By Natalie Losada
At the iJOBS career panel on August 2nd, faculty from Rutgers, Monmouth, and The College of New Jersey (TCNJ) spoke on their experiences entering and navigating their academic careers. They covered the professorship application process, differences between Research Institutions (R1s) vs Primarily Undergraduate Institutions (PUIs), and general tips for pursuing an academic career. Whether you’re pursuing an academic career or are unsure, this article will provide informative insights you won’t find on an application website.
Our panel included Rutgers faculty members: Dr. Devanshi Jain (Genetics), Dr. Kevin Monahan (Mol. Bio. and Biochem.), Dr. Hiroko Nobuta (Neuroscience and Cell Bio.), and Dr. Alexander Valvezan (Pharmacology). Additional panelists included Dr. Sudhir Nayak (Biology) from TCNJ, and Dr. Cathryn Kubera (Biology) from Monmouth University. While all Rutgers participants had been hired within the past two years, other panelists were hired over 8 years ago. Despite the differences in the time of hiring these panelists shared similar career experiences across the board.
The application process described by the panel was an informative but fierce reality check. They had all dedicated significant time to postdoctoral research, yet many still struggled to get interviews. Drs. Jain, Nobuta, and Valvezan postdoctoral research lasted for six years or more. Dr. Monahan was the only one to have two postdocs for a total of 8 years. Drs. Nayak and Kubera had shorter postdocs and then took breaks or found temporary work elsewhere. Dr. Kubera even taught as an adjunct professor to get more teaching experience.
The complexity in the application process was compounded with an additional factor. All the panelists had at least a spouse or a spouse and children and were geographically limited to where they could apply to ensure both spouses attained a job in proximity. With this limitation, more applications needed to be sent out for the best chance of being hired. Below is chart to summarize the progression in numbers (Figure 1).
Drs. Jain, Nobuta, and Nayak all completed their applications in a single round and made quick decisions for accepting job offers because there were little to choose from. Dr. Nayak applied to 50 positions, but only 10 of those were serious and are reflected in the chart above. Drs. Monahan, Valvezan, and Kubera applied in two rounds, represented in the chart above. All professors spent the time between rounds (usually around a year) gaining more experience. In Dr. Valvezan’s case, he spent another year teaching and working toward a grant to showcase his experience. The extra experience listed on panelists’ resumes helped them get interviews during their second rounds, but the high application to offer ratio remained constant. Considering the various time of hiring in the panel, this high ratio has stayed consistent or possibly worsened after the pandemic but could depend on your field.
Tailoring your application to the university’s resources and needs is vital, so look carefully at which type of university you are applying to.
Although the question of Research Institutions (R1s) vs Primarily Undergraduate Institutions (PUIs) was not explicitly brought up, there were many noticeable differences that impacted the application process for faculty positions. When asked about what the most important part of the application packet was, Dr. Nayak brought up his experience applying to TCNJ, a PUI, and how he tailored his application to emphasize his passion towards teaching to match the TCNJ teaching-focused mission statement. PUI applications should have a strong teaching statement. Dr. Nayak studied the TCNJ classes and the job description very carefully and suggested a new class he could teach that would expand their current course list. He made sure to include how he could complete this work on a PUI budget. Panelist Dr. Kubera who was hired at a PUI, explained that is it good to highlight undergrad projects when applying. For example, she emphasized use of a cost-effective animal model in her research suitable for a PUI friendly budget. Dr. Kubera further distinguished herself from competitors with her diverse teaching background, i.e. being a substitute lecturer for a professor at Yale. Tailoring your application to the university’s resources and needs is vital, so look carefully at which type of university you are applying to.
Another difference between R1 universities and PUIs is that PUIs don’t have much room for negotiation when hiring. However, Dr. Nayak said that if the university really wants you, they’ll work to make an instrument “appear” for you. In other words, they did not disclose how they obtained the instrument, but they made it happen to hire the faculty they felt they needed. Dr. Kubera also added that PUIs, like Monmouth, can have faculty unions and contract negotiations every three years. These contracts can allow renegotiation of the hiring package but cannot negotiate salary. Regardless, she recommends you always try to get more information and push for a better deal.
Because of their unique experiences, the panelists all had different tidbits of advice, which are all cumulated and condensed into the below list:
- Have great mentors who care and are supportive. – Dr. Nobuta
- They can write good recommendation letters for you. Dr. Nobuta also shared her PI let her take her project with her to her new position.
- Emphasize your specialty. – Dr. Valvezan
- You want to learn as much as possible in your postdoc/PhD, but you also want to separate yourself from the crowd. You can also be unique through collaborations.
- Prepare more, practice, and get comfortable giving chalk talks – Dr. Monahan
- While you might have a clear idea, you might not have the clearest way of drawing it for others to understand. Have a good plan before going for those interviews!
- Apply to more places, because your best negotiation tool is having another job offer – Dr. Jain
- Don’t miss an opportunity to get a better tool by not applying to enough jobs. Two offers will be much better than one. You might also fit in somewhere you didn’t expect!
- Having a great grant application ready can be good enough for an employer. – Dr. Jain
- Even if the grant hasn’t been awarded yet, a solid grant application could be enough to persuade those looking to hire faculty.
- Project proposal: start with a broad question, then be pick something specific. – Dr. Valvezan
- Think of something like, “how do signaling pathways work?”, then pick a specific question within that question and make the plan to answer the question.
- Once hired, order everything you need for your lab ahead of time – Dr. Nayak
- If you’re doing research similar to your previous lab, walk around, write every piece of equipment you need, order ahead. You want your lab materials there when you arrive.
- Once hired, investigate textbooks or resources from the publisher. – Dr. Kubera
- When preparing to teach your class, the publisher not only can provide a textbook, but can sometimes provide slides with which to start making your lectures.
- Having funding is helpful, but not required. – Rutgers faculty
- 50% of Rutgers faculty on the panel had funding of their own when they were hired, but it could depend on the department you are entering.
- Your fit for the job is important, but not always clear from the job description. – all faculty
- Can reach out to others from the location to find out specifically what they're looking for.
The most important part of pursuing an academic career, from where I stand as the writer for the event, is to do what Ph.D.s do – research. Research the universities you apply to, the positions you want, the courses they have, and projects you want to propose. Use your support system of mentors and colleagues for help with your application. Reach out to faculty at your university of interest to learn about what kind of person the department is looking to hire. Be prepared and use your skills to get where you want to go!
This article was edited by Samantha Avina.
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