Thursday, May 27, 2010

Interviewing (from the perspective of a job seeker)

My first year on the market, I had 2 interviews. In my field, interviews are 2 day affairs that consist of a research seminar, individual meetings with faculty in the department, a presentation of research plans (sometimes formal, sometimes not), and several meals. Sometimes there are meetings with students, sometimes not. I had ABSOLUTELY no idea of what to expect on my first interview. I went in armed only with my schedule and zero pre-knowledge of what to expect and what to do. Coming from outside academia, this was a major disadvantage.

The interviews themselves were completely exhausting. After, I was really, really tired (and had to burn all my vacation to interview). You can find general interview tips all over. My main one is to drink something every time someone offers you something--you will dehydrate quickly with all the talking you are doing. My minor one is to remember that most academics are not trained in how to interview. Because of this, they may not know what to do other than to talk about their science. You don't want to have awkward silences. Think about things you want to know about working at the department, and ask. Most people are happy to answer questions. You can (and sometimes it is instructive to) ask the same question of everyone. If all else fails, ask about their research or their group.

I didn't get either job. Against the received wisdom, I asked the search committee chairs for feedback, and I actually got lots of very specific advice that really helped me out in my next job season. So how did that happen?

1. Ask for feedback on how to improve/advice on how to be a better candidate. DO NOT ask why you didn't get the job or anything about the deliberations or the other candidate.

2. Do not put the SCC on the spot. I asked for feedback via email, and was invited to call both SCC chairs to talk about it later.

3. Be sincere. If you are angry, annoyed, or can't take constructive criticism well don't bother.

What did I learn? The best piece of advice was a reminder NOT to make sarcastic or ironic offhand remarks. I did this once, and it came up when I was discussed as a candidate. This was totally a rookie mistake, but it is a common one!

Most important to me, I got good feedback on how a job talk should be organized and presented. This is one bit of mentoring I really lacked, since it is hard to do without face to face contact. I found out that I had prepared my research talk too narrowly. I highlighted one really important story from my research experience. This was not enough. You need to show depth AND breadth. This was the biggest change I made in my next go-round. Another issue was that I came across as inexperienced in running a lab and in understanding how much things cost because my wishlist for startup seemed incomplete. I did a complete overhaul my second time on the market. Last, I did not have enough details worked out for some of my proposed projects. This I definitely fixed!

Things I wasted time on:
1. Spending lots of time preparing to discuss teaching. This was absolutely not an issue. Later on, someone told me that the teaching evaluation at a research school is the job talk. If you can give a good one, you can teach.

2. Trying to learn about the research interests of everyone in the department in advance. Everyone likes to talk about their work, and no one who is far from your area of expertise expects you to know theirs. The Internet made me paranoid about this one. Don't bother.

3. Worrying about details I couldn't or wouldn't change in my personal life. I was really worried about what to do if people asked about my family, whether to talk about it at all, etc. What I found is that people talked about science (mostly) in the one on one meetings, but talked about the local area and/or small talk about life in general at the meals. To avoid discussion of my personal life would have been stilted and impossible for me (I am not very good at redirection). Above all, I failed to remember that I was interviewing them as much as they were interviewing me. After I didn't get both jobs the first time around, I wondered about whether any of this made a difference. But then I decided I didn't care. If I wouldn't have been hired if the department knew I was married, I don't want the job. It isn't like I am going to hide my personal life forever once I arrive!

In year 2, I had 10 interviews (declined 1) and received 3.5 offers (one was verbal, but I pulled out before any written offer arrived) before I accepted a job. I still don't know why I got so many more interviews the second time around after making only small revisions to my application package. I am assuming it was a right place/right time thing. That said, I definitely nailed the interviews the second time around, mostly due to having more experience and getting good feedback on how to improve.

I will admit that I sometimes surf on over to the departments that didn't hire me to see how "my competition" is doing. I find myself doing a lot less of this now that my own lab is up and running.

Next topic: Interviewing (from the perspective of a search committee member)

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


It has been 6 weeks since we submitted our first paper. We are now at the beginning of the "check email a million times a day period just in case". I hate the wait!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Motivating students

One thing I have been trying hard to do is to establish a nice lab culture. I have two students, and hope to get two more next year. I am really fortunate that both of my students are really hard workers who are very enthusiastic about their work. I don't want to be a slave driver--I want to have nice discussions of science, going over experiments, and not spend a lot of time laying down the law. I always hated being micromanaged, so I don't want to do that myself. I am thinking about what I should be doing to establish a self-sustaining lab culture that encourages those things.

