The hunt: the tenure-track job interview

This is the third in a series of posts about my hunt for the tenure-track. Since I have no idea how much my decisions, persistence, and luck played into my fortune, it is not purposed as a guide for how to secure a tenure-track position, but rather highlighting my experience. I’ll leave it to others (as well as my future, tenured self) to clarify what it was that I did right.

You’ve sent out your applications for twenty-something tenure-track faculty positions, and you’re doing your best to play it cool while waiting. Maybe you’ve received brief correspondence from a search chair or two, but mostly you’re in the dark as to how your application package is faring across the country/continent/planet. The wait is slowly driving you crazy, as days turn to weeks, then into months. During this period, I kept myself occupied by pushing publications out the door, applying for grants, and looking out for additional job postings. And then it happened – I got a phone call from an acquaintance on the search committee at TTU (tenure-track university), asking what dates would work for me to fly out for an interview. I remember the phone call vividly, because I was sitting at a coffee shop working on a new round of job applications, as the past year’s search appeared to be dead in the water. One week later, airline reservations and a tentative itinerary were in my hands. I had about 4 weeks to get my seminar ready, organize my future research plans for a chalk talk, and prepare to carry on conversation with a pretty diverse group of scientists.

Using my most recent departmental talk as a template, I designed my seminar to highlight my communication and teaching skills. I didn’t want to overwhelm with data, but instead focus on telling a story and portraying myself as an authority in my sub-field. After putting my slides together, I practiced until I knew my talk forward and backward, making changes to slides and adding transitions as I found necessary. Since my talks tend to run faster when someone is watching, I practiced in front of an audience as much as I could – even Hubby and Monkey got in on the action. An audience can also spot annoying presentation habits you’re not aware of. Take a look at #6 on Sci’s recent PowerPoint presentation post – the laser pointer is my Achilles’ heel. After nearly blinding my son during an at-home practice, I made sure the pointer spent most of the time on the podium. I have no idea what my hands did sans pointer, but the talk flowed well and elicited several very good questions. Job talk success.

My first interview also included a chalk talk, which is used to evaluate the viability of candidate’s research plan. I found it easiest to prepare for this by typing up an outline of my research statement (see more on this here). I was only allotted one hour for my chalk talk, and the attending faculty ranged vastly in specialty, so I knew I needed to keep things focused on the big picture. I prepared a single PowerPoint slide diagramming my model, then printed several copies of my outline, also including a picture of my model, in case a projector wasn’t available. Everything else was done on the board. I began my talk by writing out my main research question on one side of the board. At the top of the board, I divided this question into two main sub-projects and listed (in a very abbreviated fashion), the specific aims for each project. One of these sub-projects was my K grant; the other was the basis for my first R01. Surprisingly (to me at least), I didn’t get very many questions on the science, but I was asked a LOT of questions about how I would get my research program off the ground (personnel, funding, publication timeline). I was also asked how my project would fit in the department and where I envisioned collaborations with their faculty. None of the questions were difficult, but they did require some thought ahead of time. Luckily, I had spent a fair amount of time beforehand preparing for these types of questions, thanks to the advice of others in the blogosphere.

The week before heading to Tenure Track Town (TTT) for my interview, I spent some time checking out the department faculty, especially those on my itinerary. I was scheduled to meet one-on-one with nearly 20 diverse faculty in 30-minute increments throughout my visit, and I wanted to make sure I could at least keep up with a conversation on their work. I wrote down a question or two for each person with whom I was meeting, paying extra attention to those whose work could complement my own studies. This aspect of the interview was by far the most intense and overwhelming, as I spent the entire day shifting from one topic to the next, trying to stay on my game. Some of the faculty talked about their research for the entire 30 minutes. Others wanted to talk about my work and how they could add to it with their own specialty. Others didn’t talk about research much at all, focusing instead on teaching, grant-writing, tenure requirements, or the benefits of living in TTT. As intense as it was, this aspect of the interview was also very informative. These faculty were potential future colleagues, and I was able to glean quite a bit of information about how the department functioned.

