The postdoc to faculty transition I: from application to interview

K.E. Lotterhos is a marine biologist studying evolutionary responses to fishing and climate change. She’s beginning a faculty position at Wake Forest University in January, and agreed to contribute two guest posts about the transition from a postdoc to running her own lab. You can find her on Twitter under then handle @dr_k_lo.
I’m not a fan of long blog posts, but I realized when I started writing this post, that there wasn’t really a lot of advice or stories on that specific period of time between when you decide to start applying for a job, when you get a job offer, and when you start a job. So I thought I’d share my experiences with the Molecular Ecologist, and I’m interested to hear what others have to say about this transitional period in one’s career.
This post is divided into two sections: from the application process to the interview, and from the job offer to the start date.
Long story short: I was hoping to cruise into postdoc life—as a Doctor I was finally free of the shackles of graduate school. FREE!!!! But thinking about what kind of career I wanted—and then having to plan for that career when I was given the opportunity—presented a new set of challenges that I was not prepared for.
1. When and where to start applying?
I think this is a good question and one that is not often addressed well. My Ph.D. committee encouraged me to put together materials and start applying right away. This allowed me to improve on my statements each time I applied somewhere, even though I had no chance in the beginning. I also know of some people that take the “wait 2 years before you apply” approach. I think the most important thing to consider is: how will my resume change in one year? If you expect to publish a high-impact paper, it might be worth waiting, because you will have a much more competitive CV. Yet there are many people, like myself, who have solid publication records but have not yet published any high-impact work. If you are recently out of a PhD and you can demonstrate that your current projects are going to be high-impact, some departments will want to scoop you up. Waiting has benefits and costs—you can build up your CV and your network, but your novelty wears off over time (and, if you were lucky enough to get that high-impact paper a few years ago, they may be asking: why haven’t you published another one yet?).
I was advised to set standards for myself in the types of schools I wanted to be at and the locations I wanted to live. When you get an offer and it’s the only one, it’s hard to say “No thanks,” even when do not want to live there. There is a plethora of different programs out there: undergrad only, MS only, MS and PhD—as well as different types of institutions: Liberal Arts Schools vs. R1-level. It is worthwhile to think about the costs and benefits of these different types of programs.
2. The application materials
There are multiple resources on the web for putting your Research and Teaching Statements together, so I will only give two pieces of advice: (i) avoid making lists (for example, “I did research on this and this, and in the future I am going to this and that”) and (ii) let your advisors and peers proof-read it. In my case, getting feedback on my statements was a very positive experience.
3. The interview process
Before my interview, I prepared by practicing my job talk in front of peers, practicing my “chalk talk” in front of peers, making a list of questions for undergrads, grad students, faculty, and administrators, and making a list of answers to potential questions from students, faculty, and administrators. The list of questions and resources I found are compiled somewhat haphazardly on my blog (Link: Preparing for a faculty interview in academia).
Before you go to the interview, I also recommend making a list of materials and equipment that your research will need (this goes for you right now, PhD students): having this list in mind while you are touring the campus will help you visualize whether you can accomplish what you want to. Also, it will come in handy when you start negotiating, and then again when you have to start ordering equipment. Since my postdoc has been computational, I sooooo wish I had kept a “master list” of every device, brand, chemical and tool I used during my PhD.
Also, meeting with professors outside of your field (or even inside of your field) can be stressful. I’ve observed some people take the approach of researching every person they were going to meet with. I did not take this approach (I was advised that it “freaks people out” if a job candidate knows everything about them). I am, however, horrible with names, and I do admit to memorizing names before my interview.
Everyone that gets to the interview stage is on equal footing. After that, consider it a “total crapshoot”—i.e., there are a lot of nuances in a department and don’t take it personally if they don’t offer you the job.

About Jeremy Yoder

Jeremy B. Yoder is an Associate Professor of Biology at California State University Northridge, studying the evolution and coevolution of interacting species, especially mutualists. He is a collaborator with the Joshua Tree Genome Project and the Queer in STEM study of LGBTQ experiences in scientific careers. He has written for the website of Scientific American, the LA Review of Books, the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Awl, and Slate.
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