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If I (like everyone else) want to be a professor, what should I do from the start of grad school?

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There are some things I'd do differently if I could go back in time and advise myself in college. 

 

I want to get ahead this time. I want to become a professor (both teaching and research). I understand this is difficult. I don't care. Given this, what are some things that I should do (and not do) starting from the very beginning of grad school this fall?

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Get publications. Present at conferences. Develop research collaborations with grad students and faculty at other institutions. Apply for and win competitive grants from major national foundations. Oh, and maybe gain a bit of teaching experience.

 

The extent to which you need to do each of those will depend on the type of institution you want to work at after you finish your Ph.D.

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Network early and often. Identify the things that are trendy now and ALSO where your field is headed: do "sexy" research (caveat: what is done now might not be done anymore in 3-5-7 years. Trends are important, not just the current state of affairs). Present, publish, get grants, collaborate with people in and outside your institution, and in neighboring fields if relevant. Build a clear research profile that you can sell in one quick sentence--be the "buzzword guy/gal," the expert on [thing people have heard about and might actually care about]. Be diverse in some way - in your research questions, collaborations, methodologies, data sources, etc. Think about the "why should I care about your work?" question, aim to answer it simply by how you present yourself to your field.

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Thanks to both of you for the valuable advice. It's along the lines of what I expected, but it's good to see some confirmation. 

 

How much does my choice in school matter? I mean, obviously I need faculty with whom I enjoy working, but it seems like all of my professors at my alma mater went to "top" schools. Is name recognition still a part of it to some extent? I've been in industry for a few years, and even though I hear people say all the time that it doesn't really matter what school you went to, coming from a top twenty CS program it was much easier for me to get a job than it was for some of my friends at smaller schools. But is there a difference between, say, a number one ranked school and a number six ranked school that's actually significant when it comes to getting a job as a professor? Or at that point, does it not really make a difference, and is it more about finding a place I'll really flourish as a researcher?

 

I love teaching, so I have zero worries about that end of things, but getting from where I was as an undergraduate (just sort of going with the flow with some of my professors, solving problems they presented to me directly) to where I ought to be (actually coming up with problems myself) seems daunting. I'm ready to network, but how exactly do I get started? I'm guessing as soon as I get to graduate school, I ought to be thinking about exactly what kind of research I want to do?

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Oh also, what about the kind of stuff I post publicly on the internet? Do I need to start filtering that? There aren't photos of me drinking or anything like that, but there are a lot of photos of me running, and I'm wondering if my persona as an athlete will get in the way, and if I need to dial it back a bit. 

Edited by thissiteispoison

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The difference between #1 and #6 really isn't enough to matter when it comes to looking for a job. I wouldn't worry about pictures of running keeping you from getting a job 4-6 years from now. Many faculty are athletic. I know some that do triathlons, some that run marathons, etc. Everyone knows you'll have nonacademic pursuits and that's fine.

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One of the newly hired faculty members here was in a real rock band (as in actually selling albums). I recently bought their album on iTunes :) Hobbies and other interests should not hinder your ability to get a tenure track positions.

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That's actually a huge relief, because in industry I feel like I'm expected to be super "professional" all the time, which in practice means "don't show that you have any interests outside of work, because any time you spend on interests is time you're not working for us." 

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One of the newly hired faculty members here was in a real rock band (as in actually selling albums). I recently bought their album on iTunes :) Hobbies and other interests should not hinder your ability to get a tenure track positions.

 

...was their music... out of this world?

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Choice in school matters; the reputation of your program still matters a lot in academic hiring.  So does who you work with.  You want to work with a PI who has some name recognition in the field and/or a large network of people, because his network becomes your network.  The best advisors deploy their networks in support of their students and trainees - it could be as simple as you're applying for a job at Awesome University and your PI went to grad school with one of the SC members at Awesome U, so the SC member calls him up and has a chat about you.  That doesn't mean you have to pick the most famous name in the field, but well-known and well-respected faculty members are a definite plus.

