In many disciplines, academia is pretty much the default destination for those with a PhD. Unfortunately, it is getting more and more competitive to secure that coveted tenure track position.
The good news is that academia is one of the few fields where your years in graduate school can actually be considered work experience.
Many factors can come into play when you decide to throw your hat into the academic ring, including the quality and number of publications, and as with almost anything else… networking is essential.
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With most disciplines, especially those within the sciences, completing one (or more than one) postdoctoral appointment is a requirement to even be considered for a faculty position. Most position announcements will be explicit in regard to the extent of postdoctoral experience that is expected. Once you have accrued the necessary years of postdoctoral experience, your next entry point to the land of the tenure track professor is that of the assistant professor position.
If you are unable to obtain a tenure track position or choose not to obtain a tenure track position, your options would include becoming a visiting professor or another adjunct faculty position. These non-tenure track positions are generally considered less desirable, not only because they lack the potential job security of a tenure track position, but also because they can lack “perks” such as health insurance.
Who are the Employers?
Applying for an academic position includes submitting the standard materials that include your CV (which should stress pertinent teaching experience and your publication record) and letters of reference. Although you will likely be able to find announcements of open positions online and posted throughout the halls of your University bulletin boards, networking is key. Don’t be bashful about asking your advisor to ask his contacts about current openings, and definitely don’t miss out on any big meetings or conferences in the months leading up to your job search. Any large gathering of academics in your discipline is a golden opportunity to network. Although a bit cruder, you should definitely not be afraid to channel your inner salesperson and start “cold calling” by sending emails to departments to personally check whether they currently have any openings or if they expect to have any openings in the near future.
For the individual meetings with faculty members, make sure you are prepared and can intelligently discuss the research of each person with whom you will personally meet (if you haven’t already noticed, faculty members LOVE talking about their research, so don’t miss out on an easy conversation starter). Always have plenty of questions ready, whether it be for graduate students that you may be meeting, or for the faculty members that will ultimately decide your fate.
Most, if not all, visits will include a presentation of your research that will be open to the department at large. It should go without saying but KNOW YOUR PRESENTATION INSIDE AND OUT. If you aren’t confident in your presentation and excited about your research, why would anyone want you in their department? Being nervous is normal, but a large component of most tenure track positions is teaching, so you should have some comfort presenting to an audience.
Promotion can depend on some ability to play the game of politics within the department and university at large, but it should mostly be a result of sustained productivity (as evidenced by publication record) and competence as an instructor (as evidenced by surveys). You can expect the first major step to be granted tenure, the holy grail of job security. From there, promotions are achieved sequentially to associate professor, to full professor, and sometimes to professor II. If you happen to be especially productive you may even be recruited to an endowed chair professorship. The time between promotions is really dependent on the level of productivity, so it can vary greatly.
As a member of academia, you should have some passion for the work that you do, and many professors are happy to put in extensive hours in the name of furthering the body of human knowledge. You’ve undoubtedly heard the saying “publish or perish”, so there is an intense pressure to be productive as a faculty member. That being said, aside from obligations that include classes that need to be taught, office hours, and faculty meetings, work hours are generally very flexible and determined by each faculty member individually. These obligations are also dependent on the type of position (assistant professor, adjunct faculty, lecturer, etc.), the type of institution (community college, large public research university, small liberal arts college, etc.), and the discipline (science, humanities, social sciences, etc).
Salaries vary depending on the position, university/college, and discipline. Based on current national averages, reasonable salary expectations would be:
~$40K for a postdoctoral position
~$70-80K for an assistant professor
~$85-90K for an associate professor
~$110-180K for a full professor
One of the main draws of a job in academia is the fact that tenure grants the ability to not worry about exit options. Most faculty members who are granted tenure retire as professors. That’s not to say professors can’t do side work in addition to serving as a professor, which can include consulting work, starting companies based on their research, and serving on advisory boards. Those that do choose to leave academia have many of the same options available to them as are outlined on this website, which includes consulting, finance, and entrepreneurship, among others.