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The Chicago Guide to Landing a Job in Academic Biology

The Chicago Guide to Landing a Job in Academic Biology

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by C. Ray Chandler

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The Chicago Guide to Landing a Job in Academic Biology is an indispensable guide for graduate students and post-docs as they enter that domain red in tooth and claw: the job market.
An academic career in the biological sciences typically demands well over a decade of technical training. So it’s ironic that when a scholar reaches the most critical


The Chicago Guide to Landing a Job in Academic Biology is an indispensable guide for graduate students and post-docs as they enter that domain red in tooth and claw: the job market.
An academic career in the biological sciences typically demands well over a decade of technical training. So it’s ironic that when a scholar reaches the most critical stage in that career—the search for a job following graduate work—he or she receives little or no formal preparation. Instead, students are thrown into the job market with only cursory guidance on how to search for and land a position.
Now there’s help. Carefully, clearly, and with a welcome sense of humor, The Chicago Guide to Landing a Job in Academic Biology leads graduate students and postdoctoral fellows through the perils and rewards of their first job search. The authors—who collectively have for decades mentored students and served on hiring committees—have honed their advice in workshops at biology meetings across the country. The resulting guide covers everything from how to pack an overnight bag without wrinkling a suit to selecting the right job to apply for in the first place. The authors have taken care to make their advice useful to all areas of academic biology—from cell biology and molecular genetics to evolution and ecology—and they give tips  on how applicants can tailor their approaches to different institutions from major research universities to small private colleges.
With jobs in the sciences ever more difficult to come by, The Chicago Guide to Landing a Job in Academic Biology is designed to help students and post-docs navigate the tricky terrain of an academic job search—from the first year of a graduate program to the final negotiations of a job offer.

Editorial Reviews

The Chicago Guide to Landing a Job in Academic Biology is a nuts-and-bolts book, full of practical advice such as how to construct an application that won’t be thrown out, how to give a seminar, and how to complete the interview process successfully. . . . The advice is sensible, being based on years of reading flawed job applications and watching candidates make fatal errors.”

— Pamela A. Silver

ARBA Online
"A concise road map for anyone seeking a college or university job in the biological sciences. Written in an approachable, conversational tone, [the book ranges] . . . from job searching, the application and interview process, and negotiating an offer. . . . There is always a need for practical, discipline-specific career and job-hunting guides and this source meets those needs."—American Reference Books Annual Online
Nature - Pamela A. Silver
The Chicago Guide to Landing a Job in AcademicBiology is a nuts-and-bolts book, full of practical advice such as how to construct an application that won’t be thrown out, how to give a seminar, and how to complete the interview process successfully. . . . The advice is sensible, being based on years of reading flawed job applications and watching candidates make fatal errors.”

Product Details

University of Chicago Press
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Chicago Guides to Academic Life
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By C. Ray Chandler Lorne M. Wolfe Daniel E. L. Promislow
The University of Chicago Press Copyright © 2007 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-10130-9

Chapter One The Academic Job Market

Doug and Holly work in the Department of Biology at a medium- sized public university in the Midwest.

Holly thrives in her department. In large lecture classes, her students are wowed by her energy and creativity. In her seminar classes, students feel like they are not just learning what scientists think, but how to think like scientists. Holly loves the process of scientific discovery and has made a point of including undergraduates in just about every research project in her lab. She loves working with the students and has been so productive that she was recently named editor of a major journal in her field. She also runs the master's program and has managed to recruit some excellent graduate students. Despite her busy life as teacher, researcher, administrator, and editor, Holly also manages to find time to relax with her family and play the accordion in a polka band! She has the perfect job (even if her taste in music leaves something to be desired).

Doug wasn't sure about taking an academic job at a school without a Ph.D. program but liked the idea of living close to where he grew up. And without any ideas for alternative careers, he decided to give it a try. Doug joined Holly's department three years ago with great promise, having spent four years as a postdoc in a very productive biochemistry lab. Doug was amazed by just how different having an academic job was from life as a postdoc, where all he did was research. Doug resents the fact that he has to teach, because it interferes with his research. His students sense this, and some of his courses have failed to attract enough students to justify their existence. Doug resents his department head because of the burden of the service tasks he has been assigned, which he thinks only interfere with his research. Of course, despite working late nights and weekends, he doesn't seem to get much research done, because of the burden of his teaching and service duties. Doug is worried about tenure, and rightly so.

Bruce flew in from Boston to interview for a job in Doug and Holly's department. During breakfast with the graduate students, he surprised them by telling them that he couldn't imagine living in the Midwest. In Bruce's seminar, he managed to combine a disinterested tone with an unfocused talk that gave no indication of his future direction.

Holly's happy, Doug's disgruntled, and Bruce is unemployed.

* * *

This story nicely summarizes one of the major hurdles in the academic life of a biologist: getting an academic job in which you can be a happy and productive professional. What do Holly and Doug have that Bruce doesn't? Why is Doug unhappy in exactly the same job environment in which Holly thrives? The answer is complex because there is no single path in academia. For some, the road is straight and narrow. You might have already decided by elementary school that someday you would be working as an academic biologist-yes, some of us are that geeky. For others, the path is rather more unpredictable, with time spent in the Peace Corps, perhaps, or maybe a few years laying bricks (nothing like real work to drive you into academia). Some find academia enormously satisfying, while others never seem to be quite happy with the academic life. The three of us writing this book have followed our own, quite different paths to a faculty position in academia.

Ultimately all the pieces of the above story, and our own real lives as biologists, intersect at the one experience that all academics share-the job search. The outcome of the search determines whether or not you get a job (Holly vs. Bruce) and whether you wind up in a university that makes you happy or miserable (Holly vs. Doug). Surprisingly, during our graduate training, we give little thought to this phase in our academic careers on which so much depends and that nobody can avoid. Remarkably, biologists who spend ten years laboring over a dissertation or weeks assessing the merits of a single statistical test will exhaust their "training" in job-search skills in a single ten-minute chat with their advisor. This casual approach is inadequate because the process of searching for and obtaining an academic job at a modern university is challenging and complex. Furthermore, the amount of time and money invested in academic training is staggering; much is at stake.

If you have picked up this book, you have probably been in school for at least fifteen years, and maybe even distressingly close to twenty-five or thirty years. Pursuit of an academic career in the biological sciences requires more training than your average surgeon or NASA astronaut. So it is ironic that one of the most critical stages in this career-namely, following graduate or postdoctoral work with a successful job search and interview-is one for which graduate students and postdocs receive little or no formal training. All too often, after years of detailed course work, research training, and firsthand research experience, students are launched into the job market with only cursory guidance on how to search and interview successfully for a job consistent with their goals and abilities. The most common wisdom seems to be "publish a lot and ask about start-up." Sound advice, but hardly enough to cover the vagaries of searching for a position in a complex academic job market. And it is a complex market-far more complex than the simple "big school" versus "small school" dichotomy that most applicants use to characterize their job prospects.

It is our belief, based on our own-eventually successful-job searches and on our experience on search committees in recent years that most candidates for academic positions would benefit from specific guidance concerning (1) appropriate professional development during graduate training, (2) the search for an appropriate job opening, (3) the mechanics of applying for an academic job, and (4) the strategies for a successful interview. Although any successful search is predicated on a strong résumé (publications, good teaching experience), there are so many good competitors in today's job market that skills associated with the search, application, and interview process can make the difference between a job offer and a rejection letter. Thus, the purpose of this book is to provide formal guidance in developing these skills. This book will help you navigate the tricky terrain of an academic job in the sciences, from the first steps upon entering a graduate program, to the final start-up negotiations when you get that long- awaited job offer, and each step in between. We cannot guarantee you a job by the time you finish the last chapter of this book, but at least you will avoid the oft- repeated mistakes that we see in our role as search committee members.

Ivory Tower or Well-Guarded Fortress?

Like an academic campfire story designed to scare graduate students, every graduate program has lore about the mysterious postdoc in the lab down the hall who has been searching for a job since the Reagan administration. Thus, landing an academic position sometimes seems about as probable as winning the Powerball Lottery. And just like the real Powerball, there are a lot of other hungry graduate students and postdocs waiting in line to buy tickets. How many? Currently in the United States, there are almost half a million graduate students, 30,000 postdoctoral researchers, and 170,000 faculty in science and engineering (National Science Foundation). About 50,000 new graduate students enroll in Ph.D. programs every year. All of these graduate students looking for academic jobs may sound daunting. But in fact, this is a perfect time to be preparing for an academic job in the sciences. Over the course of just one month at the height of the autumn job-hunting season, several hundred faculty positions in the biological sciences are advertised in the pages of Science and Nature. For those interested in positions with a greater emphasis on teaching, we found many hundreds of jobs in biology in a single fall issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education. Of course, within narrower fields, there will be fewer jobs, but there will also be fewer competitors.

It turns out that for demographic reasons alone, the first decades of the twenty-first century are a great time to be looking for a job. As baby boomers reach their fifties and sixties, retirement rates among academic scientists have been increasing (Smaglik 2001). And as the children of those baby boomers hit college age, college enrollment is on the rise, leading to the need for more faculty. According to statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics at the U.S. Department of Labor, we can expect continued growth in the number of new faculty positions for several years. Of course, although we often think of academia as an ivory tower, we are not sheltered from the winds of economic change, and change they will. We do not claim to be long-term economic forecasters, but the academic job market does look pretty good if you are thinking about applying for an academic job some time in the next few years.

So why are so many people spending decades training for a job in academia? Are we really having that much fun in here? It would not seem so at face value. There are easier jobs. There are jobs with shorter workweeks. There are jobs that pay more. Nevertheless, we have chosen the academic side of science, and we are shameless boosters.

Before we discuss the costs and benefits of an academic job, let's look at the academic landscape more closely. A newly minted Ph.D. or postdoc will look out onto an academic landscape composed of a remarkable variety of colleges and universities. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching classifies these schools based on the types of degrees awarded and the range of programs (table 1.1). Of most interest to those seeking an academic job in biology-and following the breakdown used by U.S. News in their annual rankings of colleges and universities-there are doctoral universities (approximately 260 in the United States), master's colleges and universities (approximately 617), liberal arts colleges (approximately 212), and comprehensive bachelor's colleges (approximately 358). Thus, universities granting appreciable numbers of doctoral degrees like the institution where you trained as a Ph.D. student represent less than 20 percent of the schools to which you might apply for a job. (We are ignoring in our calculations associate's colleges, specialized institutions, and tribal colleges.) The take-home message is that much of the job market lies outside the type of university where most graduate and postdoctoral training happens.

The Carnegie classification from doctoral to bachelor's roughly defines a continuum of jobs, ranging from those that emphasize research, publications, graduate training, and external grant funding to those that emphasize undergraduate teaching, perhaps with a focus on research as a teaching tool for the undergraduate classroom. If you take a job at a major doctoral institution, you can expect a light teaching load (often one course per semester or year, depending on your level of grant support). However, you will be expected to secure major external funding on a regular basis that is sufficient to fund your research and support students. You must publish several papers a year in good journals. The pressure to publish and obtain grant funding can be intense. At a bachelor's or liberal arts institution, there will be much greater emphasis on undergraduate teaching. At the extreme you might teach twelve contact hours per semester and be responsible for three different courses. You will be expected to interact regularly with undergraduates. Grants and research will usually be evaluated in light of teaching or undergraduate involvement, and there will be less pressure to obtain external grants or to publish. However, the pressure of juggling diverse teaching demands and many students can be intense. In the vast middle, you can find institutions with job descriptions that fall almost anywhere between these extremes.

Regardless of the institution, most academic biologists will be seeking a tenure-track assistant professor position. These are probationary positions that offer the chance for tenure after five to seven years. As an assistant professor, you will be responsible for the full range of academic responsibility: teaching, research, and service. However, there are other routes to permanent jobs inside the ivory tower. For those whose interest lies almost exclusively with teaching, many universities hire instructors and laboratory coordinators whose sole responsibility is to teach (often large introductory courses) or to coordinate introductory labs. These can be excellent jobs, with considerable opportunity to direct introductory programs, design curricula, and create laboratory experiences. At the other extreme are research associate positions in which the only responsibility is research. Although these jobs may technically be permanent, they are typically funded by soft (i.e., grant) money. In some cases, this money comes through the university, department, or research institute. In other cases, a research associate simply has a mailing address and a hunting license to obtain his or her own grant funding (including salary).

The most common route into academia is a position as a college professor, and this is the job search that we largely have in mind in writing this book. Of the many career paths one can follow, a faculty position stands out for the intellectual challenges and diverse rewards it can provide. Of course, the job comes with significant sources of stress and frustration as well ("The dean put me on the Faculty Roles and Rewards Committee?"). We list our assessment of the costs and benefits of the academic life in box 1.1. For us and apparently for thousands of others as well, the benefits far outweigh the costs. Part of what makes this job so exciting is the many different aspects of life as a scientist. As an academic scientist, you will become not only researcher and teacher, but also writer, editor, counselor, advisor, administrator, manager, and more. But unlike in industry, where one's chances to affect change may be fairly limited, academia offers faculty members the chance to play a central role in the life of the institution and those who are a part of it, from students to administrators. It is a job worth searching for.

Finding a Job in Ten Easy Steps

Chances are if you are reading this book, you have already decided to seek an academic job or are already on the job market. A number of important considerations go into this decision, but we will talk more about this later. For now, suffice it to say that we can help with your search. Our perspective on the academic job search is shaped by our own graduate training at various- sized institutions and by over thirty years of cumulative postgraduate academic experience. We have also been influenced strongly by our participation in many tenure-track job searches over the past decade. During these searches, we have been surprised by the tremendous variation in the quality of the presentation of applications, the remarkably poor performance of some candidates during phases of the interview that they should have been able to anticipate and prepare for, and the rather superficial level at which many candidates have considered their academic career options and goals. Our inescapable conclusion is that many good job candidates are handicapping their success on the job market because of correctable mistakes in career planning, preparation of applications, and interview technique.

Other books have provided advice for carrying out a successful job search in academia (e.g., Goldsmith et al. 2001); in some ways we echo these excellent recommendations. However, our discussion takes a more integrated view of the job- search process. We explicitly link events from selection of a graduate program to interviewing as components of a single unified process. This process is characterized by the need to consider the range of career options in academia and which of those options is most consistent with your skills and aspirations. We also offer uniquely practical advice for the academic job search over the course of the next ten chapters; we will explain that there are simple steps you can follow to avoid blunders and permit your strengths to shine. Here is a quick overview of where we are headed.


Excerpted from THE CHICAGO GUIDE TO LANDING A JOB IN ACADEMIC BIOLOGY by C. Ray Chandler Lorne M. Wolfe Daniel E. L. Promislow Copyright © 2007 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

C. Ray Chandler is professor of biology at Georgia Southern University. Lorne M. Wolfe is professor of biology at Georgia Southern University.  Daniel E. L. Promislow is professor of genetics at the University of Georgia. 

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