With many institutions on indefinite hiring freezes, it's a particularly tough time to land a faculty position in academia. Here, experts discuss tips for beating the odds and getting hired as an assistant professor. [More.]
With many institutions on indefinite hiring freezes, it's tough time to land a faculty position in academia. Here, experts discuss tips for beating the odds and being hired as an assistant professor. [More.]
The New York Times' Christopher Drew says that while middle and high school students view challenges in science and engineering as fun, that "excitement quickly fades as students brush up against the reality" — university-level STEM studies are often viewed as tougher than they are fun. "Freshmen in college wade through a blizzard of calculus, physics and chemistry in lecture halls with hundreds of other students. And then many wash out," Drew says.
Citing data from a new University of California, Los Angeles study, Drew says "roughly 40 percent of students planning engineering and science majors end up switching to other subjects or failing to get any degree," and adds that "that increases to as much as 60 percent when pre-medical students, who typically have the strongest SAT scores and high school science preparation, are included." UCLA's Mitchell Chang tells the Times that "we're losing an alarming proportion of our nation's science talent once the students get to college. It's not just a K-12 preparation issue."
To combat the problem, the Association of American Universities announced a five-year initiative in September "to encourage faculty members in the STEM fields to use more interactive teaching techniques," Drew says. Still, time and funding for such initiatives is sparse. "While the National Science Foundation went on to finance pilot courses that employed interactive projects, when the money dried up, so did most of the courses. Lecture classes are far cheaper to produce, and top professors are focused on bringing in research grants, not teaching undergraduates," according to the Times.
At his blog, Anthony Fejes says successful graduate students are often those who spend more time with their PIs, know when to drop dead-end projects, and are clear on their personal definitions of success. While trainees do not always have control over how much time they spend with their advisors, Fejes says that those who spend the most time with their PIs benefit from the "opportunity to learn more from those who already know something about a field; more input … from those who have made the mistakes; and access to more hot topic projects."
Knowing when to let go, he adds, "is a huge determining factor" of a graduate students' success. "Those students around me who are able to move from project to project quickly are the ones that get the most papers and opportunities," Fejes says.
As for the defining success, Fejes says it's critical that graduate students consider how their personal goals mesh with what is expected of them. "In academia, at least for grad students, success isn't necessary measured with the same metrics. Instead, it seems to be measured by how many scholarships you get and how many first author papers you publish," he says.
There are, of course, other factors at play. Though students' success is somewhat dependent on the resources available to them, Fejes says the ability to network effectively is a learned skill, which can be compensatory. "Fortunately, networking can also be done for cheap, such as blogs and twitter," he says. "You may have to go out of the way to make them happen, but you can do it if you invest your (limited) time wisely."
Citing a new Georgetown University report, Nature this week says that, in the US, "university graduates with skills in science, technology, engineering, and maths are in high demand in non-STEM jobs." Georgetown's Nicole Smith tells the journal that often non-STEM jobs pay better than posts in academia, "which is a big draw," Nature says.
Summarizing a recent round table discussion on research careers in which she participated, Jennifer Rohn at Mind the Gap says that although panelists generally agreed on the existence of "significant structural problems and instabilities" in the academic workforce, there were differing opinions on how to deal with the issue. "Some wanted to frame the discussion solely on facilitating the 'graceful exit' from the pyramid — in other words, the shape is what it is, and we should try to work around it," Rohn says. "But others wanted to probe at the shape itself, and whether it could be altered — for example, the feasibility of 'fattening the pyramid' (i.e. creating more mid-level, permanent jobs for highly skilled research staff)."
Hypothetically speaking, Rohn wonders if academic fellowship applications saw a 95 percent drop, how the remaining 5 percent would fare compared to, say, those the 6th to 10th percentile. "Was there a steep step-change at 5 [percent], or was it just a very gradual continuum? Do all quick-off-the-mark superstars who get independence always do well? … Some researchers would rather leave than not be a lab head, but there are probably a large number who would be well suited to a permanent non-PI research job and who would flourish in that environment," she says. "So how big is that latter pool?"
Turning back to the panel discussion, Rohn says participants also considered "ways to equip researchers to leave academia." While some argued that it would serve academic researchers well to spend some time in industry, at her blog Rohn says "industrial stints are not always rewarded in the current system." Rohn adds an unanswered question raised during the discussion: "If we want to encourage leavers to leave early in their career, how can this be enforced?" To that, she says, further discussion lies ahead.
BenchFly's Alan Marnett asks: "Exactly how flexible is the co-first author asterisk?" He calls co-first authorship "one of the more polarizing topics in publishing." As such, BenchFly is polling its readers on the practice, specifically asking whether it is acceptable for a co-first author who is listed second on a paper to rearrange the author list so as to have his or her name first on a CV. While some say the bylines must not be altered, others find it only fair that the second-listed co-first author put him or herself first, Marnett says.
Along with transcripts and recommendation letters, most graduate program applications ask for some form of a personal statement. At his blog The Spandrel Shop, Prof-like Substance advises against filling that statement with clichés, saying "don't relate your passion for science by including quotes from Nietzsche or Mother Goose" and "don't use personal experience as a motivation to stamp out disease — we get it, lots of people have diseases." Above all, he adds, "don't write about your child science inspiration."
