NINDS's Building Up the Nerve

S4E7: Demystifying the Tenure-Track Faculty Application Process

September 22, 2023 NINDS Season 4 Episode 7
S4E7: Demystifying the Tenure-Track Faculty Application Process
NINDS's Building Up the Nerve
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NINDS's Building Up the Nerve
S4E7: Demystifying the Tenure-Track Faculty Application Process
Sep 22, 2023 Season 4 Episode 7

The fourth Season of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke’s Building Up the Nerve podcast, where we discuss the unwritten rules, or “hidden curriculum,” of scientific research at every career stage. We know that navigating your career can be daunting, but we're here to help—it's our job!

In episode 7, we talk about applying for a faculty position, including preparing your application, negotiating, and the accepting or re-applying process.

Featuring Kimberly S Williams, Assistant Professor, Spelman College; Lucas Cheadle, Assistant Professor, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory; and Erin Stephenson, Assistant Professor, Midwestern University.


Transcript available at

Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

The fourth Season of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke’s Building Up the Nerve podcast, where we discuss the unwritten rules, or “hidden curriculum,” of scientific research at every career stage. We know that navigating your career can be daunting, but we're here to help—it's our job!

In episode 7, we talk about applying for a faculty position, including preparing your application, negotiating, and the accepting or re-applying process.

Featuring Kimberly S Williams, Assistant Professor, Spelman College; Lucas Cheadle, Assistant Professor, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory; and Erin Stephenson, Assistant Professor, Midwestern University.


Transcript available at

[00:00:00] Lauren Ullrich: [intro music] Welcome to Season 4 of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke's Building Up the Nerve, where we discuss the unwritten rules or "hidden curriculum" of scientific research at every career stage. We know that navigating your career can be daunting, but we're here to help. It's our job. [music fades]

[00:00:21] Marguerite Matthews: I'm Marguerite Matthews, a Program Director at NINDS. 

[00:00:24] Lauren Ullrich: And I'm Lauren Ullrich, a Program Director at NINDS, and we're your hosts today. 

[00:00:29] Marguerite Matthews: In our last episode, we discussed conducting research as a clinician scientist. Today, we're going to talk about applying for a faculty position, including preparing your application, negotiating, and the accepting or reapplying process. [music] 

[00:00:48] Lauren Ullrich: Joining us today are Dr. Kimberly Williams, Dr. Lucas Cheadle, and Dr. Erin Stephenson. So let's start with introductions. 

[00:00:58] Kimberly Williams: So my name is Kimberly Williams and I am a tenure track assistant professor at Spelman College, which is located in Atlanta, Georgia. Spelman College is a top ranked Historically Black College and University as well as a liberal arts institution.

At Spelman, I am an assistant professor in the Environmental and Health Sciences Department, and I conduct research, um, where we are interested in understanding the neuro immune pathways in the brain. In particular, we're interested in looking at endogenous signaling pathways and their abilities to develop new therapeutic avenues for certain types of neurodegenerative disorders.

And our main focus in the lab has been really looking at the interconnection between, um, post-traumatic stress disorder and HIV associated neurocognitive disorders. And we're interested in really looking at it's role in aging as well as how estrogen signaling may be able to influence the activation of microglial cells, which are known to be activated in these particular disorders.

And one of my hobbies, um, outside of science is really to look at Harry Potter all day. [laugh] I am a very big, um, fan of Harry Potter, so you can probably find Harry somewhere around me at some point of the day. Um, I'm also very much into looking at nineties sitcoms such as A Different World, um, The Cosby Show, and so really finding the nostalgia in some of our older TV series. 

[00:02:55] Lucas Cheadle: My name is Lucas Cheadle. I'm an assistant professor of neuroscience at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. This is on Long Island, New York. Cold Spring Harbor Lab is a nonprofit, uh, research institution. We focus principally on, um, disciplines, such as neuroscience, cancer, and quantitative biology, uh, to really bring creative and collaborative approaches to tough biomedical research questions, um, from a number of different perspectives.

My specific lab is interested in understanding how interactions between the nervous system and the immune system are critical for healthy biological function. So classically, we've thought of these two systems as being really within distinct domains, but now we're, um, we're seeing emerging evidence that these systems interact intimately.

And those interactions are important for normal brain development, but those interactions can also go awry. In the context of inflammation, which has emerged as a really important risk factor for neurodevelopmental disorders, like autism and schizophrenia. So my lab's interested in understanding not only how neuro immune interaction shape the healthy brain.

But how inflammation disrupts these interactions in the context of neurological disease. What is my hobby or passion outside of work? Um, so I, I would throw out, uh, weightlifting. I like to read. Um, and I'm really passionate about, uh, diversity, equity and belonging in scientific research. 

[00:04:29] Erin Stephenson: Hi, I'm Erin Stephenson. I am a tenure track assistant professor at Midwestern University, which is located in the greater Chicago area. We are a graduate medical and health professions University.

So I have a role in teaching as well as, uh, having my own lab, um, my labfocuses on mechanisms at the intersection of, uh, macronutrient metabolism and tissue repair processes, especially, um, with a focus on understanding how, uh, conditions of bioenergetic stress ranging from regular exercise training to obesity and diabetes and genetic diseases associated with energy storage disorders lead to maladaptation in response to changing energy demands.

