Research Assistant Professor

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I think you've missed my point Kelly

Postby Jim Austin » Thu Jul 14, 2005 10:33 am

Kelly wrote:

I know this "take what you can get to keep going" hoping that it might get better is the prevailing attitude in science. I disagree with it. It makes people feel under-valued, exploited, miserable and bitter.

Get what you need to do your science and to make you feel good about yourself.

If you read what I wrote carefully, it wasn't about settling for something less than you're capable of. I was, rather, advising that people seize the opportunities they have and take advantage of them. I know what you're saying about feeling down-trodden. I've been there myself. But that's not an indulgence most folks pursuing science careers can afford.

I'm not suggesting that anyone settle for anything: only that they use the opportunities available to get where they're going. A research professorship isn't a dead end if you use it to do good work. No matter what course you take, once you allow yourself to start feeling "under-valued, exploited, miserable and bitter," you're lost. Those feelings are valid in many cases, but they can also be deadly to a career.

Aim high, never settle, but use the opportunities you have to get where you want to go, instead of waiting around for opportunities that sound better but may never come. Now THAT'S a great way to end up bitter.

Be Well,
Jim Austin
Jim Austin
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How realistic?

Postby Charles Allen » Thu Jul 14, 2005 10:47 am

I agree with Alfred. Xathres, the work you would do in industry (e.g., biopharma) is likely to be more focused and directed toward solving a real human need (a new therapeutic). You could be part of a team that discovers a drug and shepherds it through clinical trials, eventually making its way to patients. In my opinion, this is more rewarding than simply adding to the already burdensome number of scientific publications, many of which are not likely to have as direct an impact on human health as your work in industry.

There is a whole world out there, outside of academia, if you just keep an open mind and ignore the indoctrination we all receive as grad students & postdocs (i.e., that a career outside academia = failure; it doesn't).

I am enjoying my career as a Research Scientist in biotech. I get to be a PI on grant applications & publish too! I also get more respect & recognition.
Charles Allen
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I think you've missed my point Kelly

Postby Kelly » Thu Jul 14, 2005 2:07 pm

People tend to over-estimate the potential of research assistant professor/visiting scientist positions. It is very rare that someone in this type of position is promoted within the same institution. If someone knows entering into such a position that this is the case and still wants to do it, I guess that's okay. But most people go into these positions with the idea that they will "prove" themselves and then get into a "real" position. One should think about these types of positions with the same mind-set as an adjunct teaching position. They rarely lead to anything within the ame institution unless there is an agreement for this in writing before hand.

I also think that these RAP positions are dangerous for a job search elsewhere. First, what really gets one a job is connections. It is much easier to ride on a supervisor's existing connections than your own. Moreover, since these positions rarely come with start-up, one spends a lot of time cobbling together resources which impedes productivity.
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Our opinions differ on a couple of key points..

Postby Jim Austin » Thu Jul 14, 2005 2:29 pm

* I believe what matters is not who you know, but the quality and significance of the work you do. If one settles for working on problems of marginal importance, perhaps its true then that other factors--like people's attitudes towards RAP positions--enter in to hiring decisions. But if you choose important problems and accomplish something, you can get ahead on the strength of your work.
* An RAP position has its problems, naturally, when it comes to "cobbling together resources," but it also has one major advantage relative to TT positions: no teaching. It's true that postdocs don't teach either, usually, but, while they are more or less free from the pressures of cobbling together resources (their advisors do that) that means they're also obligated to work on their advisor's ideas/reputations. They don't get full credit for the work they do.

Another important point that I'm not sure has been made yet is that attitudes towards such positions vary greatly by field. There are fields and institutions where it's practically a required step. Some institutions won't hire you to a tenure-track position if you don't have a grant already, and I mean a real research grant in your own name. How do you get one? It's theoretically possible to do this as a postdoc, but most people move first into "post-postdoc" positions--Research faculty or similar--before they apply.

This is the flip-side: you describe it as a need to cobble together resources; to me it's an opportunity to show that you can get it done.

Be Well,
Jim Austin
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Joined: Tue Jan 10, 2012 11:28 pm

Our opinions differ on a couple of key points..

Postby Emil Chuck » Thu Jul 14, 2005 2:51 pm

Hi Jim...

Oh your sentence:
Another important point that I'm not sure has been made yet is that attitudes towards such positions vary greatly by field. There are fields and institutions where it's practically a required step. Some institutions won't hire you to a tenure-track position if you don't have a grant already, and I mean a real research grant in your own name.

scares me. There are some institutions that probably could fire you if you don't get the grant within your first year as an RAP, whereas you get 3 years as a tt Assistant Professor with startup to boot.

Furthermore, in biomedical research, many if not most Assistant Professors do very little true teaching that the rest of non-medical academia is used to (that is to say, teach a semester-long course with a syllabus and fixed reading assignments). Most biomedical classes I've attended didn't even teach out of a textbook but rather pulled articles from current literature for discussion. And the courses were generally taught by committee so no one professor had to deal with more than say 4 class sessions at any one semester.