 

But to me, "good" program means somewhere in the top 20-30ish; once you're in there, I think it's more about where you would flourish.  You might want to take a peek at the faculty at the kinds of institutions at which you'd want to work and see what kinds of programs at which they earned their PhDs.  Obviously if you want to be somewhere like MIT or Stanford, you need to go somewhere like MIT or Stanford.  But the requirements may not be so stringent if you would rather end up at a mid-ranked public university or a small teaching college.

 

Being able to come up with research problems to solve is a process, and that's what graduate school is all about - so don't worry about that.  It develops as you go through the doctoral program.  I was also worried about that in undergrad, but by the time I was finished with my PhD I was bursting with ideas, and now in my postdoc I am formulating ways to address those research questions and writing grants in my head for them.  That's what the purpose of the doctoral degree is - to help turn you from a consumer and assistant in research to the one in control of your own research.

 

I think the earlier you can pin down what kind of research you want to do, the better, but you don't have to know right away.  I spent the first year-ish of grad school interested in something quite different than what I eventually ended up doing; and the direction of my research is changing a little bit in my postdoc, too.  So I would spend some time in the first year of your grad program reading in some fields in which you are interested and getting some RA experience in those kinds of labs to see what you like.  Also, the earlier you pick something, the better, because you can start gearing your seminar papers to help you write your dissertation.  I had my area chosen by the end of my first year and the rough idea of what I would do my dissertation on by my second/early third.  So I geared all of my seminar papers and my comprehensive exam topics towards my research area.  It was great because I did less work on the seminar papers - I didn't have to reinvent the wheel each time - and ALSO because I was able to go back and mine those papers/exams for references and ideas when I was writing the dissertation.

 

Networking: So a lot of people envision networking as something purposeful that you do, that there's some spiel or special pitch or preparation you have to have for it.  Nah, not really - networking is simply getting to know people in your field that you like and who like you, and then doing something with those people.  Networking in your department means showing up at departmental colloquia, going to the informal gatherings and events, and chatting people up.  Then follow up on those chats, if you want to - reach out to people and see if they want to collaborate on a project or paper, or get coffee, or talk to you about a concept.

 

Networking at conferences is just a larger version of the same thing.  Lots of conferences are known for being great places for grad students and emerging scholars, so look up which ones those are and attend them.  Some of them have speed mentoring sessions or lunches with prominent people in the field or other kinds of events tailored to help young folks out.  Those things sell out early in my field, so register early and sign up for them.  (One minor thing I would've told my past self to do is get a credit card with a small limit, and use it solely for conferences.  Even if your stipend has a travel fund a lot of times they reimburse you, so you still have to have access to large chunks of money to pay conference registration fees and for flights and airfare.)  Also don't be afraid to walk up to scholars in your field after symposium sessions or talks to introduce yourself and ask a question or have a chat.  I met a lot of prominent people at conferences doing that.  I chased down people in poster sessions who did jobs I wanted to do and asked them about them, lol.  Get some business cards!  People will often ask for your card.  The university usually sells them discounted to students, so wait until you get on campus and have an address and phone and stuff, and then order some and bring them to conferences.

 

Other than agreeing with what rising_star and TakeruK have already said, I am going to say something that might sound counterproductive: don't teach too much.  I say it because you said you loved teaching.  I love teaching, too, and so my inclination was to try to get as much teaching experience as possible.  Teaching, however, is undervalued compared to research experience - and at most top schools, a person with better research experience and low amounts of teaching experience (but decent evaluations) probably has better shot at the job than a person with lots of teaching experience and low research output.  So you want to get some experience, but not too much.  TA for a couple of classes and then, if you can, try to teach at least one class as an instructor - maybe over the summer.  (That is something I wish I did differently - I have TA and co-instructor experience but not quite instructor of record in the traditional sense.)  Many elite universities offer graduate students the opportunity to teach classes in the department over the summer; there's also the option of teaching at a nearby community college or other four-year that doesn't have graduate students and/or needs adjuncts.  Everybody needs adjuncts.  But just do it once or twice - after that, it has diminishing returns, and teaching is SO SO time intensive.  You need the time to work on your research and get publications.

