Why We Are Awesome

Feb 22 2011 Published by under advising, career issues, graduate school

Yesterday in my FSP blog, I mentioned that graduates of my research group, which is comprised of 4 professors, have been very successful obtaining jobs that are relevant to their doctoral research. Most are in academia (in tenure-track or tenured positions); others are in industry/business or government positions. The database I discussed covers graduates from the past 20 years. We are equally proud of them all, PhD and MS graduates.

One factor in the success of our graduates has been that there have consistently been academic and other PhD-relevant jobs available; some years/decades are better than others, but there have always been some academic jobs. Even in drought years, however, our graduates have done well on the job market, so, although the availability of jobs is certainly important, a discussion of possible reasons why our graduates have done well needs to consider other factors.

The success of our graduates is primarily a testament to their talents and hard work. There is no doubt about that.

Even so, we (the professors) like to think that we had some role in launching these careers. I should say here that I am using the research group 'we', although I am the youngest professor in the group and #3 in terms of number of PhDs graduated, so the credit primarily goes to my colleagues.

In any case: What, if anything, do we do that maximizes the chances of post-graduate success for our advisees? Earlier today, I discussed this with one of my research group colleagues, the most successful mentor of us all. We came up with the following, only somewhat-self-serving hypotheses:

1. We encourage our advisees to consider their doctoral research in a broad context. We expect that their research talks (in the department, at conferences, in job interviews) and published papers will start with an explanation of why the work is interesting and important. This sounds basic, but it is surprising how many people (at all career stages) don't do this. Anecdotal evidence from a recent graduate who has been interviewing for faculty positions confirms that this characteristic of our group members is noticed and appreciated, particularly by those whose research expertise is not closely related to ours; this can be an important factor in job interviews.

2. We work with our advisees to find interesting research topics. Some grad students work on part of a much larger project, but there is nevertheless something special about each project. We therefore try to find a balance so that the student is at the same time closely identified with our research group and yet can get credit for their own work and ideas.

3. A combination of 1 & 2: we encourage breadth and depth in the research topic, so that most of our graduates who seek academic positions can apply for a jobs in more than one subfield. This increases the number of jobs for which they are qualified, and increases the number of funding programs to which they can apply, the journals to which they can submit papers, and the courses they can teach. It can also lead to more varied future research topics, collaborations, and other fun things like that.

4. Most of our graduates are supported by a combination of research and teaching assistantships (and some by fellowships), resulting in a range of experiences that are desirable for being competitive in academic jobs. Many also help mentor undergraduates in research. We encourage them to participate in workshops and courses designed to prepare grad students (and postdocs) for academic careers, if they so desire. Nowadays, it is important for academic job applicants to have teaching experience: for most jobs, they need to include a teaching statement in their applications, and I (as a letter-writer) am specifically asked to describe the applicant's teaching and mentoring abilities, even for applications to Major Big Huge Research University.

5. We push them to publish, attend conferences (and present their research), and write proposals. I had to think about what verb to use in that statement: encourage? (not strong enough), force? (too strong); 'push' is probably about right, implying some force but not excessive force (I think). The other options was pull/drag. In any case, we very strongly encourage, semi-force publications, conference participation etc. no matter what the career goal of the individual. This is important because (1) career goals may change; you want to have as many opportunities as you can and not close off any options; (2) the research group will cease to function at its current level/scale unless everyone participates as much as possible in communicating interesting research results.

I have stated many times in the FSP blog, and probably here in Scientopia as well, that I view a research group as a community: a community of people who work together and who, by the work of the individuals and the group, help each other. Today's topic is a great example of the community concept: If graduates of our research group are successful at getting good jobs, this becomes widely known and attracts new excellent students to our group, and the cycle continues for as long as we are fortunate to have ideas, students, grants..

17 responses so far

  • GMP says:

    Interesting post!

    If you don't mind me being a devil's advocate, how highly ranked is your program (e.g. Top N in given discipline) and how prestigious is your institution as a whole (e.g. Ivy League or a big state school or something else)? Because we know that pedigree plays a very important role especially in academic placement, and part of a good pedigree is the standing of the program and the school itself, followed by the fame of the advisor, and other considerations... It would be nice if the candidate's merit alone would suffice, but it is usually not so (Massimo of Exponential Book had some nice posts touching this topic, the latest being this one).

    Another question: what is the typical number of papers a PhD student has when he/she graduates with a PhD from your research group? Do you feel the number is pretty much the norm in your field, or above average? Are the papers on average of higher quality/impact than the average in your field? My point is that successful employment in academia means getting the interview first, which means a strong CV's and strong letters (and pedigree does not hurt). I guess I am trying to probe further what it is in your students' CV's that makes them stand out on paper (you have hinted at a strong and versatile publication record).

  • GEARS says:

    Do you find it easier to have more successful students when you have pooled resources (if you do) from 4 faculty members?

    Specific to finding tenure track positions, it seems that you have prepared your students well during their studies. That was a big question during my TT interviews because I didn't have postdoc experience. I had to search elsewhere (outside of group) for preparation tips because that wasn't stressed internally. Did most of your students need postdoc experience before their TT position or are they prepared enough during their PhD?

    I too am also curious about GMP's questions about prestige, because that can make a difference (although not mandatory).

    • Science Professor says:

      The collaborative aspects of the group are definitely a plus in terms of student support and research experiences. We have weekly group meetings, so there is a lot of interaction among the group.

      Some of our graduates do postdocs; a few have gone directly to tenure-track faculty positions at teaching-focused institutions (because that is what they wanted to do). Those aiming at research institutions definitely need to do postdocs to be competitive for tenure-track positions.

