Post-doc testimonials on getting a tenure-track job

When I came to do my PhD at McGill, I had no idea what the job market looked like on the other side. I was doing my PhD because it was fun, a unique opportunity to experience biology and answer questions to things that fascinated me. But as I’ve progressed in my degree, I’ve obviously had to become more serious about prospects of what to do after I finish up. The whisperings I have heard about the job market, as it relates to biologists landing tenure-track positions at research universities, is bleak. I have watched several super-star PhDs struggle and fail to find positions. Frankly, it scares me. So I thought I could help out the future generation of graduate students by giving them some information on how the struggle to find a tenure track position could be, and I have done this by asking for help from five fantastic post-docs, all of whom are currently searching for positions. Below are their testimonials, given from their very personal point of view. Keep in mind that this blog is not meant to scare you! My PhD so far has been a wonderful experience, as it has been for countless others. This post should just enlighten you on the current situation in a few fields. Also keep in mind that these post-docs are presenting their opinions, which are based on their own experiences, and may not reflect the situation in other disciplines.

 

Post-Doc #1: Julie Teichroeb, PhD

Current Position: Post-Doctoral Researcher, Colin Chapman Lab, and as of Aug 28, Visiting Assistant Professor at UC Santa Cruz

Field: Primatology

Question 1: How difficult/competitive do you think acquiring a job in academia is in your respective field?

The primatology sub-field within biological anthropology is extremely competitive right now. Part of that stems from the economic downturn in 2009-2010 when there were very few jobs and many people were post-docing and building up their CV’s. So, right now there is a pool of really qualified people on the market competing for the few jobs that are coming up. Part of the difficulty in primatology also stems from the fact that this is a really popular field (primates are fun to study) where more Ph.D.’s graduate every year than jobs are available.

Question 2: Please briefly chronicle your experiences in searching for a career in academia.

I started applying for jobs and post-doc funding in 2009 when I graduated with my Ph.D. That was a particularly bad year but I did manage to get short-listed and interviewed at the University of Toronto. I lost the job to a much more senior person but this experience gave me some motivation to keep going, even considering the dim prospects. Since then I have been publishing the results of my Ph.D. as well as post-docing and have applied for over 100 jobs. I’ve had three more interviews and this year I managed to get a one-year visiting assistant professorship.

Question 3: What is your current outlook on finding a tenure-track position in your given field?

I had to do some serious soul-searching in the years since I finished my Ph.D. to decide whether I wanted to keep trying for a job in academia. It is a long road and post-docs make so little money and have to move wherever a position becomes available, so it makes the prospect of a stable, normal life slim. So many women drop out of the game (the leaky pipeline) because much of the burden of raising a family still often falls on them. Most women in academia delay having children in an effort to find a stable, tenure-track job first. However, it is becoming rare for people to acquire a good job before they are in their late thirties. So, many women choose to remain childless. I have always wanted to become a mother but I have decided to continue with primatology and my effort to find a job, mostly because I am extremely passionate about it, I can’t imagine doing anything else, and I have a very understanding husband. I hope to have kids in the next few years and if I don’t get a job because of it, at least I didn’t give up my fertility to a fickle job market. I think it is possible to “have it all” but it is getting harder and harder and you have to be determined.

Question 4: Do you have any advice for new graduate students that may make them more competitive in the job market after their PhDs (and Post-Docs)?

I know it is cliché but, publish or perish. Also, you have the best chance of getting a job in a field that you are passionate about, so make sure you do what you love and love what you do. In addition, I would say that you have to be flexible and take any opportunity presented to you (even if it is not your dream position/project) and make the most of it.

 

 Post-Doc #2: Sarah Paige, PhD

Current Position: Post-doctoral Researcher, Tony Goldberg Lab

Field: Geography and Public Health

Question 1: How difficult/competitive do you think acquiring a job in academia is in your respective field?

Super difficult, especially since the goal of my field is actually trying to unite fields.  Not a lot of social science-y job descriptions in disease ecology positions, and vice versa.  It does limit me to an interdisciplinary department or a Geography dept, despite having training in tons of other areas.  But it’s so interesting that I’m enjoying where I am at the moment without a whole lot of attention to what I’ll be doing in three years when this gig is over.

Question 2: Please briefly chronicle your experiences in searching for a career in academia.

