So there's cooking and there's baking, right? You've heard the metaphor a million times. Baking requires sticking relatively rigorously to the recipe, lest your cake turn out dry or your (hypothetically speaking) pie crust comes out tough and chewy. Cooking, on the other hand, lends itself to a little more...personal flair. Leave an ingredient out, add a couple in, and NBD, right? Your dish still tastes awesome, and your dinner guests think you're a culinary genius.
Is finding a tenure track job cooking or baking? I think we all know deep down that it's cooking, but we WANT it to be baking, don't we? We are, after all, scientists. Give us the protocol! Tell us the exact ingredients, and we'll do them, we swear, as long as a well-funded position at an R1 with minimal teaching load comes out of the oven when the timer goes off.
I've noticed a lot of conversations in the 'sphere lately about what is "needed" in order to land a job. I can't be bothered to look them all up, but just go read all the comment threads over at Drug Monkey. Today, Arseny Khakhalin did a neat little analysis of the "cumulative impact factor" (literally adding the IFs of all 1st author pubs, plus a little extra for non 1st authors and reviews) of his friends, and divided them up based on their TT job situation. Putting aside the issue of whether his criteria for judging a uni as "really cool" vs. "quite decent" vs. "terrible offers at some weird places" are in any way scientifically legitimate (let's face it, we all have our biases), his findings were inarguably fascinating/terrifying. Those in the first two categories had cumulative IFs of at least 60, within ~8 years of getting their PhD
(he does not show for each person what their CIF was when they actually got their TT offer).
So we can now add "cumulative IF of 60+" to the growing list of must-have ingredients in your quest to bake yourself into the perfect TT candidate. Others include:
-at least one first author paper in Cell/Nature/Science
-working 80 hrs/week
-Ph.D. from a top 20 institution
-post-doc with incredibly famous person
Am I missing anything? For the record, my cumulative IF is hovering somewhere around 40.
As you may remember, this past September I traveled to our country's Bethesd-er regions to sit on a panel of faculty-type people, in front of several dozen post-docs with many burning questions. The most common, though, was: How do I know if I'm a competitive candidate for a tenure-track job? It was clear that they were looking for some sort of validation--that we'd tick off a list of must-haves, and they'd be able to say to themselves, OK, got it, got it, need it, got it.
And I think that that's why we have all these conversations here, as well. If there were just some tangible way to know exactly what it takes in order to guarantee success in this biz, we'd all at least stop feeling like we're standing blindfolded on the edge of a cliff. Or like we're cooking with a bunch of unmarked canisters. Or some other relevant metaphor. More to the point, I also think that it may help us subconsciously justify the glaringly high number of people who would like TT jobs but just don't get them. Well, they didn't have any glamour pubs/external funding/anyone famous write letters for them/took a vacation, so. And that may make us feel just a tiny bit better.
Look, you guys. I wish I had better answers for you. I wish getting a job were baking, but it's just not. It's cooking. But if you know anything about cooking (or have watched Chopped ever), you know that things that look like they're turning into disasters can be salvaged, sometimes to an even more elevated place than they were originally headed. So stay aware of where you are, talk to people, and be passionate about what you want to do. Try to keep perspective, and good luck.