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Jun 16 2009

Getting A Tenure-Track Position

Candid Engineer has been musing about the Cell/Nature/Science GlamourMagz mania in her post-doctoral laboratory:

I need to remind myself that I don’t need this kind of publication to succeed. I need to remind myself about one of my labmates, who has numerous impact factor 4-5 papers from her stint as a postdoc, got 9 interviews at top-20 schools and something like 5 or 6 offers. She’s starting her TT-position at Stanford in the fall. And I guess Stanford is nothing to sneeze at.

This is true, but an important qualifier is numerous impact factor 4-5 papers. If you only have one or two, you are in a very precarious position, while a single glamour mag publication can be sufficient to get your foot in the door.

Regardless, focus on doing creative novel science, and good things will happen. What really helps when you are looking for a TT position is to have positioned yourself as a groundbreaking leader who is one of the few people with the ability to deploy a novel technology. If you have invented the technology, that’s even better.

But timing is everything. For example, there was a time when being able to work with microarrays was a hugely sellable skill. There was a time when being able to assemble and use a two-photon microscope for functional imaging of live tissue was a hugely sellable skill. Now, both of those things are routine.

Try to predict where your field is going in the next five to ten years, position yourself methodologically at the forefront. However, also be careful that you leverage off your methodological chops to make an important novel discovery in your field, or you will be dinged as a technically outstanding, but without the ability to identify and tackle an important biological question.

30 comments

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  1. 1
    Professor in Training

    an important qualifier is numerous impact factor 4-5 papers. If you only have one or two, you are in a very precarious position, while a single glamour mag publication can be sufficient to get your foot in the door.

    It’s also important to emphasize that this is very much a field-dependent issue. If you’re doing cutting-edge basic science, this is definitely true but if you’re at the more applied end of the basic sciences, glamour mags are seen as largely unattainable and journals with an IF of 4-5 are considered to be outstanding.

    That being said though, groundbreaking, novel and creative science is a winner in any field and being able to demonstrate you are an emerging leader in your research area will go a long, long way towards success in the TT search.

  2. 2
    Physiogroupie IV

    Encouraging…

  3. 3
    Spiny Norman

    “However, also be careful that you leverage off your methodological chops to make an important novel discovery in your field, or you will be dinged as a technically outstanding, but without the ability to identify and tackle an important biological question.”

    PP: you buried the lede. This is *the* key point that many miss. Without this, you probably will not ever move beyond running a core lab or tech support for a company that commercializes the tech.

  4. 4
    Spiny Norman

    Whoops. I meant to write:”you buried the motherfucking lede!”

  5. 5
    Cognitive Psychologist

    CPP, isn’t it also dependent on the type of TT job you’re after?

    From what I understand, a couple of high IF publications and solid teaching experience with good evals makes an applicant competitive for small college TT jobs, while definitely not so for R1 or R2 jobs, and questionable for comprehensive school jobs.

  6. 6
    Comrade PhysioProf

    CPP, isn’t it also dependent on the type of TT job you’re after?

    I’m sure it is. Since I don’t know jack diddly fucking squat about anything other than R1, one should always assume–unless otherwise indicated–that is what I’m talking about.

  7. 7
    Professor in Training

    From what I understand, a couple of high IF publications and solid teaching experience with good evals makes an applicant competitive for small college TT jobs, while definitely not so for R1 or R2 jobs, and questionable for comprehensive school jobs.

    Again, it is largely field-dependent as you can have some departments at famous R1s that are looking for junior faculty with great research potential who are also experienced teachers. At least, this is how I found myself being recruited by two R1s when I was on the market.

  8. 8
    queenrandom

    “If you only have one or two, you are in a very precarious position, while a single glamour mag publication can be sufficient to get your foot in the door.”

    Very true, but unfortunate. My first PhD advisor was hired based on a single glamor mag pub plus a single mid-range pub. I say my first PhD advisor because she was entirely unprepared for the job, lost the vast majority of her employees/students usually within 2 years of joining her lab, and got herself fired. Personally, I’d take someone with several lower impact papers than a single high impact paper; it’s more a demonstration of *consistent* work. I’m still scratching my head at how a postdoc is to demonstrate adequate (or above adequate) leadership skills for a TT position. Sometimes I’m under the impression that no one bothers even checking for this. But what do I know, I’m still a student :P

  9. 9
    Comrade PhysioProf

    I’m still scratching my head at how a postdoc is to demonstrate adequate (or above adequate) leadership skills for a TT position. Sometimes I’m under the impression that no one bothers even checking for this.

