How to Break into a Faculty Position
7 Tips to Help Postdocs Transition to the Next Phase of Their Career
You completed your PhD and now you’re doing a postdoctoral fellowship in a great research lab. But how do you move on to the next step in your career? If your plan is to follow the academic route, when’s the right time to start thinking about a tenure track? And once you score an interview, how can you make sure your scientific talk is effective?
Most postdocs will ask themselves these questions—and many more—at one point or another.
This week is National Postdoc Appreciation Week, so it’s the perfect time to address some of these concerns.
Set Yourself up for Success
This year, Gladstone’s Office of Postdoctoral and Graduate Affairs created a new Trainee-to-Tenure Track program. It’s designed specifically to help early career scientists in their path towards academic independence and faculty positions.
Here are some tips that were offered during the program to prepare postdocs for this important career transition. Most of the advice also applies if you’re seeking a non-academic job.
- Maintain Good Communication with Your Mentor
Good communication with your mentor is crucial to manage any potential overlap in research with your postdoc lab. Ideally, you want to start having discussions on this topic as early as possible.
“The sooner you can understand your mentor’s style, the better,” said Gladstone Assistant Investigator Jeanne Paz, PhD. “Talk to your mentor to find a win-win situation in which you can both benefit from the research and resulting publications.”
Once you identify branches of your mentor’s projects that you can develop on your own, you can obtain funding that will help you build your career, while also contributing to your mentor’s lab financially.
- Apply for Independent Funding during Your Postdoc
“Although not necessary, an important key to developing your own research project, and to moving from your mentor’s lab to your own, is independent funding,” said Paz.
Several awards are available to help postdocs with this career transition. The Pathway to Independence Award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is a good example. It can provide up to 5 years of support during your transition to an independent position. To be eligible, you must apply before you have 4 years of postdoctoral research experience.
You can also establish a good track record of funding by obtaining a research fellowship during your postdoctoral training.
- Tell a Compelling Story in Your Scientific Talk
When you’re ready to start applying for faculty positions, or really any position, you need to prepare a solid scientific talk. Your goal for this lecture should be to send a clear message by telling a great story.
“Don’t tell them everything you know,” said Robert W. Mahley, MD, PhD, Gladstone president emeritus. “Instead, choose one clear message that you want the audience to learn. Then, tell a story to convince the audience of your message.”
Keep your message simple. An effective scientific lecture should only include what your audience needs to know to understand the data and to draw a conclusion—nothing more. Don’t share results for every experiment you’ve performed. Instead, only provide critically important results.
And remember, you don’t have to present data in the order it was generated. Find the best order to tell the story and get your message across.
- Make It Fun
“Only 50 percent of scientific success is based on the excellence of your science,” said Mahley, who is also a senior investigator at Gladstone. “The other half is based on your ability to communicate your results. So, make your presentation fun.”
Choose what works best for you: smile, use analogies, include anecdotes, or integrate cartoons. The important thing is to keep your audience in mind and make sure they can enjoy, relate to, and understand, your scientific talk.
- Learn Tricks to Avoid Stage Fright
Giving a talk can make anyone nervous. But you can overcome stage fright if you think of the lecture as a serious conversation rather than a performance. Just be yourself, and prepare thoroughly.
Start planning your talk well in advance. Practice alone and, when you feel ready, rehearse before a friendly audience (such as your lab) using your slides.
On the day of your lecture, arrive early and familiarize yourself with any equipment (computer, pointer, microphone). Just before your talk, go over your introduction in your head. And, use notes if they help you.
- Give a Good Chalk Talk
A chalk talk is used by certain search committees to assess suitable candidates for a faculty or independent research position. The informal format—no slides; just you, your wits, and a board—allows them to learn about you as a potential colleague.
As such, the chalk talk is often the most important determinant in landing a job. Whether you ever experience one or not, the skills needed to deliver a successful chalk talk are useful for any persuasive speech or interview.
“Keep it simple, list your goals, and demonstrate your enthusiasm at being considered by the institution,” explained Mahley. “Your chalk talk should not repeat your scientific lecture, but should build on it by describing where your science is heading.”
Start by structuring the content of your talk, then practice your delivery, and plan out your use of the board. During the talk, use sentences like “I believe it will become clear…” or “That is a valid point, but may I suggest…” to lead the discussion and make your points.
- Impress Your Search Committee
Most search committees will include a mix of senior and junior investigators, often with diverse scientific backgrounds. During your chalk talk, you should demonstrate your knowledge of the committee members’ expertise and refer to them whenever possible (and natural).
In addition to testing your scientific know-how, search committees generally try to gauge a candidate’s professional ability and personal characteristics.
Mahley outlines the four “D”s that many search committees look for:
- Drive: do you have the passion and enthusiasm needed to be a principal investigator?
- Determination: can you stand up for yourself?
- Demeanor: would they be proud to have you as a colleague?
- Dialogue: are you able to clearly communicate your science, goals, and aspirations?
To set yourself apart from other candidates, work on convincing the committee that you possess all four “D”s.
Start Preparing for Your Future Now
These tips apply as much to postdocs wanting a faculty position as to those seeking a career in non-academic ventures, such as industry. Regardless of your future direction, strong communication and presentation skills will help you reach your career goals.
Gladstone postdocs can get more advice on professional development in next year’s Trainee-to-Tenure Track program. In the meantime, use these insights to get you started on the right path towards a successful career.
For more information about the Trainee-to-Tenure Track program, contact the Gladstone Office of Postdoctoral and Graduate Affairs.