In terms of motivation, I was always pretty intrinsically motivated. One thing I lacked as a student was the opportunity to go to meetings--I pretty much had to arrange everything myself (even funding for it). So as a motivator, and because I think meetings can be great experiences, when my students joined my group, I told them that I would take them to a meeting every year they had enough new data to present, and to a major meeting after they published a significant paper of their own work. This summer, I will be taking both of my students to a regional meeting to present posters of their work. I am pretty excited about this, and so are they. Any other suggestions of nice things to do to reward productivity?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Search committee math, or what does it mean to have 200 applicants for a position?

Hiring has been on my mind, inspired by the wide ranging discussion of spousal hires. Although I am an academic neophyte, seeing three searches in two departments this year (I was on two of the committees as well) has really opened my eyes as to how searches work. Here's how we did it this year:

210 applications. First of all, for all three searches, we had 200+ applications. Initial evaluation and grading is done by each member of the committee independently. Then, we come together to make a "long list" and then after more consideration, a "short list". We can throw away at least 1/3 of them right away due to lack of qualifications (no PhD, no postdoc*, wrong field, wrong sub-field*, or application incomplete). I should note that we do keep applications in the no postdoc or wrong sub-field if they are SUPER AMAZING, but that is not most of them. When we write the ad, we have some type of expertise in mind that we are looking for to fill out the department, move into a new area, or cover a needed area of teaching. Sometimes we will hand off applications to another (more suitable) department that has an opening. As for postdocs, we generally require at least one. In the past (before my time), the department has hired someone with a deferred start so they can complete a postdoc first, so it isn't a total waste of time to apply without one, if you have something good lined up. This is very, very rare though. A surprising number of applications are not complete. The most common missing thing is one or more reference letters (we ask for three). We will often over look one missing letter (we assume the writer flaked out), and contact the listed writer if we need more information. If more than one letter is missing, we assume it is the candidate.

140 applications. We score all the remaining applications in A, B, or C. Applications scored C are removed from consideration. Applications scored B are (briefly) reviewed a second time in case we missed something, especially if the decision was not unanimous. Usually, the A's can pretty clearly be separated from the B's and C's. This cut is made mostly on CV and letters of reference. We look primarily at publication record--we like to see first author papers from both PhD and postdoc. We also like to see some signs of collaborations (like non-first author papers). We look at where the candidate is publishing (Nature/Science papers are not required, but 17 publications in Joe's Journal of Microscopy won't cut it). In the searches I saw, I'd say around half of the remainder were C's.

70 applications. Now it gets tougher. We need to separate the A's from the B's. At this point, we consider the proposed research plan, as well as previous track record. We are looking for a colleague who can 1) be successful in our department and 2) bring something to improve the department. If the research plan is completely unrealistic ("I'll cure cancer in 5 years!" or "I need the entire contents of my massively successful advisor's lab to get started") or incomprehensible, the applicant is a B, no matter how great their CV is. If the applicant can't write a decent research plan, we have grave doubts they will be able to write a decent grant proposal. When I am scoring the applicants, I look a little at citations, especially for publications more than a year old, but only with a super-quick citation search (definitely not comprehensive in any way). This is just to get an idea of how relevant the prior research is, particularly for sub-fields I don't know that well. We don't generally care too much about where the applicant did their PhD/postdoc as long as the productivity is good. It helps to have at least one recommender who is known someone on the committee by reputation, if nothing else. Admittedly this is harder if someone is coming from a less well-known university, but that is where conference networking comes in. We don't consider teaching experience at all at this point. If there are any weirdnesses (no letter from advisor, unusually long postdoc, gap in CV, etc) we expect them to be addressed in the cover letter or by one of the reference letters. The ratio varies, but let's say the applications are split 50-50 between A's and B's (not too unusual these days with so many people chasing so few jobs).

