(The Science Career Path Reality)
My 9 years in industry, 5 years in academia, and 4 years
as a postdoc tell me this about getting a regular (tenure-track)
On a very simple level, one who wishes to be in lofty pursuits (an
academic position at a research institution, where the goals are
noble and the intellectual rewards are pure and at least some
people respect you) would follow this conventional-wisdom paradigm:
Get i) PhD (or MD/PhD), ii) get a postdoc, and then iii) get an
asst. prof. position. After that things are supposed to be more or
less automatic. Right?
Bzzzzt. Wrong answer!
In 1977 I got my PhD and did a postdoc (1978-1981) and then began
to learn how all of this really worked.
The situation back then was, as it is today, about 200-300
applications per entry level (assistant prof) tenure-track slot.
What I saw then (doing a postdoc at UNC, School of Medicine, Chapel
Hill) was that the CVs that rose to the top, indeed, had or tended
to have certain "obvious" characteristics:
- A1 - Ivy league, big 10 or big 20 institution names for the PhD.
- A2 - Places that are "exotic" for a postdoc to be from: eg.
Rockefeller, Max Plank, Cold Spring Harbor, IN ADDITION TO
- A3 - Publications (about 2-3 per year) in, yes, Science, Nature,
- A4 - An existing, transferable grant (usually NIH, and $60+K of
- A5 - A specialization that fit in with the specialization that was
desired (i.e. as advertised).
- A6 - A specialization that could be a natural integration for one
to two existing faculty for the purpose of becoming a co-
investigator on future grant proposals (such arrangements
can be great since you have enthusiastic "partners" to help
with writing, but can be bad if the other guys let you do
most of the work and they take the credit)
- A7 - (thanks to Ken Steele [at: email@example.com] for this
one). "The homeboy factor is stronger than many imagine"
quoted with permission. Basically, some selection mindsets
operate on what I will call the comfort principle: A few guys
in the department are from some region, school, or have a
religious factor in common, and this is what they look for, or
notice, in an applicant pool, and, ergo, true merit gets lost
in the dust (I am not arguing for or against this, it all
depends on your perspective). A variation on this may be
found by looking in college and university catalogs in
your libraries. Look at the faculty list and see if they show
where the faculty got their degrees from. Ivy league schools
usually recruit from other ivy leagues. Small, elite colleges
often recruit from prestige schools (eg. ivy league), and
state schools recruit from all places.
Teaching institutions often recruit for teaching promise
and experience while research competence means little or
- A8 - Small elite (or even not so elite) colleges are not going to
be research career focused. Rather, they will be more
concerned with the commitment you have towards teaching and
the small college ambience and culture. In other words, how
you look as a researcher doesn't matter much, but if you have
no teaching experience AND don't have anything on
your CV or cover letter (or the rest of your application
package) that really shows an interest in teaching, then your
CV is going to end up in the trash (or the fireplace).
There were anti-selection characteristics, too:
IN OTHER WORDS, YOU HAVE A WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY
AND IF YOU MISS IT, THEN YOU ARE MESSED UP FOR LIFE.
- B1 - Subject areas not in "square" with job description (eg. an
entomologist applying for a job in an anatomy department).
- B2 - Anybody higher than associate prof, and including chairmen,
and people who were only at teaching institutions, and
people who were not young, fell off the list, quickly, on
the first round.
- B3 - Anybody who was already asst prof at 2 or more other
institutions. This is because the people on the sellection committee
figure that there is something wrong with you because you did not
- B4 - Obscure, short papers in trashy, obscure journals (especially
if there were, eg., 10 or more per year).
- B5 - Anybody who followed a non-ideal career path. For example, a
truck driver for ten years goes back to school for PhD, a woman
who steps off the path to be mother for 2-3 years (yeah, I'm sorry
but they see that gap as a blemish on a career trajectory).
- B6 - People who had dirt on their name. Bad gossip, whether true
or false, certain political problems (10-20 years ago you
might have had trouble if you were very left wing - you would
not get a job in science). Today, it may not be important.
- B7 - Thanks to for this one and I HAVE
heard about it before but left it out because I did not want
to stigmatize anyone. But, we ought to tell-it-like-it-is.
"Postdocs" at government labs may not be a good idea for your
career. Yes, academia generally does not respect time spent at
such places and that needs to be considered even though the
pay might be greater. says in his
private e-mail to me that "I'm one of those guys
in his 50s- and its hard to believe that I might not make it
in this career to retirement." and they "have postdocs..." and
"But they are committing professional suicide because we
are not in a glamour area of science and we are not at a fancy
institution." (write to him if you want, folks, but get the
help file first [send any subject any text to
before you get your password or send
non-anonymously, also see the help file).
People who are selected as candidates for a position had to give a
seminar and spend at least a day at the institution. The seminar
had to be in a quality level that I would call the "upper half"
category. To fall off the short list, you had to give a really
goofy or bad seminar (and this happened, too). In contrast, at a
teaching institution, your seminar or (short demonstration of
presentation abilities) will be more scrutinized for delivery,
content, collegiality, and style.
Some real-life but non-obvious factors might play a significant
role in a person being offered a position. However, these factors
may never become public knowledge. Some are:
Some of these non-obvious factors may actually dominate the
decision making to the point of relegating the obvious factors out
of the question. Anti-discrimination laws help prevent some of the
outlandish anti-sellection factor processes, but they don't seem to
have much effect until someone already hired is released or
denied tenure or tenure removed (see Chronicle of Higher Education
all year long on this). I think not much else has changed since the
mid 1970s except the much greater competition for grant funding.
