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While the pursuit of faculty jobs is common among Ph.D.s and postdoctoral scholars, surprisingly little data exist on the factors associated with landing an assistant professor position. The few notable publications and resources include the Academic Career Readiness Assessment and work from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

In response to the dearth of available information, a group of current and former biomedical and biological sciences postdocs, including me, formed a Faculty Job Market Collaboration team that sought to better understand factors associated with successfully landing a faculty job offer, primarily at research-intensive institutions in the United States and Canada.

Through a thorough analysis of data from 2018–19 job applicants that we published in eLife in June 2020, we found a few metrics that distinguished survey respondents with at least one faculty job offer from those without offers. Those metrics include:

  • Number of applications the candidate submitted
  • Citation counts of the candidate’s publications
  • Postdoc-to-faculty transition funding
  • A history of externally funded postdoctoral fellowships

The importance of those metrics in helping one obtain a faculty job offer appears consistent in newly collected data that we haven’t yet fully reported. While one can take many paths to obtain an offer (as our eLife paper emphasized) and no single metric or set of metrics perfectly predicts success, some key findings from our work are relevant to biological science Ph.D.s planning to apply for faculty positions at research-intensive institutions.

  1. “Enough” applications must be submitted for the best chance of receiving an offer. When candidates have equally strong credentials and are applying to positions where the probability of being selected for a position is low (i.e., being one out of 200-plus applicants), they can increase their odds by applying to many positions. Setting a target number of applications to submit is complex, as it varies by field and the applicant’s constraints, including geographic preferences. Our 2018–19 job market applicants, who primarily worked in the biomedical and biological sciences, applied to a median of 15 positions. Those who received at least one faculty job offer applied to a median of 20. In contrast, those who did not report a job offer applied to a median of 10.5 positions.

Practically, these data suggest that candidates may need to expand their criteria for positions to apply to. For instance, one may consider looking for advertised faculty positions in adjacent fields and/or at a diverse range of institutions as opposed to just research-intensive universities. Consistently, we see that the median number of applications submitted are higher in those who receive at least one job offer versus those with no offers.

  1. Successful candidates perform research that is recognized in their fields. Survey respondents with at least one faculty job offer had higher citations counts than those with none, despite similar numbers of total publications and first-author publication counts. This finding indicates a vital need for early-career researchers, especially those still in graduate school and postdoctoral training, to ensure their work is effectively promoted. While it helps to be co-authors with a well-respected and highly cited researcher or to pursue research collaborations that amplify output, grad students and postdocs can take steps to communicate their research effectively through conference presentations, institutional press offices and social media efforts.

Citation counts also remained higher in those with at least one job offer in the 2019–20 applicant data.

  1. Establishing a funding track record helps. Whether postdocs seek out fellowship funding or career transition awards such as the National Institutes of Health’s K99/R00 mechanism or Burroughs Wellcome Fund’s Career Awards at the Scientific Interface, our data show that applicants who reported at least one faculty job offer were more likely to have one of these award types. As the awards provide funding to bridge advanced postdoctoral training with the transition to independence (including funds for their research program), they allow a researcher to hit the ground running when they land a faculty position.
  2. Working with a productive postdoc adviser could also be important. While we are still actively analyzing data from those on the job market in 2020–21 and 2021–22 (and currently collecting data from those on the job market this past year, 2022–23), we are interested in investigating variables and effects we did not measure in our original survey. Early signs suggest that the scholarly productivity of applicants’ postdoc advisers may be particularly important, with the median h-index of postdoc advisers being higher in those who received at least one offer versus those who did not. As h-index takes into account publication number and also citation count, this preliminary finding further suggests that being a candidate associated with a well-cited researcher is important to one’s success on the faculty job market.
  3. Qualitative responses call for increased data, transparency and information on the faculty application process, which our work is trying to address. We also found through qualitative analysis of applicants’ experience of the faculty job application process that they found it opaque, lacking in feedback and stressful. Our hope is that by collecting data on the applicant experience we can empower those aspiring to faculty careers to understand what activities they should undertake to maximize their chances of landing a job offer. Coupling our work with that from the search committee perspective, which went into the construction of the Academic Career Readiness Assessment at the University of California, San Francisco, we hope to improve transparency in the faculty search process.

These insights are critical, especially as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, which severely affected postdocs’ interest in a faculty career. A 2022 study published in eLife surveying the postdoc experience before and during the pandemic found that more than one-third of postdocs reported changing their career plans—and that the proportion of these individuals considering academic positions declined substantially. About 51 percent of those who changed their career plans reported they were considering an academic position, compared to 70 percent who reported no change to their career plans. Our team has also looked into the effect of the pandemic on the applicant experience, which you can read more about in our preprint here.

We plan to continue to measure the faculty job market and its evolution over time. The points mentioned above come from our survey of the 2018–19 job market cycle published in eLife, but our team has continued to collect and analyze data from applicants on the faculty job market from 2019 to 2022. Currently, our 2022–23 applicants survey is collecting responses from those who applied to faculty positions between May 2022 and April 2023. While we are still comprehensively analyzing responses to our surveys over multiple cycles to understand factors consistently associated with receiving a job offer, data are emerging that confirm our 2018–19 job market findings.

Explore Our Data Dashboard

You can explore some of these effects yourself. We are excited to announce a new data dashboard featuring combined responses from our 2019–20, 2020–21 and 2021–22 applicant surveys where you can review a variety of metrics associated with those who received and did not receive faculty job offers. Filters that can be applied to the data include research field, gender and the PEER (person historically excluded due to ethnicity or race) status of applicants.

In summary, we hope our data provide actionable insights for Ph.D. students and postdocs preparing to go on the faculty job market and help make the process of determining whether they are “competitive” a bit easier. We also hope that these data increase access to important information for all of those considering a faculty career, allowing them to pursue it with intention or consider other career pathways post-Ph.D.

Chris Smith is the postdoctoral affairs program administrator at Virginia Tech and a member of the Faculty Job Market Collaboration team, which led the data collection and reporting efforts featured in this piece. He serves on the National Postdoctoral Association’s Board of Directors and is a member of the Graduate Career Consortium—an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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