35 applications. These are the people we are considering for invitations to interview (the "long list"). If any are missing letters, we contact the listed recommenders. At this point, we are considering everything we asked for in the application, but most important is research experience and research fit with the department. On the committees I was on, at the first meeting(s), we went down the whole list, and graded every candidate as A,B,C, or F. At the next meeting, we considered if we should promote any of the B's and worked on a rank order for the A's. We now make the "short list" after much debate. At this point, most/all of the candidates are well qualified, and the distinctions are based on research fit, and how much people like the research proposals. This is where the luck part comes in. We'd probably have a great pool if we invited any of these 35 candidates, but we can only invite 5. So being in the right place at the right time is important. If we already have a great person who studies widgets, we are not going to interview another person who does really similar research, no matter how great they are when we have so many other great choices available.

At this discussion, we will also think about whether the number of women (as determined by name, generally--we don't see the EE cards) on the list is representative of the pool to make sure we didn't accidentally overlook anyone. If we could identify other underrepresented minorities, we would do the same, but that is pretty much impossible from the applications. This is NOT AA. We are doing this to make sure we didn't overlook a file due to unconscious bias (as has been shown by many, many studies and anecdotes). In both searches where I was on the committee, this was not a problem.

We rank all of the A's and decide who to invite to campus. This was not too contentious, which I found pretty surprising. In both cases, we converged on a list of 10 or so, and then spend the most time whittling that down to 5. We generally picked the "best" person (on paper) doing a particular technique or studying a particular subject, and in general, only one person from a given research group is invited out. This does help prune a little bit.

5 applications. These are the people we bring to campus. At least one of them will bomb. We hope that one or more will dazzle us and make the choice difficult. The ranks start out fresh, and we let the candidates place themselves. I'll talk about interviews in a future post or two. We do not notify anyone else of their status, in case we need to revisit the pool.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Spousal Hiring In and Out of Academia

The past few days, there has been lots of discussion of spousal hires, apparently prompted by an article in Chronicle of Higher Ed. There is an interesting split--those with TT jobs (with and without academic spouses) seem to be in favor of it, while those still trying for TT positions are vehemently opposed. I've seen spousal hires, both inside and outside academia (research heavy schools only), and I am generally in favor (with caveats). The whole thing seems to me to be part of the problem of disillusion on the part of some that academia is not a "pure meritocracy", whatever that would look like.

Maybe this is a drinking the Kool-Aid kind of thing, but having been involved in 3 searches in 2 departments this year, I can say that my understanding of how searches work is exponentially higher than it was while I was searching myself. Now that I have seen how it all works, I understand much more about how and why things happen the way they do, which makes me less of a conspiracy theorist. And after all, help with finding a spouse a job, up to and including spousal hires is a standard recruiting tool in many industries.

In my experience, most spousal hires are eminently qualified for the TT--no department I know of wants to hire an incompetent person, no matter how much of the salary the Dean will kick in. Addition by subtraction is a painful reality most in the working world have faced, and they have no desire to volunteer for such a scenario. Furthermore, at the research heavy universities I am familiar with, the spouse's position is a new line and does not prevent new hires through more traditional search process. Given that once someone is over the line in quality for a TT position, it is mostly right place/right time that gets them a position, I don't really oppose spousal hires in this type of situation, and I see how it can be really beneficial to a University that can't afford to shell out 6 or 7 figure startups every few years to fill one position.

I am strongly opposed to the type of spousal hire described by Dr. Crazy:
So, for example, let's say that we made Candidate A an offer. Candidate A, whether male or female, had a spouse who is an academic. (Note that I say spouse here. This is crucial. We are not talking about partners - we are talking about legally married people.) Historically, if we really wanted the candidate, the chair might agree to "find something" for the spouse, and that "something" would be something off the tenure track. Then, once some time passed, a hiring line would open up in the department. An ad would be written to fit the trailing spouse, as long as the couple had played nicely and sucked up to the right people. And then, under the auspices of an open search, the trailing spouse would be hired into a tenure-track position, regardless of the coverage needs of the department and regardless of the quality of other candidates being interviewed for the position.

"Fake" searches are a HUGE waste of everyone's time. If a department wants to hire someone (a spouse or inside candidate), they should just get on with it and not try to pretend there is a search, unless the spouse/inside candidate is on the same footing at the other candidates.

