NextProf Science 2016 – Life in Academia

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What are the benefits and challenges of a career in Academia?


  • Ruth Blake (Yale, Geochemistry)
  • Baldomero Olivera (University of Utah, Biology)
  • Mary James (Reed College, a SLAC)

What should you expect in your first years?

Ruth: expect a very hectic first year

Toto: yes, it will be busy, you will be setting up, focusing on research productivity and looking for collaborations with colleagues

Mary: You will be focusing on mentoring undergraduates with an emphasis on teaching, but many of your students will be going on to graduate programs, so a rigorous preparative program will be key

What are the challenges of being a faculty member?

Mary: Prepare for both academic demands on your time and personal demands.  Many of your students will seek your counsel because they feel you can relate to them better than older, less diverse faculty. As the demands on your time are significant, you may not always be able to attend to the needs of all of your students.  Don’t be afraid to refer out.

Ruth: Isolation is a real problem for diverse junior faculty.  Sometimes departments with lower diversity have difficulty integrating; you may also have difficulty integrating at professional organizations.

Toto: Again, committees and service will be a great demand on your time.  Don’t loose focus.

How do you stand out and prepare as a postdoc?

Ruth: Seek independent funding early and publish often.

Mary: Seek productive collaborations and maximize the rerun on your time.

Toto: Make collaborations mutually beneficial.

Ruth: Network and market your research at conferences.  This is key to awards, recognition and funding.  My postdoc mentor stood by my side at my first poster session as a postdoc and introduced me to *everyone*.  It helped immensely.

What are committees looking for in candidates?

Toto: Search committees are looking for relate-ability and connections in your research, but not overlap.  Also, clearly communicate the strength of your scholarship and how it connects to the ongoing research in the department.

Ruth: Look for synergy outside of your perspective department.  What can you do for them?

Mary: At a smaller institution, you may be the only person in your department doing this type of research.  Explain why your research is important.  What were the historical opening questions?  How is your work addressing this question?  What is the context?  Then look at the department’s existing research and explain why your research would add to the strength of the department.  What collaborations can you conceive?  How can you stand out *at a specific institution*.

Ruth: On a search committee we look for trajectory.  Where will you be?  The committee will be looking at publications to see where you will be come promotion time.

How does a candidate evaluate and query for fit?

Ruth: Just ask.  Find a person you’re most comfortable with and go off a list.  Different people discuss salary in different ways, but be sure to ask.

Toto: Meet graduate students and young faculty to get an idea of the culture.  Don’t make assumptions based on your current institution.

Mary: Check out the website!  It will give you an idea of the values of the institution.  Are people that are like you happy at the institution or are they on a quest for change?  Do they have a childcare site on their website?  Do your research and then ask questions from a position of strength.  Read the department website and faculty members’ publications.  Ask questions.

Does the institution mention aspects that your passionate about?  If not, perhaps it might be better to ask those questions after the offer stage.

Also, talk to pre-tenure faculty.  They are “you”.

Toto: See how the faculty interact.  Who do they invite and not invite to dinner?

How can you be successful in Academia?

Ruth: Evaluate the environment and identify allies.  How will you interact with each faculty member.  They may be important for your promotion.

Mary: Make use of any faculty mentoring programs.  Make particular use of mentors outside the department.  Ask for help with sponsorship and relationship building.  Clearly communicate the goals of the mentoring relationship.  Ask for mentoring if no formal program exists.  Have lunch and see if you can build that relationship.

Toto: Explore the resources available to you.  Poke around and learn what people are doing.  Be open to potential collaborators.

Tips on Time Management and Work-Life Balance

Toto: Maintain your flexibility.  Build it in to your schedule for when your work demands it.  Sometimes you can’t work 9-5.

Mary: Schedule “unscheduled” time.  Once a month, be somewhere you shouldn’t be.  Schedule time for your health and wellbeing- schedule exercise.  Can you buy time with housekeeping, home help?

Ruth: Develop a support system so your personal life doesn’t take away from the balance of your life.  Seek ways to save time.

The Important of Teaching and Mentoring

Mary: You need 2 cover letters when applying: One for R1s, one for SLACs.  At SLACs, teaching is paramount, while maintaining the level of your scholarship.  Institutions value the importance of mentoring in the lab.

Ruth: In R1s, outstanding candidates will be recognized for their teaching, public speaking and mentoring abilities.

Toto: Broadly scholarly interests in a large R1 department indicate the ability to teach a variety of subjects.  Make your chalk talk as scholarly as possible and convey your teaching experience.

What to do if you don’t have obvious teaching and mentoring experience?

Toto: Be enthusiastic and prepare thoroughly for your chalk today.  Don’t make comments about how you’d like to avoid teaching.

Mary: Make a specific proposal for how you would like involve undergraduates in your research.  What specific projects would students undertake?

Ruth: Think of a course you’d like to create and teach.  You don’t need a full syllabus.

Debra (UMich Evo and Ecology): Read the pedagogy literature and include that in your discussions with search committees.  Integrate that in your teaching statement.

Knowing when you’re ready

Mary: Sometimes you have to fake it until you make it.  You need to believe outsiders- are you getting called for interviews?

Ruth: Squash impostor syndrome and the self doubt.  You deserve to be here.  Let it go.