Monday, July 25, 2011

Starting up

It's almost the end of July, and summer is slipping by fast. As a new academic year approaches, some of us are looking forward to beginning new jobs. A perennial question around this time of year is, what advice do you have for brand new faculty members? How do you make the transition from postdoc to professor? I pose these questions to readers of this blog with no small amount of self-interest, I must admit.

While I'm at it, what advice would you give to newly minted PhDs becoming brand new postdocs?

My own advice to new postdocs would be to network like mad and build up your professional connections. Doing research and publishing papers should go without saying, but networking is vital for career development. So knock on doors, strike up conversations, go to conferences, and ask questions during talks.

Now it's your turn: what advice would you give new postdocs? faculty members? What do you wish you had been told when you started your new job?

-by Hannah


Megan said...

Advice to post-docs at a university or other research institution.

Write papers. Now is the time to show your productivity as an independent researcher.

Go to the talks. Leave your laptop in your office. Ask questions.

Meet with your advisor regularly, if you have one. Don't disappear.

Talk to astronomers other than your advisor. Don't become the person no one knows. Don't be a troll.

Work with students if you have the opportunity.

Learn how to give great talks to a wide variety of audiences. Areas of weakness for most postdocs: public lectures and colloquium talks to physics (or physics & astronomy) departments. After years of learning to talk to experts (or your PhD committee), it takes some effort to learn how to give a talk to other audiences.

Your publication record might get you on a faculty short-list, but how you interact with people and your job talk will affect your ranking on that list.

Joan Schmelz said...

Megan - this is great advice! CSWA has an item on their web site on "Advice for Postdocs Applying for Tenure-Track Positions" but nothing like this. Would you like to help us write this up for our advice page?

Mordecai-Mark Mac Low said...

I agree with all of Megan's points; her last point could even be strengthened: the job talk and interview interactions are in many cases the largest determining factor in the final ranking, in my experience.

One other absolutely key point that wasn't yet mentioned: apply for your own funding early and often, even if you are already funded on a fellowship or are prohibited from applying by your institution. (If necessary, get an adjunct position elsewhere, or work through someone like Eureka Scientific.) Receipt of external funding is a key metric for many faculty positions, and the scientific independence provided by having such funding is, if anything, even more valuable. If you are yourself already fully funded, use the new funding to extend the term of your position, or hire your own student or postdoc!

James Rhoads said...

I would add: If possible, some of your postdoc papers should reflect a new research direction--- something that is clearly different from your PhD research. People who are looking at a job application sometimes have to guess how much of your PhD work was based on your own ideas, and how much on your development of your advisor's ideas. If you have postdoc papers on something that is obviously different, that proves you are capable of identifying a new research question and pursuing it. Obviously, this advice is easiest to follow if you have an independent fellowship. It can be harder to do this if you have a new postdoc advisor who needs you to work on the project that's ultimately paying your salary (and again is based on the ideas they were pursuing when they wrote that grant proposal). Under those circumstances, you do need to be sure the person who hired you is happy with your work on their project, or they won't recommend you to anyone else. But even one paper in your first two years of postdoc that shows your independent thinking should be helpful later on.

Karly said...

The best thing a postdoc can do to prepare for a tenure-track faculty or any permanent position is to submit grant proposals and secure independent funding. It's proof of concept that you are a bankable principal investigator, and this is what institutions want to hire, whether their focus is research or teaching. Not all postdocs can propose in their own names through their postdoc institutions; contact the funding agencies (NASA, NSF) for workarounds or get an affiliation with another institution that will allow it.

Nancy Morrison said...

To Megan's good advice I would add the following.

Decide on your career goals, which may not involve a teaching position. If they do, decide whether you want a position in a mainly teaching-oriented institution, such as a four-year college, or a Ph.D.-granting university, or an intermediate-level place with a strong master's program.

If you think you might want a teaching position, then, after you get the research productivity going, get some teaching experience as the instructor of record for a course. Which type of school you want to teach in would determine how much experience you need. Rarely these days are people hired into good teaching positions without having been in charge of at least one course. Don't rely on your TA experience to do it for you. In your application for a faculty position, you will probably be asked for a statement of your teaching philosophy. If you are not sure about teaching, this experience will help you decide.

If you don't already know how to keep track of many activities at once and deal with frequent interruptions to your research, learn. Faculty members have to do this all the time. I don't necessarily mean multitasking - you can do the activities in series if you prefer.

If you don't want to teach, I have less advice to offer, but do make sure you get as much practical, e.g., computer or instrumentation, experience as you can.

Consider joining the National Postdoctoral Association,

AJW said...

--Ask to meet with every visiting speaker during his/her visit. This is a chance to explain your work to a new person, and these meetings take the same form as all the meetings you will have during interviews for faculty jobs. Plus, you will make new connections.