This post was contributed by guest blogger Erik Snapp, Director of Graduate and Postdoctoral Programs at Janelia Research Campus.
Eight years ago, I decided to write a "how to" manual on applying for faculty positions in biomedical science. My motivation was to share my experiences from my own job search and my time on faculty search committees. Having successfully navigated the trials and tribulations of the process, I’ve provided guidance and mentoring to several people that found my insights helpful. All went on to get faculty positions at top state colleges, private universities, and medical schools.I will emphatically deny that I have a magic formula to guarantee a reader the faculty job of his/her dreams. There are too many moving parts in the whole process to distill a one-size-fits-all recipe for success. What I can promise is that my suggestions can help you make the best case for your candidacy. A major reason that a lot of candidates either get no interviews or get several interviews, but no job offers is a failure to clearly articulate one's talents and ideas. Some key points from my ebook, "Applying for a Faculty Position: the View from Both Sides," are summarized below.
1. Have a Competitive CV
You don't necessarily need a Nature/Cell/Science paper. You do need multiple first/corresponding author publications in quality journals. It helps to come from the lab of a well-known investigator. If you only have middle author papers or no papers, it's unlikely you'll get a job. The currency of scientific success is publications and grants.
2. Write Succinct and Easy to Understand Documents
A common misconception is that search committee members are experts in your field. Not true. Even if you are applying to a department in your specialty area, it's a safe bet that at least some committee members will NOT be in your area. Therefore, documents need to minimize jargon. Equally importantly, you really are selling yourself. A sales pitch that requires reading two pages or even a paragraph to get to the punch line is a terrible sales pitch. State in the first sentence or two what your research is about and what you think you can accomplish.
No matter how many times I say this, candidates regularly try to convince me that their search committee is different and needs to be told all of the nuances of the research in as technical of language as possible. Seriously. My suggested litmus test is whether your friend in a lab outside of your department can understand your cover letter and research statement. My personal litmus test was whether my wife could explain what I was proposing. The result of my test was humbling. My conviction that I had a flair for communication was rapidly dispelled. She would ask me, "Is this what you mean? Are you trying to say this?" I'd say, "No, I'm trying to say X." She would then look at me quizzically and ask why I didn't just say that? Bottom line is to appreciate that your audience needs to understand your proposal to give you proper consideration.
3. Present an Easy to Follow Seminar
See item 2. Attendees will include grad students (that are solicited for feedback), possibly the Dean, and even some people in your field that still need to understand your specific questions and experiments. Nobody EVER complains that a seminar was too easy to understand. Make your seminar accessible. Let the experts ask you about the details and then you can display your deep knowledge of your experiments and field. It's much more impressive to answer an expert's question than to leave everyone confused about your research because you waded too deep into the weeds.
Check out Joanne Kamens's "10 Steps to a Perfect Science Talk."
4. The Chalk Talk, Simple in Principle
The first question I usually get about chalk talks is, what is a Chalk Talk? It is a 60-90 min session with department members to discuss your research plans for the next 5-10 years. You will discuss the focus of your first grant, how you will overcome certain obstacles, alternative approaches, potential collaborations, critiques of your postdoctoral research, etc. The second question is whether there is chalk. Sometimes. It can also be a Powerpoint, markers, etc. Chalk or markers force people to be more succinct. Powerpoint leads to the opposite and can suffocate an exciting idea in a swamp of unnecessary details. You DO NOT need to present a detailed review of your field or the finer points of your techniques. You DO need to be prepared to know the literature of your field and all of the caveats and alternatives for an approach, if asked. The key to a chalk talk is to effectively convey your message.
Key Things to Think about When Developing your Chalk Talk
These items should be part of the beginning of your chalk talk. These should be plainly stated. I would not recommend putting these into slide format. You want people to focus on you and your ideas. Slides will be distracting.
