Not Just Returning From Industry But Changing Careers

Returning to academia after years in industry is hard. People have already disclosed how difficult it is. “It was a shock,” says molecular endocrinologist Steven Kliewer to Nature when recalling the move from industry to academic research. Assistant professor Jeannie Holstein says in The Guardian that she “won’t pretend it has been easy because it hasn’t” to pursue a PhD after an MBA. Those people, however, are commenting on returning to academia from jobs in related fields. What do you do if you’re making a complete career change?

In my case, I am moving from fashion to neuroscience, with very little to bridge the two fields. This transition between related fields is not easy. The transition between disparate fields is harder. But luckily, as one commenter in an Ask Metafliter query said, “a couple-year absence from [your chosen] field would be a hurdle, but not a deal-breaker”.

So how do you break into academia? What do you do? I’m in the middle of the transition, having been accepted into a graduate program but still looking for a job in my field, so I have a few tips to share about getting started.

  1. Decide whether graduate school is right for you.
    This seems like an obvious step, but if you’re coming from a completely different field, you may not know what academia looks like in practice. Do your research. Set up informational interviews. Use resources on the Internet, such as the previously mentioned Ask Metafilter thread, Facebook, or Twitter. Ask if you can sit in on a class. Show your commitment.
  2. Connect your current work experience to your future academic field.
    Even if the two fields are completely different, such as fashion and neuroscience, you can bridge the two with volunteer or internship experience. Take classes about your subject of interest, or ask if you audit or sit in on them. Use distance learning options if you can. It’s important to show the transition. Stay focused on your field.
  3. Network, network, network.
    Remember those people you contacted for informational interviews? Maintain those relationships. Ask if they would be willing to be a resource for you. Follow up with updates about your progress. Similarly, you can make connections through the work you did to bridge your experience. Whether it’s through your volunteer work, internship, or class, you will meet people in your field who are willing to help. Don’t be afraid to ask to keep in contact, and then don’t be afraid to catch up.
  4. Use your alma mater.
    Many people forget that their alma mater has resources, such as almuni/ae directory, career services, and employment listings. You already have access to many people and opportunities. Don’t forget to use them!

Beginning your career change is daunting. You will be learning about an entirely new field and an entirely different subject matter. But breaking into academia is not impossible. Be sure to stay focused on your path and interests for your efforts to bear fruit.

Guest Post: How to improve the job search process, from the perspective of a candidate

Today’s post is by Dr. Belle, a fourth-year postdoc

Job openings are both a blessing and a curse. They can infuse both search committees and applicants with a sense of hope for the opportunities to come, but at the same time the search process is stressful for everyone involved.  Search committees and departments spend their time and energy reading through applications, selecting candidates, and making choices. Are they making the right decisions? Are they selecting the ideal candidate for the job?  But, no matter the stress the current faculty are under, the applicants are under more.  Each of us applicants are applying for dozens of jobs, possibly year after year.  What’s a minor annoyance in one application, such as a system that keeps crashing, or having to ask for yet another letter of recommendation that may never be read, can become a heavy burden when you multiply those annoyances by 10, 20, or 30. The same goes for interviews, both on the phone or in person.

I’ve submitted close to 40 applications over multiple years, and I have seen the worst the application and interview process has to offer.  I’ve also had some really great experiences that have helped me feel more comfortable, that I think would be great if other search committees adopted.  So what can search committees do at each stage of the process to make the search better for future searchers so the emotional toll can be reduced?