All-in-all, my first interview was a success, as evidenced by the offer I received a few weeks later. Still, there were a few things I would have done differently. I wouldn’t have worn a new pair of heels – I actually tripped and nearly fell while rushing behind my guide to the next faculty interview. I also think I could have done a better job of focusing on the big picture versus the details during my chalk talk, although this probably has more to do with how diverse the department is. Above all, I wish I had been more prepared to talk about what I would need from the department to be successful – in other words, negotiate. I’m sure this is rare for a first interview, but I doubt I’m the first, or last, to be caught off guard by these types of questions. How my negotiation progressed will be the subject of my next (and final) post in this series.

The hunt: preparing my tenure-track application

This is the second in a series of posts about my hunt for the tenure-track. Since I have no idea how much my decisions, persistence, and luck played into my fortune, it is not purposed as a guide for how to secure a tenure-track position.  Rather, the series is highlighting the steps I took, starting with my postdoc search. I’ll leave it to others (as well as my future, tenured self) to clarify what it was that I did right.

So you’ve been a postdoc for about 2-3 years, and gotten one or two solid publications out the door (maybe more, depending on your field). You’ve taken ownership of your project, established a small network in your field, and figured out where the lab first aid kit is located. Your life, in and out of the lab, is somewhat settled, and you finally feel comfortable in your postdoctoral skin. And then it hits you – postdoc positions aren’t permanent. Whether or not you think you’re ready to run your own lab, it’s high time to start envisioning your future research program – the basis of a tenure-track job application.

There are 5 main components to the TT job application – cover letter, CV, research statement, teaching statement, and letters of recommendation – each of which takes time to develop. Even if you don’t plan to send a single job app out for another year, you better start getting your shit together. Why? Because getting a tenure-track job requires more than publications. You need to develop a plan for your research, funding, trainees, personnel and (at some institutions) teaching. And believe it or not, some parts of your plan are actionable RIGHT NOW. So what did I do?

First, I updated my CV (really, you should be working on this all along), and had several individuals in my department and field take a look. You can find lots of advice out there on how to organize your CV, but I found it most useful to talk to faculty who had served on TT search committees in my field. On my CV, I listed my education, research experience, awards, grants, teaching experience, invited talks, society memberships, and service (committees I served on during my postdoc). I made my publications easy to find (I put them on the last page, because everyone I talked to said they flipped immediately to the last page to find the publication list), and organized them into categories: peer-reviewed articles first, reviews next. I included a submitted paper during my first round of job applications, but I never listed manuscripts in preparation. Also not making the cut: my childhood babysitting experience, the certificate I got for perfect attendance in Sunday School, and my ability to make a damn-good tomato-based pasta sauce. Keeping my CV up-to-date helped immensely when I was ready to submit grants, one of the next steps in getting myself ready to apply for jobs.

Identifying a transitional source of funding was a good way for me to get my shit together, even before I was ready to send out apps. Fairly soon after my first paper got accepted, I started working on a K grant, which was submitted shortly before I started applying for jobs. I didn’t end up securing that funding until the end of my second round of searching, but the writing and revising of that grant (including the career development section) did wonders for getting my research plan organized. For my first round of TT job apps, I used an abbreviated version of my specific aims page as the core of my research statement, with additional information on how this plan could transition into a couple of related projects. I also briefly stated how I planned to get funding for each of the projects (K, R01, private foundation grants, etc). As my job search wore on, my research statement evolved and improved. I still don’t know just how much of an impact my statement had on the search committees, but it definitely served as a crucial jumping-off point for me during subsequent steps in the job search process. Second to my cover letter (discussed below), this document received perhaps the greatest amount of my attention during my two years on the job market.

Next, I generated a standard cover letter with virtually no first paragraph, a second paragraph on my research accomplishments, a third paragraph summarizing my future research interests, and a short fourth paragraph with my (fairly limited) teaching experience. I left the first paragraph blank so that I wouldn’t accidentally send a cover letter to University of Alaska in response to their ad for a position in ice fishing research with a reference to University of Hawaii about their position for research on surf boards – I mean, can you imagine the embarrassment??? Instead, I wrote a unique first paragraph for each job application I sent, stating briefly why I was interested in the position and why they should be interested in ME!! It took a little longer, but there were no embarrassing cases of mistaken identity – especially impressive considering I was in labor when I sent out the bulk of my job applications last year. My research paragraphs highlighted my contributions to the field, the fact that I had (depending on when I sent the app) submitted, resubmitted, been scored, or secured a K grant, and what types of funding I would pursue once landing a position. My teaching paragraph, although small, conveyed that I did have some experience and that I was excited about educating grad/medical/undergrad students.