Otherwise I agree you need to get the track record so you are competitive for those positions. If you know you can do it on meager resources and institutional support, you can probably do your work when you finally do get help. But not all projects are like this, and certainly the RAP is somewhat of a new position. I don't know how many RAP's the Nobelists have done (we know of many people who have won the Nobel prior to age 45), but this conundrum of putting people into probationary research positions until some slot opens up is a very recent trend (within 10 years I suspect).

I have a friend who graduated a year later than me in undergrad, and soon after I got my postdoc, he got a t-t position with perhaps no more than 1 year of a postdoc if he did one. Another biomedical colleague was only a postdoc for 6 months and got a t-t spot after that (no papers from his postdoc but apparently the lack of benefits to support his family catalyzed this change from a very beneficient department). I don't know when an RAP became a de facto stepping stone, but we're addicted to putting people in perpetual states of training for no good reason other than holding people over.

I know... preaching to the choir am I.
Emil Chuck
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Jumping out of frying pan into fire?

Postby Xathres » Thu Jul 14, 2005 4:31 pm

Thanks Esitante - sounds like you have the dream job with job security AND academic advancement. Guess I didn't express myself too well - I was asking if post-doc/pre-TT can get to that position without jumping ship? Kelly and Jim have sorta answer this question in that post-docs and RAP usually do not have additional duties like teaching or administration to supplement or improve their positions. That leaves only research, productive publishing, and grant applications. And from what ETC have said, that does not necessary get you a TT position .
So what has the *best* chance of success? Run and line up to do another postdoc with well-known scientist or institution, try to get one of those coveted industry jobs, stick it out with one institution that offers RAP, or ???(any new ideas)??? And with so many pitfalls is anybody helping? So keep moving until find an institution/ supervisor that will help your cause?
If I can't love the one I want, what's next? Keep frying or jump into the fire?

Yes; Our opinions differ on a couple of key points..

Postby Kelly » Thu Jul 14, 2005 4:44 pm

Jim writes: "I believe what matters is not who you know, but the quality and significance of the work you do."

I'm afraid we are going to have to agree to disagree on this. I think Madison would also indicate that working with a big name supervisor in a well known institution serves one better in terms of getting a real job. Clearly someone who has accomplished nothing will not be successful but someone coming from the above environment with a big name supervisor will do better in job getting than someone with the same quality or better publication record from a lesser known lab.

Jin writes: "An RAP position has its problems, naturally, when it comes to "cobbling together resources," but it also has one major advantage relative to TT positions: no teaching."

Time does not off-set resources. You can have all the time in the world but if you need a piece of equipment that costs 200K, it doesn't matter how many hours in the day you have; you will spend them horse trading to use someone else's. Thus, you do in fact spend your time doing something for someone else's research just so you can have access to do what you need for your own work. And no one is obligated to let you use their sutff. You are constantly at someone else's behest. Parenthetically, brains do not offset resources. Nothing offsets resources (learned the hard way). Get what you need on the front end.

As for an opportunity to "show that you can get it done", people count beans (papers); they don't care how much worse condition your field was in to get them.

I do agree the one reason to take an RAP position is to get your own grant in your own name. However, without access to do the resources to do the work, and preliminary data, this isn't going to happen. Moreover, right now, given the NIH budget, I wouldn't count on any grant and certainly would not take a position for the purpose of applying for one. It is a bet/gamble you are unlikely to win (15% overall success rates right now with an emphasis on competing renewals)so why place it?

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Jumping out of frying pan into fire?

Postby Charles Allen » Thu Jul 14, 2005 6:24 pm

Well, I wouldn't say my position here with the Company is secure: it is entirely dependent upon how well the company does. Right now, we are entirely dependent upon NIH grants. Hopefully, that will change soon. In industry positions, your job is only as secure as the company. If one of your products is not approved or it is later seen to have adverse side effects (e.g., Vioxx), then layoffs of scientific staff might not be that far around the corner. However, once you have several years of industry experience, the headhunters are likely to be all over you and its easier to find another comparable job.

The "advantages" that once made academia an attractive place to work are fast disappearing. Even if you have tenure, the university still has ways to get rid of you, if they want to. If you have tenure and lose your grant support, you might soon find your lab space given to someone else, with you occupying renovated closet space. It is no longer as secure as it used to be, you have to wear many, many hats (administrative duties, teaching, pan-handler, as well as research). Also, the salaries are lower than in industry and the upward mobility is glacial compared to what you could achieve in industry.

It certainly does not seem to be uncommon to do more than one postdoc these days. Ideally, one should do a single postdoc that lasts several (3-5, more likely 5) years. In the fields of immunology and molecular biology, I don't see how one can build a decent list of publications after only 1-2 years. You would need incredible luck or have great connections.

The best way to land a good job, whether it be a postdoc position, a job in industry or whatever, is through people you know (or people who know these people). Work on expanding your network but do it in subtle ways (ie., don't come out directly and ask for a job, too obvious). Building a network of relationships- by attending conferences or even just cold calling someone, asking their advice, can be one way to start.

