Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Book mini-review: Landing a Job in Academic Biology

An enduring memory of most Indian cities are the book sellers on pavements. They’d usually set up shop at any convenient street corner, and spread out their collections of used and new books for sale, including an enviable collection of pirated “ammonia prints” of the latest bestsellers, some textbooks (engineering, medicine, MBA) and, surprisingly, a collection of “self-help” books. These would be on everything from improving English to becoming a salesperson, to inspirational books like Lee Iococca’s biography. I’d always look at them with more than a mild sense of amusement, and never thought I’d ever read a “guide book”.

But I’m taking all those thoughts back, since I now feel those books might have immensely benefited numerous readers. The reason for this rapid reversal of thought is that I recently came across The Chicago guide to landing a job in academic biology by professors Chandler, Wolfe and Promislow (from different universities in Georgia). This is a slender little book, a mere 150 pages thick, and can easily be read in a couple of hours, or packed on a flight (hopefully not the flight taking you to your job interview though). But in those two hours, you’ll pretty much know every little thing you want to know about the process of getting a job in academia.

While this is titled “academic biology”, I think it is equally valuable for someone who’s looking for a job in academic chemistry, and there’s plenty for just about any academic who has dreams of climbing up the academic ladder, but first needs to get that very competitive assistant professor position. Most of us spend years in graduate school getting PhDs, and then often grind it out as postdoctoral fellows for a few years. We’re told that (or it appears as if) the only thing that matters for getting an academic position is your research and publication record. Except that while the research and publication record are indeed of paramount importance, there are dozens of other things that can determine the success rate of finding a job. But most students emerge out of these years of training with little knowledge of all the little things that they need to work on, in order to be successful in getting that job.

This is where this book comes in. The authors have a breezy writing style, filled with humorous anecdotes and personal examples, through which they go through every little aspect of getting a faculty position in academia. No detail is considered too trivial. They start out by stressing how competitive the academic job market is, and begin by saying how important it is to choose the right graduate program. They distinguish between the different types of positions in academia (from extremely research intensive institutes, to exclusive private schools with a focus on teaching), and how different the application packets to any of these should be. There is a whole chapter on writing the correct type of resume for a particular job opening (generic resumes just will not do), and give valuable tips on the things search committees look for in teaching/research statements. They dwell at length on the type of experience you need to gain as a student or postdoc while preparing for any of these positions, and then jump into the details of preparing for the interview, the all important job talk itself, targeting the job search, all the way down to your clothing and the statement it makes, and how to negotiate the best deal with the institute if an offer comes your way. And they also have tremendously useful tips for problems that are increasingly common; the “two body problem” (where couples, both academics, are looking for independent academic positions), potential problems while raising a family (during the stressful tenure track years), issues women might face in science and how they can best overcome them, and many more little details most of us would not even think about.

If you are an aspiring assistant professor in the greater biological sciences (from pure biology to the physical and chemical sciences), I think this book is a must have. At a price of ~12 dollars, it is an absolute steal.

Now that I have most other things covered, all I need to do is to crank out some fantastic publications, and I think I’ll be on my way.

The Chicago Guide to Landing a Job in Academic Biology.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

I wrote another reply to your previous post, but it disappeared.
I am at Northwestern, trying to combine electrophysiology, mathematical modeling and mechanical-electrical engineering to study how the nervous system encoded sensory information, using the rat whisker system as model, at present, to modest success.
The field is fascinating, but inordinately hard to design well-controlled experiments-- hence a lot of heartache results.
Do you do any electrophysiology yourself? Circadian (sleep) rhythms have interesting electrophysiological correlates in the suprachiasmatic nucleus in the hypothalamus. Of course, you could be studying the circadian rhythms of hormones etc. and then again, one could do electrophysiology in the pituitary or adrenals. Has anyone done it seriously?
Best,
Aniket

Sunil said...

sounds fascinating Aniket. Send me an email offline, and perhaps you could tell me more about your work there.

No...I don't do any ephiz....that is not an area of my interest....I'm not working with excitable systems. But yes, a lot of people do work on some of the things you mention.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Sunil. The problem is that I do not have your email ID. I am sure there is a way to send you email through blogger, but I have never done it before and I do not wish to send it to the wrong person. Could you tell me how to do it?

Aniket

Sunil said...

just send me a mail to linuslas [at] yahoo

Anonymous said...

Sending email to linuslas@yahoo.com failed.

Anonymous said...

That was me.

Aniket

Sunil said...

sorry Aniket.... linuslax [at] yahoo

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