Once ads for TT positions started to appear, I contacted my references (my current mentor, my grad mentor, my collaborator, and my chair)*, informed them I was beginning to apply for jobs, asked them if they would be able and willing to send letters, and provided them with the first set of ads and due dates for the applications I would be sending out. From that point on, whenever I saw a position I wanted to apply for, I sent an email with the job description and the due date (if there was one given) to each of my referees**. Then I customized my application materials for the prospective position, proofread the materials a gazillion times, and applied. During the first round of my search, I restricted myself to a fairly narrow scope of positions, applying only for those that fit into some vision of my dream job that was stuck in my head. For the second round, I applied for everything. And I mean EVERYTHING, so long as Hubby could see himself possibly finding a job nearby. Good thing, too – the job I have now is not exactly what I had envisioned for myself a few years ago, but it’s turned out to be a better fit than I could have imagined.

The teaching statement is the last thing I will discuss here, because it is literally the last thing that I thought about when getting my application package together. Only one job I applied for during my first round asked for a teaching statement. By the time my second round began, about half the positions, even those with heavy research demands and light teaching loads, were asking for teaching statements. It’s noteworthy that a teaching statement is not necessarily the same as a teaching philosophy. Sure, I talked about my teaching philosophy, but only in the context of my experience, which was the basis for my teaching statement. I summarized my teaching experience from undergraduate and beyond, briefly noting what I learned about educating students at each step. At the end of my statement, I identified specific courses I was qualified to teach that were already being offered in the department’s graduate (and undergraduate, if applicable) programs. I also briefly described a single course, not currently offered but complementary to their current curriculum, that I could develop once my lab was up and running.

So that’s what I did. I’m sure others did lots of things differently, and I’m sure there are lots of opinions on what’s right or wrong. Please share your experiences and thoughts. Next time, I’ll be talking about the job interview.

*Most jobs only asked for 3 letters, but some asked for 4. I only had sent the number that was asked for in the ad.

**Remember – faculty get requests for recommendation letters all the time. They don’t mind sending them out, as long as they know it’s for a good reason. Just be sure to ask them what they need from you (updated CV, possibly your research statement and cover letter, information on the grants you’re applying for, etc) and be sure to provide them with pertinent information about the position (advertisement, due dates, contact name if one was provided).

The hunt: finding a postdoc

This is the first in a series of posts about my hunt for the tenure-track. Since I have no idea how much my decisions, persistence, and luck played into my fortune, it is not purposed as a guide for how to secure a tenure-track position.  Rather, the series will highlight the steps I took, starting with my postdoc search. I’ll leave it to others (as well as my future, tenured self) to clarify what it was that I did right.

The site of a young scientist’s postdoctoral work says a lot about their training and potential. Thus choosing the *right* postdoc may be the most important step you’ll take in obtaining a faculty position. However, a good pedigree indicates much more than a big-wig PI and multiple glamor mag publications. Pedigree is dependent on a number of training environment characteristics. When starting my own postdoc search, grad mentor had me consider the following questions about prospective labs:

  1. What is the publication trend of the lab?
  2. Where are the lab’s former postocs?
  3. What is the reputation of the lab and PI?
  4. Does the PI provide opportunities for training away from the bench?

I started my search by making a list of PIs whose science I enjoyed reading about, then took a closer look at the publication history of these PIs, examining the rate, impact level of the journals, and authorship on each paper. Because I wanted to pursue the TT, I needed to find a lab where I could take the lead on and eventually take away my own project. Thus, I narrowed my list down to labs with solid publication records and at least a few papers with only 2 or 3 authors. This latter characteristic indicated (to me and grad mentor) that lab members were given more autonomy over their projects.

I next took a look at the labs’ previous postdocs, since this can indicate how *good* a mentor is at advancing his/her trainees into a specific career. Since my chosen field was academia, I whittled my list down to PIs who had turned out at least a few TT and tenured profs. My grad mentor additionally advised against some of the junior profs I originally included, since an unproven track record in this arena could have complicated my TT prospects.

