Given we are in the heart of the academic job search cycle, I’m seeing more blog posts on the topic being advertised on Twitter recently. Due to the growing postdoc holding tank*, I feel the academic job market is quite different than it was 5-10 years back. Some of the advice out there about getting a tenure track job out of graduate school or with only two years of postdoc experience seems a bit dated. Having gone through the process in a bioscience field just last year, I wanted to add some thoughts about some things I think are important.
Keep up with the Joneses
I recently read this interesting blog post about academic career decision points from a few years back by Claus Wilke, Professor of Integrative Biology at UT Austin. From the entire post, one single sentence stood out:
“Where are you, compared to other people in the field that you’d be competing with on the job market.”
I think this is one of the most important things to keep in mind throughout one’s academic career. If you try to keep yourself at the front of the pack at every stage of your career, there’s a chance you may end up at the front of the pack for a coveted tenure track job. Constantly checking yourself against the most successful people at your stage, while sometimes demoralizing, can push you to do what it takes to be competitive for the job you want.
Force yourself to do things that may not come naturally.
If you’re an introvert at heart, as many scientists are, the idea of self promotion and making yourself vulnerable in front of large audiences probably doesn’t sound that appealing. Striking up conversation at a conference with that scientist you met once, sitting at the lunch table with people more senior than you rather than your fellow grad students or postdocs, volunteering to give a talk whenever you can; these things aren’t easy or fun for anyone but they’re important and every little bit helps in the end. Also, if an academic job is one you want, you’re signing up for more of the same. I promise much of an actual academic job is promoting yourself, making contacts and volunteering for things that might help your career. However, it will get easier. It will feel less like you’re forcing yourself to do something that might pay off and more like you’re taking advantage of an opportunity.
Select a generous postdoc mentor.
I’ll start by saying that I had the best postdoc mentor in the world. He allowed me total autonomy and really expected nothing in return. All of my work was 100% my own to take with me, which he made clear to me from our very first meeting. I definitely worked much harder for myself than I would have if it was mostly for his benefit. Of course the outcome was that my increased productivity as a postdoc from that extra motivation was good for both of us. I also asked him once how he could afford to let his postdocs take away so much of the core lab projects. He simply replied that he’s not afraid of running out of ideas. Now THAT is confidence! I have too many friends that are in situations where their full time effort over several years results in a second authorship on a big paper. I have other friends that have worked themselves ragged only to have reached the end of their postdoc with little of their “own” data from which to write their research proposal and start their own lab. It is really difficult for these people to compete with those who have spent their entire postdoc years developing their own research projects. The good news is that finding a generous postdoc mentor is not all luck. There are steps you can take. Ask them point blank about their policy on taking work with you. Find out how their previous postdocs fared on the job market. TALK to those previous postdocs about their experience and the generosity of the PI.
Apply to lots of jobs.
There is a lot of disagreement on how many jobs you should apply to during a tenure track job search. I heard a ton of advice that it’s better to apply for a medium range number of jobs that are more targeted rather than wasting your time with jobs that are clearly not fitting. I do agree that applying to every open job no matter what the posting says, and not tailoring the application appropriately as a result, is a waste of time. However, it is impossible to be in the minds of the search committee. You simply cannot know the politics of what every department is looking for. I ended up applying for over 100 jobs. I know that’s a big number but if you asked me at application time, which ones I had the best chance of getting, I would have selected the wrong ones. Ultimately at the places I got interviews, I could see exactly why I was a good fit in their department, but this reasoning was totally obscured in the job posting. I almost didn’t apply to the job I actually took because the posting came up so late in the season. You never know what people are looking for and where those interviews will come from, so casting a wide net gives you a better chance than deciding on your own that only a handful of jobs (even if that’s 20+) seem like a good fit for you. When you consider what’s on the line: the job you really want and only have 1-2 years to get, is any amount of effort and energy spent on applications too much?
Seek out your own mentors/resources.
Another important step towards independence is to seek out your own mentors and resources. As an independent researcher, it’s no one’s job to read your grant applications or critique your teaching style. Even if you have a fantastic graduate or postdoctoral mentor, you can learn a lot from the mentors you seek out yourself. You’ll be surprised how many people are willing to donate their time and energy to helping you succeed if you just ask. Despite having outstanding mentors, some of the best advice I ever got throughout my career came from other faculty members during graduate school or other mentors and colleagues I sought out during my postdoc. Having an expanded network never hurts either when it comes time to build strong letters of recommendation. In addition to individual mentors, take advantage of your university’s office of career and professional development. These organizations have different names at different places, but they can help you with everything from grant/paper writing to job application development to improving your speaking or networking skills. If you are at a place that does not have an active office for such things, there are an increasing number of resources online. I approached several people at a recent conference to ask about online resources for my own trainees and found out about the the National Research Mentoring Network, which has recently partnered with iBiology to produce online professional development seminars.
Have a short memory.
Probably a good piece of advice regardless of your professional goal is to have a short memory. In this job, you’ll get scathing grant and paper reviews. You’ll get overlooked for interviews or jobs or talks. You’ll get snubbed for opportunities in favor of people that seem like “the chosen ones.” If you’re lucky, you’ll have scientists eviscerate your work publicly. Sometimes this is genuine and deserved criticism and sometimes people just like to hear themselves talk. Regardless, developing a thicker skin will really serve you well in the long run. Turning the other cheek, being generous, using criticism to improve and being the better person in any kind of situation will get you a lot of points in the long run. People will remember how well you carried yourself.
Other great posts on this topic.
I wanted to close with some links to excellent posts by other scientists on this topic.
This is a great post from the co-chair of the Harvard Systems Biology search committee on their progress on the current search.
While this next group was about a job search in Computer Science, I found myself reading and re-reading this set of posts during my own job search. It’s a nice overview of the entire process. It’s also relatively recent. Dr. Guo has thankfully combined all the posts in a single PDF here.
This is not very recent but it is extensive and useful.
I hope this has been somewhat helpful and please post your own favorite links in the comments for others.
*As you likely know, this is the name for the phenomenon that many qualified people are applying for very few academic positions. Some of these people will win a job and many of the remaining people will try again next year. Only, next year, a whole new crop of postdocs that weren’t ready last year will join the pool of candidates and, again, only a subset of them will win jobs. So continues the cycle, increasing the number of postdocs in the holding tank until they eventually reach their expiration date (they are perceived as being a postdoc for too long) or decide to do something else.