As for "do"s, Prof-like says a grad school personal statement "should be clear and concise: Get across that you have research experience, you have learned something about how science works, and that you want in on the deal." When applying to a particular lab, he adds, "talk about the work being done in that lab and where you would be interested in contributing."
Having just wrapped up his fourth one, Anthony Fejes says the toughest part about writing a thesis is organizing it. "My best trick was simply to write out all of the headers, then write out in point form what I thought went into each section, then — one by one — expand the points into paragraphs," he says. "Once you have manageable small chunks to write, it was always easier to tackle them." Fejes also suggests soliciting feedback early on, as doing so makes it simpler to nip potential issues in the bud. Similarly, he suggests backing the document up periodically. Having a back-up version of his thesis "saved me several hours of trying to recreate something I’d lost," he says. Overall, Fejes adds that the thesis-writer is the expert. "The work you’re writing about is work you did. No one knows it better than you do," he says. "Thesis writing is hard work, but so were the years you put in to get to this point. Try to enjoy the process."
Blogger Barefoot Doctoral this week discusses searching for and applying to postdoc positions by addressing questions raised during a department panel discussion she recently attended. For example —though she notes it can be discipline-specific — in general, postdocs should apply to plenty of institutions, Barefoot Doctoral says. "I applied to 88," she adds. However, Barefoot says postdocs should "never apply to a job you wouldn't take. … However, if you would take a job, but only if conditions A, B, and C can be met by the university, apply. You can negotiate for those conditions at the time of hiring." Barefoot also says applicants should do some "soul-searching," to figure out their niche. "Do you love teaching, and want to work closely with undergrads? Are you primarily in the game for the research?" she asks. "Do you want to stay in a city for non-academic life reasons? Is it worth being hired by a lower-tier school to do so?"
Over at The New York Times' Economix blog, Motoko Rich discusses what she calls "the rising value of a science degree," in light of a new report out of Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce. Rich says the report, which is based on US census and National Science Foundation data, says professions that rely on skills learned in the science, technology, engineering, and math fields "are the second-fastest growing occupational group in the United States, after health care." She adds that "while traditional fields like computer engineering and laboratory research make up about 5 percent of the work force, demand for science, technology, engineering, and math skills is spreading far beyond, to occupations in manufacturing, utilities, transportation and mining, as well as to sales and management." The Georgetown report also highlights that STEM workers can earn higher wages than those in other disciplines. "On average, 65 percent of those who hold a bachelor's degree in such fields will earn more than those who hold master's degrees in other subjects," Rich says. Study co-author Anthony Carnevale tells the Times that a STEM education is a stepping stone to a wide range of careers. "You get a bigger bump going in, and almost at every stage you have other options," Carnevale says.
Writing at Inside Higher Ed's Career Advice blog, Kerry Ann Rockquemore says that often in academia, new tenure-track faculty must learn fundamental skills and strategies to be successful on their own. Rockquemore says new faculty are not explicitly taught non-discipline-specific skills for success, such as:
•How to align my time with the criteria by which I would be evaluated for tenure
•How to establish a healthy and sustainable writing routine
•How to cultivate a broad network of mentors, sponsors, collaborators, and opportunities
•How to keep moving forward in the face of numerous and inevitable rejection that come frequently from academic journals, presses, and funding agencies
Most new-hire assistant professors have to learn these things by figuring them out "through the most ineffective, painful, and time consuming ways possible: trial and error, making humiliating mistakes, and cobbling together bits and pieces of information from assigned mentors," Rockquemore says, later adding "if someone had taught me some foundational skills and strategies before I started my first tenure-track job and walked closely with me through my first year to challenge my limiting beliefs and bad habits as they arose, I would have not only had a fundamentally different physical and emotional experience, I would have been a far more effective teacher, colleague, and scholar than I was having to 'figure it out' as part of some test I didn’t even know I was taking," she adds.
In Science Careers this week, Washington, D.C.-based patent attorney William Simmons discusses careers in biotech patent law, saying he learned early in his career that "scientific standards for peer review (on the one hand) and patenting (on the other) were different, and that the two writing tasks — a scientific paper and a patent application — required different approaches." However, he says a background in science can help a career in IP. The "analytical skills I gained from my scientific training were directly applicable to assessing whether an invention was patentable," Simmons says. For science-oriented individuals interested in pursuing careers in biotech patent law, he adds that "blazing a new trail" is not a requirement, "since patent law is a well-established career path for scientists." Many patent examiners have PhDs, Simmons says, adding that "most attorneys working in biotechnology patent law have science PhDs, and many have impressive postdoctoral experience." Because a career in patent law often involves communicating complex ideas, Simmons says excellent writing and speaking skills are a must. He adds that it's also important for IP professionals to keep up on "developments in the law so that they may advise their clients appropriately." Overall, Simmons says those who have "the appropriate skills and enjoy analyzing and communicating about scientific innovations, patent law could [an] ideal career."