Connections and research proposal that complements a department are essential in obtaining a tenure-track faculty position, Louisa Cockbill learns from Kate Smith.
Having been awarded a faculty position at the University of Colorado, newly minted assistant professor Kate Smith is preparing to move from to the US from the UK. Here, she describes her experience of tenure interviews, how to maintain a passion for research and, crucially, how to find the elusive off-switch from science.
Having done a PhD, I know the pressures of academic research and how crucial it is for early career researchers to gain advice and encouragement from the success stories of others, like Kate. I caught up with her to see what advice she would give to others curious about the tenure track.
Have you always wanted to be a scientist?
No. I was actually thinking about classical singing — it wasn’t until I was in the second year of my PhD that I really decided! What changed it for me was attending a synapse summer school in Bordeaux. Meeting other neuroscientists from all over the world at the same stage as me, and getting to share and discuss our work, really turned me onto science. I had found my calling.
How did you secure your new position?
The head of the search committee for the job saw my poster at a conference in 2014, and asked me to send over my CV and research statement. I wasn’t even looking for a tenure position at that point — I was due to go back to the UK and finish my Marie Curie fellowship at the University of Bristol. But later I saw the head of the search committee again; at a bar I had gone to meet my friends at. He gave me the hard sell for the job and it all sounded so exciting that I wrote my research statement and officially applied the following week.
On return to the UK I made other applications, which resulted in eight interviews in the space of three weeks, including the one in Denver. That one was two and a half days of meetings from 8am-6pm with everyone from the department, and then big, formal meals that included the head of department. All this while jet-lagged. It was really good, but tiring. On the second day I gave a talk detailing my research vision and was interrogated by a room of laboratory heads. That was the most terrifying thing.
After the crazy few weeks of interviews were over I was informed I had been second choice at Denver, but then, out of the blue, I was told that the department were going to the Dean for funds to hire me as well!
Any advice for faculty job applicants?
It’s critical to have a package that specifically fits the needs of a department; that’s why Denver were interested in me. Obviously they’re looking for a successful scientist, but they also want a colleague and collaborator, whose research complements their own.
Timing for applications is critical; conducting a job search on the back of a high profile paper opens a lot more doors. But there is a lot of luck involved. I nearly didn’t go to the bar that evening. For me, that highlights the importance of connections — you don’t know what meeting or casual conversation will help you in the future.
Research is clearly demanding, how do you find time to still have a life?
I find that work comes in peaks and troughs, and during the peaks you tag fun stuff on, so you go to a conference and then take a few days on the end for a holiday, for example.
The job is never done so you have to have a good off switch in order to compartmentalise. I find exercise really helps, or doing an activity where you might die, like skiing. You have to focus to stay alive. That’s pretty distracting!
What career advice would you give to PhD students and post-docs?
You have to be really determined, and keep a love for science.
When you’re in the lab seven days a week and nothing is working, having conferences to go to can be motivating. I also think it’s important to work with people who enthuse you. That’s something my PhD supervisor did for me and it allowed me to go into my postdoc with focus and determination. So you need to think about what you need from a boss, and be aware that that changes as your career progresses.
I feel like I was lucky, but you can’t rely on just being lucky, or intelligent, so you have to work really hard. And be able to take criticism well, because the rejection rate in science is ridiculous.
Personally, my husband has been a huge source of encouragement and support and that has been so important, especially with all of the moving around that is often associated with academic research.
How do you feel about the upcoming move?
I’m really looking forward to the challenge professionally, making that step up and becoming my own boss. It’s a mega fresh start and will be hard work filling the lab with equipment and people to begin with, but there will also be new colleagues to get to know and the interactions across the department are going to be great. And then there’s the sun and the skiing in Denver!
It’s this once in a lifetime opportunity, the holy grail of my career, so I’m excited.
Louisa Cockbill recently received her Biochemistry PhD from the University of Bristol and is now pursuing a career in science communication. She’s currently writing freelance and has a popular science blog at sciencefyi.wordpress.com.
Kate Smith achieved her PhD in molecular neuroscience from UCL in 2010 and received a Marie-Curie fellowship in 2012, with which she conducted post-doctoral research at Northwestern University, Chicago, US, and the University of Bristol, UK. She is about to take up a faculty position at the University of Colorado, Denver, US, to investigate the dual roles that excitatory and inhibitory synapses play in maintaining appropriate excitation levels in neurons.