Monday, November 30, 2009

Interview: Life as a new chemistry professor

Chemjobber is terribly pleased to have secured an interview with a recently hired chemistry professor. "SK" is an assistant professor at a small and very well-regarded private college who was kind enough to answer questions about applying for, interviewing and getting an assistant professorship and life at the front of the classroom. This e-mail Q&A was edited lightly by CJ and checked for accuracy by SK. 

CJ: Can you describe the process for finding your current position? What did you like about it? What didn't you like about it?

SK: I was still committed to another year at my postdoc, so I almost didn't apply, but there were three schools with job listings that appealed to me (right location; right type of school), so I applied to those three. The application was similar to at an R1 institution, (cover letter, CV, transcripts, research proposals, letters of recommendation), with the addition of a teaching statement. I was fortunate to get interviews at all three institutions, which were 1-2 day affairs. At each school, the visit included meetings with members of the faculty, current students in the department, a meeting with the dean of faculty, and a talk on my research. Some of the interviews also included a meeting with the college president and/or a mock lecture on a specified topic. I was extremely fortunate to receive two offers (at my favorite two schools), and I negotiated with the respective deans regarding salary, startup funds and start date, before accepting an offer at my current institution.

I really enjoyed the application and interview process. Nearly everyone I visited with was very pleasant and non-confrontational, and I especially enjoyed my interactions with the students. For the most part, the people I met seemed more interested in recruiting me than in evaluating me. The visits also helped me to better understand the type of institution where I would best 'fit', which was somewhat different from what I expected. (Specifically, I thought I wanted to be at an institution that focused less on research, but ultimately found that the two more 'research focused' undergraduate institutions were much more appealing overall than the one that had minimal research expectations.)

I'm having a hard time thinking of things I didn't like about the interview process, although it was a bit grueling. I guess there were a couple of 'weird' experiences on one of the interviews that might be worth mentioning. One was a conversation with a faculty member who seemed to have made up his mind before I arrived that I wasn't going to get the job. Towards the end of our meeting (during which I felt I had answered some tough questions quite competently), he said, "I'm sure you'll get an offer somewhere," which sounded suspiciously like, "you are qualified for this job, but I won't approve your hire." At the same school (let's call it University Y), I had a student snidely tell me, "People who can't get into X College go to University Y, and people who can't get into University Y go to Z University." By this point in the conversation, the student knew both (a) that I was next interviewing at X College, and (b) that Z University was my alma mater. So he managed to insult me, unfavorably compare his college to another that would make me an offer, and affirm my prior impression that students from University Y were obnoxious brats!

Do you have former classmates/colleagues who have found academic positions at more research-oriented institutions? How are your experiences different?

I do have several friends who have gone that route. From what I can tell, it seems to me that their pressures are very similar, though their order of priorities are a bit different. We all seem to want to do a good job of teaching, to manage our research groups effectively, and to secure external grant funding. For me, that list is roughly in order of decreasing importance. For my friends at R1 institutions, the order of importance seems to be reversed. Our resources at our respective institutions also seems a bit different. My friends at R1 institutions received copious financial support in the form of startup funds (in one case amounting to about 10 times what I received). That said, it seems that my institution is far more generous in terms of mentoring and general guidance to help me be successful. For example, my department teamed up to write a joint grant to purchase an expensive piece of equipment for my research program. (If you count the cost of this equipment, for which I will be the primary user, then the startup discrepancy with my most well-funded friend in a research position drops from 10x to 4x). It is also apparent that the assumption at my institution is that most faculty hires WILL get tenure. That is in stark contrast to one friend of mine at a major research university, who was told that only a quarter of hires like him will receive tenure.

Can you tell me about a typical day, now that you're a professor? What's it like to be on the other side?