And so we're particularly interested in skeletal muscle function because it's, um, you know, muscle masses involved in a host of diseases associated with energy stress. So that's what we do in my lab. Outside of work, I love to hike. I'm a big fan of gardening 

 I also really love listening to music. Uh, I'm a little bit of a gamer as well. [music] 

[00:05:40] Marguerite Matthews: So, can each of you talk about how you even decided to pursue a tenure track faculty position? We know that the majority of PhDs are not going to go that route so what was that like for you? Was it tenure track faculty position or bust or like I could do it or I could do something else? 

[00:06:00] Lucas Cheadle: I think the biggest thing for me, um, was that I really wanted to have the freedom to work on the problems that I think are really important in science.

And, um, I think that the best way to do that is to pursue a tenure track research position. And, um, it's not at the exclusion of other possibilities, but, um, I think in terms of the intellectual freedom that it affords you. Um, I, I just think that it's, it's pretty much the best game in the league, basically.

And so, um, basically at the point where I decided to pursue a Ph.D. was the point where I kind of made the decision that I was interested in that track. 

[00:06:35] Erin Stephenson: Okay. Mine is a little bit different. I kind of jumped on the roller coaster and never got off. Um, I'm, I'm a first generation student. Like my, my father didn't graduate high school.

So I really didn't know anything about the academy before going to university for the first time. And so I, I got interested in research because of some mentors, um, in undergrad and they sort of pushed me towards the PhD direction, even though I was not really thinking about that. I didn't know what a PhD was.

And then once I started, I was like, "Hey, this is really cool." Like having a job where you can go to work every day and you kind of get to decide what you're working on. It's pretty neat. And so I, I did my postdoc training was like, yeah, I'm just going to keep following this through and, and see where it leads.

And so, um, there wasn't really a question about what came next when it was time to finish up my postdoc. It was, I guess, I guess we go for, go for broke and try and get a tenure track position.

[00:07:41] Kimberly Williams: So I will be somewhat of the anomaly. Um, so I'm like most bio majors when I came into undergrad, I was pre-med. I have known since I was five years old that I wanted to be a pediatrician. Um, and then I ended up joining a program called MBRS RISE while I was in school. And I started doing research as an undergraduate.

And I went to, um, ABRCMS which is, um, known as Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minoritized Scientists . And that changed my whole life. I had no idea about all of the vast ways that you can look at science. My undergrad only had biochemistry majors, um, just the normal general bio majors.

And so learning about all these sciences and really enjoying the research I did changed my mind and I decided to go and do a PhD. However, when I was in my PhD program, I did not want to go the tenure track route. I was sure that this was not going to be what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to be still in education, but I saw that as, um, the PhD as a way of being at education in different forms. And so I've considered being a medical science liaison. Um, I've considered being some other type of, um, agency where I can help people learn more about science. Um, but I knew that education was the crust of who I was. And I always tell people school has always been my hustle.

And so, um, when I went to my postdoc at UPenn. I participated in, um, an IRACDA program, and I'm not even going to try to remember what the acronym stands for, um, but this gave me the opportunity to still do high level research, um, but then also go and teach at minority serving institutions. And I will say, even after my first class of teaching, I still wasn't sure.

Um, but after I knew I was sure about the research at this point, um, but whether I was going to stick with the track that I feel like my PIs had groomed me for and go R1, um, or should I go against the beaten track and go to a minority serving institution? And to be honest, the students influenced, um, that. And so I decided to stick on the tenure track and go not R1 right now, but focus some of my passions and be at a minority serving institution. 

[00:10:39] Lauren Ullrich: So Kimberly, you kind of addressed this, but, um, for the others, like, what kinds of institutions did you apply to? There's so many different types. There's primarily undergraduate institutions, there's minority serving institutions, the research one, research two, medical centers, research institutes, like, it's like, it just, uh, it seems like very hard to choose.

So you can you talk a little bit about the differences, um, and why you chose to apply where you did. 

[00:11:09] Kimberly Williams: So when I decided to apply, I actually wasn't fully on the job market. Um, I received some emails from people that sort of knew what my passions were centered around.

Increasing diversity in the biomedical sciences, um, and my love for mentoring and teaching and doing research. And so people started sending me, um, job opportunities, um, before I was probably even really considering going on the market. And so it was a big decision for me to really try to think about where I wanted to go. Um, so I was very well prepared to go for R1 research intensive job position, but I needed to finish up some some key things in the lab. Um, but then the opportunity started coming at minority serving institutions. And so I actually only ended up applying very softly to some historically black colleges and universities only, and I was able to get two job opportunities from there.

And so that led to a conflicting time because I had these job opportunities, and I knew that I still wanted to be in research and do research very well, but I knew the infrastructures may not necessarily be there at those institutions, and so it was a really hard decision to decide, do I stay in my postdoc or do I go ahead and give back to the communities that have given so much to me?

[00:13:00] Lauren Ullrich: And what ultimately helped you make that decision? 

[00:13:03] Kimberly Williams: To be quite honest, it came off of passion. It came off of the understanding that there is a particular narrative that historically black colleges and universities can't do research well. And so I wanted to use my Ivy League, you know, training to be able to go into these spaces and be able to influence students that look like me.