- C1 - Real programmatic considerations.
- C2 - Absolutely astounding letters of recommendation from
luminaries (one prof at Berkeley told me this: he considered
himself average, but he got the job because of an
exceptional recommendation letter).
- C3 - Operation in the background of a personal connection or
preference of some kind (some people call this politics
and it does happen).
- C4 - An agenda. For example, there may be an actual preference to
hire a minority or a female, or a science
subdiscipline (eg. HIV science, extracellular matrix,
biotechnology, etc., or some other "hot topic").
This is what you have to measure yourself against.
What was the most intimidating CV I ever saw? It was just two pages
long! The top half of the first page had the education. The bottom
half of the first page had a list of special awards. The second page just
gave numbers of journal papers, books, and chapters, not the titles and
citations. The second page also had a story in which the individual
said how many PhDs he graduated (it was around 40-50 if I recall
correctly), how many of those went on into tenure track positions (it
was most of them) and how many of those were promoted with tenure
(almost of them). In other words it was an awesome success story.
This guy not only did get the job, but he also got the whole floor of
a building. I am sure the rest of the "package" (i.e. start up money,
etc.) was also impressive.
There is also a line of thinking that is developing. Departments are
not going to play a significant role as much as centers of excellence
(containing 10-20 or more people). Such centers of excellence will
have a "life cycle" of 12-15 years and then be disbanded.
Try not to use the above material to gauge yourself in an absolute
way, because there are often exceptions to the rule in real life.
But do use it as a guide.
Arthur E. Sowers, PhD,
Copyright by Arthur E. Sowers
The text by Arthur E. Sowers is a part of a larger essay.
The entire work concists of the following parts:
Job Crunch & Grant Crunch
What needs to be in a CV
Self Evaluation (things you can do)
Tenure & Terminations
The post-doc search (pre-PhD)
Alternatives to traditional PhD jobs
Estimate of PhD Jobs and PhDs
URLs with lists of jobs
Other places related to the subject, where copies of the essay are available for browsing:
Alternative Careers in Biosciences
Jobs in Biotechnology, Pharmaceuticals and Healthcare
CONTEMPORARY PROBLEMS IN SCIENCE JOBS
Resarch and Funds
Received: September 14, 1996
Dear Dr. Koziol,
Just a brief comment concerning the interesting discussion on grant
funding by Drs Berezin & Hunter, and by Dr. Ibrahim. To avoid any
misunderstandings, let me start by saying that my opinions are those of an
"old boy", continuously funded for about 25 years (not by NSERC), and active
in a very applied segment of physics (applied superconductivity).
I believe that all discussion participants are right: for basic
research, universities/intitutions should provide a minimum level of support
necessary for STARTING a successful activity, also experimental, i.e., "fund
young researchers, not proposals", but for a LIMITED PERIOD OF TIME (say,
three to six years). Individuals not able to demonstrate real achievements
over such periods of time should be excluded from future considerations.
One could discuss whether internal university evaluation panels could obtain
for that purpose some extra minimum support from contributions of funding
agencies, such as NSERC. However, all "extras" and follow-up research
should be proposed/applied for, and evaluated via a peer review, with
funding administered by an agency. Not because it is a good or infallible
system (it is not), but because all alternates are still worse. Most of
NSERC or other bureaucrats are simply not able to evaluate basic work by
themselves. In contrast, applied work can often be evaluated by competent
agency personnel, even without a peer review. That doesn't mean that
agencies have no "pets", but at least less of vested interests.
The competence, quality and objectivity of peer and other reviews
are really an ethical issue. The ethics and morality of the scientific
community is no better (hopefully also no worse, but I'm not sure) than that
of the rest of the society. In consequence, the youngest segments of our
community suffer the most. My first priority would be to make sure that
they get a chance to prove to be those "best and brightest". This must take
some time. However, I don't believe that ANY system can and should
continuously fund anyone who likes to call himself a researcher or a scientist.
(Prof.Dr.) Alex I. Braginski, Director
Institute of Thin-Film and Ion Technology
Research Center Juelich,
D-52425 Juelich, Germany
Two Postdoctoral Positions
Nonlinear Laser Spectroscopy and Solid State Modeling
Argonne National Laboratory
Received: September 17, 1996
The heavy element photophysics and photochemistry program of the Chemistry
Division at Argonne National Laboratory have two postdoctoral positions
immediately available for experimental and theoretical studies on defects and
disordering effects in solids. The successful candidates will be required to
participate in a collaborative project focused on microscopic radiation damage
in crystals and glasses. The initial appointments will be for a period of one
year and renewable for additional years by mutual agreement. Qualification: Ph.
D degree in physics, physical chemistry or equivalent. Experience required in
one or more of the following areas that focus on electronic and structural
properties of heavy elements (actinides, lanthanides, or transition metals)
doped into crystals and glasses: linear and nonlinear laser spectroscopy,
synchrotron radiation-based studies, microscopic theory development and
theoretical modeling. Additional experience in analytical electron microscopy,
crystallography, or solid state EPR/NMR is an asset.
Interested individuals may contact: Dr. Guokui Liu, Argonne National
Laboratory, 9700 South Cass Avenue, Argonne IL 60439. e-mail:
Argonne is an equal opportunity/affirmative action employer.
Guokui Liu, Ph.D
Argonne National Laboratory
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