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Getting Started in Academia

Career Paths
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If you’ve already earned a graduate degree and find you don’t want to leave the school environment, a career in academia may be the choice for you. However, the career path can be difficult, as there are a series of positions to work through to become a tenured professor. There are also a number of non-tenured options available.

Choices of Jobs in Academia: There are several career choices to aim for in academia:

  • Tenured professor, in which you teach and have your own laboratory.
  • Grant-supplied Principal Investigator, which involves no teaching. You have a lab that you run.
  • Professor at a Primarily Undergraduate Institution (PUI), where teaching is prominent.
  • Adjunct Professor, which is most often a teaching position.
  • Lecturer, which can give you teaching experience prior to becoming a professor.
  • Postdoctoral Fellow, in which, after your PhD, you work in someone else’s lab.

Think about what aspect of an academic career you like. Many people enjoy teaching, while others only want to have their own lab, applying for public or private money to do research. The research you do can be your own and isn’t confined to the commercial goals of a pharmaceutical company.
Those most interested in a career in academia know and accept that their remuneration won’t be as high as in the corporate world. They must like travelling to conferences at least a few times a year. You’ll need strong bench skills if you plan to publish repetitively. As a teacher, you need to have excellent communication skills. As a researcher, you need to be fairly autonomous.

Choosing an academic career can be freeing, but it also means finding your way through a job market that can be inflexible and competitive. You may receive a temporary job contract, like an adjunct job, that doesn’t guarantee you a job past one year. Academia tends to be stepwise that way, with jobs that become stepping stones to the job you really want. And, at each step, there will be competition.

The path to becoming a tenured professor is highly competitive. First, you will need to become a Postdoctoral Fellow. In this position, you’ll publish through a Principal Investigator’s lab. Then, you apply to be an Assistant Professor and get your own lab. It’s time to prove your worth through publications and teaching. Success here can earn you a tenured position as an Associate Professor. You’re on the tenure track, but you still need to work hard publishing and teaching—at least another 5 years. Make sure your relationships with other Professors in the university, and especially your Department, are good. After that, you have a chance to be a full professor, completely tenured.

Consider the alternatives to being a tenured professor. You could plan to be a Professor at a Primarily Undergraduate Institution, a Principal Investigator, or a Lecturer. A Professor at a PUI follows the same Professorship track as the large research institutions (Asst. Prof, Assoc. Prof, Full Prof.), but there’s much more focus on teaching and most of the help in your lab will be undergraduates.

To be a Principal Investigator, you need to find grant funded research and become a Research Assistant Professor following your Postdoc. From there, the track is the same as the tenure track. After about six years of experience, you become a Research Associate Professor. After that, the next step is to Research Professor. You must prove your excellence both in your bench work and in procuring grants. The Lecturer track goes from Lecturer to Senior Lecturer. After about ten years in this position, you may be given the title of “Master Lecturer.”

What you need for landing a tenured position in academia are (in order):

  • Bench Research
  • Record of publication
  • Teaching experience
  • Networking
  • Personal contacts

Because academia is so competitive, find an advisor who works with PhD researchers to guide you through the stages of your process. Talk to your mentor about his or her experiences getting into academia. Think about how you can improve your Curriculum Vitae with teaching experiences, publications, committee membership and experiences in administration.

Networking doesn’t have to be painful. You don’t have to be super-outgoing and extroverted. Just share your experience with others, and let them share with you. Keep in touch with those people you meet at conferences or committees.

Think about your flexibility. Will you be able to move to another university? Can you tolerate the working hours, which may involve nights and weekends? Will your personal life be affected by your career choice? Is the research/teaching balance what you want it to be? Is the subject of your research exactly what you want it to be? Is the institution setting ideal? These are dimensions to consider in a job choice.

You need to develop resilience, patience and confidence as you go on the journey toward being a tenured professor or even to work as a postdoc in a laboratory at a major university. It takes tenacity just to get through the PhD, and it takes the same tenacity to go beyond that.

Christine Traxler, MD practiced medicine for fifteen years in rural Minnesota before turning her love of writing into a career. As a medical writer, she has worked on projects designed to make medicine simplified for the popular audience. She has two daughters and resides in Minneapolis.
Copyright Christine Traxler, MD
Published with permission

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