges for a new investigator to establish their lab. “It is easy to order equipment, but much harder to staff the lab and create a lab culture,” says Courtney Babbitt, assistant professor of biology at UMass Amherst, MA since fall 2014.
Recruiting is especially challenging for those who do not have a big name or a history of steady funding to attract trainees, like new faculty. It can be difficult to draw talent to geographically undesirable locations and/or less prestigious institutions, because big cities may offer a variety of career and networking opportunities (in academia and elsewhere), as well as cultural activities that contribute to quality of life. But students and postdocs are needed to help collect data that and move the lab’s long-term research agenda forward; they also bring complementary skill sets, fresh ideas and new research directions.
There are ways to get through the “help wanted” bottleneck, say those who’ve done it. When Melissa Wilson Sayres, tenure track assistant professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University in Tempe, AZ, arrived in fall 2014, she devised several strategies to attract trainees. First, she actively networked using social media (especially Twitter), frequently posted advertisements on different society websites, and emailed job announcements to colleagues at other universities. This ensured that potential students are aware of opportunities in her lab. To encourage trainees to choose her lab over a more established high-profile lab, she emphasized the hands-on mentoring she offers in helping trainees achieve their goals, and creates a collaborative and welcoming culture in the lab.
Tak Sing Wong, Assistant Professor at Penn State University at University Park, PA, says that his website has been critical for attracting students. It contains a description of his research and includes Youtube videos that aim to make the research accessible and exciting to prospective students.
Robert Asher, who has been a faculty member in the Department of Zoology at Cambridge University in the UK for 9 years, advises to “do what you love—and interested students will find you.” Manuel Leal, associate professor at the University of Missouri in Columbia, MO, agrees that doing research that excites you is the best way to attract students. In addition, he notes that having a strong publication record is akin to an “an intellectual identity” and allows good students to identify you as potential advisor.
Funding graduate students and postdocs
Another challenge is figuring out how to pay for recruiting students and postdocs. Assistant professors need to be strategic—especially because personnel salaries, benefits, tuition (for graduate students), and overhead all come out of a research grant, notes Babbitt. A graduate student can easily cost $250K over five years.
The current tight funding situation has implications for graduate students and postdocs. Fewer and smaller grants make it harder to support students continuously for 5 years. Instead, they might be supported by short-term, 1-2 year projects cobbled together over their graduate career, explains Babbitt. Fellowships would provide more stability to trainees and remove a source of stress on laboratories by allowing postdocs to generate their own funding, but are hard to come by.
Wong values prior research experience, more than top grades in coursework, in selecting potential graduate students. For postdocs, he values those who have complementary (rather than overlapping) skill sets and experience.
There’s also the issue of making sure that you can deliver on what you promise a potential student or postdoc. Recruiting brings a responsibility and commitment to helping trainees achieve their career goals. Many young investigators know that, statistically, most of their trainees will not continue on to academic careers.
With that in mind, new investigators should make sure that graduate school is not a dead end for their trainees, young faculty told Naturejobs blog, and that the training is mutually beneficial for the mentor and the trainee. Have early and explicit discussions regarding students’ career goals, they recommended. Several faculty members emphasized the need for training for students and postdocs in transferable skills such as statistics and programming, as well as giving presentations and writing.
Although recruiting is a challenge for new faculty members, junior faculty can use social media and traditional networking techniques to attract top students. And by emphasizing what they do offer—more hands-on mentoring, support for research and career development—top talent will find them.
Viviane Callier is a freelance science writer based in Washington DC. She has a PhD in biology from Duke University.
Check out the other posts in the faculty series: