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Becoming an Assistant Professor: Interviewing and Negotiations

Posted By Connections Editor, Thursday, June 16, 2016


Becoming an Assistant Professor: Interviewing and Negotiations

Heather O’Leary, Stephen Sykes, Daniel Lucas, and Michael Milsom

The transition from postdoctoral fellow to faculty member is an exciting time allowing for the establishment of your own laboratory and scientific niche. However, this evolution is preceded by the application, interview, and negotiation processes which can be challenging to navigate. To gain insight into this process, members of the New Investigator Committee (NIC) and I have contacted a panel of investigators who have either recently obtained faculty positions or sit on faculty search committees in order to determine their views on the “make or break points” of a faculty interview and start-up negotiation.

What are the best ways (do's and don'ts) to approach negotiating a contract including startup funds? 

Unanimously, the suggestions converged on how essential it is to be well prepared. For negotiating a startup, this involves understanding what reagents, resources, cores, animals, and equipment are your “must have” items to assure success versus additional items that are helpful, but not essential, for your research. A good starting point is to discuss with new faculty members at your own institution what they asked for to set up their own group. Also examine how much money did you spend per year as a postdoc (salary + core facilities + reagents) to use as a basis to estimate how many projects/people you will be able to support with a given amount of money and to Further, negotiating for specific items or discounts at core facilities instead of money may be beneficial, and clarification of specifics such as payment for major equipment, limitations or contingencies on start-up funds (such as amount, duration of funding, if it remains if you obtain funding, restrictions on funds, etc.) are critical. Ideally, negotiations should be very limited prior to a second visit. Finally, it is important to make sure that everything that is negotiated for is written in the offer letter and that your salary, funding expectations, length of support from department, teaching/service/clinical duties and protected research time are plainly spelled out. It is important to highlight how the money, time, reagents, and resources are important for your research plan.

What were the most valuable things you learned during the interview process?

Many of the faculty that we interviewed said that the most important things that they learned on their interviews were: 1) during your seminar and chalk talk, present a clear picture of your future plans and tailor your presentation to you audience
2) Make sure that all the aims in your proposed project are related but independent and that your experiments are mechanistic, not descriptive..
3) Indicate how your specific aims are based on your own expertise and show how your projects and expertise are a good fit for the program to which you are applying.
4) Although the format of the chalk talk can be variable, it is beneficial to practice a “mock chalk talk” with faculty from your own institution prior to your interview.

The chalk talk provides an opportunity to demonstrate how well you can communicate your science, elaborate on the novelty of your project, highlight how your expertise is an asset to the program and provide the search committee with an idea of what faculty in the department you would learn from and collaborate with. Even if you are not offered the position, a good attitude, and interview, provide you the opportunity to build your network, make new contacts and establish new collaborations.

What CV tips do you have for enhancing a candidates' chance of getting an interview?

Although your CV “is what it is”, to some extent, there are things you can do to enhance the document’s clarity and highlight your achievements. Make sure that it is formatted according to the institution’s requests and proofread for spelling and grammatical errors. Bolding your name to emphasize your author position such as co-first, co-corresponding, or corresponding author can help to ensure that avoid these details are not missed. It is best to make your CV as concise as possible since long documents may dilute out important achievements rather than underscoring them. In addition to publications and funding, highlight honors, awards, and leadership positions may help make you distinguish yourself from other candidates.

What do you look for the most when a candidate is interviewing or what would make you not want to hire a candidate who had a very competitive CV?

The faculty responses clearly showed that it is important to sell yourself as someone who will be a good colleague and collaborator and who has a research program that fits well within the department. You should be prepared to give a clearly conveyed, enthusiastic seminar and be willing to acknowledge the strengths and caveats of your proposed research. Further, the talk should be all encompassing, as far as previous work, and specifically delineate how your program/scientific vision is separate from your postdoctoral mentor(s) and highlight the unique skill set you have to ensure the project can be carried out. Finally, be sure to underscore the high profile nature and funding potential of your research program.

Aspects that will significantly diminish a search committee’s enthusiasm, even a candidates with a very strong CV is being unrealistic about what can be achieved in the start-up period as well as having a weak/unfocused research plan. During informal meetings with faculty it is good if asked questions, to more thoroughly explain your past, present and future work, however, it is critical to show interest in their work including aspects for potential collaboration. Finally, it is critical to remember that at all times you are being evaluated and a candidate that appears arrogant or disparaging of others will not be viewed positively even if they have considerable scientific merit.

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