Career Prosperity is More Than a Matter of Degrees

Ask Dr. Clemmons is a monthly advice column for scientists and engineers who are seeking top-notch academic, career, and personal development advice. Please read the introductory article to see what the column is all about, and then send me a question of your own!

Dear Dr. Clemmons,

I have finished my Ph.D. and a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship in biophysics, but I am still uncertain why I am having issues landing a plum position at a top Research I University. All of my degrees and experience are from elite institutions and my area of research is very hot right now--nanotechnology. I also have five publications in highly regarded journals.

I am depressed because I still feel as if I am unable to replicate the level of success of those around me--even with my credentials. Furthermore, I am not getting access to the opportunities I feel should be available to a person with my talent and drive. What else can I do? I was told that as a person of color in academia, I was needed as a role model. To top it off, my education is second to none. What can you tell me at this juncture that will help me stay the course? I feel like throwing in the towel.


On the Other Side of the "Leaky Pipeline" and Nobody Cares

Dear Nobody Cares,

It is a shame that you are having a hard time finding a plum position in academia after so many years of sacrifice and hard work. But don't throw in the towel just yet. I care.

Unfortunately, most people in decision-making positions don't care about you personally, your success, or how hard you've worked to get where you are. That's just the general situation for everyone, I'm sorry to say, and has absolutely nothing to do with you. But there are many factors at play in regard to your inability to land that plum position. I believe that you will eventually get a tenure-track assistant professorship at a Research I institution, but it will take some work.

Focus on What Matters: Solutions Count!

These days finding a faculty job at a Research I institution is very difficult, even for young scientists with the very best credentials. In addition to having a great research record, you also need great letters of recommendation, and you must interview well. If the department you're interviewing in isn't completely comfortable with the idea of having you for a colleague, they're not likely to make you an offer, even after the interview. Since it's well established that scientists and others tend to hire people who look like them, issues of race can easily creep in at the interview/comfort-level stage. Focus on solutions that will help you land the job you want.

  • Ask search committees from all of the universities you have interviewed with for honest feedback. What specific reasons kept you from being hired? It is not always about race or gender. Listen carefully, address the issues, and learn from it for the next round of interviews elsewhere.

  • If they stonewall or give a "politically correct" answer during this fact-finding mission, keep asking for the truth. Their department may not be in the market for a biophysics professor with a focus on nanotechnology application. If so, perhaps you can use this opportunity to "sell" your expertise in the field as a great and novel addition to their institution. The key is to find particular gaps in their department that you can fill and persuade them that you are the answer. There is no shame is selling your abilities. Most great scientists have been able to do this on some level.

  • Take a fresh look at your application package. Is it in good order? Have you tailored it to each school, or have you just taken a "one size fits all" approach? You MUST address specific issues for each university.

  • Find a good way to network at the universities you are interested in. This is the best thing you can do for yourself. Networking your way into a good position is something you should have learned from reading my past columns. If you haven't done this, you are behind the game. Play catch up by making cold calls to people you feel might be helpful at this stage or tap into your existing network. I will contact my network as well. Personal relationships make the difference.

  • Call your previous Ph.D. and current postdoctoral advisors to see if they are willing to help you find a tenure track position. Part of their job is to help you be successful in science, so if you're interested in an academic job, they should help. They should call their colleagues and send letters of reference in a timely fashion. In my current capacity in business, this happens all the time.

The End Game

Minorities and women with stellar credentials do exist, so if you are an institution looking for highly qualified minority candidates, please contact me. Together, we can plug the leaky pipeline of minority scientists and engineers.


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