Tag Archives: career

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.   

New Post-Doc: Relocating with Children

Ida T. Fonkoue, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow, Emory University

“Take a deep breath! It won’t be easy but you will make it.” This might sound like a cliché, but I wish I had told myself this when I moved across the country a year ago to start a postdoctoral fellowship with two young children. When my academic journey began 6 years ago, I knew that moving—possibly multiple times—was going to be a part of my career. What I did not know was that my journey as a wife and a mother would not fit into the typical scientist pathway that I had read about. I did not know that finding a good school for my children was going to weigh more in my decision-making process than a great program or a great research environment. I was far from imagining that before considering a postdoctoral offer, I needed to first research “niche” or “great schools” before looking at the future lab’s webpage. I was lucky to hit the jackpot, because I got both a great school for my children and a great research environment. Although a postdoctoral position is supposed to be temporary, a stepping-stone for your academic/non-academic career, the issues that arise when relocating with a family often do not differ.

How May Your Move Affect Your Finances?

Moving is ridiculously expensive, and doing so with a family adds to the financial burden. Going from the tip of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to the southern state of Georgia was costly. It was not the first time my family had relocated for a job, but it was the first time none of the expenses were covered or reimbursed. Moving a family that includes children across the U.S. can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $12,000 or more (4). As a post-doc, you will have to keep in mind that there is likely no moving allowance, start-up funds, or hiring bonuses included in your contract to help offset your moving expenses. Given that you may not be able to afford private schools for your children, you will need to find housing in a district with good public/charter schools. As you can imagine, this does not necessarily come cheap. Furthermore, a post-doc job requires 40+ hours of work per week; this means that you also need to think about childcare (after school or summer camp programs) for your children while you are at work. A post-doc relocating alone could probably live on rice and beans until the first salary comes, but as a scientist and a parent, you know that feeding your children a well-balanced meal and keeping them healthy is a requirement! To avoid going in the red before your first salary—which you will get probably after being on the job for a month—you will have to think strategically, plan accordingly and accept all the help you can get from your family and friends (3). I was fortunate to have my husband’s support throughout the moving process, financially and physically. We cut down on moving costs by packing our house ourselves with the help of great friends. Most importantly, my husband took a sabbatical for a year and worked from home to take care of the kids; this gave them a better transition into their new lives, allowed us to save money on childcare, and gave me more time to spend at work. Fellow post-docs, your situation might be different from mine, but I can tell you that it gets better, and, in the end, it’s all worth it.

How May Your Move Affect You?

When you move, you leave your social support network—friends and family—behind. When I started my PhD program with two children under the age of 4, I needed a lot of extra help and support in addition to what my husband provided, and fortunately for me, my friends and church community stepped in. Without them, I don’t think I could have completed my dissertation. Moving away for my post-doc severed those connections that I had relied on for years, which opened the door to anxiety. Moving and changing jobs are major life stressors (1, 2), and without a network of support, they can result in depression or health issues. My advice is that, despite the demands of a new job and a new environment, you should stay connected to your family and friends via mail, phone, and new technologies. In the meantime, it is important to make connections with other post-docs in your department or university—old and new—and learn how they cope with the stress of the job. Talk to parents you meet at the park and if your children are in school, make time to attend parents’ meetings, and connect with other working parents. You might be surprised to find out that you are not the only post-doc or parent who recently moved far from everybody they knew and depended on. Be patient and get to know the people you meet. Be open to making new friends and embrace your new environment. One year later, I have been able to build some good friendships, and you will too!

How May Your Move Affect Your Family?

As hard as the move could be for you, it cannot compare to the feeling of “rupture” your family will feel. You moved for the job while they moved for you. My children felt ripped from their friends and the only community they knew, and they reminded me of this for months following our move. But you shouldn’t worry too much about this. Children tend to adapt faster and better. Mine have since made new friends and best friends. Whether your partner is in academia or not, moving is logistically difficult for families that depend on two incomes. Finding a job for your spouse can be difficult to impossible, thereby putting a strain on your relationship and finances. I had a different situation because my husband was still receiving a salary while on leave, but I am aware that this is more of an exception than the rule. Although a post-doc position does not come with help for spousal accommodation, your new principal investigator (PI) might be able to connect you with people who can help. Just remember to express your needs and ask for help as soon as you start considering the offer. Your partner might also join you on your campus visit to explore the area for opportunities. Don’t forget to check the weather! If you are a family that enjoys outdoor activities and the weather in your new town is drastically different from that of the previous location, as in my case, you will have to learn as a family to adapt to the change and find new hobbies. Just remember that every change is an opportunity for discovery, and this one is not different. My family and I have been enjoying all the great attractions our new community has to offer. We feel lucky to have moved to a place with great diversity, vibrant cultural life, great food, and great scenery. The challenges and frustration your nuclear family will face, if they are not addressed, could be an added stress that will affect your productivity at work.

