Monthly Archives: July 2019

Taking the Road Most Traveled: Finding Faculty Positions in Academia and Knowing What to Expect

Karen Sweazea, PhD, FAHA, Arizona State University, Tempe

While many graduate students and postdoctoral fellows aspire to become university professors, it may be surprising to learn how challenging that road may be. According to a monthly labor review from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology released in 2015, more individuals are training in STEM fields in the United States than there are jobs available (https://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2015/article/stem-crisis-or-stem-surplus-yes-and-yes.htm). What this means, is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to secure jobs, especially in academia. If you do land a position, however, the rewards of conducting your own research and teaching aspiring young professionals can be great. The goal of this forum is to prepare you for the road that lies ahead and discuss some strategies and tools to improve your chance of success.  

First stop, a postdoctoral fellowship. Getting your foot in the door for an interview in academia almost certainly requires time spent in a postdoctoral fellowship. If you are currently in one, or are looking for one, give yourself a pat on the back for taking the first big step towards an academic position after obtaining your PhD. Take advantage of your time spent in a postdoctoral fellowship to further develop your research skills as well as other professional skills you will need to succeed. Remember, there is more to an academic career than research. So, it is often important to gain teaching, mentoring and management experiences before applying as these skills are greatly beneficial to an academic career. If your time for this kind of training is limited, have no fear. Many scientific conferences have short workshops that cover these topics and many universities also provide this kind of training for their faculty and postdocs in the form of seminars or mini workshops. Your time as a postdoc is important as you will begin to set yourself apart from faculty who have mentored you and develop an independent research trajectory. Keep a notebook to jot down ideas for research projects that you think of during this time as it will give you a head start on projects you may want to work on when you secure a faculty position. This is also an important time for beginning to develop, or foster existing, professional connections. The goal is to build your brand, so to speak, by increasing your recognition in the field. This could be done by giving seminars at national or international conferences, collaborating with faculty at other institutions, as well as getting involved in professional societies. Through these means, faculty at other institutions will become familiar with you and your research so when jobs become available, your name will be recognized.  

Know what you want, or at least what you think you want. Now that you have been exposed to research and perhaps teaching during your training to this point, it will be important to consider what type of college or university position you are interested in pursuing. Are you seeking a tenure track position or adjunct faculty (not tenure eligible)? Some faculty start off as adjunct and transition to tenure eligible positions. Also consider how much of your time you are willing to spend teaching, doing research and providing service to the university and professional organizations. These considerations will help you decide what type of university or college you would be interested in applying to. If teaching is a major priority and you just can’t fathom a lifetime at the lab bench, you may want to consider applying to institutions with higher teaching loads such as liberal arts colleges, community colleges or primarily undergraduate institutions. If research is a top priority, then a graduate degree granting institution or medical school may be more suitable.

Next stop, beginning the job search. Perhaps the easiest place to start is searching through the several of academic and research career websites such as:

Most universities, colleges and specific departments also list available jobs on their websites. Be sure to check those out as well. Of course, the adage ‘it is not what you know but who you know’, also applies to a career in academia where networking can lead to the discovery of new job positions before they are even advertised. During your search, be sure to pay attention to whether your research interests will fit into the department and check out other faculty within and outside the department you are applying to for potential collaborators. Having collaborations is critical to help start your research program and ensure your long-term success as a tenure-track faculty member. During the interview process you may even want to mention (or may be asked) which faculty members you see yourself collaborating with. So be sure to do your homework. 

Speaking of applications, most positions will require you to submit a cover letter, curriculum vitae (CV), research and teaching statements as well as letters of recommendation. Be sure to tailor each application for the specific job you are applying for and include clear statements of how your research will fit into the department and how your teaching style will improve student learning. This is the time to break out that notebook you have been keeping. Your research statement will explain where you have been and where you plan to go with your research. What research questions will you pursue immediately after hire? Five years after hire? Similarly, your teaching statement will describe your philosophy on teaching. Be sure to describe prior experiences with teaching you may have had. You will likely be asked during the interview process what existing classes in the department you would feel most comfortable teaching as well as what classes you would be interested in developing. Be sure to check out the existing classes offered at the institution so you can be prepared to include this information in your statement or during the interview process.

Next stop, the interview. First off, congratulations! During the interview process, you will have the opportunity to meet faculty and students in the department and to learn about the department’s culture and expectations. You will also have an opportunity to tour the facilities and get an idea of the resources and space available your research needs. Be sure to think about whether your research can be conducted in shared spaces as many universities are moving towards collaborative research space. Also take note of whether you will have the resources to successfully conduct your research there. Does your research require animal or clinical facilities, core lab equipment or expertise (usually for expensive equipment like HPLC, mass spec, etc), statisticians, field locations nearby, computer capabilities, library access to articles from journals in your field, etc?

Research seminars are almost always part of the interview process as well. This is where you will explain your research accomplishments thus far, your expertise that you can bring to the university as well as what research you plan to pursue if they hire you. You may also mention faculty that you see yourself collaborating with. Some schools may additionally require you to provide a seminar on your teaching philosophy or to give a guest lecture. This allows them to observe how you interact with students as well as your teaching style. During the interview process it is important to gauge whether your research will be valued by the department or if they are simply trying to hire someone to teach a class and expect your research to be modified to fit with other research going on in the department. Also be sure to make note of what the department is offering new faculty such as reduced teaching loads, new faculty mentoring systems, technicians, or even professional development funds to attend scientific conferences, pay for publication page charges, professional membership fees, etc. Some universities will also offer reduced tuition for family members of staff and/or faculty.

Despite the long road to obtain tenure, and the many challenges you may face along the way, being a Physiologist in academia can be a very rewarding career. I wish you success in your journey and hope this forum has given you some of the tools and directions you may need to find your way.

Karen Sweazea Biography

Karen Sweazea is an Associate Professor in the College of Heath Solutions at Arizona State University. Her research specializes in diabetes and cardiovascular disease. She received her PhD in Physiological Sciences from the University of Arizona in 2005 where her research focused on understanding glucose homeostasis and natural insulin resistance in birds. Her postdoctoral research was designed to explore how poor dietary habits promote the development of cardiovascular diseases. 

Dr. Sweazea has over 40 publication and has chaired sessions and spoken on topics related to mentoring at a variety of national and local meetings. She has additionally given over 10 guest lectures and has developed 4 graduate courses on topics related to mentoring and professional development. She has mentored or served on the committees for undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral students and earned an Outstanding Faculty Mentor Award from the Faculty Women’s Association at Arizona State University for her dedication towards mentoring.