  1. Application deadlines – Lots of searches pick a deadline date according to a specific formula, either the first, 15th or last day of the month, without regard for weekends or holidays. As a result, deadlines often fall on a weekend when you know the committee is not going to look at the applications. This means I need to get my application materials in even earlier due to the required contact request going in before the end of the week (see #1 above). Even earlier for a holiday. And don’t get me started on holiday weekend deadlines! The other issue is that you often have 5+ applications due on the same day making it really difficult for your letter writers to keep them all straight and to spread out the work load. It also reminds me of college when all professors picked the same day for midterm exams and you ended up having so many on the same day it was exhausting. It would be nice if the deadlines matched when the committee actually planned to meet. I am able to put a lot more into my applications due on the 9th for example.
  2. Submitting the application – A lot of searches now have online systems for submitting your application, which is helpful, but also can add to the difficulty in several ways. First, letter writers don’t know where their letters need to go and may lose track of these invites from third party sites. Second, the letter deadline and the application deadline are often on the same day, but the invite for submitting letters doesn’t happen until after you submit you completed application. This means you actually need to get your materials in earlier. Third, glitches are more likely – I submitted an application and was never sent a confirmation. Later I realized it never went through and had to submit a late application as a result. Although, it is worth pointing out that inboxes often have limits and that can pose a glitch when a broad posting receives so many applications it fills the inbox. Fourth, it makes updates really hard. It often happens during a job search that you get a paper out or a new award or give a talk. This is easy to email when you have contact information, but quite difficult when you have no one to email or no way to even check your status. I’ve actually had to re-submit my application to do an update for several online applications, which makes me feel very uneasy that my application will then be considered late.
  3. Gathering your references – In a given year, applicants apply for 30-50 jobs depending on how many are advertised and how aggressive they are. This can weigh heavily on your letter writers, especially with emails coming in from all over with different sets of submitting instructions. Recently there has been a trend to ask for contact information only. This is fantastic in that it allows me to only ask for letters for jobs where I am actually a good candidate and I am free to apply for more jobs without weighing the inconvenience on my letter writers. I hope this trend continues and most search committees adopt this practice. This may lead to multiple rounds of cuts which allow the committee to give a fresh look to an applicant that may ultimately be a great fit and vice versa. It also gives you a better idea of how you are progressing through the search. I’ve had positions where my references were requested, but I was not selected for phone/campus interviews. Still, it made me feel better knowing I made at least one round of cuts.
  4. Waiting for the news – As Red said in the Shawshank Redemption, “Hope can be a very dangerous thing”. For this reason, I have been a strong supporter in the past for academic jobs wikis that allow you to check your status for applications since you may never hear from the search committee again, even after interviewing. It is helpful in this regard. But it can also be a huge time sink and the greatest source of emotional drain. You start out your day fresh, you check your email, you may check your website spyware to see if any of the universities you are looking at have paid it a visit, and then with excitement you check the wiki. That is when you find out one of your best chances at an interview have moved on. You start to wonder why you even thought you might get an interview there. What gave you that false confidence in the first place. And there it is – your day is shot dwelling on these negative emotions. Solution? Perhaps search committees could send out news as it comes. This trend has already started as I was contacted early (as compared to last year) by several places to inform me that I was no longer being considered. This definitely beats the email in late June telling you that you are no longer a candidate that you receive at a summer meeting after having drinks with the person who got the offer. This would save you from the ‘curse of the wiki’ since you would have the information you might otherwise seek there. I don’t know if the blow of not moving forward would be any better based on where it came from, but on the wiki, chances are the persons who got the interview are the ones updating the wiki. I’d rather hear from the committee than the person who just got a shot at my dream job over me. I know in several searches, the committee has no control over this for legal reasons, but for those who do, it would be great to know as soon as possible!
  5. The phone/skype interview – I personally like the idea of a phone interview so search committees can pre-screen applicants. I also think that like the reference letter request, it’s another step where you made a cut that others didn’t. For the committee, the phone interview may help search committees avoid all inviting the same group of top candidates in a given year and instead interview someone who otherwise might not have stood out who may be an excellent fit for your department. As for the interview itself, if it is on a regular phone, it is really difficult when there are more than 5 people on the call. It is really hard to get a sense of who your talking to, and in this modern age, there is no reason we can’t do skype interviews. It is also difficult not to be informed ahead of time who will be on the call or who is on the search committee at all. Finally, sometimes, you don’t know ahead of time how long the call will go or if you do, it may run over. If you scheduled it without knowing the end time or assuming it was only 30 minutes, you may not have prepared well enough to end up talking for over an hour.
  6. The on-campus interview – This is the most promising cut you can make, but also the most exhausting step in the process. I have had some terrible experiences during the on campus interview, including a skipped meal because the person picking me up for breakfast didn’t realize he was supposed to take me to breakfast! By the time I got to my seminar I was so faint, I was grateful to have packed my power bars. It is really helpful to have your schedule arranged in advance and make sure everyone is clear on the parts not on your schedule, like who is supposed to take you to-from appointments. On one interview, I had a designated faculty host, who was not on the search committee and there in case I needed anything – this was AWESOME! As for meals, my stomach is very sensitive and being anxious all day and in a strange place can add to this stress. I am really interested in some good comfort food, not something that is going to bring me out of my comfort zone. Finally, if you are going to ask a candidate to make their own travel arrangements, tell them up front any issues with airports and reimburse them in a timely fashion. I’ve had friends out several thousand dollars during job season from travel that was not reimbursed yet.
  7. The talk(s) – It is really good to tell a candidate beforehand who the audience will be. For a department seminar, this is usually pretty straightforward, but for the chalk talk, there is a huge range for the audience and the expectations, and in my experience neither have ever been completely laid out in advance. Perhaps this is part of the process – to see how well you do when not allowed to prepare. It is also really embarrassing and not fair to the candidate if you have a scheduling error that forces a candidate out of the room mid-way through a talk for another group who has the room. And, finally, I understand if you need to record talks or phone interviews, but give advance notice. Showing up or getting on the call only to be told you will be recorded (and honestly, even if they ask our permission, we are not in the position to say no!). If this is standard practice, then you should given standard notice.

This may sound like a lot of complaining about the process, but a really good interview can make the candidate want to come to your department just as bad as you want them in your department, and make them feel better about negotiating a fair startup versus playing major hardball after a tough interview process. I know it is important to interview candidates, but it is equally important to for us to be treated well during the process.