How May Your Move Affect Your Position/Job?

It is not a secret that your state of mind dictates the state of your work. I spent a lot of time at work wondering whether I had made the right decision for my family. I had found a great school district for my children, but would that be enough? How would they adjust to their new school and their new environment? Would they make friends? Would their teachers be a good match? Thinking about those challenges, at times, took my focus away from my new job. Furthermore, the anxiety caused by uncertainty and lack of social support network threatened to cost me the job I had left everything for. I later found out that, while I was worrying, my family was having fun exploring the parks and trails, swimming, biking, and going on walks. As I said in the beginning, remember to take a deep breath and tell yourself that everything will be fine. You have been through challenging moments before (birth of your children, early parenthood, graduate school, dissertation, etc.), and you made it. This family relocation for your post-doc will soon be another challenge you conquered in your quest for the advancement of your career. Express your needs and obstacles early on to your partner, your PI, or the mentors you have. They all want you to succeed!

What Did I Learn?

Start with the end in mind before accepting the position. Once you do, dive in and do not worry too much.

Do not get too excited, and do not make any promises. We all know the “what am I going to do when I graduate?” feeling, and because of that, we get very excited if we are lucky to meet a PI interested in us before our graduation. Be excited, but hold off on making promises you might not be able to keep if you don’t want to burn some bridges. Remember that even though the post-doc position is about you, your family’s needs and priorities are an important part of the decision-making process. If you are lucky enough to have more than one offer, pick the right one for your family, because if they are happy, chances are you will be happy too, and your productivity at work will really show it.

Talk to your family and make sure your partner and children are on-board. No matter how prestigious a PI, lab, or university is, your success there will depend in part on the support of your family. You will have to learn how to work in a new environment, with new people, and on new projects. It might come with a lot of frustration and uncertainty. Thus home needs to be a safe and happy place, because when you move, your nuclear family initially will be the only social network you will have for a while. Be supportive of each other! Relocating is difficult in many ways, especially for someone leaving everything for a partner’s new job.

Consult your advisor and mentors and listen carefully. It is true that not all graduate students have a great relationship with their advisors. If this is the case for you, my hope is that, during your PhD training, you met a great mentor who can guide you through this process. I was very fortunate to have an advisor who has been a role model for me as a scientist. His advice and gift to me was “work hard and dream big.” The training and work ethic he instilled in me have made this journey less difficult and a very rewarding one so far. Knowing that he is always one text or phone call away relieved some of my earliest anxiety. Through the American Physiological Society (APS) and Michigan Physiological Society, I also bonded with amazing female scientists who have become mentors and role models to me. One of them helped me figure out the type of questions I could ask before accepting an offer. She will remain a lifelong mentor.

Finally, choose a flexible PI. Regardless of her/his family situation, your post-doc mentor should be one who understands the complexities of who you are—parent first and scientist second. An amazing assistant professor I met recently told me something that described so well the physiologist I want to be. She said that she doesn’t want to be just a woman with children, but she wants to be a mother! There is a saying that “if you want to know somebody, ask the people they hang out with.” If you want to know a prospective boss, ask the people they work(ed) with (research coordinators, graduate students, and previous post-docs) and listen. The impression and feedback I got about my now post-doc mentor when I did the job interview and site visit remain the same 1 year later. We have a great working relationship and friendship. My PI understands that sometimes I can be late or absent for personal or family reasons. However, there is always an understanding that work needs to be done, papers have to be written, and grants submitted. After all, your own career depends on it.

In conclusion, I wish you, my fellow post-docs, the best of luck on your new and exciting academic journey. May you think about your family well-being, plan well, listen well, and carefully choose your new location, program, lab, and future mentor!

Ida T. Fonkoue Biography

Dr. Fonkoue is currently a second-year post-doctoral fellow at Emory University in the laboratory of Dr. Jeanie Park. She completed her medical degree in 2006 in Cameroon. She later moved to the U.S. and trained under Dr. Jason Carter at Michigan Technological University, where she graduated with a Ph.D. in Biological Sciences in December 2016. Her long-term research goal is to understand how the sympathetic nervous system, vasculature and inflammation interplay to contribute to the high cardiovascular disease risk of patients living with chronic stress, such as those with post-traumatic stress disorder.


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