I was more interested in Dr. Crazy's comments about spousal hires being "1 for the price of 2" rather than "2 for the price of 1". In my experience, spousal hires are just as collegial as anyone else. After a few years, it is usually impossible to figure out who was the leading spouse and who was the trailing spouse, assuming they started at the same level. In my department, there is a married couple with kids, but they, like all TT parents are expected to contribute to service outside work hours (along with everyone else), though most people understand that they need some advance notice to arrange childcare. In the department as a whole, there are slackers (of course, like with anything else), but the level of slackerness seems independent of family status.

At my old National Lab there were a few spouses who worked together. That was a lot messier, since there was more of a hierarchy, and the potential for political minefields was HUGE. Sometimes things looked really fishy from the outside (though I can't have known details) about one spouse having an impact on the annual reviews of people who worked under the other spouse due to personality conflicts or perceived offenses. The situation was far dodgier than anything I have seen in academia, where the semi-flat structure ameliorates some of this problem, given that the problem of improper career boosting or killing based on spousal input would exist independently of whether the couple worked at the same University.

It is good to have this type of discussion in the open, especially since many scientists marry other scientists or engineers, and have career conflicts due to location issues.

UPDATED: Fixed URL and formatting.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Things I Wish I Knew Before Starting on the TT

So, I've been in my TT position for a year now, and I think the transition is going reasonably well. I have two PhD students in my group, and will have 2 undergrads in the lab for the summer. We have received and/or ordered all of our major equipment (except for 1 more thing), I have enough grant support to cover my students plus 2 more outside of startup, and I still have a nice startup nest egg to buy unanticipated needs in the next 2-3 years. We've submitted our first paper, and are attended some meetings on the data from it. So what are things that could have gone better?

Recruiting. I wish I knew more about how my department admits students before I arrived. Ask now! In my department, students arrive in August uncommitted to any particular lab. They then pick an advisor in the next 2-3 weeks (i.e. before classes start, so they can pick appropriate classes). It is a huge free-for-all. Professors can request to interview students, and then must sign off before a student can officially join a lab. This is partially because the coursework requirements are really flexible, and can be tailored to meet a student's interests, but means the students must pick a group quickly. The system ended up working for me, since I got 2 great students right away. If students were admitted to a particular group from the start, I would have potentially waited a whole year before having students in my lab.

What I should have done differently, if I knew this in advance:
1. Actually spend time on my group website. This is a great recruiting tool! Students look at the departmental website before they arrive on campus to plan out their potential advisors. Many arrive pretty sure of who they want to work with. I spent valuable time working on my Fall class that I should have spent on this.

2. Make a list of the classes I want my students to take. The flexibility is great, and I really appreciate it now that my students are taking the classes that best fit their projects, but I really needed to have a list available for when I was interviewing students.

3. Really consider what I want/need in a student. I kind of recruited on the fly and got lucky. This year, I will think about my projects, and what kinds of students would make the fastest progress on them. I will actively look at the incoming students' files ahead of time, not just after I set up an interview with them. I feel like I might have missed a few, since I do kind of hybrid research and cover several sub-disciplines in my department.

Teaching. I worked really hard on my class in August. I was teaching a ~200 person class of non-majors. I tried to get way ahead in my lectures and assignments. I spent some time getting WebCT assessments set up so I would be able to push students to keep up without collecting homework. All of this was a waste of time (except for the WebCT assessments, which I will now use every time I teach the class). I had one TA to run the tutorial session (3 hours, one night a week). WebCT sucks by the way, in case you didn't know.

What I should have done differently:
1. Not worry about being a month ahead of the students. I ended up having to redo almost all of my lecture slides after reality hit my lesson plans. I ended up spending the night before class prepping every lecture, anyway, so I may as well have just done that right from the start. The pre-prep was a waste of time.

2. Started writing my exams earlier. Writing exams is really difficult and time-consuming. Considered how long it would take me to grade each problem when writing them. Next time, I will have some long-problems that are multiple choice as well. Partial credit is over-rated! This would also significantly cut down the number of arguments/discussions/beggars for points in my office. No one argues with the Scantron.

3. Ask for more TA support! If I can't get another TA to help grade, I will consider having my TA grade while I do the tutorial. Grading is really, really time consuming, and midterms here coincided with some grant deadlines for a majorly awful few weeks.

4. Do not make appointments with students who don't have a really good reason they can't make office hours. Otherwise, everyone wants one. I held open office hours the day of exams, though, and this was very successful. A surprisingly small number of students show up, but everyone feels like I care on evaluations.