    Your impression is correct. Post-docs generally have no way to demonstrate requisite leadership skills. Hiring committees understand this, and thus do not bother checking, other than through a pretty ineffectual “can I see this person leading a team?” kind of gut check. This is why there are sad cases such as you describe.

  10. 10
    jc

    Single-authored papers, even at lower IFs, also convey independence and a firm grasp of the research subject. I recently single-authored a paper, and I was swamped with emails from all over the world, and they are still coming! My favorite was from the LA County Sanitation Department (I shit you not, pun intended) asking me for the pdf, then asking a followup about a new analytical method. I hope they don’t think my paper is shit (pun intended). It totally amazes me that I have a bunch of higher impact papers with my advisor as co-author for which hardly anyone has ever asked me anything. But the 2009 single author paper has already been cited, many people are emailing me for collaborations, and their ideas for papers are not just in my field, so it’s been a bit surprising. Professors have emailed me to say they used my paper in their class, and I even have big dudes shitting bricks about it…. *squeeeeee*.

    I wonder how many emails my advisors have gotten over the years about my first-authored papers and dissertation research. I’ve put myself down as corresponding author for most of them. So as much as GlamMagz mean to a postdoc on the market, it might be worth it to shoot for a single-author paper to make it onto the independent researcher map and open up new collaborations.

  11. 11
    Physiogroupie IV

    I’d love to write a single author paper but that would require me to have my own lab.

  12. 12
    jc

    Physiogroupie, not necessarily. It could be a side-project or some assemblage of data that hasn’t been put together in a new interesting way. It could also be a review article.

  13. 13
    Lab Lemming

    “Single-authored papers, even at lower IFs, also convey independence and a firm grasp of the research subject.”

    Except when they imply a lack of social and networking skills and the inability to work as part of a team. I would recommend against writing one unless you already have a group publication record in the area.

  14. 14
    Comrade PhysioProf

    In the biomedical sciences, single-author research papers look bizarre, and make the author look like something weird is going on with her. This is true both for PIs and trainees.

    Reviews are a different story.

  15. 15
    Physiogroupie IV

    Re-analyzing data are fine but it had to come from somewhere. If the work was done in someone’s lab under someone’s funding, that has to be credited somewhere.

    Reviews are fine but they will never take the place of a first author experimental paper. The latter (the accumulation of the latter) is what we are judged on for promotion.

  16. 16
    Physiogroupie IV

    Er. Re-analyzing data *is* fine. Heh, so automatic to say “data are”…

  17. 17
    msphd

    …just make sure you aren’t too far ahead of the rest of your field. sometimes it’s hard to judge how long it’s going to take, for example if you bring a technique from another field into an area where it hasn’t been used before. you might be hailed as a hero(ine), or you might just be a rogue nutjob as far as they’re concerned.

    I agree re: the one glamourmag pub PIs being unprepared. I’ve seen these people get jobs and be completely incapable of hiring, mentoring, writing, running a lab, etc. Sometimes they can get good people, and then they make it by riding on the backs of their postdocs. It’s just bad for everyone unless they’re smart enough to make up for what their postdoc “training” lacked.

  18. 18
    Cognitive Psychologist

    @ PiT – very good point. My advisor has changed his stance on graduate teaching over the years because of this. From what I’ve heard from others, it is increasingly becoming the case that even the most stellar researchers are at a disadvantage if they do not have teaching experience. It is also a disadvantage in general because it makes the transition much more difficult. We hired a new faculty member a couple of years ago, rock star researcher, high-profile post-doc, etc., but he had never taught before. His first year was extremely unpleasant and not productive in terms of research. Even now he is struggling to become a good teacher, and since his students generally do not like his classes, he has trouble recruiting research assistants.

    And of course, teaching experience helps you build presentation skills and confidence that are a huge help in many aspects of a TT job.

    Regarding leadership – it is true that this aspect is not something one gets training in. I have had conversations with university administrators who freely admit that junior faculty are expected to be able to do “management” and mentoring tasks without any training whatsoever, and that this is a problem. Of course, they have no solution for said problem.

