Getting your professorship

How do you progress to being a professor?
04 September 2020

Interview with 

Amanda Haage, University of North Dakota


Lecture theatre


So you’ve got your PhD; you’ve done a post-doc or two, and you’ve pumped out papers and pimped your CV so it’s a resume to die for. Now you want that tenured post in your dream institution. So how do you get it? And are you making yourself as marketable as possible? As Chris Smith heard, Amanda Haage and her colleagues wondered exactly the same thing, but were frustrated by the apparent lack of transparency and mentorship in science, so they set up a survey to find out whether they were the only ones, and what really needs to change...

Amanda - We're going through and there's all these communities and Twitter and all these advice pieces out there of how you get that job. But there's no numbers. That's what we wanted - to make the numbers. So we made a survey from the people that are actually trying to be professors. We got them to put their numbers into the survey and then looked at the correlations and comparisons between different people.

Chris - And what does the survey show? What did it reveal?

Amanda - So the survey shows that essentially there's no super clear path to becoming a professor. Those numbers, all the little metrics from training help to a certain degree, but nothing is like a super good predictor of what it takes to be a professor. So there's no one clear path. There's a lot of different factors. One of the biggest ones that we saw was the number of applications you put in, has a strong correlate for how many interviews you get, which is then how many job offers you get: applying to more places helps.

Chris - How many people actually filled in the survey? And do you think that what you found is representative of the pool of people? i.e. It includes people who are successful, but also people who are not successful. Because, I put it to you, that if you end up with everyone who's disgruntled filling in, you're going to get a distorted picture. Or if you get everyone who's Einstein filling it in, you're going to get a distorted picture,

Amanda - Right! We got over 300 responses and it does have a bit of a survivorship bias to it in that our pool of those 300 people, about 60% of them ended up getting a job offer to be a professor, and that's pretty high. And that makes sense. Because it was born out of this peer mentoring group where everybody kind of knew they wanted to be a professor. So all those people they're already looking at this career and they're already kind of driving down this path. But I will say, even though we do have this bias, there was not a single positive comment about the process itself. Even though these are the people that are getting jobs.

Chris - And did any themes keep on emerging as repeatedly being said as 'this is a downside, this is a downside. this is a problem'. I.e. things that we could tractably say well, there's our intervention point.

Amanda - Yeah. We've had this conversation a lot. One of the things that was repeatedly reported was this lack of mentorship and a lack of feedback. There's, you know, trainees, they're working underneath someone that's supposed to help them become this professor. The people that are making the hiring decisions, aren't really telling people what they need to become that professor.

Chris - Is the survey, not just a bit one sided in the sense that, okay, you've got the opinion of people who have, or haven't made it, the people who are on the rough end of the interview process. Wouldn't a more valid approach be to go to the people who sit on these panels and ask them for examples where they've definitely got it right, and definitely got it wrong, because then you can see whether or not they really are asking the right sorts of questions. Because we've all hired people that we regret, I mean, it happens.

Amanda - Yeah. And I think that's a really interesting point. It's something we tried to get at a little bit. We did do a survey of hiring committees. And it's true, like the things that the applicants think is important and those metrics and those numbers of what the applicants have, didn't exactly match up with what the search committees say they value. And so that disconnect is a really interesting and a really important spot for improvement.

Chris - It's something though of a buyer's market, isn't it? And the market knows it.

Amanda - Yup. It's definitely trending in that direction. One of the things we say early in our introduction is that we're continually producing more and more people with PhDs and all of these people are coming out of this training, but the number of faculty positions has not really increased. So it's just kind of driving this hyper-competitive environment. We can just keep pushing the envelope of what we can ask. And we're seeing that with like papers that are published, that's been well-documented that the number of papers people are publishing at the point where they're applying to be a professor's like increased astronomically over the last 20 years,

Chris - Because on the one hand, science is the beneficiary. If you've got loads and loads of good people applying for jobs, you can have the pick of the bunch and you're going to get good people. So that's wonderful. But then on the other hand, my concern is if the system is driving people to think in the sort of way that the system is making people think i.e. I've got to have loads of publications, then people aren't necessarily thinking like a scientist. They're thinking strategically like a career person. And that isn't necessarily the same thing. And I think back to, I read John Sulston who got the Nobel prize for sequencing the human genome and the wonderful work he did with C. elegans, I read his book. At one very poignant point and he says he'd been in post for about 10 years before someone said, well, you know, really, we ought to write a paper about some of this work, John. You wouldn't see that happening today, and this is someone who went on to get a Nobel prize.

Amanda - Yeah, it's really interesting how much it's changed the landscape with this like hyper-competitiveness. And I don't disagree that we're maybe doing a disservice to science by making the super hyper competitive, hyper stressful environment. Because the other aspect that you see, a lot of people commented when we're talking about their feelings about the process, is anxiety. And I struggled with it when I was applying too is that we are taking these people that are super, super smart and just exhausting them and making them super stressed out just to get over this hump of trying to continue to have a career in science.

Chris - Well, I'm glad you brought that up because my next question to you was going to be when you're in the position of being on these panels now, you're going to be in a position to change things. So do you not think that because a lot of people have now come through this, been stressed to hell, okay, they've paid a high price, but now they're in a position to fix it and they will?

Amanda - Yeah, I really hope so. I plan to. Hopefully we get this generation of scientists, which I'm hoping is my generation, we all care about the culture change and then we all bring it forward with us as we go.


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