Monthly Archives: October 2013

Getting to Professor

In my book, Career planning for research bioscientists, I include twenty career stories, one of which is from a US professor. Here is the account of her career including some useful advice:  

In my role as full professor, I have been privileged to be involved in cutting edge research, to have seen many of my research ideas tested and to have worked with many interesting and highly talented individuals. All of this has taken place within a stimulating, autonomous and open-minded working environment with the flexibility and freedom to be creative, to inspire (and be inspired by) young people, and to be challenged intellectually. After 25 years of running an active well-funded research lab, I am seeking new challenges in order to let the next generation of researchers come through. I can look back now and relate my experiences, which have brought me to this point in a career that I have thoroughly enjoyed and still love.
I did my PhD in Cellular and Molecular Biology in Michigan after which I went to Seattle to undertake a postdoctoral position for four and a half years. At the age of 32, I then secured an Assistant professorship at my current university in Minnesota. This is an unusually young age to get a faculty position, but that was in the late 80’s. Nowadays, late 30’s is a more normal age: most researchers do one long or two postdoctoral training fellowships before they are hired in as an Assistant professor. Assistant professors are not tenured, and it is during the next several years that they establish their credentials for tenure by securing significant research funding and publishing scholarly research articles. Then, at the end of the fourth/beginning of the fifth year they need to submit a dossier for review by several committees, the dean of their college, the President of the university, and ultimately the Board of Regents for the university. This review takes about a year. If their scholarship is deemed satisfactory, they get promoted to Associate professor with Tenure. If the scholarship is considered unsatisfactory, then the annual contract is terminated after one year, and the unsuccessful faculty member will have to leave the university and look for a post at another university or leave academia altogether. Even if one does secure the position, however, it takes between 6 – 10 years (or longer) to reach full professor. However, the success rate is quite high (95%) at most universities as those unlikely to make it often opt not to go through the promotion process.
A fundamental difference between being employed as an Assistant professor and Associate professor is, apart from other aspects, the teaching and mentoring load. As an Assistant professor, you are given practically no teaching duties during the first couple of years, leaving you free to pursue your research with vigour. This increases during the next two years as teaching credentials are one of the criteria for promotion. In contrast, an Associate professor may be given up to 25 hours per year, which is a heavy commitment considering they are also trying to develop their research career towards a full professorship. (I should add that this load is typical for faculty in a medical school, faculty in other colleges usually has a much heavier load).
For career advancement to full professor, one will also need to be considering important career factors such as gaining an international reputation, getting onto journal refereeing or editorial boards, as well as departmental commitments such as mentoring students, committee work and administration. For my part, I was on the Promotions and Tenure committee for the Medical School, serving as the chair for five years. I was also on the Faculty Senate and Medical School Curriculum boards, as well as national committees, e.g. grant review committees, so-called study sections. Administration and committee work is less appealing to me personally than research-related roles, but I learned a lot from my involvement in these services. As all faculty are required to provide ‘service’ to the university in addition to research and teaching, it is important to select committee work that is either of interest to you and/or that is of value to you. For example, I chose to serve extensively on grant review committees both locally and nationally because I found it interesting to read about the latest ideas and techniques, because it helped me keep my research program at the forefront of the field, and because it has a measurable and important outcome. Learn to say yes only if you think the activity will be useful to you or is of personal interest, otherwise you will be quickly swamped with too much work (and no motivation to do much of it).
The Career Factors
You have to be strategic if you are planning on an academic career. You need to choose an area of research which interests you but is also receiving plenty of government funding. In this way, you will be publishing regularly and will have the opportunity to move around easily to work in other labs – mobility is very important at the early stages of your career. Moreover, other aspects are important such as setting up your laboratory. For my first tenured post, I moved into a pre-existing lab with plenty of equipment and so only had to order a small amount of additional items to start getting my experiments up and running. However, if you are faced with a completely empty room with an equipment fund of only $800,000 you are going to have to start applying for grants in the first couple of years, especially if you want personnel such as a technician. You can make use of graduate students to help with your research, but you will need to start eyeing up the ‘big money’ if you are going to make progress in your research. You can gain experience with writing grants while you are still a postdoctoral fellow by writing for fellowships – developing this skill early on in your career is vital. Even once you have started to employ students/researchers, you are still the most trained person in the lab so you may need to spend time at the bench for much of the first five years. Another consideration is the selection of a mentor to provide guidance to you. Too often, it is tempting to go it alone, thinking you know what is needed; however, the advice of someone intimately familiar with the politics and the writing of grants is invaluable.
In the beginning, you will likely employ the services of a doctoral student and one to two undergraduate students (e.g. work study students). This is realistically the most you can supervise and still do research yourself. Then, by your third year you will start to bring in a postdoctoral researcher so you will have four people in the group. After this, it is advisable to hire slowly – one person per year so that you can reasonably manage the group’s growth. Different labs have different management styles according to those who are leading them. I had never managed anyone when I started up my own lab – I was good at having ideas, doing experiments and making presentations. Even hiring good people is difficult when you have no experience. Again, a mentor can be valuable in making these decisions and selections.
Once you are established you can relax (a little) and concentrate on doing more peripheral activities whilst managing your lab, such as focusing on teaching and mentoring activities. At a university, teaching is a primary mission and your reputation is also dependent on how well you teach. Of course, if you want to make policy decisions and guide the growth of a department or college or do editorial or national committee service, then you can also divert time into those activities after reaching the associate and/or full professor levels.