Just prior to graduation and after, I looked for both academic and non-academic jobs. I only landed interviews in places where I knew someone on the team or in the department.  In jobs where the description just seemed to be totally “me” but I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t hear a thing.  That was frustrating and made me wonder if there is a big group of similarly-trained people who I don’t know about. Like I was totally missing something or I’d gone down a rabbit-hole of a discipline that was leading me nowhere.

After a few months I luckily landed a good job that was a bit outside of my main interests of disease ecology and human health, but matched some of my second tier interests- social determinants of health in the US. I worked with a small private consulting firm conducting evaluations on health policy. It was nice, but I eventually felt that same lack of excitement that propelled me back to school. Luckily, the timing was good in that a postdoc position was open that really suited me, and that I was a strong candidate for (it was with a committee member!). I applied and interviewed and was selected. It was a nerve-wracking process since I was so familiar with the PI already, but it was also reassuring to be competing for the job. I hadn’t been able to see where I measured up against peers, and that process helped to highlight where my strengths and weaknesses were.

 Question 3: What is your current outlook on finding a tenure-track position in your given field?

Current outlook on tenure-track… back to feeling vaguely exhausted by the idea of the academic job hunt. Other things going on in my life, like aging parents, aging pets, my own aging self, having a baby, having a serious partner, wanting to buy a house, are bubbling up as factors in thinking about my next job in new ways.  Location matters. Income matters. Stability matters.   I am hoping to just fall into something permanent here, and not necessarily tenure track faculty job, but maybe working alongside directors of global health institute to design and lead field courses, curricula, conferences, etc.  I kinda don’t feel like committing to teaching. Not sure I have the energy or drive.

Question 4: Do you have any advice for new graduate students that may make them more competitive in the job market after their PhDs (and Post-Docs)?

Publish and network!  Both of these will serve you well on the job-hunt whether it’s academic or not.

Also, having a nice web presence seems to be helpful. With a professional picture and a brief research statement, with some key publications and also a little blurb about personal fun stuff.

 

Post-Doc #3: Michael Wasserman, PhD

Current Position: Post-Doctoral Researcher, Colin Chapman Lab

Field: Primatology, Endocrinology

Question 1: How difficult/competitive do you think acquiring a job in academia is in your respective field?

I think it is very competitive, especially considering only 14% of people who receive their PhD in biology and the life sciences now obtain a tenure-track position in academia (see Washington Post article).

Question 2: Please briefly chronicle your experiences in searching for a career in academia.

I began my search during my last year of grad school in 2010-2011.  I applied to a number of tenure-track and postdoctoral positions and ended up with two interviews for assistant professor positions (which I didn’t get), an offer for a visiting assistant professor position, and two postdocs.  I obviously took the postdoc at McGill, deciding that time for research was most important at this stage in my career.  The whole process, although stressful at times, was a great learning experience.  I will be applying for tenure-track positions this year and feel that I am definitely more prepared after experiencing one round of the job search.

Question 3: What is your current outlook on finding a tenure-track position in your given field?

I think that if you are dedicated, enjoy what you do, and adaptable, you will eventually land a tenure-track position.  It may not happen at first, but if you stay focused on your research, a good position will open up within a few years that fits your expertise.

 Question 4: Do you have any advice for new graduate students that may make them more competitive in the job market after their PhDs (and Post-Docs)?

Plan ahead!  Definitely have an idea of where your research is going after the PhD.  In your last year or two, start writing grant and postdoc fellowship proposals.  This will not only help develop your research agenda beyond the dissertation, but will actually improve the quality of your dissertation as it gives you a broader perspective on how your studies fit into the bigger picture.

 

Post-Doc #4: Suzanne Gray, PhD

Current Position: Visiting Fellow, Lauren Chapman Lab and Fisheries and Oceans Canada

Field: Fish Biology and Aquatic Ecology

Question 1: How difficult/competitive do you think acquiring a job in academia is in your respective field?

I think it’s extremely difficult to land a faculty job in my field (evolutionary ecology/behavioural ecology) at the moment. It seems that the days of doing two to three years of postdoc’ing and then getting a job are over. Many of the jobs I’ve applied for over the past two years have received anywhere from 100 to 300 applicants, and often the people who got the jobs were already Assistant Professors at other institutions. This “lateral transfer” seems to be happening more and more, making it difficult for new graduates to compete. That being said, I do know of people at my stage starting to get jobs, so it can be done!

