Center News

The path of a postdoc

Four postdocs discuss the challenges and uncertainties of making academic science their career

Sept. 1, 2007
Dr. Steve Liberles and Dr. Sara Sawyer

Dr. Steve Liberles, of the Buck Lab, and Dr. Sara Sawyer, of the Malik Lab, have successfully navigated the terrain to obtain tenure-track faculty positions. Liberles will transition to Harvard Medical School. Sawyer is still considering options, but will be in her new position by early 2008.

Photo by Lillian Furlong

"Hey lab mates, how are you? Well, after 321 interviews with professors, 29 solid days of interviewing, 16 seminars, 66 'professional' meals and 41 flight legs, I am finally done!" — Sara

A promising postdoc in the Malik Lab, Dr. Sara Sawyer had charted a journey made by others who choose academic science as a career. In a four-month period, Sawyer crisscrossed the country, interviewing at nine different institutions in search of the right fit for a lab of her own. One would think the path she traveled from postdoctoral fellow to faculty member is well worn. It is not. Lack of resources, road maps and prospects mar the way. Despite being one of the most important transitions in their careers, for most postdocs, the process from interview to job acceptance is a mystery.

"One of the most basic aspects of interviewing, which many people are not aware of, is that hiring is seasonal," Sawyer said. Most departments advertise positions and have application deadlines in the fall. They invite a small number of candidates for interviews from late fall to early spring, and then ask their top candidates back for a second interview. The second visit is usually less an interview than a chance for the department to sell itself.

To overcome the low chances of landing a job offer, some, like Sawyer and Dr. Steve Liberles of the Buck Lab, take the "shotgun" approach, interviewing at as many institutions as possible. Others, like Dr. Sarah Wootton of the Miller Lab and Dr. Daniel Zilberman of the Henikoff Lab, focus their efforts on their top choices. Nearly all of the institutions these postdocs apply to are outside of Seattle. This is because departments rarely hire from within, presumably to recruit candidates with exposure to the scientific culture of other institutions. In the end, these four postdocs from the Basic Sciences and Human Biology divisions all successfully obtained tenure-track faculty positions in 2007. For those who follow, they offer advice about applying, interviewing and negotiating for a faculty position — starting with a common concern among postdocs: How do you know you're ready to interview?

"A friend of mine told me about a job opening at Berkeley that fit me perfectly. I knew I had to apply," Zilberman said. Wootton had a similar experience upon learning of an open position in Ontario, Canada, where she really wanted to relocate. The number of years spent as a postdoc before interviewing can vary widely, from two years for Zilberman to seven years for Liberles. Publication records weigh heavily into the mix; all four had published at least one article in a high-profile journal before interviewing.

Another consideration for interviewees is whether to pursue a "soft-money" position. A tenure-track university professor is typically paid a nine-month salary to teach one or more courses, conduct research and train graduate students. During the summer months, the professor can optionally pay his or her salary from grant money. In contrast, non-tenure-track research professors often hold soft-money positions, which require them to cover 100 percent of their salary from research grants, teaching and/or administrative responsibilities. Soft-money positions offer the advantage of few teaching responsibilities, which frees time for grant writing and conducting research, but at the expense of job security, since winning grants is a necessity. The Hutchinson Center and some other private institutions offer a compromise between these systems, covering up to half of a faculty member's salary from institutional funds, so research grants only have to cover the remainder.

Keys to success

There are numerous requirements during the application and interview process, but certain ones are keys to success. A typical application requires a curriculum vita, at least three letters of recommendation and a three- to four-page research proposal. However, these four postdocs felt that the cover letter was most important for landing an interview.

The typical interview is a two-day process filled with one-on-one meetings and meals with faculty members; however, all four postdocs felt that the hour-long seminar that candidates present to the entire department was by far the most important element for getting an offer. The format and importance of other requirements, like chalk talks and teaching statements, can vary widely between departments.

One surprising element of interviewing is the role of negotiation. An offer to enter graduate school or a postdoctoral fellowship is straightforward — take it or leave it. But offers for faculty positions are multi-dimensional due to differences in salary, start-up money (for setting up the lab and paying initial salaries), and whether start-up money is "bankable" or must be spent within a fixed number of years. Also to consider are moving expenses, teaching requirements, benefits and more. Departments commonly compete with one another for candidates with multiple offers, which is another reason Sawyer and Liberles interviewed with so many departments.

Another increasingly common factor is the "two-body problem," in which partners in a relationship are interviewing for faculty positions in the same year. For example, Sawyer and her partner, a nuclear scientist at Cornell University, are both interviewing this year. It has required extra effort for them to obtain offers from the same institution, but, in some places they actually had more negotiating power — to recruit two excellent candidates at once, deans have made special accommodations to recruit them.

As with any job search, who you know can be just as important as what you know. Each of the four postdocs had a connection to one or more of the departments where they applied. Wootton's graduate advisor had been a member of the department that she will be joining this fall, and Liberles received an interview and an offer from the former department of his postdoc advisor, Dr. Linda Buck. Zilberman also collaborated with a professor in a department where he applied. It is difficult to say how important these relationships were to the interview process, but they may have provided a key advantage, especially considering the tight-knit nature of the scientific community.

All job searches can be stressful, but the near-absence of written advice about applying for faculty positions makes the process especially ambiguous. The only document used by our four postdocs was Chapter 1 of "Making the Right Moves, A Practical Guide to Scientific Management for Postdocs and New Faculty," published by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

'Will Work 4 Food'

In theory, fellow postdocs should be a helpful source of information about interviewing. However, the National Postdoc Association reports that less than one-third of postdocs proceed to tenure-track faculty positions. The remainder pursues "alternate" career paths in the fields of biotechnology industry, scientific writing, or non-tenure-track academic positions. This trend suggests that many postdocs may not be informed about the academic-interview process. Indeed, Wootton experienced this firsthand: "Of all of my friends that are postdocs, I am the only one who wants to become faculty," she said. "I had to look to others for advice about interviewing." Several of our four postdocs relied on their mentor's advice, but especially important was the advice of new assistant professors, who had recently gone through the interview process themselves.

Another helpful source was the local group, "Will Work 4 Food," organized by postdoc Dr. Brian Fritz here at the Center. "Our group brought together postdocs who were interested in becoming faculty. From listening to invited faculty speak about the interview process from a search committee's perspective, to helping one another with application materials, our postdocs became aware of all aspects of the interview process," Fritz said. The annual "Future Faculty Fellows" workshop, presented in the fall by the University of Washington and HHMI, is another local resource.

For postdocs turned assistant professors, there is a new goal: tenure. Zilberman is now on this path at the University of California at Berkeley, and Wootton begins this fall at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, where she must write two grants before the end of the year.

Liberles begins his tenure track this later this year or early next year at Harvard Medical School. Ten months after submitting their first application, Sawyer and her partner, Mark, are still deciding which institute to join, but they plan on starting in early 2008.

The time before review for tenure varies between departments from about five to 11 years. And achieving tenure will require a new set of accomplishments, including a strong publication record and establishing a national reputation in a field of research. But in many ways, new assistant professors get the chance to start over since they will be evaluated on accomplishments in their own labs. It's a freedom that seems a well-deserved reward for successfully navigating the postdoc path.

[Dr. Eric E. Smith is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Malik Lab.]

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