So Spelman is a all women's black college, and I know that my presence in their lives really shapes their lives. And so my life right now is purely based off of making sure that I can really feed into them and give them good science opportunities so that we can actually continue to increase the pool of really good minority scientists.

[00:14:04] Marguerite Matthews: As a Spelman alum, Kimberly, I have to tell you, I really appreciate the work that you're doing and the perspective that you're bringing to your students. My time at Spelman was really transformative for me, not just from an educational standpoint, but from having opportunities to do research with a number of different faculty, um, that were there in the sciences specifically.

And so to see how much Spelman has grown in terms of the topics that they offer, the majors that are available. There's so many opportunities for students to find their niche and to feel like they belong and to be curious and find new ways to explore the world. So it's really great to hear that you're contributing to the careers of so many black women. 

[00:14:54] Kimberly Williams: Thank you. 

[00:14:56] Erin Stephenson: So, okay. So for me, I guess I had a quite a bit of teaching experience during graduate school. So I knew that I could go that route if I wanted to. Um, I also knew that, research was really where my heart was, so I really focused on applying to institutions that were going to give me the opportunity to have a lab that could do a reasonable amount of research without being too stifled by teaching.

I think teaching is very important and that's why I'm in it. Um, but like research is what brings me the most joy in my career. So I applied to a range of positions from R1s to, to the mixed sort of medical school where there is a little teaching, little research as well.

[00:15:46] Lucas Cheadle: Yeah, I think, um, you know, for me, it really, like, just follows along this thread of wanting to have as much intellectual freedom as possible. So, um, I actually did a really, really broad search. I applied to 50 different institutions just based on their ads and these were all R1 institutions. 

Um, I have really very little interest in teaching. I love mentoring in the lab. I love working with young people in the lab in a research context, just not standing in front of a lot of people teaching. So, um, I was really looking for a job where I could limit that as much as possible and focus on the research. And so that's why I focused on R1 institutions, um, and so that was my strategy. 

[00:16:23] Marguerite Matthews: Yeah, there's no need to go somewhere having to do a task that you don't want to do, or at least can find a way to minimize it. There's always something that we don't like in our jobs, but I love the idea of figuring out, I want to do these things, or I only want to do this thing if I can help it. 

So, now you've decided what places you want to apply to. What does the actual process look like? What does the application consist of? What do you expect to provide in that initial pass? And what parts of the application did you find to be the most difficult to prepare, if any? 

[00:17:03] Erin Stephenson: So I think the biggest lesson I learned was not starting soon enough for when I wanted to go on the market. So I ended up doing 2 rounds of applications where I did a small test batch where I submitted about 8 applications because I was so late into the season and then ultimately went on the market a 2nd year because I didn't find something that I was super interested in. So, um, starting early, I think is important. Like if you, if you know, when you're going to be ready to go on the job market, maybe start thinking about it a year earlier so that you have time to get everything together and, and, and can practice. Like, I think that that's super important.

[00:17:44] Lucas Cheadle: Yeah. I think that, um, that, that's very true. I always try to start everything I do, you know, months in advance. But, um, I would say in terms of the job application, I think the CV is one thing that's really important, but that's not something you build when you're preparing your application.

That's something that you build throughout your training as a, as a graduate student and then a postdoc. Uh, so I think that potentially one of the most. Important parts of the application itself is going to be your research strategy, because ultimately, these search committees are going to be interested in what you're going to be doing.

Does it fit in with the department in a synergistic way? Are there opportunities for you to interact with faculty already in that department? And so I think that that's really important. And one of the things that I would encourage people against doing is tailoring that research proposal too much to individual departments and searches. The reason is because you want that proposal to be the very best of you. Your best ideas, the places that you really want to go intellectually. And tweaking the science behind that, you know, in an institution specific fashion, I don't think is really to your benefit. Um, things that you can tweak are your cover letter.

When you're talking to the institution, and if you're applying for an immunology department, you focus on, "hey, I'm interested in immunology, how it affects the brain." If you're applying to a neuroscience department, you can then communicate that vision. But but that's what I would suggest. I would suggest tweaking the cover letter and the context your applications in, not the proposal itself.

[00:19:15] Erin Stephenson: Yeah, I agree. I think that was my strategy as well was to really focus on my, my research strategy being this is, this is what I do, who I am and what I plan to do wherever I am. I typically added a little paragraph at the end of mine thinking about collaborative opportunities and how I would use the resources, but it was maybe 200 words that I might tweak depending on if I was switching between different institution types. Cause like I said, I was applying to both sort of research intensive and mixed research teaching schools. So resources differed between the different places. So I had that opportunity to tailor, but the bulk of my research proposal was always pretty solid, um, between, um, interviews. Now the cover letter that's, I mean, that's your opportunity to sell yourself. And as somebody who has served on, I feel like a never ending cycle of search committees since I started my position now, I think that's, that's the biggest thing that influences, um, how I'm going to perceive the rest of your application.

It's your cover letter. Are you telling me that you are a good fit for this position? And do you have good ideas that, that will work where I am. Then, then if that research strategy matches up with, um, everything else I'm going to be on board. So that cover letter can be a real game changer.

[00:20:42] Kimberly Williams: A lot of times with me sitting on search committees as well, if I read the cover letter and the cover letter isn't convincing, I will just toss the whole application away because so many applications are coming in that you don't have time to go through all of those documents. And so if that cover letter doesn't tell me that you're, you're good for the particular position that we have, then, there's no point of looking at anything else.

