The LCGC Blog: Career Advice for Aspiring Academics


In this edition of the LCGC Blog, Amber Hupp of the College of the Holy Cross provides advice for aspiring analytical chemists and shares accounts of other professionals.

Last month, I participated in an ACS SCSC networking panel on careers for separation scientists. We had wonderful attendance, and I learned a lot about different career paths from the smart and successful panelists. I shared some of my journey as an academic and gave some advice for early-career separation scientists. In that spirit, I share here some of that personal advice and direction for an academic career. I also share, with permission, several great tips from trusted and successful tenure track and tenured professors at a variety of institutions.

Different Types of Universities and Colleges

If you are interested in an academic career, then you have likely given some thought to what type of institution you would like to teach and perform research in. Many types of academic institutions exist, ranging from community colleges to private four-year liberal arts schools to high research activity R1 and R2 universities. Each of these schools will have a different balance of teaching and research and different requirements for achieving tenure. It is important for you to discern what types of schools match with your interests, career goals, and how you want to spend your time. A teacher scholar at a primarily undergraduate institution (PUI) is likely to have high expectations for quality instruction in the classroom and research that is accessible to undergrads. The amount of research one is expected to perform is still likely to vary by institution, but many schools will expect publication in peer-reviewed journals. Scientists at public universities may have fewer contact hours in the classroom yet that comes with increased expectation for a vibrant research program that is supplemented (sometimes heavily) with grant dollars. Whichever way you decide, there is no one correct answer. Everyone will have different desires for their career. My advice is to take some time to discern what types of institutions you are interested in and start asking some questions of people at those institutions. Asking about the balance of teaching, research, and service obligations will help you determine the types of institutions that align with your goals. Finding folks at poster sessions at national meetings like Pittcon and ACS, and regional ACS meetings, along with those in your sub-discipline (high performance liquid chromatography [HPLC], comprehensive two-dimensional gas chromatography [GCxGC], etc), would be a great way to engage and expand your network.

What was the most helpful piece of advice you received before you started your career?

Tenured professor at a public R1 university: “The most useful comment I received was to keep laser-focused on your goals and what you want to be as a professional. There are so many different paths to success, and it's not good to compare yours to anyone else. What worked for others may not work for you, and vice versa. Basically, ‘you do you,’ and that's a very unique perk of an academic job. You can do you, with the consequent pros and cons.”

Tenure track professor at a public R1 university: “Be willing to shop around when it comes to positions in academia. There are many different types of academic institutions out there, from the small private liberal arts schools up to the high research activity R1 schools. Not all universities (and departments within a university) are the same, and it is really a matter of finding the right home that matches your professional priorities. Also, consider if advancement into administration is important to you (e.g. moving into a department chair or program director role), since this can be very different from one place to another.”

Tenured professor at a private liberal arts PUI: “When I was a graduate student, I got advice that I needed to have a strong research background even if I wanted to be at an undergraduate school, maybe even especially at an undergraduate school, to be research active. Unlike at an R1 institution, it's harder to connect with collaborators. I'm not often working with postdocs or senior grad students, and there aren't eight other analytical chemists in my department to bounce ideas around with. Getting a solid research foundation has helped me keep my research lab active and funded at a small place with undergrads only.”

Do I Really Have to Postdoc?

The short answer is no, you don’t have to find a postdoctoral experience. However, it can be very beneficial, and it is important to consider various ways in which a year or two between grad school and a tenure track job can be utilized to your advantage. A postdoc can provide additional experiences that you may not have had a chance to engage in during grad school. The most common type of postdoc is based in a research lab where a new skill or field of study, complementary to your grad work, can be learned. Another type of postdoc is focused on teaching, either through a research/teaching combination opportunity or through a sabbatical replacement adjunct. The time in a postdoc can really enhance your already existing skillset and give you new ones. It also gives you time to consider and develop your own research program. My advice is to consider what skills you might want to gain if you take some years for a postdoc opportunity and to seek out researchers who can help you continue to grow and develop as a scholar and teacher.

What advice would you give a grad student wanting a career in academics? A postdoc?

Tenured professor at a public R2 university: “For a grad student, the biggest thing would be to practice writing as much as possible. It will help as you prepare your dissertation, and it is a skill that will continue to last. For a postdoc, the big thing would be to find an orthogonal skill set from your doctoral work that will enable you to create a unique niche in your field. Think about what types of problems you would like to solve in the world, and then seek out projects that will give you the specific skills you would need to accomplish those goals.”

Tenured professor at a private liberal arts PUI: “I would say that you should think about what skills you will need to be successful. Which ones do you already have, and how will your application show that you have them? Which skills do you still need to develop, and how will you do that? For example, when I decided I wanted to go to a PUI, I didn't have much teaching experience, so I looked for a place to develop that.”

Developing a Research Proposal

Any academic job that will involve research will require a proposal. This proposed plan typically outlines your main hypotheses, your first set of experiments, what equipment and instrumentation will be needed and what they cost, and how you will involve students (either at the graduate or undergraduate level or both). It is important to show how your research is novel and unique, but also doable. The best proposals will be within your wheelhouse, utilizing skills you have developed during your time in graduate school or your postdoc, and will give a good sense of how the work can be published and funded at various points along the way. You also need to know what to propose in terms of a budget, or at least have an approximate amount in mind. The budget at an R1 will be different than at a PUI, and even PUIs can vary quite a bit. My advice is to find some friendly faces at conferences in the years before you begin writing and ask about research startups. Analytical chemists can be very expensive hires, yet you want to make sure you are setting yourself up for success to get your first papers and your first grant with that startup.

