Staying Ahead of Your Competition

May 21, 1999

As you go from one stage to the next, the role you play changes. As a student I was expected to excel in a specific subject, and I was judged by my individual contribution. As a postdoc I was expected to be more of a team player, to contribute to the researchers around me and review their papers, as well as run a complete project and write my own proposals. As a professor things changed again, and now I have a dozen balls in the air.

Given all of this, I strongly recommend that as a graduate student you do some of the work of a postdoc and as a postdoc you do some of the work of a professor. Not only does it make things easier when you get to the next stage, it also separates you from the rest of your competition. -- Guy Blaylock, assistant professor of physics, University of Massachusetts at Amherst

Mr. Blaylock's advice is the key to getting a leg up on your competition for academic positions in science.

It used to be that if you excelled in your current role, (undergraduate, graduate student, postdoc, beginning professor), you got your chance at the next step up the ladder. Given the current supply-and-demand situation in science, this is no longer the case.

Now, to move up you must demonstrate that you can be successful in the next job for which you want to apply by actually performing in advance some of the activities and responsibilities that are part of that job. In doing so you not only demonstrate your willingness to assume the position you are seeking, but also your readiness to do so.

Such activities are part of what I call the "next stage" approach to preparing for a scientific career. Let's see how it might work for Ph.D. students and postdocs in three areas: teaching, proposal writing, and supervising other researchers.


The benefits of acquiring teaching experiences prior to becoming a professor include:

  • Clarifying in your own mind that teaching is what you really want to do.
  • Helping you prepare for your first teaching assignment as a professor.
  • Giving you a significant leg up on your competition in your search for an academic position.

But, not all teaching experiences have the same value. The more responsibility you have and the more your experiences are like those of actual professors, the better.

As biology professor Martin Ramirez notes: "Everybody does T.A.-ships. The important question is: Who taught in summer school, at a local community college, or as a sabbatical replacement? It's these teaching experiences that will help get you the professorship you want."

The right teaching experiences can also help you get a job in industry. As one biology Ph.D. student put it: "I found invariably I was asked about my teaching skills by industrial interviewers such as large chemical or pharmaceutical companies, as well as by potential academic employers. I think my teaching experience shows that I am able to communicate. This is very important in any field you'll be in and in any kind of job setting, academic or industrial. If you're a very technical person, you still need to communicate to the marketing people in your company about what you're doing, and what it's good for."

Proposal Writing

Michael Reed, an associate professor of electrical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, says that young researchers should get as much experience as they can writing grant proposals: "If I had my life to do over again, I would have written half a dozen proposals before I got my Ph.D., instead of just contributing to one or two. Once you have a faculty position, chasing dollars is the No. 1 activity. The more experience you bring to it, the better off you will be. Use your research advisor to help you learn to write proposals, before you start sending things in blind to funding agencies."

Writing proposals is not just for those heading for Research I universities. No matter what type of position you take, be it at a baccalaureate, master's, doctoral, or research institution, or even a research position in government or industry, you will soon have to start writing proposals. If you want support from an internal or external agency, equipment for research or course development, a fellowship for your graduate student, or even just permission to perform a procedure, you must first write a proposal.

The time to start acquiring such experiences is as a graduate student and postdoc, when the cost of failure is not as high and you can get help from colleagues with more experience. Such proposals, which are usually offshoots or extensions of faculty research already receiving support, have the advantage of being different, yet not too radical or risky -- an approach that funding agencies usually favor.

Supervising other researchers

As a professor you will certainly be supervising the work of others, whether they are undergraduates doing independent-study projects, master's students doing theses, Ph.D. students doing dissertations, or, in some cases, postdocs managing projects of their own. As you advance, you should find ways to play a more formal role in the supervision of other students, both undergraduate and graduate.

Elizabeth Drotleff, a Ph.D. student in chemistry at the University of California at Santa Cruz, began supervising undergraduates as well as another graduate student in the second year of her studies. As Drotleff explains it:

"Overseeing less-experienced members of the group has initially been very difficult, especially because of the problem of learning how to manage my time. Not only am I responsible for myself -- my research, preparation for seminar presentations, and reading the literature -- but I'm also partly responsible for keeping these people busy and interested in their own chemistry as well as teaching them laboratory techniques and safety.

"There's a lot more to pay attention to than I thought, but with the help of my postdoc and faculty supervisor I'm learning to handle many things. Overall, I feel very fortunate to have this experience before I acquire a postdoc position or a job."

The above areas are just three of the many domains to which you can apply the next-stage strategy. In your research, look for ways to engage in cross-disciplinary and multidisciplinary activities with faculty members and students from other areas or departments. You can also look for opportunities to review papers, grants, and proposals written by others.

Finally, don't ignore relationships with industry, even if you are set on an academic career. Indeed, experiences with industry can make you even more attractive to universities, since obtaining industry support for academic research is becoming much more common, particularly in the sciences.

Take some time to visit various research sites and give technical presentations on your work. Consider using equipment, samples, and other industry resources in your research. Also, consider conducting joint investigations with industrial collaborators as well as internships and other employment with industry or government laboratories.

Employing the next-stage approach involves being proactive about seeking experiences -- at all stages of your professional life. Doing so not only helps to prepare you for your next role, it distinguishes you from others who do not demonstrate this important insight.

Richard M. Reis is director for academic partnerships at the Stanford University Learning Laboratory, and author of Tomorrow's Professor: Preparing for Academic Careers in Science and Engineering, available from IEEE Press or the booksellers below. He is also the moderator of the biweekly Tomorrow's Professor Listserve, which anyone can subscribe to by sending the message [subscribe tomorrows-professor] to