Um, but the research strategy, it was definitely, um, consistent amongst all of the institutions that I applied to. Um, but there might've been some tweak of course, definitely looking at how I can collaborate around, um, the city as well as the institution, especially since I was going for historically black colleges and universities, I wanted to make sure to show that I also am looking for other resources, even outside of my institution. And another big component of that is going to be your teaching philosophy as well, or your teaching statement.

And so really being able to hone in who you are as an educator, how do you educate, what would you do in certain situations, give examples of how you have taught in the past and what your strategies are, are going to be really important, depending on what type of institution you're going to. Um, as well as a diversity statement.

And I found that diversity statements are not just for minority serving institutions, you should be thinking about what your stance is really on diversity for any type of institution that you plan on applying for. And so really thinking about not just a cookie cutter, I want to help increase the diversity in the sciences, but actually, what is your stance?

How would you help with that is also really important for job applications. 

[00:22:49] Lauren Ullrich: Did you all get feedback on your applications before you submitted them? And from who? Like who, who out there helped you know what these people were looking for? 

[00:23:01] Erin Stephenson: Yeah. I mean, feedback is a really important thing because there's no clear instruction on on how to propose these statements, and it feels like every different job wants something different as well. And they have criteria that they want you to address in a statement that might be different from the next school you're applying to. 

Um, I was a member of the Future PI Slack community and they had arranged for like a peer swap of materials. And so I participated in that and found that really helpful. Um, also like you get to see other people's proposals that way too, and see how other people do things. And so I found that very helpful.

Um, I got feedback from mentors, um, and other more senior people in my institution, as well as other postdocs that were on the market, um, at my postdoc institution. 


[00:23:52] Kimberly Williams: I would agree. I received feedback from my advisors, both my graduate and postdoc advisors were really willing to give any edits. I also utilized some of the other postdocs that were at the institution and we're also on the job market.

So we sort of had this group where we were putting together applications and looking over each other's applications. Um, I'm also a part of a group called BRAINS, which stands for Broadening the Representation in Academic Investigators in Neuroscience, and they have workshops all of the time. And so, um, one of our cohort meetings, we actually sat together and they had people come in and they were able to actually look at all of my documents. And so that was a really amazing resource for me to have to be able to have professionals that are actually on search committees look at those documents. So that was very helpful. 

[00:24:56] Marguerite Matthews: I just want to put a plug in that the BRAINS program that Kimberly mentioned is an R25, which is an institutional grant that's funded through NINDS. And there are a lot of programs like this that provide funding for career development opportunities. Whether the focus is more on skill building or mentoring or other professional development. NINDS has quite a few really great programs to tap into, but many other institutes at the NIH support these types of R25 programs, so that's something worth looking into for additional support or communities that will help you grow in your career, especially at a very pivotal time, like going on the job market and pursuing a tenure track faculty position. 

[00:25:42] Kimberly Williams: Yes. BRAINS is one of my best resources as a tenure track professor. They're amazing. 

[00:25:51] Lauren Ullrich: We love BRAINS.

[00:25:52] Marguerite Matthews: We did not pay her to say that. [laughs] 

[00:25:55] Lauren Ullrich: So, uh, after you've sent off the applications into the ether, um, hopefully you get a couple of interview requests. What kinds of things should our listeners expect during a job interview? How do you prepare for one? 

[00:26:11] Lucas Cheadle: Two words. Chalk. Talk. That's going to be the most difficult part of your interview by far. And the problem is that most people have never even tried to give a chalk talk until it's time to think about the market. I had never given a chalk talk. I had never seen a chalk talk.

Um, so I think we're really, we're really lapsing there in terms of training our folks by not getting them involved in that. But, um, you know, there's obviously multiple different components of a job interview. For me, even though I went on the market right before COVID hit. I still had basically a virtual pre interview with every single institution that was interested in me. So that Skype interaction, that 15 minute elevator pitch, getting to know you. If you don't do well there, you don't get in the door. So pay attention to that. Um, the other part of the interview involves your seminar over your work.

That should be perfect because you will have had multiple chances to perfect that. What's really unpredictable is the chalk talk. Um, so I recommend people, uh, get started preparing for that. And that's, that's where you, you know, really have to be on your feet and defending your science and really, you know, expressing yourself in the best way possible. 

[00:27:22] Marguerite Matthews: Since we're uncovering the hidden curriculum, can you tell us what is a Chalk Talk? 

[00:27:28] Lauren Ullrich: And what's the purpose of it? 

[00:27:29] Marguerite Matthews: So, your, um, your, your research seminar on what you've accomplished gives people a sense of the types of science you can do and the questions that interest you. The chalk talk is about what you're going to do when you take the key and unlock the door to your laboratory.

[00:27:47] Lucas Cheadle: So, what are the research questions you're going to tackle? How are you going to tackle them specifically? Don't just give us this ethereal, "I want to understand how this cell regulates this process." They want to hear, "this is what I'm going to propose to the NIH to get funding for my research."

