The postdoc to faculty transition II: from job offer to start date

Metamorphosis: Free as a Butterfly and Ready to Fly
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.
This is a follow-up post to the last one, where I discussed the application process and the interview. In this part, I discuss the job offer, negotiations, and the transition period.
4. The job offer and negotiations
After my interview, I was unprepared to get a job offer two weeks later. I hadn’t made a startup list before hand, and I found it took a substantial amount of time to think about and make this list. I felt like I needed to think of all the experiments that I wanted to do for the next five years and make sure I had the equipment I needed to do them. A few tidbits from my or others’ experiences:

  • Before your second visit, ask for the technical drawings of your laboratory, with locations of receptacles for plugs and Ethernet. This will make it easier to visualize what you want.
  • If they offer any piece of equipment independent of startup, make sure that you get it in writing. You won’t forget, but they will.
    Sometimes large pieces of equipment (such as freezers) can come from a renovations budget rather than your startup: try to get a feel for the policy at your university.
  • Negotiations are awkward. But, remember it is the Chair’s responsibility to negotiate with the Dean on your behalf.
  • If you can convince them to give you some kind of official position at the university before you start, it can really make your transition easier. I made sure that I could apply for grants before my actual start date, and that I could get a faculty page up on the website so I could attract potential grad students. However, I could not get an email address or start ordering any materials until my official start date.
  • Most places will be flexible with your start date—up to about a year. If you start in the middle of the academic year, however, you may miss some important orientations for (and the chance to meet) new faculty at the beginning of the academic year. You also want to make sure those high-impact papers come out before you start applying for grants.

5. The “transition period:” you are still a postdoc but are trying to get the ball rolling
This is the period I am in now. After I took the job, everyone told me how relaxed I must be to have a job lined up. Relaxed? There has been a substantial amount of busy work (ramping up the conference schedule, fielding emails and scheduling skype conversations with potential graduate students, dealing with lab renovations…). Plus, I’m still trying to work on my postdoc research and get it published, so more people will know who I am and so my grants will be more competitive. Everything I do now has a sense of urgency.
All of this busy work has given me a new appreciation and understanding for professors at all stages in their career—and I haven’t even started yet!
During this transition, I found that there were lots of nuances and questions I had, like “What is my responsibility and what is the responsibility of the Sponsored Program Officer?” or “This undergraduate student wants to work with me, should I take them on my first semester?” or “Is this a nice neighborhood to rent a house?” I was lucky to have several members of the faculty offer to help me during this transition, and they have given me some good advice on a variety of topics. I would strongly advise you to find a “transition” mentor among the faculty at your new institution.
My final reflection is that it is important to try to set yourself up for success. I have observed that it takes a new faculty a few years to have papers come out from research done solely in their lab—it’s important to have a few papers in the queue to help fill that waiting period, although getting those papers out will also help you be more competitive for grants.
6. Take a vacation.
A vacation means not bringing work with you.
7. The bottom line.
In graduate school and as a postdoc, you learn the scientific process and hopefully you also get some teaching experience. You do not learn how to manage people, make quick decisions, manage your time, say “no” without saying “NO”, decide what kind of equipment to buy, budget hundreds of thousands of dollars, and stay organized. These are important skills, even for PhDs that don’t stay in academia—shouldn’t we be more focused on training in these areas?

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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