Next, I talked to my mentor and others in my grad department about the names on my list. What did they think of their science? What did they think of their trainees? What did they think of the person? This was probably the MOST enlightening aspect of my decision-making process, and it possibly saved me from a hellish postdoc with a jerk difficult mentor. However, I wouldn’t take one person’s negative comment to heart, especially if I was really in love with the lab’s science. I suggest checking things out for yourself (if you score an interview), and keep your antennas up for anything that seems off.

After preparing and researching my list of prospects, I was ready to send out my applications. I excessively proof-read then snail-mailed hard copies of my cover letter and CV to each of the PIs on my final list. Simultaneously, my mentor mailed a recommendation letter to each of the PIs. In my cover letter, I included a short reminder of who I was (if I had previously met them) and a summary of my research, inquired about specific projects I was interested in working on, and provided an expected graduation date.

A few months later, I was on interviews. I took advantage of my one-on-one time with each of the PIs to find out what they had to say about training opportunities away from the bench (teaching, grant-writing, meetings, etc), and inquire if they were willing to let me take a project with me when I left. If it was clear what I would be working on, I specifically asked about the portability of the project. When away from the PI*, I felt out the personalities of the lab members. How much did they work? How much did they enjoy their work? Did they appear to have social lives? Or could they only talk about science? Most importantly, I observed how the lab got along with each other, how they interacted with their mentor, and how comfortable I felt talking with them and the PI.

Luckily, I was offered a job during my interview with the PI who was my top choice before, during and after the visit. I felt comfortable with the PI, enjoyed hanging out with the lab members, and fell in love with Postdoc Town. Within months of joining the lab, I took control of the project I had been reading about for several years prior. I published, established myself as the department expert in Field X and Technique A, secured my own funding, and initiated my own collaborations. It wasn’t the perfect postdoc, and I had plenty of frustrations along the way. But it was as good as (and maybe even better than) I needed it to be.

*Not given time away from the PI? This is a HUGE red flag. Run, don’t walk, away.

Next up in the series: putting together my TT application package.

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.

Getting a fancy TT job without big money – it can happen!?

The results are in, and I’ve had way too much fun drawing scientific-type conclusions from my non-scientific and poorly-designed survey. Based on the propaganda with which I had been littered prior to this survey, the data from yesterday’s poll are somewhat surprising, indicating you CAN get a tenure-track faculty position at a top-tier institution without big bucks already in your back pocket. The survey questions and results: Continue reading

An informal, totally non-scientific survey

I’ve heard tale in the blogosphere and IRL that *nobody* is getting TT jobs at top-tier research institutions without money right now…that even K grant money isn’t gonna do the trick. That in order to get a faculty position at a top-tier med school, you need serious dough – like multiple R01s. Before I comment on this, I would like to find out how true this may or may not be using an incredibly inaccurate method for data acquisition – the blog poll!! Continue reading

In which Dr. O totally works herself into a funding-related tizzy

So I’m sitting here at my desk, working on the seminar for my upcoming interview, and I start to think.

<Dr. O’s train of thought>

I’m going to have to give a chalk talk on my interview, so I should really solidify the specific aims for these two grants I’m planning on (eventually) writing.

Hmmm, this set of aims will work great for an R01: I already have a ton of data, and will surely be able to cobble together a paper before I submit.

And this new little exciting idea will make a great app to my favorite private foundation.

So, I’ve got 1) a for-sure funded project (K award), 2) a *safe* project (the R01 app), and 3) a more far-fetched idea (private foundation app). Looking good.

I think.

But… what if I can’t get the R01 funded after two apps? Oh shit. deep cleansing breaths> I’ve got other ideas, the K award will surely produce data for those routes.

But… what if THAT R01 can’t get funded after two apps? OH SHIT. deep cleansing breaths into a paper bag> Something will come through. I’ve got several ideas in the hopper. I’ll cross that bridge when I get there.

But… what if NONE of my ideas are fundable? What if NIH paylines remain in the single digits? What if I move my family across the country and my lab fails miserably??????? deep cleansing breath, some wheezing, digging through desk drawer to find albuterol inhaler>

I don’t even have a job, and I’m already panicking over the impending financial doom of my non-existent lab.

What’s wrong with me?*


*Rhetorical question