So it's a 1 hour, in front of a board of people, typically the search committee, sometimes additional faculty, where you're basically pitching your research program. And that's why it can be so difficult because it's not just a presentation. It's an interaction. So, even after your 2nd word, folks can start interrupting and asking you and pushing back on your ideas. So it's very difficult to do. Everybody in the room is going to want something different out of you. And that's why I recommend getting as much feedback on your chalk talk from as many people as possible. 

[00:28:42] Kimberly Williams: I think of the Chalk Talk and even your research presentation as a business pitch.

The way that I think of, of us actually having our laboratories is that this is a business, and when you're going on the job market, you're looking for an investor and that investor is the university that you're applying to. And so that chalk talk, you're explaining to your not so quiet investor that this is my idea of what I want my research program slash business to be.

This is what I know. Here are my expertise. Here are the things that I would love to research. Here are the resources I already have. Here are the ways that I am going to increase the resources that I have for this business as well as your infrastructure. And here are the resources that I need from you as my silent investor. And so really, if you think about it from a business standpoint, you can approach this chalk talk in a way of being able to lay out. This is my research project. This is my program. Here's what I can do. Here's what I can bring. And this is what I need from you. And so if you think of it as a two way street, um, it doesn't, it doesn't seem as daunting because you're looking for an investor that is willing to help you create this business and research that you are looking for.

[00:30:29] Erin Stephenson: I would also add that the Chalk Talk isn't just about being able to sell your science and show that you have a plan. It also demonstrates some soft skills that are going to be important to a department. How do you respond to questions, especially when they might catch you off guard? How do you respond to criticism in the moment?

Um, you know, if somebody highlights a problem, how do you pivot to show that you can overcome that problem? These are all things that department, if, if you are doing a chalk talk, because of course, not all institutions will make you do a chalk talk, but if you are doing one, they want to know, like, are you going to be a good colleague?

Are you going to be someone that they can work with? And work with effectively, or are you going to be someone who's who's an island on their own, uh, who doesn't want to take on board feedback? So there are all these little hidden things about about these types of, um, talks as well that you have to be aware of when you're in the interview, but I would like to come back to the screening interview because I think that that's a really important part because that's the first hurdle that you have to get over before we even start thinking about, you know, chalk talks and research talks and potentially teaching demonstrations, if you're going to a education based institution. Um, that 30 minute Zoom is, is make or break. And I think that the key thing is to really be able to show who you are and what you expect to be known for from your research in that time, like, you need to be able to show that you'll be a good colleague. Because you're getting the same questions as everybody else.

Those are pretty standardized interviews, but they do want to see some personality that that you know what you want to be known for. And I think that that's like, something that people don't necessarily prepare for as well as they should, right? They are always thinking about the next interview, the in person one, but you've got to overcome that first hurdle first.

[00:32:31] Marguerite Matthews: And I would venture to say those aren't soft skills. They're actually really hard skills for many people, but they're so necessary. Learning how to interact, being able to deal with conflict and all of its forms, right? Because people think of conflict mostly in a combative way, but we progress science by having differences of opinion and challenging each other.


[00:32:52] Erin Stephenson: Absolutely, because at the end of the day, if you're getting an interview, it means that you probably already check the research criteria on paper. So are you going to make a good colleague? And I think that that's going to be the biggest thing for most departments.

Do the existing faculty want to work with you and potentially work with you for their entire careers if you're a tenure track position, right? So, um, it's as much as we want it to be all about the science and and the greater good and that we're doing so many great things with our research. It's often also about that interpersonal communication.

Can we make a good colleague? 

[00:33:37] Lauren Ullrich: Yeah, and I think another aspect that we haven't really talked about is there are like one on one meetings, right? Usually with different faculty in the department and there are also dinners, right? And that is a great place for you to shine in terms of interpersonal abilities.

I mean, I've heard people, they're like, our candidate was rude to the waiter. I don't want a colleague that treats service staff like that, you know, and so everything that you do the whole time that you are there is part of the interview, like, just because it's in this informal setting doesn't mean that you can just suddenly, you know, turn off your manners.

[00:34:14] Erin Stephenson: Absolutely. And I think that that also comes down to treating administrative staff with respect as well. 

[00:34:20] Lauren Ullrich: mmhmm

[00:34:21] Erin Stephenson: And often when you're interacting with these people,you're at your most tired then.

And so you really have to be aware of what's going on. Interviews are long. Sometimes they're three days. If you, factor in travel. Um, you are going to be exhausted from one interview. If you have multiple interviews back to back, oh boy, you've got to be aware of, of what you're saying and how you're presenting yourself because these people who you think might not matter, you know, they're not the ones making the decisions.

They're going to provide feedback. And if you are treating people rudely, how does that speak to whether or not you'd be a good colleague? 

[00:35:01] Marguerite Matthews: Yeah, you should always treat people with respect, like not just on job interviews, but always go into every situation thinking "I'm going to bring my best self." So when you are constantly being your best self, you don't have to worry about having a bad day. I mean, these are just good life skills people, come on. 

[00:35:22] Lucas Cheadle: But I, I do think it's important that you're highlighting that, though, because I do think, like, as a postdoc and a grad student, I was principally thinking about science. Uh, as a PI, people look at everything you do and every little action you take, whether you said something dismissive to a graduate student that gets around. So, I, I, I think that this is important to discuss, not only in the context of the interview, but basically, from that moment, you go on the market.

This is the new you. 