It's hard to decide what a typical day is, so I think I'll just describe my day today. This morning I arrived at work at around 7:15 am. I checked my email, put the finishing touches on my lecture slides (which I finished tweaking around 11pm last night), gathered the handouts I printed yesterday, and made my way down to the lecture hall for class. I taught two back-to-back, one-hour sections of General Chemistry, then returned to my office to respond to some emails and modify my lecture slides to post on the course website. At 11am, I had a department meeting where we discussed the progress of our current faculty search. At noon I met with my research group (which consists of 3 senior thesis students) to check in on their lab progress over the last couple of weeks. During the meeting, I stole glances at my email to see if I had heard back from the funding agency that was supposed to announce their decision on my grant application application in "mid November"... Then I headed over to the dining hall at 12:30 to catch the last half of the monthly Junior Faculty lunch meeting, where we learned about the college's current development campaign. At 1pm I scrambled back to my office to meet with a student who had done poorly on the first quiz in Gen Chem. Then I helped my research student set up a nitrogen tank in the lab before meeting with more Gen Chem students during my office hours from 2-4. At 4pm I had a phone conference with a representative from an online learning site who wants me to promote his product to students in my organic chemistry class next semester. At 5:00, I logged into the college's Academic Advisory site to send notices to students at risk of failing General Chemistry. For the last hour, I've been working through my inbox to reply to assorted emails (like this one) before going home for dinner.

Have you taught your first class? What has that been like?

I've been teaching General Chemistry for the last few weeks. It is equal parts terrifying and delightful. My students are absurdly smart, and are constantly asking me questions that test my knowledge of the subject matter. I'm also spoiled in the sense that my students are, by and large, interested in chemistry and willing to engage in the material and participate in class, which makes teaching them a joy. The hardest part for me has been dealing with the different backgrounds of my students. Some have taken AP Chemistry and know everything that I'm teaching, while others have a much weaker high school background. It's virtually impossible to satisfy everyone, so I've been trying to take regular readings of the class to get an idea of what things people are struggling with, or also what sort of higher-level enrichment-type questions they might have that I can answer to keep them interested. One advantage I've had is that I got to observe an experienced professor teach the same class in the first half of the semester before I had to teach it. That way I was calibrated for the pace and level at which to present.

Has everything gone "as planned" or have you been surprised by your experiences so far?

No huge surprises. It's a ton of work, but I expected that. It's also incredibly rewarding, which I also expected. Perhaps the biggest surprise is the degree to which I've felt supported and mentored in this first semester, which is really nice.

What advice would you give for people who are interested in a position like yours? Any suggestions as to a postdoc path?

It's hard, because from my experience, it seemed like the different schools where I interviewed were looking for very different things. Two of the three schools seemed to prefer candidates who had done a visiting professorship (which I had not done), perhaps over a research postdoc. The institution I chose would almost certainly not have hired me without a research postdoc, and I'm convinced a visiting professorship would not have helped me to get this job (and perhaps might have hurt me).

That said, I think all primarily undergraduate institutions (PUIs) value teaching experience, so I recommend getting as much as you can. If you want a job at a PUI that does have a research focus, then the next step after grad school is to do a research postdoc. Most PUIs are more restricted in the amount of startup funds they can offer. (From stories I've heard from others, along with my experience, it seems the range is somewhere from $0 - $200K, with the median somewhere a lot closer to zero...) Given this restriction, I think it is also wise to consider what kinds of projects can be done with less funding, and also what avenues of research lend themselves well to being parceled out into small mini-projects suitable for undergraduates to do in a summer or in 4-8 hours per week during the semester.

What's your opinion of the job market for people who are interested in positions like yours? What have you heard?

The job market is tight, especially now. That said, the folks who get everything 'right' in their applications seem to be getting multiple offers. So my advice (as with any application), is to take the time to put together a top notch application. Get input from people you know at PUIs, and from people in your field, and from anybody else you can convince to read the application. Be sure that your commitment to teaching and mentoring undergraduates comes through loud and clear. (There's nothing more off-putting than an application to a liberal arts college that refers to teaching grad students and postdocs. For that matter, tailor your application to the specific school and department as much as possible.) And apply to more than 1 or 2 places, because it's hard to know specifically what 'hole' a given department is trying to fill. (You may be the best candidate, but if a small department already has a computational physical chemist, they probably aren't going to hire another one.)

CJ again: Thanks to SK for a great interview. And to all the candidates out there, good luck! 


  1. CJ,
    This contribution nicely fills a gap that C&EN should be providing. I have done interviews of post-docs and challenges that people have faced and overcome.

    This is such a thorough, well conceived conversation. I would have loved to see the body language of the professor and also learn what her near term focus is.

    Thank you,

  2. Great interview! Thanks for sharing!

  3. I just sent in applications for assistant professor positions at two PUIs. How soon after the "review of application begins" deadline did you begin to receive calls for interviews?

    Thank you for the helpful information!


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20