Research. Manpower (other than myself) was the most important thing I could have. Teaching, writing, meetings and service (even the light service done by new recruits) eat up a lot of time. After I trained my two students, I rarely actually spent time on the instruments myself. It is far more important as a professor to keep up in the literature (to keep current and to spark new proposal ideas) than to collect data. This was a big adjustment to me from the National Lab environment, where I was still pretty active in data generation.

I also found that even in academia, there is spare equipment lying around. Many people are happy to give/lend it to a newbie (especially if said newbie will maintain it or give it space). Ask around! I learned this the hard way after spending some of my precious startup on things I ended up getting for free later on. Don't be afraid to ask about what stuff may be available.

Time Management. Everyone will want you to give seminars in their department/guest lectures in their classes because you are new blood. This seems like a minor request at the time, but ends up taking more time than you think. I ended up saying yes to everyone, which is good from a local networking point of view, but bad from a getting things done point of view. This year, I will start to say no more, since I have more things on my plate. Job searches and recruitment eat up a TON of time. You can't get out of this, since it is one of the most important service obligations, and it falls on the whole department. It is very strange seeing a search from the other side on the first year on the TT!

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Small vs large meetings

I really much prefer small meetings. I get so much more out of them, see more science outside my comfort zone, and I network more effectively. In a large meeting, I sometimes feel at sea. The science is often great, but I have a really hard time making new contacts outside of the session I speak in. It is nice to be able to rebew conference acquaintances, but I often feel that I am not making the most of the networking opportunities at a large meeting.

I just got back from a really great meeting attended by 50 or so specialists in a well-defined area. Many of the participants know each other from previous iterations of this meeting, which I was attending for the first time. As a naturally less social introvert, I find networking and cold self-introductions really challenging. At this meeting, I spoke on the first day, which broke the ice with many of the participants, and was a great help. If and when I organize a similar type meeting, I will remember this, and try to schedule "newbies" early in the meeting.

Also, I found that I knew a couple of the major players already from attending program reviews back when I was at a National Lab. If you are a student or postdoc on a project that does annual reviews, try to go to them (or at least ask your PI). They are a great opportunity to meet the players in your field)even if the program managers change over). Even better is if your PI will let you give some of the review talk, so people in the field will know who you are. These contacts have been great jumping off points for me, and I am grateful to my postdoc advisor for taking me to a DARPA review and having me give 10 minutes of the review talk.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Looking for a job

So you know where I am coming from, I just finished my first year at my TT position. I was on 2 search committees during that year, so I have 2 seasons of academic job hunting, plus one year on the other side for two departments under my belt. My first year on the market, I had 2 interviews and received no offers. My second year on the market, I went on 10 interviews, turned 1 down, and received 3 written and 1 verbal offer. All of my interviews were at more highly ranked schools in my field. Why the difference?

The (somewhat painful) truth is that I don't know. I changed one letter writer, and polished my materials a little more, but it seems mostly about being in the right place at the right time. My second year on the market, there were more ads that targeted my subfield. That is pretty much the only explanation i can think of.

So that leads me to advice for the National Lab job applicant. First your strengths. If you've been successful at your lab, you have been a PI. You have experience competing for funding, directing research, writing proposals, and planning out a research program. You've been getting at least 2 papers a year, so your CV looks strong. You've been attending 2 or more meetings, so you have been getting your name out there and keeping track of your field. You have a pretty good job, so you can afford to be choosy, both about applying and accepting a position.

You also have some weaknesses. For one thing, you don't have an academic mentor who can show you the ropes (unless you have been keeping in strong contact with your PhD advisor--more on that later). Your postdoc supervisor and/or current supervisor may not be familiar with academic letter writing. You probably don't have an NIH grant (in an NIH field) and definitely not an NSF (in an NSF field). You may not have a track record with external funding agencies. You don't have teaching/mentoring experience. You will probably have to leave all of your current work behind, unlike an academic postdoc.

So what to do?

1. Ask your PhD advisor for advice. Mine was happy to help when he could, even though he is now emeritus, and we weren't in close contact.

2. Have an academic friend look over your application materials. This was BY FAR, the most helpful thing I did.

3. Put word out that you are looking when you are at meetings. I was asked to apply to a couple of places my second year on the market. This is no guarantee, but you may hear of job details (like preferred subfield) that aren't in the published ad.