[00:35:50] Kimberly Williams: I also wanted to add that one of the things for the interviews, depending on what type of position you're going for, is that teaching demonstration. And the teaching demonstration is going to be really important if you're required to teach. You may not have to do a full teaching demonstration at research intensive institutions. But if you are sort of amidst like I am where you do teaching and research, or if you're just going for teaching, um, you will have to demonstrate your ability to teach a certain concept.

And sometimes this may be just in front of the committee. Oftentimes, if it's during the school year, they'll also invite students in to listen to your teaching demonstration. And so they're getting feedback, even from the students at the institution on whether or not, um, this is someone that they could see being a good professor at the institution. Um, having a syllabus with a course that you've already developed, um, is also a good resource because it shows them that you've looked at the curriculum and you found ways of being able to increase their infrastructure with new courses.

So all of those things are important depending on what type of institution you're in. But the students, whether they're grad students, undergrads, their say also matters. Maybe not weighted very highly, but those experiences matter too. 

But then I wanted to also go back to, um, a lot of times when we talk about interviews, we're talking about the candidates, um, ability to showcase themselves. But when you're on the market, that interview is also a very important time for you to decide. Is this a good fit for you? Um, it is as as I said again, the interview is, it's a two way street because you are going in and you are potentially meeting people that you are going to spend the next 20 years, 20 plus years with. And so is it a good fit for you? Are the people in the department, um, do they seem collegial?

Do they seem like they are happy about you being there? Um, how do they seem to, um, feel about the department. What's really going on? Is this going to be a place where you are going to be able to thrive? Um, because I remember Erin was saying she went on the job market twice and the first time it wasn't, um, anything that she was interested in.

You are still making the ultimate decision on if you are going to accept this job if they were to give it to you. So really utilizing the interview time to also make sure that you're interviewing them to see if this is the best home, um, for you. 

[00:38:56] Erin Stephenson: I think you make a really great point, Kimberly. This is something that often I think postdocs, especially entering the market don't think about because they're so desperate for that next tenure track job. We know that these jobs are competitive and really hard to come by, right? We're just excited to have an interview. And sometimes we go in with rose colored glasses and don't really know how to read between the lines when we're in there to, to really evaluate fit for us. Fit it's that intangible thing that is so very, very important. And if you have a misaligned fit and you've accepted a position, it's, it's going to be harder to move once you've started without first having some papers and grants, you still need to put in some time there. And you don't want to do that if you're in an institution that is a miserable fit where you have no collaborators, you don't have good support, maybe the atmosphere isn't great.

So you really need to be evaluating during the interview process, how satisfied the other people in the department are, as well as their collegiality towards you. 

[00:40:06] Lauren Ullrich: We call that the vibes. 

[00:40:07] Erin Stephenson: The vibes, yeah. Yeah, you got to feel out the vibes [laughs]. 

[00:40:11] Marguerite Matthews: How can you do good science when you're not feeling good about yourself or your situation? You're just miserable. You're making your students miserable. No one's happy. And yeah, it's just like probably subpar things going on all the way around.

[00:40:26] Kimberly Williams: Because as a grad student, you know, there's a certain amount of time that you have to be in the atmosphere. You make and push through it. As a postdoc, you know, there's a certain amount of time that you're going to be in the atmosphere. When you're going for a tenure track position, you're saying essentially that you want to stay there forever, even though we know that's not necessarily true sometimes. But the tenure track position is saying this is my home. And so you have to think about what that environment looks like at the school. You have to think about what the environment looks like outside of the school.

Um, and so geographically, sometimes that comes into play. There were certain places that I just I'm not going to go for this type of position. 

And so, um, really thinking about who you are, what your, um, non negotiables are for your life and for your career is really, really important.

[00:41:25] Marguerite Matthews: 

[00:41:25] Erin Stephenson: Right, you don't want to be fighting just to get what you need every single day.

[00:41:30] Marguerite Matthews: Right. 

[00:41:30] Lauren Ullrich: Yeah. 

[00:41:30] Kimberly Williams: And the likelihood, if you don't get tenure in that environment, I don't know what the stats are on, do you go and continue to pursue a tenure track position elsewhere, or do you leave academia altogether? And so it really does influence how your career goes. If you're not in a environment that is going to be conducive to your success. 

[00:41:58] Lauren Ullrich: mmhmm

[00:41:58] Marguerite Matthews: So you feel like you've made a good match. You're digging the institution. You're digging your potential colleagues. And an offer comes through, then what happens? Other than you panic? [laughs] Like, how did you approach the offer? What does the offer slash negotiation process look like? And do you have any specific types of advice to offer people that may be at that point where they're like, "I like the school, they've given me an offer, but I'm not really sure this is the right offer for me."

[00:42:28] Erin Stephenson: I think, there's a lot of conversation on, on sites like Twitter between postdocs and grad students that think that professors make squillions of dollars once they get into a tenure track position.

And I think that's the first myth we need to bust. There is such a huge range and it depends on your geographic location, what type of education institution there are. And I think for me, like salary was really important to me. I didn't grow up with a lot of money. I've worked really hard to be where I am.

And, you know, we all have, we all sacrificed so much future earning potential by being in training positions for so long. I, I knew that I, I had a, a lower limit income wise, um, that I was willing to consider. And, you know, some places don't pay much more than postdocs get. Uh, so I think it's important to, um, evaluate what the institutions you're interviewing at can offer you before you even get to the negotiating table.

