Friday, September 12, 2014

Advice to prepare for your academic job search (in biomedical sciences)

I should be working on a grant, but I don't feel like it. So I am going to write something else.
This is the season when academic job postings are coming out by the dozen every day and in the past few weeks I have been having multiple discussions with friends and colleagues getting ready to apply. I have been reading proposals, having lengthy conversations about strategy, I joined my first search committee. Heck, I'm even working on putting together a seminar on the US job market for foreign postdocs. I thought I would share some of this advice with the world.

Dr. Becca has put together a wonderful aggregator post with job search advice from the blogosphere. There is tons of stuff for you to peruse on all the aspects of the search. When I interviewed I also used Karen Kelsky's site and blog The Professor is In for a lot of wonderful advice. What I want to do here is bring up a few things I think are critical that are sometimes overlooked and that could give you an edge.

The overall strategy
1) Planning takes years. This is going to upset some people, but I went to a "postdoc strategy" seminar in my first year, that basically said "You have to plan your path to your faculty job from the very beginning of your postdoc". You work your way from fellowships to larger NIH K grants, you maintain a steady level of paper productivity, balancing safer projects with the large blockbuster idea. If you are the person who is in their 7-9th year of their postdoc without a personal grant and with only one paper, no matter how large and glamorous, your path will be uphill. A CNS (Cell, Nature, Science) paper may be necessary in some places, but it is not sufficient. A steady stream of good publications and funding in this horrible climate and a promise of a well-thought out, exciting and fundable research program can do the trick. When you are ready (or even the year before) check out sites collecting job postings in your field, like Neurorumblr for neuroscience.
2) The network is your friend. Unless you are the one with the super hot paper/technique who will get 15/20 interviews, you must use your network. You (or your postdoc/PhD advisor) could start reaching out to people you know in institutions of interest:"Do you have a search?" "What are you looking for?""Oh, too bad you don't have a search, are you still interested in hiring people?" You work your network and your friend's network to get the application looked at. Don't worry about your status, as a postdoc I successfully sent a emails to people I knew on behalf of friends saying "Hey, my friend is applying to your search. She's absolutely awesome, you should check out her application". If you know someone well at the target institution, even if they are not on the search committee, a nicely phrased email or call can lift the applicant from the rest of the pile. Of course, the application has to be good, but humans tend to prefer a known entity to an unknown entity, so the endorsement of a respected friend can be the tie-breaker.
3) Be realistic about your options. If you have geographical restrictions or a two-body problem, it will be harder to get the job you want, but not impossible. You just have to plan, and use your network, and probably go on the market for 2-3 years in a row. Or reconsider, hopefully not your spouse, but your geographical location. Just discuss your strategy with as many people as you can and don't get flustered. Getting a job is difficult, getting a job in the city you want is more difficult, getting two jobs in the city you want is almost superhuman. I'm not saying it cannot be done, but it's always good to have a plan B.
4) The wait sucks. After the full time job of sending out applications is done, you will experience a state of permanent anxiety and self-doubt. The wait between the last application and the first interview email is horrible!! Everyone feels horrible and it's okay. It's not just you. If you want to feel really bad you can Google every institution you applied to to find out who's being interviewed...

The application
1) Your research statement must show 5-10 years of exciting, fundable research.  DO NOT propose more detailed analysis stemming from your CNS paper, instead propose a groundbreaking new direction your paper inspired. DO NOT propose to make 1,000 mouse lines to show you are ambitious. I saw this at an actual job talk and could feel the hair rising on the neck of the search committee..."Do you know what a "per diem" is?"
Some of the really big places want their applicants to have the potential to revolutionize the thinking in their fields (and that is an actual tenure criteria). But even there, you have to develop a well thought-out plan with safer and riskier projects to continue the balance of funding and publication. You might be a revolutionary, but the revolution must be funded.
2) Give your research statement to read to AS MANY PEOPLE as you can. Email your grad school friends, email faculty you know around the country, especially, email people who have been on search committees, and ask everyone if they would have the time to read your statement. If someone is or has been on a search committee you should ask whether your proposal is at the level of those picked for interviews at their institution. This way you will collect an incredible array of comments that you will have to collate. Everyone will see something different and you will figure out all the places where your proposal is unclear for the average scientist. Psycgirl recently wrote an awesome post about what happens on a search committee. You don't know who all these people are, nor what their expertise is, and they may be reading your application at 2am buzzing on caffeine. Clarity is really really important to convey how exciting your work is.