4. Talk to your academic friends and colleagues about your search, and about making the transition. Most of them will be happy to tell you about their search and give startup advice.

5. If you are applying to R1s, don't worry about your lack of teaching experience DO think about how you will mentor grad students and how you plan to grow your group. DO think about what you would like to teach. You will probably be asked for both at interviews.

6. Make a reasonable list of requirements for your research. You should have a must have section and a really wanted section. This is really, really important. You will have a lot less opportunity to have access to equipment than at a National Lab--most people in academia don't have unused stuff just lying around. It is much, much harder to get equipment buying money in academia. You should also know about how much this will cost. Don't skimp! If you don't ask for what you need, you won't be successful.

7. Keep your search (mostly) to yourself in case it is unsuccessful. Do tell your supervisor--he/she might offer you nice perks to stay, and he/she will certainly be contacted by committees who are interested in you. If for no other reason than to see if there are any strings on your proposed research.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

On staff at a National Lab

In terms of day to day, the life of a postdoc at a National Lab (NL) is very similar to that of a postdoc in academia (as far as I can tell from observing postdocs when I was a student), except there are no students. This means that postdocs are at the bottom of the status chain, except for summer students.

Once you change over to staff, though, your day to day experience changes a lot. First of all, now you are required to do service commitments. This can be serving on committees, doing science-related administrative tasks (safety coordinator, internal review organizer, running the seminars, etc), and is kind of similar to academic service. This is supposed to take up 20% of your time, but as always, it varies by whatever the task is. As a new staff member, you are on probation. Your probationary period lasts 3 years, after which you are much harder to get rid of. It is kind of like tenure, but the bar is much lower. Just do your job, and you are pretty sure to make it.

As a staff member, you are now required to have at least 2 publications per year (at least one is supposed to be first author until you reach a managerial level). Furthermore, most staff members work on 2 or more projects. This is by design at my old lab, where we could only pull 50% of salary from any one grant. You also need to raise money. At many labs, you are soft money, and must raise salary + 200-300% to be fully covered. You also need to cover whatever supplies you need (though at the lab, you will likely have access to any equipment you can think of, so you likely won't need to travel unless you need something really specialized). This can be difficult in times of lean budgets (like the past decade in physical science). As a result, I knew people who were paid from 4 different grants. They were supposed to work one day a week on each project, plus one for service (which is just insane!). Once you raise your own salary, any additional money can be used to pay other staff to work on your project, or to hire postdocs. If you are at a hard money lab, you just need to raise money for postdocs and supplies.

You can pretty much work on anything you can get funded, which is great. However, the high overhead means that it is not worth the effort to apply for anything less that $300k/year or so. If you don't have enough funding to work on your own projects, you need to find something else that has funding to work on. In practice, this will be found for you, but it may be something you don't want to do. This is how deadwood gets traded around form project to project.

Where can we get money? Lots of places, but some won't pay federal salaries (even if you are soft money) like the NIH. Staff at NLs compete for lab directed funds (LDR or internal research), which cover 50% or so of salary at my old lab. The rest comes from DoD, DoE, industrial collaborations, DARPA, USDA, NASA, and other similar agencies that will fund NL research. NSF is strictly educational (as so off limits), and many Federal sources are not really large enough to pay anything other than a postdoc in practive (NASA, USDA, FDA). Fortunately DoD and DoE have some "intramural" funds which are designated for NL research. On the whole, the job is a lot like an academic position, only you will still work at the bench for quite a while after becoming a PI. This is what makes it great training for a future academic career!

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Life at a National Lab as a young scientist

I took a postdoc at a National Lab (NL) after completing my PhD. I was really tired of academia, and of universities in general, and I thought I wanted to start a career in industrial research. I mostly interviewed for industrial positions--the interview at NL was mostly a "why not?" interview, and not a planned move. However, the research was a fascinating new direction away form the sub-field I worked in as a PhD, and taking the position wouldn't preclude going back to industry when done, so I took the position at NL when it was offered. I was really excited to move my research in a new direction, and the NL postdoc was a great choice for me.

