How did I get here? Landing my first tenure-track position
Updated: Jan 10, 2019
The season of job applications is in full swing. Many postdoctoral fellows—gone are the days when you could get a faculty position straight after finishing your PhD—have worked hard on their application package over the summer, most importantly on their research statement; contacted their referees (maybe even drafted letters for them), shortlisted the jobs that they find interesting, and are now in the process of sending in their applications. About two years ago, I was in the same boat; I had completed my postdoctoral fellowship for about a year (as a Banting fellow—Canada’s most prestigious postdoctoral fellowship) and I was ready to start applying for tenure-track faculty positions (assistant professor).
Other than actively looking up posted jobs (indeed.com was the most useful and comprehensive), I spent most of my time on understanding the departmental needs and customizing the cover letter (and even the research statement sometimes)—although I could have done a better job, by being more selective and targeted. Since it was my first time entering the academic job market and because I had a diverse training (ranging from nanotechnology to microbiome), I cast my net as wide as I could including both Canadian and American institutions and departments ranging over chemistry, chemical engineering, nanotechnology, biomedical engineering, and biological engineering.
In retrospect I can see how my research statement could have been even better. One key point is to start early: definitely a few months early (which I did). Although job postings would not be available yet, it is useful to look at a few departments that would be of interest and summarize which federal granting agencies are relevant to these departments (sometimes you can find public CVs of faculty members in the department and their funding sources listed). Within these agencies, look at some solicitations that are relevant to your research program (e.g. by using NIH RePORTER) and prepare a one-page proposal for each such solicitation. Combine these proposals to prepare a research statement. A typical statement should be five pages in length (with at least one relevant figure per page): the first page is a summary of the entire proposal (an executive summary), the next three pages are the projects (one short-term, low-risk; one medium-term, medium-risk; and one long-term, high-risk), and the final page ties everything together, mentions the impact and outcomes, and discusses possible funding agencies. Plus references take up another page.
The goal of the research statement is to show your prospective colleagues that you can think about how you would set up your research program and how you would become self-sustained financially. Of course, once you get the faculty position you are not committed to the research statement and generally you have the freedom to pursue new opportunities as they present themselves—depending on the environment of the institute, many opportunities emerge by talking to colleagues (faculty members become more responsive compared to when you approached them as a graduate student or a postdoctoral fellow).
Once you have drafted your research statement, send it for feedback to your mentors and your colleagues. Feedback is important but it is up to you whether you wish to incorporate their comments. The key is to judge whether your reader is interpreting your intentions accurately (and whether there are holes in your logic) or can the writing be clearer.
You will need a few different versions of your research statement because each job posting could have a different requirement (e.g. page limit).
For the rest of your application package, there are plenty of other resources on the web. Based on your CV and research statement, the faculty selection committee will shortlist 10-20 candidates out of about 100-200 applicants for a single position. They will then select the top two to three for interviews. Often, even within these two to three candidates, the committee might already have a favorite but it is difficult to know beforehand.
Let us say you were lucky enough (my success rate was about 5%) to get an interview. It could be in two stages: first, a phone/video interview, and then an on-site/in-person interview. It helps to prepare answers to typical questions. I found the list by Herried II and Full helpful and I was asked the following questions during my phone/Skype interview:
Have you seen the researchers on department’s page to see how you fit in?
How does your research fit into the position posted?
Who else does similar work?
Does somebody work on gut microbiome on campus?
Research is collaborative, give some examples of collaborations in your research.
How does your research fit with the different units/faculty that are present here?
Who are the big shots in your field? How do you differentiate from your PhD and postdoctoral advisors?
How do you keep students motivated, both in teaching and research?
Do you have any questions for us?
The best way to prepare for interviews is to do them. So, if you have any control over it, do not schedule your top institutes as your first interviews. I did not do too well on my first two. It takes two to three tries to get the hang of it.
In preparation for on-site interview, you want to get a feel of the department, know what the composition is like, even have few questions prepared for each person that you will be meeting (note that you may not receive a schedule until quite close to the date of the interview and so, it makes sense to review the entire department and make notes).
Typically, you will be asked to give a research seminar and a teaching seminar. Often, departments will also include a presentation of your proposed research either in the form of a separate chalk talk or within your research seminar. You should ask the chair (the person who invited you for the interview) for details of these presentations. Their goal is to help you succeed and they will be happy to help you. After all, they are spending significant resources (time and money) to arrange the interview. The most important objective of any interview is to determine the fit. In today’s competitive market, you might feel like you would be happy with any faculty position, but in the long-term, the fit is important for success and satisfaction.
After the on-site interview, you will have a gut feeling of whether it went well or not. Although there are often factors out of anybody’s control (e.g. budget cuts), your gut feeling is probably accurate in whether you will get an offer.
After receiving an offer, the ball is in your court and the next step is the negotiation. You have the upper hand because after spending all the time and effort, now the department wants to ensure that you will accept the offer. That being said, do not be a jerk, just play your hand carefully. Know your needs and ask for it.
The start-up package will typically comprise funds for purchasing equipment, spending for personnel, and discretionary funds. Equipment typically includes anything that costs more than $5000. It is important to think about your needs, which are not already available as a part of shared facilities (if they are in shared facilities, make sure you budget the fees for them in your discretionary funds). The personnel funds (often expressed as time in addition to dollars) generally cover salaries for graduate student, postdoctoral fellow, and tuition fees remissions (which are funds to pay the tuition fees of graduate students in your lab). They also include some allocation for your summer salary (if yours is a typical 9-month appointment like most schools). You should also request support for undergraduate students and/or lab technician as these can be crucial when setting up a new lab and when grad students are not yet available. The discretionary funds cover fees for core facilities, materials, glassware, small equipment, publishing fees, travel, etc. A bio-related lab runs at about $2000/month in consumables and a good place to include these expenses is in the discretionary funds. It is useful to think of as many items as you can and put a number on it with justification.
Do ensure that you get all your details in writing in the offer letter (e.g. lab space, office space, office furniture, etc.) because once you accept the offer, by the time you start your job, the situation might change and oral agreements may or may not hold. Although I have not had any trouble, I have heard of stories from colleagues and you can find plenty of examples online. You can also ask for teaching relief (which provides you a reduced teaching load) for the first one or two years. You can try to negotiate the salary as well, but I am not sure how much flexibility there is (it depends on the institute). A good place to look is the published salaries for new assistant professors in your department (if it is a public school). It is unlikely that you would start with anything much higher than them. There is an opportunity for merit increases annually and it is worth discussing these with your department chair.
During the negotiations, you will often be invited for a second visit. This visit is more casual and it is meant to see the surrounding neighborhood and even look for housing. You can set up meetings with potential collaborators and find out any other details about the department or the job. Ensure that you see your lab space and make additional requests that might come up after the visit and include within the offer. They will typically also cover the cost of your spouse’s travel, if you would like to visit together. The main objective of this visit is to answer the question: do you see yourself living here?
Once you are satisfied with the offer, get it reviewed by a trusted mentor for any final tweaks (they might catch something that you missed). The total value of the start-up package (often including indirect costs which could be 40-70%) is about $1-2 million for most R1 universities to be spent over a period of about five years. It is important to ask for the funds to be available for up to five years because you may be able to find some other resources early on or you might not. It is nice to have the flexibility.
Once you are satisfied with the offer, sign it, celebrate, and start recruiting lab members!