What has the best chance of success? From what I've read here in this forum, I would say that doing a postdoc in a productive lab is likely better than doing a RAP (unless you're too long in the tooth, like me). This way, all you need to focus on is publishing: no teaching, probably no grant writing (that's supposed to be your PI's job) although you could apply for fellowships to help support your salary (looks great on the CV too). You will in this way be able to ride the wave of your PI's grant money, which hopefully, will be plentiful (otherwise you shouldn't work for him/her). Think of how you can distinguish yourself from the competition (research topic, novel approach).

At some point, you might be able to land a mentored grant (K08, etc). This you could take to your t-t position. If you come with your own grant, they will love you and want to recruit you.

I guess my advice would be to try to land a t-t job while you're still a postdoc (During your first postdoc, ideally). Job ads are inefficient (but not futile): better to learn of openings through your network: Ph.D. supervisor, contacts at conferences, colleagues. If they don't know of anything, they might know someone who does. Ask them to keep an ear to the ground for you. Remind them once in a while.

At the same time, fish for opportunities in industry (what have you got to lose?). Format your CV accordingly (it should not be formatted like your academic job search CV). In the end, your decision will be based on what job offers come your way. You can do what you can to make these happen but there is an element of LUCK. Sometimes, a job I thought would not be interesting turned out to be really cool (and vice versa). Also, look to where the trends are in your field and choose someone who works on the cutting edge (new technologies, new paradigms etc). Universities also look at what new technological expertise you can bring to their dept.

Is any of what I've written here actually helpful to you? Or is it all (as I fear) rather obvious?
Charles Allen
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Yes; Our opinions differ on a couple of key points..

Postby Dylan » Thu Jul 14, 2005 6:47 pm

Hi everyone
I have been reading this thread with great interest since I have been a research assistant professor for a little over a year now. At least grant wise I have been pretty successful having accumulated almost a total of 250,000 dollars in grant money from three sources. My RO1 wasn't funded but at least it was scored. The comments for the most part were fair and I have addressed them all with the resubmission so I am as optimistic as I can be in the current funding climate. When I have time I will list out some of the plusses and minuses I have encountered in my position and I will also ask for some advice regarding what my next career move should be.

However the reason I am writing now is I came across an interesting article on the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School site regarding the hiring of junior faculty. The website address and the first paragraph that I found most interesting it below.

"The search begins. Almost 200 applications pour in for one junior faculty position. As they are pared down to a short list of ten, a few names keep reappearing. They are the young men and women from the best schools in the country, whose credentials come from post-doctoral work in distinguished laboratories. If their scientific pursuits happen to complement the work of researchers in the UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School department conducting the search, that's a plus that may boost their chances."

Best schools, distinguished laboratories, and complement the work of (our) researchers. Sounds a lot like what kelly, Madison and many others have said in numerous threads on this board, that where you worked, with whom you worked, and "fit" are the most important criteria for a faculty search committee.

If you have a choice...

Postby Jim Austin » Fri Jul 15, 2005 7:56 am

(stating the obvious here:

* A tenure-track job from an institution where you can do the work you want to do is a better choice than an RAP. Of course it is.
* A postdoc position in a well-known lab at a prestigious institution is better than an RAP IF the advisor is known to be supportive and to take an active interest in the career development of the lab members. If not, it's a bit harder, but even then this is probably the better choice if the PI is not known to be a real jerk.

My goal in standing up for these RAP positions is to point out that you can make them work, and that taking one is better than many other alternatives.

Though as I've said it depends on discipline (also on institution and department) I believe you're wrong, Kelly, about the prospects of getting grants. It's really quite common for people in research positions to get their own grants. They can also often have full access to core facilities, and, often as not, their dependence on equipment controled by other people is more of a problem of principle than a practical one. I've said from the beginning that one should make sure such a position offers the real opportunity to do the work you want to do. Otherwise, steer clear. But often they do.

As tenure-track scientists have become responsible for generating more and more of their own salary, the distinction between these categories has faded a bit. Non-tenure-track grant-recipients are quite common these days, so much so, as I've said, that some institutions won't consider filling a tenure-track position with someone who doesn't already have a grant. I've interviewed a fair number of faculty and administrators from quite a few different universities; almost (but not quite) all consider having your own research grant already, before you arrive, a major advantage.

Kelly, I think our perspectives are closer than they might seem. A research faculty position is a second choice, maybe a third choice. You should never take one unless you are convinced that it will allow you to do the work you want to do. But for a mature young scientist with a clear agenda, aching for an opportunity to do independent work--but who does not have immediate tenure-track prospects--such a position can indeed be an effective bridge to something better.


P.S. It's not that interesting until it's approved and funded, but NAS recommended that NIH consider creating a class of research grants intended for non-tenure-track ("post-postdoc") scientists. That's an indication of the rising profile of such positions, and their increasing importance in (at least) the biomedical world.
Jim Austin
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