The talk
1) Simplify and be clear. My postdoctoral advisor was a master at giving talks and one of his most important roles in the lab was whipping talks into shape. The rule is "This is what I am going to tell you. Now I'm telling you this. This is what I just told you". Choose 1-2 good representative projects leading to your preliminary data for your future directions and make sure EVERYONE can understand them. Big picture, some detail, big picture. Do not overload people with data, just focus on telling a good story. The mantra is "A good story makes the listener feel smart, which makes you look very smart!"
2) Practice your talk with AS MANY PEOPLE as you can. As for the research statement, don't be bashful. The first time you give the talk, it's going to feel like a terrible beating. Your ego is going to be down the drain and probably you will cry. Make sure you still have a couple of weeks before your interview. Then take the advice and do it again and again. Find out where it's unclear, where the difficult transitions are, and make sure that EVERYONE can understand what you do and what you want to do.
3) No matter how many interviews you have, be humble. Have you ever heard of that guy with >10 interviews and not a single job offer? Well, I have. Don't get cocky. It can happen. It's always good to be gracious and a little intimidated, and to do your best in every single interview.

For the interview itself, I don't have much to add. All the usuals: be comfortable, test run your shoes, bring chocolate/energy bars in your bag and sneak to the bathroom to eat when your blood sugar levels drop. The one thing I really liked was having my talk on my iPad. Though I think that giving the talk from the iPad is douchy, so I used my laptop for that, I carried my iPad with my job talk on Slideshark at the individual meetings. Before my talk or with people who had missed it, I could just show some of the data on the spot and it really helped with the conversations.

There you go, little birds! Time to fly!!

Saturday, September 6, 2014

The NIH site-visit: a scientific pilgrimage

Wikipedia defines a pilgrimage as "a journey to a shrine or other location of importance to a person's beliefs" and I would add that in general you embark on a pilgrimage to ask for something or reach some kind of enlightenment. So it's only fitting that a visit to the NIH to the extramural program of your choosing will resemble a pilgrimage of sorts. Many senior people I know, pilgrims before me, have extolled the importance of this trip on the true path to an R01, multiple R01s or even the elusive P01. So there I went, and back again. It was an incredibly useful experience.

The approach: Some program officers are more helpful than others, but in general most POs I know really want to talk to you about your science. As stated in the bible of federal grant writing, How the NIH Can Help You Get Funded, once you become one of "their grantees" they have developed an investment in your career, and if they believe in your research then it's a critical relationship to nurture. Senior people always say that in the past a good PO could really help develop a scientific career, now with the paylines the way they are, they are probably more frustrated than anything, but most of them still want to help, and they may also help you find other institutes to target if their pockets are too shallow. So, email them and keep them in the loop. If you are a K99/R00 grantee planning to transition to an R01 or an early career investigator looking for your first grant, you should just email them and say that you would like to talk about options. Once you have developed a relationship, I know a lot of people who travel to Bethesda on purpose once a year to talk to POs, so it's not strange to inquire about their schedules and come to talk in person. Of course it's easier to just stop by if you are invited to serve on a study section or are attending the same conference, so if you know they go to meetings you can always shoot them an email "Are you going to XYX?". Remember that your PO may be busy, so if they don't reply it's fine to wait an appropriate amount of time (like a week or two) and try again.

The preparation: If you go to the NIH or meet your PO elsewhere, you should always be prepared. The PO may ask you for a draft specific aims page and if they don't, you should prepare it nonetheless and send it beforehand.  It may not be your best work if you are way in advance before the desired submission date, but it will really help you crystallize your thoughts and will provide a showcase for what you are doing/planning to do. Also, come up with any question you may have about administrative changes in your current grant (budget, effort, supplements, etc), applying for funding for your trainees, whether they know another PO you would like to talk to/try another institute, etc. Try and maximize the time you have with them: prepare well and don't waste your/their time.

The meeting: They may want to put things in prospective, so be prepared to start with your elevator pitch about your lab: what is your overarching question, where you are going and where the grant/project you are talking about fits in the lab. It will help them understand what is going on, but it will also give them confidence that you have covered all the bases and have allocated resources appropriately. Then you can just chat about your specific aim draft and expand on your preliminary data and on alternative grant structures. I find their questions really interesting, because I think they have this birds eye view of what gets funded and by just asking "Are you going to do this?", you start wondering whether that's what you should do...Also when you give them the outline of a hypothesis and a proposal, they can usually tell you very quickly whether it fits in their portfolio or not, and whether you should contact someone else in their institute or another institute.
One thing my PO told me is never to go in for an R01 in the parent call for applications without having a home for it, i.e. an institute and a PO. It's just too risky a gamble, and it's really nice to see a friendly name when it shows up in eRACommons in the right place. It still needs to be good and to get excellent reviews, but at least your precious grant is not lost somewhere all by itself. By doing your homework, you have insured that at least you are proposing something that is in line with the funding priorities, which will increase your chances if your score is borderline.

Despite initially being a little intimidated, I always found my interactions with the NIH and its officials to be very positive and most importantly useful for understanding how the system works. While I'm not sure barging into someone's office would work well, if you don't know them, eventually developing cordial professional relationships with POs could be really important for new investigators. So don't be scared, they are very nice and many of them used to be just like you years ago, so they get what you are going through.