The proportion of tenure-track positions in academe have fallen from 36.5 percent to 24.1 percent over the past three decades, according to the U.S. Department of Education . Still, many recent doctoral recipients land one of these prestigious positions. One such early-career -psychologist, Steve S. Lee, landed an appointment as a tenure-track professor at UCLA last summer--after a lot of careful preparation and a little good luck.
gradPSYCH spoke with Lee about his job hunting experience.
How did you make yourself stand out in the crowded academic job market? I did a two-year postdoc in psychiatric genetics in the department of psychiatry at the University of Chicago. For certain types of jobs, a postdoc is almost a requirement.
Did you always plan to find a postdoc first or did you aim to go straight to the job market? I always [knew] a postdoc would make me the most competitive. If there was any way for me to get an academic job straight out of grad school, I probably would have.
You finished your postdoc in the summer of 2006. When did you start looking for a job? I started putting together my application in the summer of 2005 and started to monitor what sorts of ads were coming out.
Is summer typically the busiest time for applications? Ads tend to peak in late fall or early winter. Winter is the busiest time for doing the actual interviews.
Did you get a good response to your applications? I applied to 35 schools plus or minus a couple. Of those 35, at least 10 to 15 were probably a stretch based on fit. And I think you have to do that because of how competitive the job market is. Obviously there were some schools that I think I did fit pretty well with that I didn't get interviews for, but given how things ultimately played out, I think I was pretty fortunate.
What surprised you about the interviewing and getting job offers? A couple of things: One thing that did surprise me is the level of specificity as far as negotiating the details of one's package. So in my case it was things like lab space. I had to put in [funding] for things like putting in video cameras for work that I do with observational coding. It's easy to lose sight of things like making sure there are enough plugs in the room--really basic things. People should really take a bottom-up approach when considering all they need to get their lab started. I would recommend that you think about, from start to finish, what you need to recruit subjects, to run the subjects and, of course, to analyze your data. The other thing that surprised me is how much being an academic is like being an entrepreneur. You get your start-up money, but after that, it's really up to you to get things launched.
Should academic job-seekers apply to a wide variety of positions, keeping in mind that when its time to make final decisions they can be more selective? It's better to submit something where they're going to say, "Why did he apply to this job?" than if you don't apply to a place that could have been a good fit. It's best to cover all of your bases.