There are a few advantages to doing a postdoc at a NL. First, the pay is excellent. Like $60k+ excellent with full benefits. This is more than some starting assistant profs get! That said, the main benefit is in the resources. At most (all?) NLs, it is much, much easier to buy equipment than to hire people. Budgets are annual, so hiring people means supporting them. Many NLs are soft money only, or soft money for everyone except staff, so hiring can be risky for a PI. Furthermore, there is overhead of 200-300% or more on salaries but no overhead on equipment or supplies. This also means that your supervisor will let you buy things that will save your valuable time, rather than trying to save money by preferring cheaper but labor intensive protocols.

An additional benefit is that most of your colleagues will be PhDs or experienced techs. Many are experts in their technique who have many years of bench experience. Projects have a very fast ramp-up time, and usually only last 2-3 years. Independence and self-motivation are greatly prized. Your colleagues will expect you to contribute your part from day 1. The best part is that even though as a postdoc, you are hired for some specific task, you can pretty much work on whatever you want as long as you are getting your assigned work done. Furthermore, everyone at the lab needs to get 2 papers a year, so people are inclined to help with projects in exchange for authorship. It is much more straightforward to establish a track record as an independent researcher under these conditions if you are talented, independent, and motivated.

Other minor advantages--you can attend lots of conferences. I went to 2 per year as a postdoc, plus grant agency review meetings. We got a decent amount of good seminar speakers (but not as many as at a university). It is fairly easy to get both industrial and academic collaborations going, since you are viewed as less competition for IP as a government employee (the Federal government has an automatic license for patents, so collaborators have right of first refusal to pursue patents). If you do get a patent from your work at a NL, the inventors split 15%, which is quite generous.

That said, there are also significant downsides. First of all, if you intend to go into academia, your postdoc advisor will be of limited help. S/he won't know how to apply, how to help you with your application materials, and may not know the style of an appropriate letter of reference. There is a lot of deadwood in a NL. These people do minimum work to get their 2 papers a year (which don't need to be first author papers) and act as a research drag. Getting them out of your way can be difficult. In addition, many staff scientists prefer a hands off approach to mentoring because they are used to working with peers, not students or mentees. If you are not independent or a self-starter, you can float aimlessly for a while. There are few dedicated techs for instruments, and no students (except for summers, and with some exceptions), so you need to run everything yourself or convince someone else to do it for you. You will be competing with academic groups that can throw much more manpower at a problem, so you have to hope that being smart with fewer, better trained personnel outweighs the brute force approach possible with an army of students.

Where do people go after a postdoc at a NL? From my cohort of postdocs, I'd say ~25% stay at a NL as staff (this varies by lab, but many labs like to try before they buy), ~25% go into industry, ~20% go into academia, 15% go into non-research science positions (working for journals, granting agencies, the patent office, or other government non-research positions), and 15% leave science all together.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Why start yet another blog about academia?

When I was preparing to make the switch back to academia, I started reading lots of academic blogs. These were a reality check, an information source, and a tool to re-acclimate to academic culture. Now that I am back and on the TT, I rarely see any information out there for people like me: still a young scientist, new to the TT, but independent for a while.

There are pluses and minuses to taking the career path I did, but (so far!) everything is working out for me. So now I want to get the word out. Maybe I am an n of 1, but it is important that other people know these things that go against the myth of academic job hunting. Let's start with:

1. It is possible to get a research TT job after years outside academia.

2. It is possible to get a research TT job, even without a big-name advisor pushing for you (my PhD advisor is emeritus, and I changed sub-fields after the PhD. My postdoc advisor was not an academic).

3. It is possible to get a research TT job without a Nature, Science, or PNAS paper.

4. It is possible to get a research TT job as a woman with a small child.

In order to do this, you need to do one thing--publish interesting and relevant science. I don't have a Nature, Science, or PNAS paper, but I do have plenty of well-cited papers in the main specialty journals of my field. I also attended conferences regularly (2-4 a year, minimum) to keep up with what researchers in my field were interested in, and to network with people in my field. The most important thing you can do for your career as an independent scientist is publish. (Almost) nothing else matters. The next most important is to attend meetings and talk to people. If you are not in academia, attending meetings is even more important than if you are at a University with regular visitors, speakers, and seminars.

I had one unsuccessful and one successful interview season. You can never discount the effect of luck on your ability to get a job. Being qualified is the part you can control. The rest is out of your hands. There are hiring fads and trends you have no control over. Departments need people with specific skills that may not be yours. The good thing about not being a postdoc, is that you probably have a job already that pays the rent. Just try again next season if you fail at first. More on this in future posts.