What is the big question? This should be something that anyone could relate to, that people would agree is important to understand. (1-2 sentences). For example:
Distinguishing correctly folded and misfolded proteins is essential for human health. Failure to do so is implicated in several human diseases.
Proper patterning of cells and tissues is fundamental to development. I'm interested in how cells find their way to the correct positions.
- What is the knowledge gap in the field? How will your approach resolve this problem? (2-3 sentences)
- What will be the focus of your first grant? (1-2 sentences)
- Simply stated, what are your aims? You could directly state your official aims, but I suggest distilling them into simple goals/outcomes. This isn't the time to go into detail.
- Finally, state how successfully completing the research will advance the field, create a new field, impact disease treatment, etc., again in clear terms. "Implications for human disease" is vague. Instead, consider "A mechanistic understanding of this system will provide the first defined model system that we can manipulate to study pathology and therapies."
This is only the first few minutes of the chalk talk. Realize that it is rare to make it through the details of all of the aims of a chalk talk. Questions take a lot of time to discuss and the questions are important. However, it's much easier to focus on the questions when you’re secure in the knowledge that you have given everyone a simple plain language map of where you are going and what you expect. For the rest of the chalk talk, as with your job talk, avoid the temptation to provide too many details. Reverse engineer your talk. Identify the key points you want to convey for each section or aim. Make sure those get priority. The fine details for aficionados should be reserved for questions.
5. Understand the Job You Are Applying for
It's not about you and how you will finally be granted the faculty position you have craved since grad school. It's about how YOU will fit into a department and bring in grants. What kind of colleague will you be? Do you understand what it takes to be successful in running a lab, getting grants, and writing papers? This means that once you get an interview, your previous success will not necessarily translate into getting a job. Your papers and pedigree get your foot in the door. Your ability to interview and sell a vision for your contribution to a Department's/Institution's success is the task.
Do your homework. Learn what your future potential colleagues study. Think about how you might collaborate or, at the absolute minimum, can appreciate their research. Be prepared to discuss other people's research. Nothing turns off an interviewer faster than when a candidate says "I'm not an expert in [your research area]," – you should show interest in other faculty members’ research.
Get More Tips from the Full eBook
Of course there's more to the job search and interview process – these are just my top takeaways. My full eBook (available here for free!) contains strategies, hints, anecdotes, and insights. After I wrote the first version of my manual, I added new chapters to incorporate the experiences of the people that provided me with feedback from their own job searches. I've updated chapters to reflect new technologies, i.e. video interviews. For point of reference, I submitted my applications all by snail mail and only had phone interviews. We didn't have Skype in 2004. I also incorporated example documents. This part has generated a lot of positive feedback. Many of these documents are too vaguely described in other sources of guidance or the document examples are not especially helpful. I set out to make something practical and accessible. If there's something you come across that is not covered, please email me and I'll try to answer your question and subsequently update the ebook.
One of my graduate students encouraged me to publish this manual and earn some cash for my expensive habits of running shoes and single malt whiskies, but I remember the days of modest postdoc salaries all too well. If there's a group to make money from, postdocs are not that group. If you read my ebook and it helps you, please introduce yourself to me by email or in person. If you feel compelled to repay me in some way, I encourage you to help your friends and colleagues with their job searches. If you feel the urge to repay me personally, I will gratefully accept a very hoppy pint of IPA or a few drams of single malt (preferably from Islay or Skye).
Good luck with your search!
Many thanks to our guest blogger, Erik Snapp!
Erik Lee Snapp received his PhD in Molecular Microbiology and Immunology from Oregon Health Sciences University, did his postdoctoral fellowship with Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz at the National Institutes of Health, was an Associate Professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Department of Anatomy and Structural Biology, and now serves as the Director of Student and Postdoctoral Programs at the Janelia Research Campus of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. His interests include the quality control of secretory proteins in the Endoplasmic Reticulum, optimization of fluorescent proteins, and live cell imaging approaches. Erik is also an avid long distance runner, gardener, and cook.
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