How to obtain a tenure-track faculty position

As I prepare to move off to TTT for my new faculty position, I’ve started fielding questions from fellow postdocs and even a few grad students regarding how I did it. Oh, I’ve come up with some great answers: network! publish! write grants! take control of your career! But to be honest, I’m really not sure how I did it. The past couple of years, I tried just about everything to gain some traction. I listened to the advice of great bloggers and IRL mentors alike, and continually worked to improve my application package. I consistently put myself out there, sending emails to touch base with faculty I met at a conference or at my current MRU. I honed my sales pitch by participating in MRU-wide poster sessions, chalk-talking some of my departmental seminars, and chatting with local faculty about my project and future research plans. Yet I came up empty time and time again.

So what actually turned the tide? Maybe it was the Skype video interview with my future chair, for which I wore no pants due to a pumping incident minutes before the call. It certainly wasn’t the awkward fall because I was running (in new heels – bad idea) to keep up with a fast-walking faculty during my first live interview. No, my victory was a combination of my work and message, a little bit of luck, and a fuck-ton of persistence. When all seemed hopeless, I resolved to continue my research in any capacity I could, regardless of my prospect for tenure. I love my project dearly, and as long as I had the opportunity to write grants, I knew I would continue to push forward. I would have to be dragged from my science kicking and screaming, and I’d find an abandoned lab space in which to squat if necessary. (Fortunately, I was granted the opportunity to conduct myself with a tad bit more dignity.) As this same brand of persistence will be required throughout my career, it’s probably the best kind of hurdle for becoming a junior prof.

So that’s my advice. Think of why you’re doing science, decide if you love it enough to do it under a bridge, and, if you really want it, keep putting your nose to the grindstone. Ignore your preconceived notions of what your career in academic science should look like; instead, forge your own path. Do whatever you have to (and can) do to make it work. Will there be trade-offs? You better believe it, and only you can determine which ones are worth it. In my opinion, THAT’s where the line is drawn, and nobody else can tell you how, if, and when to cross it.

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4 thoughts on “How to obtain a tenure-track faculty position

  1. I have to disagree a little here, Dr. O–it is not enough to “really want it,” or be willing to mouth-pipet in a dungeon, nor is it just a matter of working hard. My feeling is that there are two ways to get a TT position:

    A) Be an absolute rock star–and please don’t make me define this, you guys know what I mean.
    B) Be in the right place at the right time.

    I am not a rock star. But when I applied for TT jobs last year I had my shit as together as it was ever going to get, and I happened to send my shit to NJU, who happened to be looking for shit just like mine. Many, many other Us were not interested in my shit.

    Know your shit, people. Know who you are and what YOUR research is about, and network like crazy, but not in a desperate way. Either there is a U out there looking for someone exactly like you or there isn’t. Sadly, there’s no way to know ahead of time if this is the case.

  2. I’m completely agreed that *really wanting it* isn’t sufficient, but it is required, at least if you’re not a rock star. In theory, a particular scientist could wait forever for an opportunity that will never exist, but just because there’s not a place for you and your science right now doesn’t mean there won’t be in a year or two.

    Each scientist has to figure out where to draw their own line. There are options for extending the timeline, but, it seems to me, unwillingness to wait, or consider something different than what they imagined, often knocks TT hopefuls out of the race prematurely. Sometimes it’s family commitments. Sometimes it’s a desire to stay rooted in Postdoc Town. It’s your line, and you decide where to draw it.

    Most people I know who abandoned the TT goal did so because either the wait or extra steps weren’t worth it to them, not because they weren’t capable or didn’t have a project that someone might eventually be interested in. They left 3-4 years (or sooner) into their postdoc, some after a single failed round on the market, others never engaging in a full throttle search at all.

    It’s my opinion that these individuals didn’t want it badly enough, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with deciding the TT goal is just not worth it. I considered it myself for a short time after Monkey was born, but decided I’d rather continue pursuing academic research, even if in an eventual subordinate role, than give up entirely on the TT goal. That decision may have changed a year from now had this year’s job search not worked out. Who knows – I may have to ponder my career all over again in 7 years.

  3. Amen … networking the bitch out of every chance is one of the things that got me my job. I agree with you both …. things have to “align” in a certain way in order to bring the person, uni and job together. Had I applied to my job a couple of months later, I would be jobless or still a postdoc. Had I not worked with the people I worked, it may not have happened. I wanted it badly … but two years (between the end of the PhD and the end of my postdoc and some hard times) had to come by in order for me to use my strength, power of persuasion and talents to land a job. But it took time, experience and a lot of patience (and heartbreak) to land my science, non-TT job. Congrats again!

  4. Pingback: The hunt: finding a postdoc | The Tightrope

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