The recipe for landing a tenure track job

Nov 29 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

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.

23 responses so far

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Brilliant analysis/metaphor. Spot on target.

  • Namnezia says:

    I think that it's hard to predict which metric is the best indicator for landing a TT job, but in many cases some index of productivity IS a good indicator whether someone will be able to keep said job.

  • Arseny says:

    Dear DrBecca,
    thank you for the link! One small comment: you say "he does not show for each person what their CIF was when they actually got their TT offer". In fact that's exactly what I tried to estimate. I only show publications that my sample scientists got in their undergrad / grad school / postdoc positions (as well as I can guess it). So the last point of each line = CIF shown on their CVs by the time they were hired (if they were).

  • r says:

    dr. becca, thank you. I am in this position right now (post-doc applying for TT) and I especially found your last paragraph quite supportive. thank you.

  • chall says:

    ahh... another reason to prove to myself that I choose the 'right thing' when I stopped looking for TT and moved to industry. I'm not a baker. I'm a good enough cook though, especially what we call "what's in the fridge+freezer+cabinets-whip up cook to make a meal" 🙂

    My cumulative IF would be an indicator that I don't have high enough journal IF for the amount of papers... or more papers I guess? Although, my grad-field isn't having high impact journals but maybe that's just more indication that it might not have been the best starting area for a TT future? ^^ planning incentives I mean. In the meantime, I'll be happy leaving baking to others.

    • Dr Becca says:

      No chall, you have it backwards! The whole point is that it's NOT baking--i.e., there's no one right recipe. I'm a shitty baker, as my pie crust this Thanksgiving proved. I am, however, a decent cook.

      • chall says:

        ahh.. bummer. I thought I had the ultimate excuse for saying "this is why I'm not on TT" 😉

        We used the baking/cooking analogy at work earlier this year when I said that GMP regulated work (as we do) is like baking; "follow the SOP EXACTLY", which is why I LOVE cooking when I get home ("a little dash of this, a sprinkle of that and a touch of taste") the free spirited former academic I am. Might not have been the smartest thing* I've said at work if you consider my big boss' face ^^

        *fear not, it didn't affect my position, they said there was a promotion in sight anyways 😉

  • bashir says:

    all I can think of is Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible X screaming "GIVE ME THE PROTOCOL!!"

    One thing I did was just to look at who was getting the jobs I was applying for last year. There's no real formula other than there seemed to be a minimum number of 1rst author pubs. Other than that it's the mystical fit variable.

    • DrugMonkey says:

      And that number was what, Bashir?

      • bashir says:

        In my area, 4 first authors pubs seemed minimum. Didn't see anyone with less than that. Many had a few more. Mind you, just as the postdoc requirement is creeping I'm sure the N on that will only go up.

        • Namnezia says:

          So I looked at the number of pubs of the candidates who got offers in our latest rounds of Neuroscience searches, including molecular and computational neuroscience, the number of total pubs (including from PhD work) by candidate are:

          First Author (Middle Author)


          So as you can see, this varied widely. They all did have at least one, usually more, "high impact" pubs as postdocs.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    One thing I noticed, serving on a number of search committees, is that the number of applicants for a particular position ranged from three to over 300 depending on the nature of the position. Is it better to be one of the three or one of the 300?

  • [...] tenure and the real reasons*** are being papered over with quantification of metrics. Postdoctoral bakers agonizing over meeting the metrics instead of working on what really matters, "fit" and [...]

  • Virgil says:

    So I'm guessing (and only guessing) that a large part of the soul-searching/head scratching here among current post-doc's reading this post, is centered around how this "requirement" for a high cumulative IF has increased in recent years. I think (at least in my field) it's always been there. I was told as a 2nd yr. post-doc' with 4 papers in shitty journals, in hard terms... "Get 20+ papers, including reviews and middle authorships, in the next couple of years, if you want to be competitive at study section". This was in 2002. I'm really not that surprised the bar has stayed the same, even raised a bit, in the current funding climate. It certainly turns me off as a reviewer when I see a newly minted faculty with 6 papers, one in NCS, no reviews, expecting to eat at the table. It would be odd, don't you think, if we were to tell post-doc's "just get 1 NCS paper and you're all set, grant & TT position guaranteed". That would be cause for concern.

