Failure to Launch

Karen Kashmanian Oates explores why STEM postdocs struggle to land their first faculty position and how others in academe can help.

August 2, 2016

The drive to attract and educate more young people to science- and technology-based careers is inarguably good for American society and competitiveness. But we drop the ball when it comes to how we help our best and brightest at the highest levels of STEM academics and research take that final step into a career in higher ed.

Although America has made great strides in the past 15 years in promoting STEM education and interest in science and technology careers, from elementary school through the college level -- and more young people, more women and minorities are pursuing careers in STEM-based professions, in both academe and industry -- we have to do a better job of making careers attractive and accessible to the next generation.

Here is the situation for most of today’s postdocs nearing the end of their first (or second or third) go-round as part of a university research team: after five-plus years of graduate study, they’re sequestered away in the lab, spending almost every waking hour focused on their research tasks, for as long as six or more years. And while most people will gain invaluable knowledge about their content area, few will learn anything about how to successfully launch a university-level teaching career -- both because they’ve been intensively focused on their research and haven’t been given the time to prepare for life beyond the lab, and because their employer institutions and faculty mentors may have felt aiding in that preparation wasn’t their priority or responsibility. (Most chief researchers are just as single-mindedly focused on their work as the postdocs they employ.)

Accordingly, every dean in every STEM-research institution sees the result of a lack of guidance in the transition from research fellow to polished faculty member: the poorly written application and letter, the awkward attempts to package and communicate their talents and passion, the inexperience presenting their research and qualifications, and their rusty or inadequate teaching skills.

Facing fierce competition for a shrinking number of tenure-track positions, the postdoc’s task becomes even more daunting, if not impossible. Science Careers surveys conducted by Cell Associates have found that although some 56 percent of postdocs plan to pursue tenure-track positions, only 21 percent of surveyed candidates succeed in finding those types of positions in 2012, down from 30 percent in 2008 and 37 percent in 2010. 

It’s time that those of us who lead science and technology universities recognize we have an obligation to the postdocs who provide the brains, muscle and heart of our research initiatives. We should strive to exceed the obvious requirements of a decent working environment, mentoring in the subject matter and a living wage. We should also include active help in developing a career plan, and guidance and training in the skills and steps necessary to find, apply to and compete for quality positions in both academia and nonacademic fields. After all, our institutions reap the benefits of their work -- in acclaim, in grants and funding, and in increased competitiveness. It is only right that we help them achieve their goals, and that includes teaching them how to compete to their individual benefit.

Last fall, Worcester Polytechnic Institute did just that: we offered our first STEM Faculty Launch Program for Ph.D. and postdoctoral professionals, an intensive two-day workshop that guided participants in writing a career plan and research statement, managing common social and interview interactions during a job search, and presenting their research and themselves competitively, including use of social media and via networking. We also provided workshops on teaching practice and mentoring.

In part, we had selfish motives: the workshop provided us with a vehicle for meeting potential candidates for our own faculty openings. But we were also driven by the recognition of an urgent need for such training and assistance, a need made abundantly clear by too many awkward and unpolished attempts at communication from postdocs applying for positions with little knowledge as to how to move from the lab table to the faculty level. Perhaps we should not have been surprised when our two-day program, announced very quietly through a few online ads and one webpage, attracted 10 times the number of applicants we expected.

We were able to host 27 postdocs -- 18 women and nine men representing universities in 13 states and two countries. In addition to hands-on career guidance, participants were given access to seasoned WPI faculty in their specific fields: mathematics, engineering, physics, computer science, biology, molecular biology, biomedical engineering and chemistry. For many, hearing senior faculty members’ experience provided valuable insight into academe. Several said their home institutions offered scattered career workshops, but few felt they had adequate access to comprehensive, “full package” training. (We plan to host the program again Sept. 22-23. Applications are being accepted through Aug. 12.)

While we could each develop our own separate approach to such training, it would make more sense for the leading academic, research and science associations to take ownership of such an overarching initiative to set proper standards, design a curriculum, provide and fund teaching and self-teaching tools, and “train the trainers.” The time and effort required to produce such training workshops, and the associated costs, would be wise investments in the careers of future faculty members -- who, in turn, are entrusted with preparing the next generation of STEM professionals.

That is especially true in light of recent data that show a desperate need for the growing number of women and minorities who have been attracted to STEM research education and careers to find mentors and guidance. In our own small program, we heard from both women and minority candidates that they had an especially hard time finding career guidance and direction from relevant resources. It appears especially difficult for them to find role models whose paths they could follow.

Right now at WPI, 36 percent of our faculty consists of women and minorities, and we are working hard to raise that percentage. And we hope that by the time this new, passionate group of scientists, mathematicians and engineers have completed the postdoc grind in hopes of finding fulfilling, lifelong careers, every research university benefiting from their talents also provides them with the skills and support they need to move on and succeed.


Karen Kashmanian Oates is a professor of biochemistry and the Peterson Family Dean of Arts & Sciences at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.


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