Um, you, you have to see what did, what are previous people getting paid? There are websites where you can search that information. If it's a state school, that information is all published. So, so you can know what their last tenure track hire, uh, was, was getting paid salary wise. Uh, ask in the interview, what was your startup package like?

What is the support? Like, what are the non monetary things that you can get? If you do animal research, what are vivarium costs like at that institution? Are there ways to waive some of those costs in lieu of extra startup funds? Are there, um, you know, core Facility costs that can be, you know, you can get credits towards, uh, rather than having that come out of a startup package.

All of these things I think are really important to consider before you even get to the negotiating table so that when you do go in and you do have that offer, you know, like what's reasonable for that institution and what your deal breakers are. And then of course you want to push, you want to push for more, ask for what you need and then some.

Always, because they can only knock it back down to what they can give you. And then if that meets your expectations, then it's probably a good offer. 

[00:44:55] Marguerite Matthews: You're just rattling off things that never occurred to me might be part of a startup package. Like there's a vivarium and all sorts of other things. I'm just so happy that these things are being talked about because these are things that I have not heard come up in talks with friends on the job market.

So hopefully this is helping folks out in our audience and they're vigorously taking note.

[00:45:19] Lucas Cheadle: Yeah, I think that, um, one thing that you actually probably want to have in hand before you even interview is your list of things you need for your lab to run. Um, so there are, like, multiple elements of a startup. Usually it involves salary, which Erin already discussed, um, but the other thing is, you know, this institution, if they hire you, they have to give you enough support so that you can flap your own wings and fly with your own independent funding. You're not just going to start your lab and, you know, people are just going to start throwing money at you. So you need to really go into these negotiations, not even, not even only just the negotiation, but the interview, because you never know at the end of the 2nd day, the, the chair of the department could come in and say, "Hey, what are you thinking in terms of equipment?"

Uh, so you really need to come in with like a nice. I had a really big Excel spreadsheet with different tabs equipment, uh, you know, reagents, mouse costs, sequencing costs, personnel costs. You really need to go in with a very, very strong understanding of what exactly you need in my personal experience Cold Spring Harbor lab, who made me my first offer, uh, said yes, we'll give you everything you asked for. Um, at that point, I didn't feel the need to further negotiate because I, I had in good faith, asked for what I needed. They didn't push back on it, so I didn't go overboard with, "okay, well, since you're okay with that, let's add a couple things." 

So, I mean, I, I think that that's an important part of it. It's not just they're gonna tell you what their startup is that they give you. You need to tell them what you need. 'Cause every candidate's gonna be different. 

[00:46:50] Erin Stephenson: Yeah, I have not done an interview where you get to meeting with the department chair at the end of it and they don't ask you, like, what do you need to be successful?

There's usually a conversation that starts with now that you've seen everything and you've met everybody, what is it that you will need to be able to hit the ground running? And so they want to know. So you have to know going into that interview exactly what you will need to get your lab off the ground.

[00:47:17] Lauren Ullrich: And Kimberly, is it, is it different with the teaching institution? 

[00:47:20] Kimberly Williams: So it is different because we are what they like to call research focused, there are definitely some similarities still at the ask, what are the resources that I need to get the lab up and going? Um, I was bringing the first biosafety level two lab to Spelman, um, and so they had to, you know, provide things to help me build this infrastructure that they didn't have yet.

Um, and so knowing what I needed as far as equipment was, was important. Um, but the offer process definitely was a lot more stressful, um, for me because I did know the things that you should be asking for if you go to an R1 institution, you know, even including, you know, housing allowances and everything else that, um, you could get these million dollar packages, but going into HBCU, you already know that they are, they have less resources, um, than the larger institutions.

And so negotiations were very important because bringing this line of research meant that the administration didn't necessarily know what it takes to build a research program like this. And so really being able to explain to them why I needed such certain things was very important to be able to get what I needed.

Um, I will say that my negotiation skills were probably not at the best at that time, because I do have special ties to Spelman. Um, I'm from Atlanta. I grew up on Spelman's campus. And so I had to remind myself, okay, you are softly on the market. This is not necessarily the package that you know. Is going to make sure your research is as, um, as Lucas said, is going to be able to take off immediately.

I knew I was going to have to put in a lot of work. Um, and so it made me nervous. The offer that I originally got, um, when they first told me my startup package, I will admit I, my response was, "oh, that's concerning." And that's when we started the negotiation because the number was so low that I was just like, what do you mean? [laughs]


[00:49:54] Marguerite Matthews: Start up what? A car? Like this wasn't going to do it [laughs] . 

[00:50:00] Kimberly Williams: It was very low. And so once they gave me that low number, I had already had the ballpark, I had my list altogether, like Lucas said, I knew the things I need it, but I, I went down a little bit because they started so low that I did not necessarily ask for what I should have asked for.

And so hindsight, I would have asked for even more. But what that meant is that once I got into the job, I kept negotiating. And so I had to, you know, continuously ask for more resources. And thankfully, I've been able to get everything that I've asked for. But that salary. Oh, when the salaries, of course, at HBCUs, especially a private HBCU, it's going to be lower than what you would see at an R1 institution.