Question 2: Please briefly chronicle your experiences in searching for a career in academia.

I began following academic job boards after my first two years as a postdoc. This was a good idea because I at least started to understand the process and what was available in the academic world. At that point I had been told I had a “good CV” (read “your list of publications is starting to be long enough to consider applying for jobs”). I think I applied for four or five jobs during the third year, then about 25 the fourth year with one interview. That interview was conducted over the phone – in my opinion the worst kind of initial interview – and I bombed it quite badly. Note to field biologists: do not agree to conduct a phone interview whilst in the field, especially if you are required to use a sketchy cell phone, at night, on top of a hill in a jungle, with uncharged batteries in your headlamp. In my fifth year as a postdoc (NEVER thought I would still be a postdoc five years of graduating!) I applied for another 25-30 jobs. This time my hopes rose significantly as I was long-listed (i.e. made the top-ten finalist list) for ~six jobs. This led to one big interview and one skype interview. The skype interview was not fun – it’s hard to engage the search committee. The big, two-day interview, was very intimidating but overall a good experience. This kind of interview starts from the moment you are picked up in the morning until you get on the plane to go home the next night, so it’s gruelling – you have to be “on” for 48 hours, scientifically and personally. I’ve been told that the search committee and other faculty aren’t just thinking about how well you give a talk or can discuss your work, they want to know if they can handle having an office next to you for 30 years. So you need to defend your research program (current and future) and put on a big happy friendly smile at the same time. I didn’t get the job, but I don’t think it had much to do with my interview – I was super prepared – I think it just wasn’t the right fit. Everyone keeps talking to me about the “fit”. You will hear this a lot if you pursue this route, for example, “Don’t worry, you’re going to get a position, your CV is competitive, you just have to wait for the right fit”. Thanks. I am now in a position where my funding is running out and I apply for every job remotely related to my field. The question is, how long do I wait?

Question 3: What is your current outlook on finding a tenure-track position in your given field?

I’ve been told repeatedly by more senior faculty that, “The only people who don’t get a job in academia are those that stop trying.” While I try to find hope in this statement, I’m starting to think that this, too, may be a thing of the past. You have to ask yourself how long you are willing to wait this out. I am still trying, applying for jobs as they come up, writing papers in the interim, supervising students, forging collaborations, and anything else that might help build my CV past the short-list tipping point. While I honestly am finding the process quite depressing and demoralizing, I have always wanted an academic position so I refuse to give up, at least for now (ask me again six months from now when my funding runs out).

Question 4: Do you have any advice for new graduate students that may make them more competitive in the job market after their PhDs (and Post-Docs)?

Be a superstar. Just joking, sort of. Publish early in Nature and Science. Just joking, sort of. I hate that this is the advice I’m going to give new graduate students first, but: publish, publish, publish. Don’t wait until you’re writing up your thesis to start publishing papers. When I started my PhD the general consensus was if you had about 8 solid publications you would get interviews. Now, unless those eight pubs are in Nature or Science, you should probably be aiming for 15-20 before applying for jobs (at least in my specific field, and jobs at research institutions as opposed to mainly teaching/undergrad institutions). That’s why starting to publish early and consistently is a good thing. That’s also why people postdoc for 4-6 years before getting a job, you need time to write up papers. Creating collaborations, both within your own department and at other institutions is a really good idea too. It can lead to exciting new research and help you develop new skills outside your area of expertise. There are actually some good grants that are specifically meant for grad students to go to other labs in other countries to learn new skills – take advantage of this! I want to end on a positive note, so, I can honestly say that despite my misgivings about actually finding an academic job in the current market, I love what I do. I’m passionate about my research and when I stop and try to think of what I would do if not pursuing a job in academia, I can’t come up with an alternative. So for now, I’ll just keep working away.

 

Post-Doc #5: Tavis Anderson, PhD

Current Position: Post-Doctoral Researcher, Tony Goldberg Lab

Field: Computational Biology, Evolution, and Parasitology

Question 1: How difficult/competitive do you think acquiring a job in academia is in your respective field?

All career paths, including those in non-academic fields, are competitive (or as competitive as you want to make them).  I don’t spend much time dwelling on this: I have little control over what the “market” is or will be in future years.  What I can control is whether I’m a good candidate for the limited number of positions that are advertised in ecology and evolutionary biology.

