Learning the Lingo, Part 3

June 15, 2006

Every field of study has its own jargon; the more entrenched you are in that field, the more understandable its slang becomes. It is particularly important for graduate students and new Ph.D.'s on the market to begin learning the lingo of the academic world. It shows that you understand, and are part of the culture.

We've been covering the language of academe in this column for some time. We wrote in 2002 and in 2003 about terms bandied about in departmental meetings, academic publications, and e-mail discussion groups -- terms that might not be clear to all doctoral students, postdocs, and new professors.

Since we continue to come across words and phrases that are not always widely understood, we thought it was time to offer part three of this series. Several of the terms we discuss here are specific to science and engineering fields. But it is useful for even social scientists and humanists to have a working familiarity with these terms, as they may work with colleagues in the sciences on campus committees or may someday be asked to judge those colleagues in the tenure process.

Chalk talk: A chalk talk is normally given by scientists or engineers during the course of a campus visit and is less formal than a "job talk." It is usually held on the second day of the interview or during a follow-up interview. The name refers to the fact that candidates often find themselves jotting down ideas on a blackboard as they explain their future research goals. The chalk talk doesn't involve slides and should demonstrate that you can think on your feet. Basically, you discuss the research you would do while working on your first grant. As the talk is informal, it is not unusual to be interrupted by questions from members of the search committee and others present. Job candidates often tell us that it is the toughest part of their interview.

Draft letter: This is an informal letter you receive from a department offering you a job. It doesn't have all the signatures on it because it hasn't been possible to get all the necessary parties together. It is to show the department's intent to hire you and is followed by a formal offer letter.

Exit interview: This interview takes place at the end of your campus visit. Typically, you would meet for this interview with the head of the search committee, or the entire panel, to clarify the time frame of the hiring process and the mutual expectations. You may be asked about other offers. There may be some preliminary discussion of your needs for space and start-up money. (In a different context, exit interviews are held when someone leaves a position and talks frankly with his or her boss about the job, often offering suggestions for improvement.)

Faculty lines: Sometimes a reader will write to us to say something like "I met Professor X at our annual meeting. He said his department would be very interested in hiring me, but they don't have any new faculty lines. What does that mean?"

The term refers to the number of full-time faculty positions an institution supports and is often used in context of a new position. For example, if two senior professors have retired, you might read a sentence like this, "The dean evaluated the situation and determined we could have two new faculty lines."

HBCU: That acronym stands for historically black college or university. As many sources point out, HBCU is a term established by the Higher Education Act of 1965, and defined as "any historically black college or university that was established prior to 1964, whose principal mission was, and is, the education of black Americans." The U.S. Department of Education's Web site provides a link to a list of HBCU's and the State Department's Web site features information about those institutions of use to international students and postdocs who may be unfamiliar with the historical reasons behind the founding of those institutions.

K99/R00 Pathway to Independence Award: As one way of remedying the difficulties many young scientists face on the path to an R01 (see below), the National Institutes of Health announced the "Pathway to Independence Award Program" last January. The goal of the award is to help postdocs make the transition to the role of independent researcher in a more timely fashion.

The grant provides one to two years of mentored postdoctoral support (the K99 phase), followed by three years of independent support (the R00 phase), assuming the applicant has secured a research position somewhere. The second stage of support is to help the grantee set up a lab, begin conducting experiments, and prepare an R01 application. Some fear, however, that the award will only make it tougher for postdocs who don't receive it to find faculty positions. A recent article from summarizes the pros and cons.

NRSA: Here's another grant program, this one referring to the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Awards. Named in honor of the first woman to serve as director of an institute at the National Institutes of Health, this award supports predoctoral and postdoctoral research in the health-related sciences and professions.

Ph.D. Retention and Attrition: Anyone in a doctoral program knows that many students who begin such programs do not complete them. Given that even those who finish are competing in a tough job market, it might seem surprising to learn that institutions are very concerned with retaining Ph.D. students and understanding why they leave short of completion.

The reason is primarily financial: It costs an institution money if you leave a doctoral program without completing the degree, whether you are in your first year or final year. Universities are also wondering what it is about the culture of graduate school that makes so many students quit. Ultimately, it is advantageous to an institution to have happy, satisfied alumni from all of its programs, including doctoral programs. For those interested in reading more about the topic, the Council of Graduate Schools is an excellent source of information.

R01: The R01 is the oldest research grant awarded by the National Institutes of Health and is given for health-related projects in the biomedical sciences. Its dollar value is limited only by what the NIH determines to be the needs of the project. The grant pays for, among other things, the salaries of the principal investigator (the person who wrote the grant, also known as the "PI") and key personnel, laboratory equipment, and other costs.

Getting an R01 is a significant milestone in the early career of a research scientist. We are often told by faculty members at research universities that it is extremely difficult, even impossible, for a junior faculty member to get tenure without having received an R01 (or even two R01s). Of concern to many doctoral students and postdocs is the fact that the average age for receiving that first R01 has been increasing, according to the NIH, from 34.3 in 1970 to 41.7 in 2004. Many young scholars contemplating a career in high-level research worry about the long years it will take to accomplish that goal.

SLAC: Here is a term you see a lot in The Chronicle's forums and on other online discussion boards. It stands for "small liberal-arts college." Sometimes it appears as "(S)LAC." The "s" can also mean selective. Occasionally, you will see the phrase "elite SLAC" to refer to the more prestigious of those colleges. Job seekers interested in positions at SLAC's should make sure their application materials emphasize their love for teaching and interest in engaging with undergraduates, as opposed to those interested in working at major research universities, who would need to highlight their scholarly accomplishments.

STEM: This mysterious acronym is not related to botany. Rather, it is a quick way of referring to the fields of "science, technology, engineering, and mathematics." While it lumps together a lot of disparate fields, they have enough in common -- concerns about the availability and amount of federal-research funding, and about career opportunities in academe and in industry, for example -- for them to be referred to collectively.

Summary: A reader wrote, "I have applied for an assistant professor's position. The department is asking me to write and submit a two-to-three page summary. I have no idea what should be included in the summary." A summary in a job description normally means a summary of your research experience or expertise. It's another term for a research statement. In the summary, you might discuss your current research and future plans. If you aren't sure about something you are asked to submit for a job application, contact the department and ask.

Julie Miller Vick is associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania. Jennifer S. Furlong is a graduate career counselor at the university. Vick is one of the authors of The Academic Job Search Handbook (University of Pennsylvania Press), along with Mary Morris Heiberger, who was associate director of career services at Penn.

You can order their book directly from the University of Pennsylvania Press or from either of the online booksellers below.