It is important to recognize that academic research positions are not all the same and that institutions differ widely in what they require of faculty members. Therefore, you should have a pretty good idea of what fits your goals as you look at positions and the distribution of work that comes with them.
|Barbara M. Sanborn received her doctorate in chemistry from Boston University. After postdoctoral training in biochemistry at Brandeis University and the University of Iowa, she was appointed to the faculty at the University of Texas Medical School in Houston, first in reproductive medicine and biology and later in the department of biochemistry and molecular biology. She subsequently assumed the position of head of the department of biomedical sciences at Colorado State University and just recently stepped down to return to her laboratory.
It is important to recognize that academic research positions are not all the same and that institutions differ widely in what they require of faculty members. There is a broad spectrum with respect to the amount and type of teaching expected as well as the amount of protected time for research, start-up arrangements and additional resources available to faculty members. Therefore, you should have a pretty good idea of what fits your goals as you look at positions and the distribution of work that comes with them.
In most cases, you will establish your own laboratory, recruit laboratory personnel and secure funding for your research. There is more to this than meets the eye, however, just as there is more to being a successful assistant professor than carrying out research. For starters, you need to have good instincts for selecting research projects of significant impact that have reasonable short-term goals and the potential to develop into long-term programmatic emphases. Your work should be in an area that will attract funding, ideally from more than one source. In a research-intensive environment, you should find senior faculty members who are willing to give you feedback on papers and grant applications. In fact, advice from colleagues can be valuable throughout your career no matter how senior you are.
It is important that you learn to speak and write well. Effective communication with your laboratory staff and students, your departmental and institutional colleagues, and your professional peer group establishes you as an independent investigator with your own ideas and research program. You also will need to learn to network and establish collaborations.
It also will be important for you to develop personnel and fiscal management skills in order to run your lab effectively and responsibly. Recruiting staff is a learned skill, and you probably will make some mistakes sooner or later – learn from them and choose as wisely as you can, as it is very time- and labor-intensive to train laboratory people.
Depending on your position, you may be expected to teach undergraduates and train them in your laboratory, teach and sponsor graduate students, educate professional students, and train postdoctoral fellows. Perfecting a teaching style takes a lot of effort and practice at any level. To be successful, you have to want to convey information. There is both challenge and reward in putting things in such a way that your students have an “Aha!” moment. Regardless of how much or how little teaching you do, you should do it well. Take the time to make your presentations clear, level-appropriate and relevant. I taught biochemistry for many years in a medical school and found that consulting with clinical colleagues about relevant clinical illustrations of basic principles was time well spent. If you are willing to teach outside your area of expertise, all the better, as your value to your department will increase. Use student feedback to improve your style, but do not get overly discouraged about student criticism. Also, seek the balanced perspective of a senior faculty member regarding your presentations.