By Erin Walsh, PhD
The academic job market can be an intimidating place, especially as the expectations placed upon young scientists continue to increase. Most fellows are aware of the importance of publishing their work, mentoring other trainees, and writing grants. However, all too often we can forget to step outside of our laboratory bubbles, take a more holistic view at our skills and training experiences, and ask ourselves what else can I do to better market myself professionally?
On June 12, 2018, the NICHD Office of Education kicked off a new workshop series, “Preparing for the Academic Job Market,” aimed to help fellows prepare for the academic job search. Lauren Celano, co-founder of the life sciences search and career development firm Propel Careers, led the first two workshops. Her morning session focused on how fellows can gain the skills and experience needed for academic jobs, while the afternoon session focused on how to highlight these experiences within job application materials (CV, cover letter, research statement, and teaching statement).
Much of the first workshop focused on ways fellows can develop their research, teaching, mentoring, service, and communication skills. The skills necessary for academic positions depend on the type of academic institution to which you apply: research intensive, teaching intensive, or comprehensive, with equal research and teaching responsibilities. Lauren recommended creating a skill development plan. For each job position, list the skills necessary for that role, indicating if the skill is a “must have” or “nice to have” and if you have that skill already. If not, describe how you will develop that specific skill.
Lauren’s presentation offered a helpful perspective—there are multiple ways (and no single “right way”) to develop new skills. The good news is that most of us are already working on many of these skills without realizing the value of our daily activities. Below are a few examples, including keywords and phrases you can use in application materials:
- Propose a new research direction or focus
- Acquire the necessary resources to enable the new research
- Initiate collaborations
- Identify collaborators to work with to solve a research problem
- Manage communication with collaborators regarding timelines and deliverables
- Lead teams of people with diverse backgrounds and scientific expertise
- Manage relationships and negotiate purchasing discounts with scientific vendors
- Develop new research tools
- Identify funding sources
- Engage in research with non-profit organizations
Lauren pointed out that many fellows are not aware of some of the skills that can be helpful in securing an academic position. For instance, having budgeting and negotiation experience is of great value for fellows who plan to start their own labs, since they will likely be operating on relatively small start-up funds. Perhaps you worked with a newly hired investigator, or you were part of a lab that moved to a new institution. Previous experience in setting up a lab, or even a piece of equipment, are examples applicants might want to highlight in application materials to show they possess the skills necessary for starting a lab and managing the resources.
Outside the lab, Lauren emphasized the importance of service and leadership experience. Most fellows are able to find committees to serve on within the NIH, but becoming involved in outreach groups or disease-focused nonprofit organizations could be ways for you to stand out among other applicants on the job market. Taking the initiative to form your own committee or establish your own seminar series within your institution are other unique ways you can highlight your leadership skills.
Lauren’s afternoon workshop focused on how to prepare application materials for academic jobs. She reviewed the curriculum vitae (CV), cover letter, research statement, and teaching statement. This session was more interactive in style, and Lauren provided numerous examples for each application section, including different ways to format and organize each document.
Beyond formatting and organization, Lauren emphasized how important it is to be mindful of each position’s teaching and research requirements, adjusting your research and teaching plans appropriately. If you are applying for a position at a small, teaching-intensive liberal arts school where you are expected to establish a small research program, create a targeted research plan with a scope that is feasible given the resources the institute can provide. Perhaps your research time, lab space, or funds will be limited. If expensive equipment, facilities, or analyses are essential for your work, take the initiative to establish (or propose) collaboration with an investigator at a neighboring research-intensive institution, and include those details in your research statement.
For the next part of the “Preparing for the Job Market” workshop series, Lauren Celano will return on Tuesday, July 10, and Wednesday, July 11, to give one-on-one coaching sessions to fellows interested in discussing careers in academia or industry. She will also offer help and feedback on application materials. Check out the July Events section for more information.