Preparing future faculty: notes and reflections

This last Friday I attended a Preparing Future Faculty seminar/conference held on campus. The event featured a couple of keynote speakers, along with several panels focused on such topics as career options, teaching strategies, and navigating the job market. The experience was no doubt helpful and informative, but also a bit scary seeing as the academic job market has become so competitive.

I’m using this post to record some of my personal notes, which may or may not be of use or interest to anyone else in the world.

Career options

It’s no secret that the supply of PhD graduates in the US far outweighs the demand for tenure-track faculty at research-intensive universities. The first panel (following the welcoming remarks) focused on different career options. For those dedicated to securing tenured faculty status at a research university, the recommendations focused very much on communicating and networking—it’s important to be able to share what it is you do with others, and you need to seek out opportunities to do so, early and often. You need to prepare yourself for both formal and informal opportunities to share your interests and experience with others. However, you should not memorize your remarks, as this will make it harder for your enthusiasm and passion for your work to come through.

Regarding postdoctoral fellowships in the sciences, the recommendation was to not view this as a no-man’s-land between graduate school and faculty status, but as an opportunity to gain valuable experience as a researcher where you dictate the balance between research, teaching, service, and administration (and frequently that balance is almost exclusively research). Perhaps the biggest challenge at this stage is to demonstrate your ability to conceive and deliver on research ideas independent of other scientists. They also focused on the importance of contacts and the social aspects of securing the “right” positions: the typical student-advisor and postdoc-advisor relationship in the US lasts longer than the typical marriage in the US, so it’s an important choice. It’s important to do all you can to get your name and ideas out there and make the social connections necessary that will give you options and opportunities when it comes time to apply for postdoctoral or faculty positions.

The demands of being faculty at a teaching-focused university are different from those at a research-focused institution. The students expect a lot more in terms of interaction (which was described as both a challenge and a benefit), and of course the teaching load is very demanding. While there are opportunities to maintain a research lab at such schools, publications will be fewer as there is an increased interest in teaching undergrads how to do research.

The panel also included a faculty member from university-sponsored applied research center. The focus of this center is engagement with local/regional government, business, and community, and bridging the gap between theory and existing practice in their particular field. The teaching and research opportunities for this kind of position are quite different from those of traditional faculty, and stable long-term funding seemed to be a moderate concern. However, for the right kind of person, the opportunity to work with people to apply research to solve practical, everyday problems that families and businesses and governments deal with every day can be very rewarding.

Balance

There seemed to be an agreement that there is a trend towards healthier institutional attitudes about the importance of teaching and service as opposed to just research. That being said, if you are tenure-track faculty at a Research I university then research is still paramount. These days, poor teaching (even with a great research record) can put your tenure at risk, but even stellar teaching is not enough to compensate for poor or mediocre research. As teaching is a tremendously demanding time commitment, it is important to get experience with this and to seek feedback and advice from others.

Much is expected of university faculty, in terms of teaching ability, administrative responsibility, participation in (meaningful) service, and research productivity. One speaker mentioned that the ability to gracefully flow between these different demands, much as a yoga instructor seamlessly moves through a series of poses, is crucial to success as faculty. Others mentioned that for much of their careers, they exhibited little grace balancing these demands, but with determination and a lot of hard work and sweat they managed. The details of how to achieve this balance is a personal issue, but it’s important to consider how all of these things relate to you what you consider to be your higher purpose as university faculty.

Finally, while the focus was on balance of research, teaching, service, and administrative responsibilities, there was also a bit of discussion about personal life balance. As an academic, it is very easy to get sucked into the cycle of working every waking hour. One panelist, a social scientist, could even claim visits to the movie theater or playtime with her child as research time, since her research about gender roles and social interaction were always in the back of her mind. However, most will agree that taking time to be with friends and family and to pursue personal interests is important. Many of the panelists warned that it is never a good time to get married, never a good time to have a baby, but this shouldn’t stop you from doing so. Family is important, and you can adapt and still be a successful scientist with a young family.

The Social Aspect

I’ve already mentioned this, but almost every single presenter and panelist emphasized the importance of social and interpersonal considerations in the transition from graduate school to postdoctoral training to career. Finding the right opportunities of course depends on the quality of your research, but (at least initially) is much more about the contacts you make and who you know. Attending conferences as often as funds allow, proactively seeking opportunities to share your research with others, and making contact with remote colleagues to discuss challenges with your research are all ways to make contacts that can benefit your research in the short term and could lead to productive partnerships, mentorships, or connections in the long term.

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