I became familiar with Erin Sparks on Twitter (
@ErinSparksPhD) , and finally got to meet her this summer at the 2017 ICAR conference. Riding the bus back together from the party at The Danforth Center gave us an opportunity to get to know each other a bit and talk about the thrills and challenges of pursuing careers in science. As a newly hired Assistant Professor at the University of Delaware, Erin reflected back on the emotional roller coaster of being a postdoc on the academic job hunt. I asked if she wouldn’t mind writing up those reflections and sharing them with TheCOM. In spite of a very busy schedule heading into her first semester in a new job, Erin graciously took the time to do so. I hope you find her thoughts both encouraging and useful. As always, read, listen and apply! And don’t forget to share with others! ~ Bethany
Who am I?
Hello, I’m Erin. I have recently started a tenure track position at the University of Delaware. My lab works on the development and function of maize brace roots; you can find more information here. But this post is not about science, it is about the academic job market…
When Bethany Huot asked me if I would be interested in writing a reflection on the academic job market now that I am on the other side, my first instinct was – YES! I am really passionate about transparency and paving the way for the next generation of scientists. However, when I started to try organizing my thoughts, feelings, advice about the job market, I hit a wall. Who am I to give advice? What do I know about the academic job market? Then I reminded myself of Lesson #1 – Everyone’s experience is valuable. So, here I am to share my experience and hope that it will encourage others to do the same. I know there was a hashtag trending on Twitter a while back with the numbers of positions applied to, interviewed for, and offered. This blog post aims to go beyond the numbers and into the process.
Crafting a research vision
Like many others, I went on the job market for two years before landing in my current position. The first year on the job market I thought I was ready, but wow – I was completely unprepared. One major problem (of several) was that my future research plan lacked a clear vision, and I was not doing a great job of distinguishing myself from others in the field. Another mistake that I made was trying to make my research plan fit into the job ad – this led to me proposing research that I had very little interest in doing and was unexcited about. I strongly advise against this approach! How miserable would it be to do research that you are unexcited about just to get a tenure-track job??? So, I chalk year 1 up to a learning experience.
After this, I got a puppy (seriously), I reassessed, I got feedback from senior faculty at other institutions, and I asked myself what I wanted to do. This soul-searching led to a new and different research plan that I was excited to talk about. I wrote up the new plan and I asked anyone and everyone that was willing to read it and provide feedback. I asked the lab, my advisor, newly hired assistant professors, my friends who do not work in science, my family, etc. I wanted this research statement to communicate my plan to a wide audience and convey a clear message. Here is my first bit of advice: Use your community to get feedback on your research plan! Second, do not get upset if they provide critical feedback; they are working to help you become a better scientist and a better communicator. One resource that was extremely helpful for me is a repository of successful research statements curated by Jeff Ross-Ibarra at UC Davis https://github.com/RILAB/statements. After reading through these statements, I realized that there is no formula – no right or wrong way – to make a research statement. They are as individual as the people applying.
So much more than research
The research plan is an obvious component of your academic job application, but there is SO much more. Which leads to the other problem that I encountered on the job market in year 1: I failed to look beyond the research. My first phone interview, first question: “What is your biggest contribution to science?” Uhhhhhhhh. What? I had never thought about my career in that way, so I did not have a great (or particularly concise) answer. Fast forward to year 2, I collected a list of phone interview questions from online sources and colleagues, and I spent time thinking about and writing out concise answers to each of these questions. This exercise prepared me for the aspects beyond research (e.g. teaching, mentoring, grant writing) that are part of the academic career path.
Tips and tricks of interviewing:
The phone interview
It has become more and more common for universities to do a phone interview with candidates before an on-campus visit. Phone interviews are an inexpensive and easy way to pre-screen candidates. Yet these phone interviews can be awkward and scripted, and it can be difficult to convey your excitement in this setting. A couple of words of advice for the phone interview:
- Find out who will be on the call.
- Do your homework and Know your audience.
- Be prepared for the possibility that the interview will be uncomfortable and awkward.
