Career Transition in the Pandemic Era
Making the transition from trainee to faculty in academia has a lot in common with running a marathon — something that requires training, preparation, support, and mental strength. When you add in the COVID-19 pandemic, that career transition “marathon” can feel more like running across a sea of rolling hills.
Most of us start searching for a faculty job by looking online. Given the financial hardships imposed by the pandemic, the number of positions posted may be lower in the upcoming academic year. Trainees who are in their last year of training are vulnerable to this uncertainty. In this article, we share some reflections on the job search from the perspectives of Drs. Ze Zheng and Bishuang Cai, who are in the middle of the transition to start their independent labs.
Know when you will be ready and decide what you are looking for.
Many of us have had our research activities delayed during the pandemic. This situation may alter your original plan on the timing of graduation or transition to faculty employment. Talk to your mentor, supervisor, and other institution officials to figure out a solution to let you finish your training, depending on the program, progress, and funding situation. Meanwhile, you may consider reassessing whether your pre-pandemic plans are realistic in this new reality. If they are not, it is time to formulate a plan B. Developing alternative career options is key to finding a program that will allow you to explore your potential. If you are lucky to have a friend who is at a similar career stage as you, build trust, share information and experience, and encourage each other’s resilience. Do not worry that you are helping a competitor. Embrace the healthy competition, and cultivate a friendship that will help you face future challenges.
Put yourself out on the job market.
Most open faculty positions are posted online in early Fall. However, it is never too early to start asking people who know you or your work about opportunities and potential openings. These include advisors, collaborators, or investigators you wish to work with in the future. Approaching them early may be helpful because even if they do not have a position available for you at the moment, your inquiry lets them assess your career goals and your readiness for the next career phase. They may contact you when a position becomes available or refer you to someone who may have a position that matches your career goal. Keep trying, as luck favors persistence.
It is exciting to get interview opportunities. The process usually starts with an initial phone interview with the chair or director. this initial interview is for the recruiters to get to know you, including your current research program, plan for future research, and your date of availability for the new appointment. This usually takes about 30 minutes, and you can briefly introduce yourself and show your interest in their institution. If you are not clear about what they are looking for and what they expect from a candidate, you should ask the person who is recruiting you.
Should you get invited toa formal on-site interview, you should first do your homework and have an sense for the faculty’s research interests by reading their publications, lab/department website, official social media accounts, and interviews with media, if available. Preparing thoughtful questions for each faculty member is an excellent way to show your interest in their research and affiliated institution. Prepare for your talk and anticipate questions that may be asked during your presentation. During the one-to-one meeting with individual faculty, besides discussing science, gather as much information as you can from the individuals. You can ask about typical recruitment packages and the department’s tenure process, and get to know the general research support available from the department or institution, including grant writing/submission support, core facilities and shared research resources, departmental funds for postdocs/students, and travel support.
If you are asked to give a chalk talk in addition to your seminar, you need to prepare a potential grant application topic to show your future research scope. Emphasize how different this project is from your mentor’s research program and why you are the perfect candidate to lead this research and new direction. The purpose of the chalk talk is to delineate your independent research goals and the logic behind pursuing this research, focusing on the knowledge gaps, significance, and novelty. This will allow the search committee to see how well you think on your feet and whether your reasoning is solid. You also need to convince the search committee that you have all the tools to carry out your proposed studies.
After the interview, send a thank you email with enthusiasm to your recruiter and ask what the next step is. Generally, the recruiter will let you know if the offer will be made during the follow-up communication.
Negotiating your startup package once you have an offer.
Typically, you can negotiate for startup funds, lab space, salary, and other benefits but before you start negotiating, you should be clear about the critical resources you need to succeed. To get enough startup funds for your research, you can provide a prioritized list of equipment and lab supplies with a detailed budget. You need to indicate which resources are absolutely necessary for carrying out your research, and which you would like to have but could share with others.
Negotiating for lab space and animal facilities may be difficult, but you can ask for the renovation fee if needed. If you need more space than what they have offered, you can justify that you have multiple promising projects to start with, and you need a couple of people working on these projects. Therefore, you require n benches which can accommodate n scientists. The base salary may vary among different institutions, so it is better to ask newly recruited faculty about the salary range in the same institution. More often than not, protected research time is an incredible asset, so do not underestimate it over small financial gains.
Do not negotiate just for the sake of negotiating. You will need to justify why you need the resources not listed in your offer letter.
For those who are on the move.
Starting a new job comes with not only moving to a new workplace but sometimes also a new place to live. These moves take a lot of effort, and the pandemic further complicates them. Once the job offer is signed, you should make a comprehensive to-do list. In addition to dealing with a pile of institutional paperwork, you will also have to find a place to live and get your family settled; for example, if you have children, you will have to find a new school for them. Because of social distancing, it is almost impossible to do a housing tour in person before you move to the new place. Ask people at your future institution for housing suggestions as they are much more familiar with the local environment. It would be better if they could provide options for temporary housing or help to find one. Get to know your future colleagues and let them know your situation. Learning from their experience, especially those who have moved recently, will help you have an easier start. Life goes on and we will get through these trying times together as a community. Then, a belated housewarming and a sunnier future await.