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Working at a Major Research Institution, Part 1: Reflections

Professorships at major research institutions are high-risk careers with a matched potential for payoffs, according to Ohio State University's Michael Ibba. "In academic research, the more successful you are, actually the more control you'll have over your own career. And it's a challenge, but I think it's a big payoff in the job," Ibba told attendees of a session dedicated to career preparation at the American Society for Microbiology annual meeting held in New Orleans, La., this week. Ibba shared general reflections on his own career — having completed three postdocs in academia and industry before ultimately finding his research "passion," aminoacyl-tRNAs — and said that, while some professors at major research institutions earn six-figure salaries, "if you go into this major research track purely looking at it as a business opportunity, you'll ultimately fail." However, he noted that researchers would be naïve to overlook the financial pressures of academia. "In terms of research, it's measured by total expenditures each year. … Research is a major endeavor. And the reason for that it, frankly, the university takes a lot of that money back … into central resources and use that for various activities," Ibba said. "What that means is that, when you go into this career track, one of the expectations is that you become a source of revenue for the university. They'll dress it up other ways, but that's the reality of it. That's what they're looking for in the hiring process."

Another reality of the profession is that it's extremely tough to break into. To be considered for an assistant professor position, an applicant must have "good postdoc experience," he said, speaking from his observations as an applicant and, more recently, a search committee member. "What does that mean? Frankly, it means that you've got the right supervisors' names on your CV, quite possibly to right institutions, and that you've got publications." And when it comes to papers, an applicant's authorship on a publication can matter as much as the journal in which it's published. "Applying with a whole bunch of high-profile papers where you're a middle author, it's not really going to help. What we're looking for is your ability to set your own research up," he said. As an applicant, Ibba thought that academic search committees considered each candidate's application thoroughly and that every member had somewhat equal say in hiring decisions, he said. Having served on searches himself, Ibba said he now knows that's not exactly the case. "It's nothing like [a] Parliamentary committee. The best approximation, that I can see, is that we all sit around, we have the biggest monkeys in charge, and then the rest of all … try to serve our own self-interests," he said, exaggerating a bit. As such, he said, "don't be disappointed if you think that you've written a [perfect] job application and you know what that department's like and you think you're the perfect fit," but you're not asked for an interview.

For those seeking careers at major research institutions, Ibba offered this advice: "Find your passion and good advisors." Because, over the course of his career so far, he'd found himself fortunate to have "a real passion for what I do, and I was fortunate to work with advisors who brought that passion to the job," he said.

Stay tuned for part two of this series on working at a major research institution for more of Ibba's advice for aspiring academics, and for tips for applying to faculty positions.

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