In my experience, these were not conversations; they asked a question and I answered it. Occasionally there were follow-up questions based on my answer, but usually they were asking a standard set of questions to all of the candidates. This can be difficult for a scientist who has little experience in this style of communication. My preferred communication style is conversational, so I had to learn how to communicate effectively for a phone interview. The list of phone interview questions I compiled and wrote out answers to (see above), helped me to practice this type of communication. In addition, I would recommend practicing to answer interview-style questions with a friend or colleague. The most important aspect of the phone interview is to remember that this is also your opportunity to interview your future colleagues. Have questions in mind that you want to ask of them. The question that I found to be most informative was “What is your favorite thing about the university?” The answers to this question gave me a lot of insight into the people and the place that I was interviewing. Do not forget that they want to attract the most talented candidate (YOU!) and that this is a mutual selection process.
The on-campus interview, individual interactions
So, you have survived the phone interview and been invited to an on-campus interview. Congratulations! This is the fun part. You get to see where you might be working and meet your potential colleagues. First, let me tell you that this is exhausting. I was told on one interview that this is really an endurance test to see who can survive a multi-day interview without saying something stupid. I said some stupid things. Advice here is to be yourself, but on your best behavior. The faculty on the other side of the interview are trying to determine if they can or want to work with you for the next 10+ years, so be yourself and get to know them as well. Take the time before your interview to research each of the people you will meet with. This is time consuming, I know, but well worth it. I had a little notebook that I carried around with me. I had one page per person and jotted down notes about that person and their research before the interview, then included notes about what we talked about after the meeting. These notes really helped me to write personalized thank you emails at the end of the interview. Depending on the position you are interviewing for you could meet 30+ people, and keeping track of who said what quickly becomes a blur. My last bit of advice for the on-campus interview is to be prepared to lead conversations. You will find that each person you meet has a different approach to the interview meeting. Some people only want to talk about science, some people only want to talk about the department, some people will lead the conversation, and some people will rely on you to lead the conversation. Be prepared and have readily available questions or conversation topics should it fall on you to keep the conversation going.
The on-campus interview, formal presentations
Of course, the focal point of your on-campus interview is your research presentation. First, make sure you understand the expectations of the department for your presentation:
- How much of your presentation should be devoted to future research plans?
- Is there a separate chalk talk for future plans?
- What is the audience of your seminar?
- Once you understand the format – practice, practice, practice.
And not just to your lab mates! Again, use your Community. If you are interviewing in a general department, gather a general audience to provide feedback. Ask colleagues at other universities if you can give a practice presentation via Skype. As with the research statement, get as much feedback as you possibly can. I utilized a pyramid as I developed my presentation – first iteration was to the lab, second iteration was to colleagues at a neighboring university, third iteration was individual colleagues via Skype. Then I practiced and practiced, and (importantly) made the presentation color-blind friendly. This took ages, I love to use red and green together, but was worth it. I do not know if there were any color-blind members of the audience, but I felt confident that they could follow my presentation if there were.
…and chalk talks
The chalk talks. Ah the chalk talks. This ambiguous ritual that is a part of some interviews and not of others. Some universities have very clear instructions, other are vague. So, how do you undertake a task without clear instruction? Well, I asked people who have experienced chalk talks, either as a presenter or as an audience member. I got feedback and advice, and most importantly, I practiced! The best advice I can give is to have a clear path that you want to follow. Conversations will diverge from this path, but if you have a clear path then you can pick up where you left off when the conversation lulls. One of the biggest pitfalls in a chalk talk is assuming that everyone in the room went to your formal presentation or read your research statement – they did not. Even if they did, they may not remember. When you start, remind them of who you are and what your research interests are in one or two sentences. The chalk talk is perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of the on-campus interview. It can take on a life of its own and all the preparation in the world cannot help you predict how it will play out. However, it is important to give practice chalk talks and become familiar with the environment. If you are not skilled at drawing or writing on the board, practice this skill. Find out if you have time before the chalk talk to write/draw on the board or if you will be expected to write/draw as the conversation progresses. This exercise serves two purposes for your future colleagues: 1. You are usually outlining the plans for your first grant, so they can assess your scientific reasoning, and 2. Your presentation style and persona are showing them how you will be as a teacher (assuming that is part of the job description).