  19. 19
    jc

    That’s another difference with men and women. When men single-author a paper, no one bats an eye. He’s an expert, genius, path setter! Think about invited reviews, perspectives, viewpoints. When women single-author a paper, the talk turns to anti-social, “not a team player”, etc. Plenty of men get hired who are socially inept, whether they be assholes who don’t play well with others or shy guys who don’t reach out to collaborate. Women’s brilliance and genius doesn’t usually override her social aspect. Different standards for men and women.

    Women already have lower funding $$$, less collaborations, etc. For women, it is really hard to set yourself apart from your advisor, especially if you have alot of papers from your PhD and/or postdoc. On the market, the talk toward me always turned to “can you be an independent researcher from your advisor?” even though all my references resoundingly said HELL YES in their letters for me. NSF funding, check. Other funding, check. GlamMag paper, check. Multi-author papers, check. First-author papers, check. Talks, check. Teaching, check. Mentoring, check. WTF? The hill for women to climb into Independent Researcher status is steeper than for men (already assumed competent, male privilege, woo hoo!). At this point, I think the bar for men is set at GM. For women, the bar is set to measure independence and her own thinking. If a woman has established herself in her field with many good papers (but not GM) and collaborations, I do think it’s a great idea to single-author a paper to showcase yourself apart from your advisors. I also think it sets her up to be invited for more collaborations and invited papers because she’s shown she can hack it on her own.

    One d00d called my advisor when my paper dropped to ask “did you know she wrote this?” Of course he did, he’s thanked on the last page for reading the draft! Did I need permission? Daddy may I? dumbass.

  20. 20
    Comrade PhysioProf

    jc, this is highly field specific. In the lab-based experimental biological and biomedical sciences, it looks *fucked up* to see a single-author paper, either male or female author. My understanding is that this is different in ecology, evolutionary biology, and less lab-focused experimental fields.

  21. 21
    bikemonkey

    I am totes going to have to write a single author paper just to fuck with PP…

  22. 22
    Dr. Jekyll & Mrs. Hyde

    it looks *fucked up* to see a single-author paper

    I’m totally telling David Linden on you.

  23. 23
    Nat

    Dude, a Bruce Bean flying roundhouse kick is comin at ya!

    5 single author papers, top three have 759, 651, 620 cites. Though, they are somewhat older (80s and 90s).

    Maybe electrophysiology is a tad different?

  24. 24
    No9

    Like I said, if you have your own lab, single-author papers aren’t a problem. But the original topic of this post was about the types of papers you need to get a TT position. I think the reason why single-author PI (experimental) papers don’t flood PubMed these days is because when you are the PI, it’s now impetus for one to show that one actually trained people by way of publications. So he/she now takes the moneymaker spot on the author list.

    (I looked up a couple single-author Bruce Bean papers and the institution listed was Iowa, at which he had already a faculty position at the time.)

  25. 25
    msphd

    jc is right re: women and different criteria for hiring.

    check out this pdf. best summary i’ve seen yet.

    http://www.liebertonline.com/doi/pdfplus/10.1089/dna.2008.1506

    jc- have you considered having your own blog somewhere? you don’t seem to be hotlinked here.

  26. 26
    Nat

    I guess I didn’t read CPP’s comment on single author papers as limited to pre PI status. But perhaps that’s the case.

    I think the reason why single-author PI (experimental) papers don’t flood PubMed these days is because when you are the PI, it’s now impetus for one to show that one actually trained people by way of publications. So he/she now takes the moneymaker spot on the author list.

    I’d say it has nothing to do with an impetus to show that you’re training other people, but rather that the system as currently practice requires that the PI do so many things that there is no time for them to do their own experiments, even if they wanted to. So they must do it with other people.

    Now, I don’t think that every PI should do their own experiments. I just wish it were feasible for those who want to. Because when I’ve had the chance to actually do expts with my advisors, it has been an incredible eye-opener.

  27. 27
    Physiogroupie IV

    I fully plan to run experiments when I am PI. I’ll make it happen.

  28. 28
    pinus

    I am a PI that has two 75% done manuscripts. I could finish them up myself and send them out as single author papers. But, I will hold off and have a trainee work on it…why? Partly because it shows I am training people by way of publication. Partly because I have a shit ton of other stuff to do.

  29. 29
    antipodean

    What if you’re a post-doc with 20 plus publications many in impact 4-7 journals and more than half first authored?

    Any chance?

  30. 30
    justescaped

    Thank you for this timely bring-u-upper of advice…

    -Rookie postdoc

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