And the salaries are based off of a nine month salary. And so I remember going to my grad advisor. I'm like, I can't live off of this. I'm not doing this. Why would I do that? I'm worth so much more than this. And he's like, look, Kim, think about it. This is a nine month salary. So when you get your grants, then you add on the three months.

And so it goes up to this number. I said, okay, well, I hope this works because I'm not convinced right now. Um, and so with the negotiations of even a salary, it was a little bit harder to ask for that. I will say I did a horrible job and I didn't wait for my next offer to tell me what the salary was to use that.

So definitely making sure when you're doing your negotiations that you're sort of playing off of those offers that you get, um, but some schools, they're not able to increase the salary as much as you would like. And so you kind of go in on this passion of hoping possibly, or saying, this is not a good fit for me.

And so that was a decision of how it's not the best offer, you know, package, but what does this mean for me as a person? How, how will this benefit my, my passions and what I really want to do in life? [music] 

[00:52:14] Lauren Ullrich: Thank you all for sharing your wisdom today. Um, can I ask each of you for one last piece of parting advice for our audience?

[00:52:27] Lucas Cheadle: I think, I mean, I just have a go to piece of advice that if anybody ever asks me for my one piece of advice, I already know what that is.

Um, and that applies at all career stages and it's choose your own mentors. Your, your mentors don't have to be just the person whose lab you work in. Tons of faculty members across fields are happy if you approach them and say, "hey, I'm interested in your work. I also have some questions about navigating things. Do you have time?" Um, some, some of the folks that I just walked up to into their, into their offices that were not the people that were officially mentoring me and, uh, and, you know, took me under their wing a little bit are the people that were the most active when it came time to supporting me and advocating for me as an independent scientist.

So no matter what career stage, always take on as many mentors as you can and, um, and really choose your own mentors. Don't feel like you have to be relegated to whoever is assigned to you.

[00:53:28] Erin Stephenson: And I will follow on with with a piece of advice about mentoring continuing once you start a faculty position. I think, you know, it's so important to have support where you are, just because you're a professor now doesn't mean that you don't still need help with things.

You are going to need support from the people around you. So whether that's through a formal mentoring committee, some institutions employ that, or you have to seek out your people in the institution. That's, that's going to be your first thing. Like the, the mentoring never stops. And, and also you're becoming a mentor too.

So you really have to get comfortable thinking about other people's success over your own. You know, the two obviously go hand in hand, but that's going to happen. 

[00:54:18] Lucas Cheadle: And also people that are not above you necessarily can also mentor you. So people can mentor up as well. So totally echoing what Erin said about continuing to be mentored as a faculty member. Um, that can happen through both directions. 

[00:54:33] Kimberly Williams: Yes, the mentorship is, is key and being successful in science. This is not a siloed job where you could do it yourself. Um, and so continuing to build those relationships and maintain those relationships are important. I think my advice would be when you're on the job market.

This is really a time for self evaluation and understanding of who you are and what you want to do. You've worked so hard for so many years, um, in graduate school and in postdoc, there's been ups and downs. And so when you're choosing your, your home and your, your career, think about what are the things that make you, you. What are the things that are going to be self serving to both your life and your career and really look for environments that are open to allowing you to be who you are. If you know that you want to go up against the beaten track and you want to create a career that is not normal, that's okay. You can always figure out how to build your career the way that you want to, which is the beauty of academia. 

[00:55:58] Lauren Ullrich: And Marguerite, what's your advice?

[00:56:00] Marguerite Matthews: I'm going to keep expanding on the person before; I really like what Kimberly said about doing some self reflection and thinking about your science as a business. Like, it's literally your business, but it is a business that requires a lot of careful consideration of everything that you're going to need in terms of equipment, resources, tools, personnel.

It's important that you're hired to be able to do the thing that you say you want to do and making that happen. And I think it's important to find a place that's going to be able to fit your needs and allow you to do that work and to carry out your business. 

So thanks for all of the advice already given everyone, but especially Kimberly for putting that business model out there. 

What about you Lauren? What's your advice?

[00:56:52] Lauren Ullrich: Uh, yeah, I'll just underscore, I think all of that; you have to trust your gut. Um, I just see so many people that they're like, "Oh, the vibes weren't there, but once I get there, it'll be different or I can make it different. Or I can, you know, I can make it work because I feel like this is my only option. This is the only one that gave me an offer or, you know, the only one that I would accept" or, or whatever. And I think that is just setting yourself up for heartbreak. And this applies for any job, like if something is off, you should trust your gut and do more research, ask more people, you know, see if you can get the inside scoop and be okay with changing your plans in order to set yourself up for success.

Even if that means it has to be delayed by six months or a year. Um, it just never, it just never ends well. [outro music] 

 So that's all we have time for today on Building Up the Nerve. Thank you to our guests this week for sharing their expertise. Thank you to Ana Ebrahimi for production help. And thank you to Bob Riddle for our theme song and music. We'll see you next time and we tackle succeeding as early career faculty. You can find past episodes of this podcast and many more resources on the web at 

[00:58:21] Marguerite Matthews: Be sure to follow us on Twitter @NINDSDiversity and @NINDSFunding. You can email us with questions at Make sure you subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts or your favorite podcast app so you don't miss an episode. We'll see you next time.