Question 2: Please briefly chronicle your experiences in searching for a career in academia.

If I printed a CV including the successful and unsuccessful applications, grants, and papers, I’d likely run out of ink.  Rather than provide a laundry list, I’m going with a few “feelings,” framed loosely around two points learnt from [painful] experience: 1) don’t apply for everything; and 2) start thinking and applying now.

In the early days, I operated on the “apply for everything that had the word ecology in the RFA/description,” hoping that someone would bite.  This was not a good approach: 1) every application takes time away from more valuable work (i.e., manuscript preparation); and 2) search committees are ruthless, and will eliminate you from consideration if you don’t “fit” what they want – if your academic history is “X,” it’s unlikely you’ll be hired in position “Y,” regardless of the quality of your ideas, grant(s), cover letter, or letters of recommendation.  Since those early days, I’ve begun to recognise my [limited] strengths and tailor my applications to more appropriate positions.  Subsequently, the frequency of success has increased dramatically.

The second general point is that the academic world works on a 6-month (or longer) timeline.  Grant applications are submitted 6- to 12-months before you receive a decision, faculty searches take 6-months and tend to be advertised 12-months in advance, and manuscripts can be sitting at a journal editorial office (or with reviewers) for half a year or more.  If you want a faculty position (or a fellowship) for August 2013, you need to start looking in August 2012 or earlier.  The exceptions are grant-funded postdoctoral positions that pop up frequently and require less planning (~3 months).  In addition, your application will be assessed on its merits when you submit it, not in 12 months time, so “in prep” manuscripts aren’t all that helpful (if you can’t send a PDF copy of a paper that’s ready to submit, don’t include it on your CV, and sometimes sending that PDF can be a good move).  In short, start looking early, and start building your CV as soon as you enter grad school.  Looking early is easy, building your CV is more difficult but there are plenty of little steps that are achievable without breaking a sweat (conference presentations, book reviews, professional workshops) that ideally lead to publication(s) and grant submission(s).

I started looking for my first post-grad position in February, very soon after setting up my thesis defense date (June).  In hindsight, this was too late – I missed the boat on numerous independent fellowship applications.  Fortunately, a few advertised postdocs (EcoLog, EvolDIR, HigherEdJobs.com, The Chronicle of Higher Ed, etc.) fit what I wanted in a training position (good mentor, new challenge but somewhat related to my prior work, potential for academic growth, etc.).  All of the positions were question-driven, linked field biology with mathematical theory, and involved “new” techniques that I was unfamiliar with but believed would be valuable in my academic “growth” in ecology and evolutionary biology.  I interviewed for ~50% of the positions, and quickly learnt to prepare and have specific goals for what I wanted to achieve in each position.  I wasn’t what I would consider a “strong” candidate (I had a handful of papers in press, and a handful in review), but I was (and remain) enthusiastic about ecology and evolution and learning new techniques – apparently those two traits are desirable in a postdoc.  I accepted a position, and achieved what I hoped to achieve: I gained a solid grounding in my desired research field, developed new collaborations, and have thoroughly enjoyed the interactions and mentorship I have received.

Question 3: What is your current outlook on finding a tenure-track position in your given field?

Positive, though I don’t have my heart set on a traditional “tenure-track” position at a research university.  Government agencies (e.g. USDA, USGS, CSIRO, Environment Canada) have dedicated research units, and as long as I am able to ask the questions that I’m passionate about, I’ll be happy.  I’ve never been a career-minded person: it’s my opinion that you shouldn’t be driven by a desire to be a “doctor” or a “professor.”  The motivation for the “label” should be secondary to a desire to explore the joys of biology, ask interesting questions, and communicate your passion for science to your colleagues and the community.

Question 4: Do you have any advice for new graduate students that may make them more competitive in the job market after their PhDs (and Post-Docs)?

When I arrived in graduate school, I received advice from a very supportive group of faculty (we had a structured first-year seminar series led by Peter Morin), I didn’t listen: not listening was a poor choice.  Looking back, I wish I had listened and acted on more of the advice provided.  Much of that advice is captured by the provocative piece by Stearns, and acynical reply by Huey, in “Stearns, S. and Huey, R. (1987). Some modest advice for graduate students. Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America, 68, 145-153.”

 

Thanks to these wonderful post-docs for their time, we hope it was helpful! Good luck on your future job search :)

 

 

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