  • TGIQ says:

    These all ring very true for me. I'm in PhD program now, but I was at the receiving end of all these tactics while doing my MSc. I recognize that they enormously contributed to my success at getting funding and my choice of PhD programs. I see them being repeated now by my current supervisor, and know that they will contribute to my future success as an academic.

  • azmin says:

    Sometime I use 'push' verb to let them publish

  • Anon says:

    All you provided are "motherhood" statements. I could do a quick google search on what makes a successful student and I would get thousands of hits of exactly what you said. Give us some more specifics, for example: weekly group/ individual meetings, publish in Science or Nature, be awarded an NSF fellowship, design their own course or seminar, organize a section at the large international conference, publish papers in more than one sub field, etc.

    • Science Professor says:

      My male colleagues are very entertained by the fact that their mentoring style is maternal.

      We have weekly group meetings, we have individual meetings, our students apply for NSF fellowships, some senior students design seminars in which we all participate and propose conference sessions, most publish in a couple of subfields (as I mentioned) in the best journals relevant to our research etc. Not every student does all of these things (except the group/individual meetings). The ones I listed in the post apply to all.

  • Anonymous says:

    As a postdoc seeking an academic job with little success, I would say that (1) new, cool, novel research, and (2) publications, including both first author and group work are the most important factors in getting an academic job. I think the fact that you have a group of faculty and a group of students who presumably collaborate probably helps a lot, both with pubs and good ideas. Our dept just interviewed candidates for a job - they all gave lousy seminars with zero context for their work - no one cares too much because they're all good researchers, so for the dept faculty are more interested in their research not their speaking ability.

  • Anonymous says:

    If 1-4 are motherhood statements, then we clearly need more mothers in science.

    I am cheered by the list, because I have been doing all those things in my still relatively new lab. I can only hope that some years down the line I will have equally impressive stats for my trainees. Following up on what GMP said, though: High ranking of the program isn't only important because of the prestige of the pedigree. A high ranking program is also going to attract more motivated, better prepared, and yes, smarter students. And as FSP points out, talent and hard work are critical. A high ranking program will also often have more resources for those students - a better research culture, better facilities, more funding, more active faculty, research groups of multiple faculty (what I would do to be in one of those!), etc etc etc.

    (I am obviously not in a high ranking programs.)

  • quasihumanist says:

    I would be interested in knowing what subfield your research group is in, or the general employment statistics for your subfield. For example, I think I can safely assume that you are not in astrophysics.

    Good mentoring can mean that 98% of your students get jobs in a subfield where 70% get jobs, but I don't think it's possible for 98% of your students to get jobs in a subfield where 20% get jobs.

    • Science Professor says:

      We are awesome, but we are not that awesome. There have consistently been jobs in our subfield. The 98% vs. 70% comparison is definitely closer to describing the situation than 98% vs. 20%.

  • walkerjks says:

    I find it admirable that your research lab has the success that it has and it publishes the results. That said, "in academia" covers a wide range, from primarily research jobs (though officially tenure-track faculty) at R1 institutions to primarily teaching jobs with a 12-hour/semester teaching load at regional state colleges (at a much lower salary) where research is paid lip service, if even that. I think it would be useful to further track what sort of academic jobs that your students desire (primarily research or primarily teaching) vs. what sort of academic jobs they actually get.

    If one is a reasonable teacher and willing to move and willing to get paid poorly (say $45,000/year), there clearly are tenure-track jobs available at community colleges, regional state colleges, and lower-tier SLACs. At least in science (I wouldn't want to claim that the same is true for a newly-minted history PhD).

  • Alex says:


    The very fact that they get academic jobs at all is still pretty impressive. Even those teaching-oriented jobs have 100 applicants per open position, at least in physics. Yes, it's always better to know if the students are ending up where they want, but (1) life doesn't always work that way and (2) the very fact that her students are competitive for ANY type of academic job says something about the program.

    I'm curious about what FSP thinks about the role of reputation. I'm sure that she and her colleagues are all very respected in their subfields. However, we all know that pedigree matters in academia. Yes, there are people who come from programs that aren't so prestigious overall, but they do good work with good advisors (so the advisor pedigree is fine, even if the school pedigree isn't) and go on to be successful. However, we also all know that most people in faculty jobs came from programs that are highly-ranked overall. FSP, would you say that you and your colleagues are out-performing the school/department reputation, or would you say that you are at the level of the school's/department's reputation?

  • Science Professor says:

    This afternoon I discussed some of the above questions with my distinguished older (male) colleague who has been the main source of mentoring success in our research group over the years. He provided some of the headings of the post -- the ones described as "motherhood statements". We mused about the fact that "fatherhood statements" wouldn't have the same meaning, and "fathering" has connotations of inspiration and ideas, whereas "motherhood"..

    Anyway, we decided it would be best not to address the questions about prestige (our group vs. our department/university vs. the world) specifically, but we came up with a way to collect some (anecdotal) data that might help with a future general discussion of the issue.

  • Not a Science Professor says:

    @FSP i think you're misunderstanding the use of "motherhood" by the commenter above. i'm pretty sure it is not meant in the actual maternal sense but rather meant in the sense of the americanism "mom and apple pie," i.e., things that *everybody* says they support and care about (and therefore have no actual meaning).

  • Science Professor says:

    Yes, I know that definition. In fact, I have had comments to this effect before, typically in the context of having what I said dismissed; not the nicest use of the term "motherhood". Even so, my observation is that people are more likely to use this term for women than for men, and so my (male) colleague and I had fun wondering what an equivalent term for men might be.

  • FSP, what percentage of your student who join academia have grant writing experience. If they do, how many of them have grants(if any) before they get an academic position?