A 3 body problem, part II

Recently I wrote about my family’s newfound challenge to find a place to live in that has both career opportunities for my partner and me – and the medical resources and community support for my special needs kid. Thanks again to all who shared their stories of how they’ve confronted this issue in their own family.   Fortunately, since this last post, my partner (who is currently on the job market while I am a year or two away) landed an academic position with a lot of growth potential in a city with great resources for our kid. To say I am pleased would be an understatement. I’ve been crying a lot – mostly out of gratitude to the universe at large (and probably in part still due to all the new mom hormones).

So with my partner and my kid’s needs apparently taken care of, I’m now the third body. With up to two years of graduate school left, I am trying to line up my ducks for: 1) successfully completing and defending my dissertation while living far away from my lab group   2) (hopefully) successfully lining up employment post-defense in this new locale.   Let’s break these down. Continue reading

Academic Lab Space

Lab space. This seems to be one of the most contentious topics out there in academia these days, both among current faculty and in negotiations for faculty positions. It’s also described as one of the hidden sources of inequality in academia, with women potentially having less square footage than men. Space is the issue that led MIT to perform a study on the status of women faculty in science, after a female tenured faculty member started questioning the amount of space she was allocated relative to her tenured and untenured male colleagues. It’s also one of the hardest to evaluate, since the need for physical space varies tremendously among and within disciplines, depending on the type of research.

A few weeks, we asked readers to respond to some questions about lab space and many of you did. We were less focused on square footage and more interested in the process of obtaining space and whether respondents were relatively happy with their allocated lab space. Continue reading

In the Company of Women

A few weeks ago, I found myself in a room of medical clinicians and public health researchers – all of whom happened to be women. Although the demographics in my own discipline are shifting such that approximately 60% of new doctoral degrees are awarded to women, I rarely find myself exclusively in the company of women, much less women of various ethnic backgrounds who have decided to pursue scholarship at the highest levels. However, I have no illusions that the problem of low gender and ethnic diversity in STEM fields is simply due to women’s lack of commitment to their work.

If you can’t tell, I am not a fan of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean-In narrative – as Imani Grady argued, black women have been leaning in for years, and yet we still hold few positions of power in academe or business. It is clear that the structures within academe were not created to support the dynamic nature of women’s lives, particularly those aspects that include caretaking and childrearing.

Here I happened to be at a conference that was designed to discuss how we, as women, can navigate the arc of a long career in international research – careers that require far more flexibility than the lean-in narrative outlines. This conference managed to address everything from mentorship to publications, with a special focus on integrating the academic and private lives of women. Continue reading

All that you can’t leave behind (on maternity leave)

My baby is less than 3 months old. I am on unpaid leave. This morning, a colleague came over to my house to discuss revising and resubmitting a grant proposal that recently got rejected. I bounced and fed the baby while we talked and I attempted to sound on top of things despite having gotten only 4 hours of sleep. A student is coming over later to discuss data for his/her thesis and I’ve got my own paper revisions to work on at some point. I’m also recovering from a physically challenging pregnancy and childbirth, providing the sole source of nutrition for another human being, and operating on limited amounts of disrupted sleep. My partner, older child, and dog might like a mention here too, but frankly they are not getting as much attention as any of us would like.

All of what I describe above is the result of privilege. Privilege to have been able to bear a healthy baby. Privilege to have a job with the protections of FMLA, which provides for up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave following childbirth. Privilege to be able to afford to take unpaid leave, after my sick leave was exhausted and midwife said I was healthy enough to return to work. Privilege to have friendly and understanding colleagues, many with small children of their own, and fantastic students who are willing to meet me where I am, rather than make me schlep my baby to campus through this anomalously cold winter. Privilege to live close enough to campus that my colleagues and students can come see me without stupendous inconvenience. Privilege to have a job that intellectually stimulates me such that I can still get excited about it, even on 4 hours of disrupted sleep.

But I’m also fully aware that I lack the privilege to walk away from my job for my 12 weeks of leave. Continue reading

How I finally got NSF funding

Being tenure-track in the sciences these days means being stressed about funding. Compared to my advisors, who were getting their labs started in the wake of Sputnik and increased governmental investment in science, grant writing is probably what early-stage professors spend most of their time on.

I hated grant writing my first two years; I wanted to do science, not write about it.  My first federal grants got triaged, and looking back I wish I had given myself a year or even 18 months (you can probably guess from this that I have a hard money position) before submitting a federal grant. But, as most of us are, I was advised by my senior colleagues to use my teaching release to draft grants, and so I submitted what I can only call ridiculous proposals. I will say that it helped to see how many pieces go into a federal grant early on, so that I could properly estimate the time needed in the future.  Still, I was a lamb heading to slaughter when I submitted that first full grant. It’s hard to get preliminary data when your lab’s only member is you, the PI, and you have to teach and advise and learn how to get reimbursed and where to order toner and all those other things our advisors hid from us about the academic life.

My reviews in my first couple years left me utterly deflated. Continue reading