Did your research program end up going exactly as you planned in your proposal? What advice would you give someone thinking about writing up their first independent research goals?

Tenured professor at a public R2 university: “Some things went according to plan, others never even got off the ground. The biggest thing to remember is to be flexible. Sometimes, you may unexpectedly lose access to what you need for a project (i.e. an instrument breaks with limited repair budget), so being able to pivot while still pursuing a parallel direction is key. Also, interesting results can sometimes guide you in new directions, and you shouldn't be scared to pursue these tangential projects.”

Tenure track professor at a public R1 university: “Absolutely not. I had some bigger collaborative projects that I wanted to conduct, and the collaborations didn’t work out as planned. I also had some research goals that were very ambitious in terms of personnel, resources, and time. You must be prepared to pivot and have backup plan B, C, and D. I think if you plan a proposal based on what you are passionate about, it becomes easier to pivot your goals if one avenue doesn’t go as you originally thought it would.”

Tenured professor at a public university: “My advice would be to keep goals attainable considering the institution you are applying for (e.g., does your success at a PUI depend on securing a huge NSF grant, can it be done with the type of students, how much time can you allocate to research), keep in mind your audience (not everyone on the committee is in your specific field), and don't be afraid to mention back up plans if your initial plan does not succeed.”

Preparing for the Search

Going into the search process knowing what type of school you are looking for is really important. Not only will it help you narrow your search, but it will also help you prepare materials that are more aligned with the goals of the institution and department. The search process is critical for both you as a candidate and for the department. Academic searches assume a commitment that will last the candidate’s entire career. At a small school, alignment of research field and teaching interests within what is already established in the department is likely the most critical consideration of the search committee. What I didn’t realize starting out is that if a small school already had a separation scientist, I was likely to be overlooked quickly based on my research field. This may not be the case at a larger institution where there can be a bit more overlap of research fields or a desire to create a cohort of separation chemists. However, the latter is hard to find. This fact doesn’t mean you shouldn’t apply; rather, don’t take a rejection too harshly if coming from a school where your field is already represented.

A typical job ad will ask for a few materials, including a cover letter, your teaching philosophy, your research plans, letters of recommendation, and transcripts. My biggest advice here is to be genuine and transparent in the process. Address why you are interested in the school, the department, and perhaps the location. Provide details on work you’ve done with diverse student bodies and how you’ve mentored undergraduate or graduate students. Share activities you’ve been able to create and perform in your teaching, whether it is from a few TA experiences, a guest lecture, or your own class. The search committee wants to get a good sense of who you are: Be authentic.

Some Last Advice

Academics is an ever-changing landscape. Professors must adapt to new challenges all the time. I love the ebb and flow of the semester system–the chaotic and full semesters balanced with the quieter times where research happens and creativity flows. Your PhD trains you to ask good questions and to solve complex problems. Just as you were in that time, you will be challenged as an academic and continue to have the opportunity to grow and learn new skillsets. Grad school provides a great opportunity to engage in teaching and learning. I suggest making the most of the seminars and resources available to you, so that you feel very prepared as you step into your first class and your own research lab.

What was the biggest surprise of your career in academics? What didn't you know before you started that you maybe wished you had known?

Tenure track professor at a public R1 university: “I had many... and still do. There are skills that you can only learn on the job when it comes to academia, one of them is how to manage multiple roles (mentor, writer, researcher, team leader, principal investigator, collaborator, accountant (dealing with complex research budgets was a big surprise for me), teacher.”

Tenure track professor at a public R1 university: “Much of what you want to accomplish will be out of your control because you need to rely on others around you in your productivity, not just yourself. Even a grant you write on your own without any collaborators requires support for developing budgets, putting together supplemental documents, etc. You often must rely on your Office of Sponsors Programs and other administrative personnel. I always think my best work is done when I am surrounded by a great group of people that enable me to work at a high level, so be sure to build a strong support network and be conscious of maintaining those relationships. Don’t forget to make deposits and investments into that network, so that these relationships can be mutually supportive and not one-sided.” -

Tenured professor at a private liberal arts PUI: “I was surprised how much ‘office politics’ there are, both within departments and around the institution. For better or worse, academics are also not culturally disposed to go through HR to resolve conflict. Reading some books about negotiating and building relationships has been helpful. Just as I got advice to negotiate my job offer knowing that I was hopefully talking to a long-term future colleague, I think that it's important to remember that in a tenure track or long-term contract position, you may work with the same people for decades. It's important to maintain relationships and learn to let go of grudges because inevitably, over such a long time, people are going to step on each other's toes.”

About the Author

Amber M. Hupp is a Professor of Chemistry at the College of the Holy Cross, a liberal arts PUI in Worcester, MA. She regularly teaches general chemistry and instrumental analysis courses. Her research areas include analysis of biodiesel and diesel fuels using GCMS and chemometric methods. She has served as Department Chair and been a part of numerous hiring panels over her fifteen years in the academy.

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