Ten years in college, now what?

Sarah here to write about the slightly less fun, and the certainly less glamorous, side of science: becoming gainfully employed as a scientist after graduate school. My experiences are within applying to academic jobs (visiting professorships, tenure track professorships, postdoctoral researchers, museum curators, etc.). Academic job applications are quite a bit different than many other job applications. Here’s the step-by-step breakdown of how to apply to an academic job:

Lab group photo at Sarah’s graduation. Maggie and Jen were both ushers during the ceremony!
    1. Look for openings. Academic jobs are few and far between. A lot of the times, there are many more people applying than there are jobs in academia (essentially, universities or museums). Therefore, competition is stiff! To keep this from getting out of control in length, we’re going to keep this post about professor jobs. When a department decides they need a professor in a new area of research (like paleontology), they’ll make a request to the university. They’ll explain to the university why they need a paleontologist-what types of research they will bring to the department, what classes they’ll teach, what graduate students they’ll recruit, etc. The university will typically send all of the proposals they get in a year to the university board that will approve or deny the requests. Let’s say we’re approved for our paleontology hire-yay! We’ll send out a job advertisement for the position with a basic list of what the department would like to see (For example: “We seek a paleontologist for a tenure track position starting next fall. The candidate will be expected to develop a thriving research program, mentor graduate students, and teach courses”). This means that your college professors probably had little or no choice in where they moved for their jobs. It all depends on what university wants a professor in your field at the right time.

    2. Apply! Great! We have a cool job to apply to-what do we do to prove to them we’re the perfect person for the job? First, you write a cover letter. The cover letter is a one-two page document that is a brief overview of who you are, what your qualifications are, and why you think you’re the very best person for this job. Next, you write a teaching statement (or a teaching philosophy). This covers your general philosophy on how you view teaching-do you use active learning and hands-on examples? How do you grade students-by exams, projects, both? You talk about the types of classes you can teach at that university and the classes you’d like to add to their roster. This can be a few pages in length. Next comes your research statement -teaching is only a part of what university professors do; you’re expected to do a lot of research (that is hopefully funded by scientific agencies, like the National Science Foundation). Your research statement should talk about all the research you currently do-it should be framed as “the big picture”. For example, my research statement talks about how I study long-term trends in evolution and how evolutionary trends might be tied to climate change in the fossil record. Your research statement should cover where you think you’ll get external funding for research and new projects you’d like to get to in the future! Your C.V. (the academic resume) is the last thing that is typically required. It lists all your publications, grants, classes taught, outreach, and more, so the interviewers can learn more about what you do. Some universities require different statements in addition to your teaching and research, like a diversity statement. A diversity statement covers your commitment to supporting all people in your field and how you will help students from different backgrounds succeed.

    3. Interview! A committee of professors will read all the statements and compile a “short list” of a varying number of applicants. This short list will be contacted-a lot of the times, they’ll ask for letters of recommendation for the people who made the short list. A typical interview will consist of a Skype or phone interview. They’ll ask questions about your research goals, your teaching style, why do you want to work at that school, etc. If they decide you’re one of their top candidates, they’ll then invite you (and 2-4 others, typically) to come to a campus interview.

    4. Campus visit! The campus visit (one that I’ve made a few times) is a really weird kind of job interview-it starts when someone picks you up at the airport (typically a professor) and ends whenever you get returned. The interview day can last all day (I have had two that were 13 hours long). You meet with as many professors as can be met with, have lunch with students or more faculty, give a talk about your research to the department, and sometimes a second talk, a teaching demo, so they can see how good you’ll be at instructing their students. You’ll have a formal sit down interview with the search committee at some point during the day, too.

    5. Accept?! Congratulations! You’ve earned yourself a job! Now, you need to negotiate the terms: salary, money for start up (this means the equipment you want to buy for your research), a university position for your spouse, if you need one, moving expenses, teaching load, and more. If this position isn’t a good fit for you, you might not want to take it, even if jobs are hard to come by. Weigh your options and make the best decision for yourself.

It can take many years for a scientist to earn a tenure-track faculty position. Very few scientists are able to attain this type of position immediately after graduate school. But that doesn’t mean you should not try and tenure track positions are not for everyone. There are some industry positions available for people who obtain a Ph.D.

Sarah is currently working at the University of South Florida where she has a position as a visiting faculty member. She and Jen are currently compiling application packets for this upcoming cycle.

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