Dear Molly Cule: To Apply or Not to Apply for a Faculty Position?

Molly Cule is an Associate Professor in a medical school at a public university in the United States. Professor Cule is delighted to receive comments on her answers and (anonymized) questions at mollycule@biophysics.org, or visit her here on the BPS Blog.

Dear Molly Cule,
I am a fourth-year postdoc and am wondering whether I should apply for a tenure-track faculty position or think about leaving academia. I have three publications but no grants at this point. Am I on track to be a PI? If so, should I apply for positions now or wait until next year?
–Pondering, from Pennsylvania

Dear Pondering,
These are good questions (which many postdocs think about) and there are no set answers. I got my faculty job after a six-year postdoc but I have friends who did three- and seven-year stints, respectively, before they got their positions. I happened to have five first-author publications and had received a three-year fellowship from the American Heart Association when I applied, but my friends had three first-author papers and no active grants, and six papers and a new NIH R01, respectively.

As you can see, there are no magic numbers (apart from zero papers, which guarantees that you won’t get an interview). The Search Committee might be looking for lots of recent papers or they might want somebody with at least one high-profile paper (say in Nature or Science). The first time I served on a Committee I needed a quick way to rank the 145 resumes I was supposed to look at. My index was “Number of first-author papers in the last five years” and an applicant needed 4+ for me to mention their name when the full Committee met to review the “pool.” The only way you will know if you survived this cut is if the Search Committee invites you for an interview. If they don’t, you may have missed the bar or just not matched what they were looking for (research area, teaching experience, etc.). If you apply for lots of jobs (>15) and never hear from a Search Committee, that’s probably a sign that you’re not yet qualified.

If you are getting the idea that there are many factors that influence faculty hiring decisions in addition to whether or not the applicant is a good scientist, that’s probably appropriate. For example, I think it often helps to know somebody at the institution you are applying to but you may never know whether or not they attended the critical meeting of the Search Committee; they might have had to lecture instead. For reasons such as these, it’s hard to quantify all of the little things that influence the search process. What I am sure of is that the more papers, grants, and contacts you have, the more likely you are to be invited to interview.

If you think you are close to being qualified, my advice is to apply now. Don’t fail to get a position by ruling yourself out of the running. Let the Search Committee do that for you.

Before I close, let me comment briefly on your very first question: “Should I apply for a PI position or consider another career?” This is different from asking, “Am I ready for a position?” My personal feeling is that you should try to follow your interests and talents, whatever direction they take you in. If you really want to be a PI, try and do it. If you are not sure what you want to do, keep looking for something that you are really passionate about.

Since you are currently a fourth-year postdoc, you already know how to work hard, and chances are that you will continue to work hard for much of your career, whatever you end up doing. If you manage to find a job that you really love and feel passionate about, that hard work will be much more fun.

Whatever you decide, good luck in your future career.
–Molly

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