    Cutting thru' the anecdotes, my take on the past half dozen posts both here and over at DrugMonkey, is that there are two fundamentally different ways to quantify "academic performance". One is the old qualitative way, and it led to a whole bunch of unfairness due to phenomena such as the old boys network, blah blah. The newer one is the "metrics" system, and as scientists we're predisposed to trust something numbers-based. But hey, let's not pretend the metric system is any less subject to abuse by people who want to get ahead.

    • SM says:

      Part of the problem is that the metrics required to get a TT position vary by field. In my field, 1-2 papers in a society level journal per year is very good. But, there are criteria that do stay constant (I learned a lot of this from the NIGMS postdoc transitioning conference a few years ago and I encourage anyone on the market to look up the amazing videos on their website. There are also several good books on the subject. Academic Scientists at Work is a good one.)

      What you need to be competitive (i.m.o.):

      -First author pubs, a "reasonable" number of which are from your postdoctoral work and represent the area of research you will pursue as TT. As one PI put it to me, "We need to know you have a direction."

      -An interesting and fundable line of research. Interesting is subjective, I know. Fundable is less subjective--your research must fall under the objectives of a major gov't funding agency and you should know which one!

      -A plan for how YOU will make a difference in your field in the next 5 years, including 2-3 projects that you will bring up for R01/R21 submission. This plan MUST NOT significantly compete with your mentor's work and your mentor should state this in their letter.

      -References that know your potential to be independent and will say so. The more successful the person is within your field, the better. These should be people who are familiar with your postdoctoral work. If you don't have these I STRONGLY suggest you find someone who has been SUCCESSFUL and ask them to fill a mentoring role. If you meet with them every few months, they will be able to attest to your strengths and tell you what areas of your CV you should focus the most on to be competitive.

      -A strong application package that many successful PIs have looked over. Let others read your CV, research statement, teaching statements, etc and take their feedback! Same goes for your seminar when you get the interview.

      -About the CV: it should show that you want to be "the (wo)man" in your field. Try to give as many oral presentations as possible, go for conference travel awards, apply for the small and large postdoctoral grants available to you, mentor others in the lab

      -Funding or a funding history of some sort is always a plus. NIH/NSF is best, but don't overlook foundation funding. As for the NIH, K awards at different ICs are quite different and have very different criteria. Some are much easier to obtain than others. Look up the K award success rates (T204 2011 Career Development xls)

      This strategy worked for me. I didn't have any high profile/CNS papers, but I did have some funding. I got many interviews at very good R1 institutions and multiple job offers. The biggest piece of advice is to begin your postdoc with the end in mind. If you want an academic position, talk to people and figure out what it takes to get there in your field.

      • Spiny Norman says:

        We have a winner.

        That's just right.

        And this: "It certainly turns me off as a reviewer when I see a newly minted faculty with 6 papers, one in NCS, no reviews, expecting to eat at the table."

        Well, that, right there, is absolutely everything wrong with science in 2015.


  • [...] Becca explains that finding a tenure-track job is more like cooking than baking: Tell us the exact ingredients, and we’ll do them, we swear, as long as a well-funded [...]

  • Dave says:

    It certainly turns me off as a reviewer when I see a newly minted faculty with 6 papers, one in NCS, no reviews, expecting to eat at the table. It would be odd, don't you think, if we were to tell post-doc's "just get 1 NCS paper and you're all set, grant & TT position guaranteed". That would be cause for concern.

    Errrr, well then be concerned because that is exactly what is happening. Just go and look at the article which this post is based on.

  • […] But baking is still a useful skill, right? Why landing a tenure-track job isn’t like baking. […]

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