If I had one word to describe the academic job market it would be slow! The waiting can be the most excruciating part of this whole process. At each step (phone interview, on-campus interview), ask when the committee expects to make a decision about moving forward. It is often weeks from the point that you talk to them. I found that knowing these timelines helped me to manage my expectations and keep my worrying in check. Beyond this, remember that if you do not get an interview or you do not get the job it is not a reflection of your self-worth. There are several reasons that you might not have been chosen that have nothing to do with your value to the scientific community. Here are a few of them that have happened to me or colleagues:
- You may require a big/expensive piece of equipment that the university does not have and cannot afford to buy.
- You may work with a large organism (i.e. maize), and the search committee doesn’t think they have adequate space for your work.
- Your work may be too closely related to another faculty member, which limits the research and teaching diversity.
- The committee knew who they wanted to hire (i.e. not you), but were required to interview a specific number of people to fill their HR quotas.
The other key to managing expectations is to realize that you may never get an official rejection from some jobs. I found myself being relieved when I received a rejection, because at least then I knew that place was no longer an option. The worst was not hearing from places where you interviewed. All this to say, pace yourself. In my second year on the market, the time from first application to final decision was around 10 months.
Defining your limits
It is very easy to get discouraged during this process, and it can often feel like an insurmountable challenge. One way I battled this challenge was by defining my limits. What I mean here, is that when I decided to go on the job market for a second year I had a clear vision of what I needed to improve (provided from feedback of senior faculty members). In the second year, I believe that I was at the peak of my hire-ability and I gave the best that I could – the best research plan, the best application, the best interviews. However, I think it is important to be reminded that the academic job market is not all there is to the science world. After submitting my applications in the second year, I asked myself what I liked about an academic career path and then began to explore other careers that also fulfill those passions. In addition, take time to do things you enjoy outside of academia. The year you are on the job market will not be a very productive laboratory year, at least it was not for me. I struggled to plan experiments and still maintain the flexibility to interview on a week’s notice. Take this time at the end of your postdoc to relax a little and be proud of your accomplishments. Of course, this is much easier said than done, and I wish I had done a better job of relaxing.
The importance of community
The importance of community in this whole process cannot be stressed enough. I had several communities that helped me through the academic job market. First, I had a peer group that was on the job market at the same time as me. We shared job ads and advice, and provided the kind of support that only comes from those in the same situation. You might ask how we supported each other if we were also competing with each other for positions. Here I will point out that we should not be competing. My peer group worked on vastly different projects than I do, so not really a competition. If your peer doesn’t apply for a job, does it mean that you will get that job? Not necessarily. I believe that the success of one person is good for the whole community, and I am excited for my peers who got jobs even when I did not. The second community that I relied on was composed of junior faculty who had been on the job market in the past few years and could provide feedback and advice at each stage of the process. Often, these faculty had recently been on the opposite side of the search committee and so could provide valuable feedback about my application and the interview process. Lastly, there was the broader community of faculty members I had met throughout my postdoc. Some of these became collaborators who allowed me to generate preliminary data for my new research direction, some of them provided feedback after my first year on the job market, and some wrote me letters of recommendation. Each of these communities served a purpose and contributed to my success, but the one thing they all have in common is that they were equal or senior to me. I think this is one stage of your career where it is incredibly important to have the support of senior colleagues.
What the heck is “fit” anyways?
I will end this post with a discussion of the illusive “fit” criteria. On the job market, I heard again and again – “it is all about fit.” So, what does “fit” mean? Unfortunately, “fit” is as hard to put into words as you might expect, and it is something that you know when you find it. For me, “fit” was the place where the interview was easy, the conversations flowed readily, and I was instantly comfortable with my future colleagues. For me, “fit” was interviewing at a place that was supportive and uplifting during my interview, which showed me the essence of the department. For me, “fit” was getting mentored on how to approach grant funding during the interview one-on-one meetings. Looking back, I realize that “fit” is the place where your expectations meet the department’s expectations.
To everyone out there on the academic job market – I wish you the best and hope that this reflection will provide some encouragement as you navigate this upcoming year.