“Climbing the Ivory Tower” panel discussion gave tips for success

If your dream job is in academia, Monday’s (3/13) panel discussion on “Climbing the Ivory Tower: transitioning from PhD to post-doc and beyond” was a lively discussion filled with useful advice for how to stick the academic career track. We also got to hear interesting personal anecdotes from early career faculty Nita Bharti, Moriah Szpara, and Margarita Lopez-Uribe, and ask questions about the life academic.

The panel discussion was structured with 45 minutes of structured questions followed by 15 minutes of open questions from audience members. 37 students and post-docs attended from a wide variety of backgrounds and departments (biology, entomology, BMB, ecology and even engineering).

Structured questions focused on skill-sets that are useful for a career in academia, how to build a CV, the application process for post-doc vs faculty positions, timing and preparing for interviews, reasons for staying in academia, and how to balance work and life outside of work.

Here were some take-home points:

  1. There is no magic number. Publications are important. Publish. But don’t worry about having a certain number before applying for a post-doc or faculty position. Often it is better early in your career to publish more, even if that means having smaller papers in lower impact journals, but early career faculty do need to also think about “impact.” Never bank on getting a paper in a high impact journal, often good papers get rejected. Focus instead on doing “good science” and having a record of high quality data and writing, you can still get a good academic job without the “Science” or “Nature” paper.
  2. Networking is the key to landing a job in academia. Connections to other researchers turn into job opportunities, sharing resources (reagents, people, ideas) and eventually, people you can ask for tenure letters.
  3. Start early. Margarita said she started writing her teaching statement and building her CV for the jobs she would want later as a graduate student. She got her first faculty job after only one 2-yr post-doc and early preparation helped.
  4. Beef-up your CV for the jobs you want. According to Moriah, applying for jobs that aren’t a perfect fit (e.g. topic not ideal, location not preferred, more/less teaching than you wanted, less pay, etc.) can be a good strategy for practicing interviews and figuring out what you do want. But you ultimately want to start the job hunt early (within a year of graduating a PhD) and start shaping your CV to match the criteria listed in job posts for the jobs you do want.
  5. Use your network. Have other grad students and post-docs give feedback on practice job-talks or your CV. Look out for future CGSA workshops or other resources at Penn State that might help as you prepare for post-doc and faculty position hunting. Send out an email on the CGSA listserv if you want feedback on a job practice talk. We are here for you.
  6. Remember to interview “them.” When you interview for a job, it is not about whether they want you, but also about whether you want to work for them. Suss out the community in terms of how they receive your unique traits. Is the work environment family-friendly? Open minded with regard to race and gender? Are the people happy? Moriah mentioned being proud of her kids and family and using that as an asset rather than something to hide from the interview committee.
  7. Find your own funding. Having a proven track-record of getting grants will stand out during the interview process. Publications are good, but publications and money are even better. Nita found a fellowship that gave her 5 years of independent funding before starting as a faculty member. Having your own money gives you more freedom to pursue the projects you want and do what you love.
  8. Use Google. Sometimes your personal network isn’t enough. Google funding opportunities and job listings as another way to win an obscure grant that most people haven’t heard of or find the dream job that your network didn’t know was available.

Thanks Nita, Moriah and Margarita for their tips for success! Look out for future CGSA workshops and events that focus on some of the skillsets and CV writing skills mentioned today to put their advice into practice.


Panelists (L to R) Nita Bharti, Moriah Szpara and Margarita Lopez-Uribe with moderator, Jo Ohm.

About johannaohm

Jo Ohm is a trail runner and scientist based in the San Francisco Bay Area.
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2 Responses to “Climbing the Ivory Tower” panel discussion gave tips for success

  1. Good advice – great post! It would be great to pick the young faculty’s brains about the places where you can get your own independent funding. Will be great to put that into a spreadsheet.

  2. Pingback: New semester at CIDD: a guide for incoming students | Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics Graduate Student Association

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