Searching for your first academic job is both exciting and stressful. After years of work as a trainee you get to embark on an interview season cramped into a few months spanning the spring and fall of your final year. Jobs will come and go on various boards and others will come to you by word of mouth. It is important to have your application materials put together and your academic mission written out and well-articulated to take advantage of opportunities that come your way. The following is a rough sketch of what to be looking for in an academic position and how to position yourself to set up your academic program.
The first step in any application is to read the job posting carefully. There will be key specifics in this listing that should be address in any cover letter. For example, if the organization is looking to hire a minimally invasive and abdominal wall surgeon your application material should address this. I know this seems intuitive but when you are searching it may seem reasonable to apply for this job if you are “MIS-trained” even if you wouldn’t consider doing predominantly ab wall. The listing may also describe what academic mission the division is recruiting for. Some may say, “we are looking to hire on a tenure-track position and to support aspirations to build a research program.” Not all job listings are this focused. The next step is to do you research on the institution and where you can fit in clinically and academically. This requires you to know your own research program – where it has been and where it is going. Look for how you can leverage what is already at the institution to help launch your own research. It is also important that you identify mentors that are already at the institution. A great resource for this is the NIH Reporter (https://reporter.nih.gov/). While it is not comprehensive as it does not capture alternative sources of funding, it is a good launching point. Find a mentor with a track record in funding, publishing, collaboration, and, well, mentoring. Ask to meet with these individuals during the interview process and gauge their interest in supporting you. Lastly, have a sense of what grants you plan to apply for in your first 5 years.
Craft a Budget
I found this to be one of the single most important steps in understanding what it takes to launch your program. Having a well thought out budget not only prepares you for contract negotiations but lets the division know that you are serious in your pursuits, and you have what it takes to understand the business of the work you plan to do. Be realistic in how much things cost. Go to your mentors and ask for line-item details so that your budget is accurate. In basic science (my discipline), there should be a few main categories:
- Personnel: Look at the NIH salary for the level of hire + overhead and decide at what level you want to hire)
- Disposables/consumables: pipettes, tips, tubes, etc.
- Large equipment: -80 freezer, cell culture hoods, Mass spectrometer equipment,
- Small equipment: qPCR, western blot, surgical equipment
- Animal costs: factor roughly $25.00 per mouse with $1.00 per diem per cage
- Cores: access to and money for
- Space costs: renovations, office, etc.
- Keep the math straightforward and include everything you need even if you think what you need is already there… just include it.
Nothing can get done in research unless the job affords you the time to do so. There are many academic jobs out there that are really geared to be mostly clinical and starting a labor-intensive research program in this setting is bound to be difficult and more likely to fail. Having an idea how much time you need set aside for your work also gives the folks interviewing you the sense that you know what commitment is needed. For most career development awards, you need at least 50 % and often 75 % of time dedicated to research. This is a funding requirement. So, if you take a job that does not already fit that criterion, you must get reassurance that with receipt of these awards, that you will be able to transition to the appropriate time schedule. Along these lines, if you can, try to consolidate the days you are involved in clinic duties and invested in your research program. Lastly, protect your time at all costs. Do not take on distracting commitments until you are well-established in your research mission.
Once you have identified and met with a potential mentor the next decision is what form the mentor/mentee relationship will take. Will you embed your lab with your mentors? Will you meet weekly/biweekly? Will your mentor be on your NIH grant committee? What is the first project you can get published with your mentor? Are there resources and personnel that can be shared? This is arguably the most important relationship to foster to get your academic mission up and running.
Having clinical partners that understand and support your research mission is important. Don’t forget, the division wanted someone like you and as such, is invested in your success from all angles. Don’t be afraid to ask your colleagues for help with the delicate balancing act of time. Share your research with your colleagues – your research should not be some black box quantum computer.
Get it in the contract
Get everything written down – who your mentor will be, startup funds, time with explicit clinic and operative requirements, etc. Division and department chairs come and go, and you do not want your research package to suffer the same fate. Get it in writing to protect yourself.