 

Last thought - one thing I did in grad school was go to the faculty pages of departments in which I'd like to work.  Then I looked at the CVs of people in my field, and saw what they had done before they got hired to the department.  It was nice because I got a rough idea of both the average and the range of things that people did to be competitive, but it was also a big relief - because I found that the reality is that most people did less than what most graduate students expected they needed to do in order to get hired, even at big places.  This is how I found out that I was relatively competitive for even top places in terms of research, and why I'm finally kind of serene about my job prospects when I go on the market this fall (OHMYGOD).

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Wow, thanks! I promise I actually read that whole thing, so the time you spent on that wasn't in vain.  :lol:

 

So most of it seems pretty in line with what I've heard: Network a lot, get myself out there, put out a lot of research, and present at conferences.

 

I've actually heard totally conflicting things about teaching from different people, so it's interesting that it should happen again within this thread. I guess balance is the key there; teaching is valued, but it should never get in the way of my research, because that's valued more. Is that correct? That's something I'll keep in mind as I'm presented with opportunities throughout my life at graduate school. I could easily see myself getting too lost in teaching. I was an undergrad TA my senior year and it was seriously the most valuable thing I've ever done. I'd be lying if I said that teaching wasn't a part of why I want to be a professor, even though I understand completely that it is more of a research position (which I also enjoy). It's the sort of unique combination of teaching, research, and mentorship that I don't think I'll find at any other job. 

Edited by thissiteispoison

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Wow, thanks! I promise I actually read that whole thing, so the time you spent on that wasn't in vain.  :lol:

 

So most of it seems pretty in line with what I've heard: Network a lot, get myself out there, put out a lot of research, and present at conferences.

 

I've actually heard totally conflicting things about teaching from different people, so it's interesting that it should happen again within this thread. I guess balance is the key there; teaching is valued, but it should never get in the way of my research, because that's valued more. Is that correct? That's something I'll keep in mind as I'm presented with opportunities throughout my life at graduate school. I could easily see myself getting too lost in teaching. I was an undergrad TA my senior year and it was seriously the most valuable thing I've ever done. I'd be lying if I said that teaching wasn't a part of why I want to be a professor, even though I understand completely that it is more of a research position (which I also enjoy). It's the sort of unique combination of teaching, research, and mentorship that I don't think I'll find at any other job. 

 

The perceived ambivalence of teaching-research is somewhat misidentified. If you intend to work at an R1 institution, then research will certainly take priority. However, if you decide to go to a less prestigious school that tailors itself more to service-based professions (read: state schools), then research will play a much less significant role. In my experience, professors at an R1 have a 2/2 load, a 3/3 load at R2, and 4/4 beyond that. The higher the teaching load, the lower the research requirements.

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If you want to get an idea of how important institution prestige is in your field, go to the top institutions and check their placement records then work your way down. What you are going to see is after a certain point, Ph.D programs will start placing people in lower rung places or not at all. 

 

Also, keep in mind that just because a university placed some person in X good school, doesn't mean that much if you don't factor in who their adviser was. If you look deeper, you will see that some advisers are placing students in really good departments, and other advisers from the same university are not. This is due to their name recognition, their networks, and their skill as a mentor. 

Edited by victorydance

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If you want to get an idea of how important institution prestige is in your field, go to the top institutions and check their placement records then work your way down. What you are going to see is after a certain point, Ph.D programs will start placing people in lower rung places or not at all. 

 

How exactly would I go about doing that? 

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How exactly would I go about doing that? 

 

You look at the current faculty at universities that you would want to have a job in after you graduate, particularly at recent hires to those departments, and you ask yourself (a) what school they got their degree in; (b ) who their advisor was, and (c ) if there is anything special about their profile (specialization that is trendy, new methodology, etc.). You aim to have a profile like theirs. This takes more legwork than if you can just find a list online, but it'll give you a good idea of where to start if you want to end up in a certain place.

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Keep in mind that what is trendy and new in academia changes every 5-10 years, so what might've been the trendy field when Prof A got hired this year may not be the trendy field when you are on the market in 5-6+ years. I do agree, though, that you need to develop some kind of niche specialization - your calling card, so to speak, that makes you unique and desirable.

 

As for the teaching - yes, it totally depends on the kind of college you want to end up at. If your goal is to be a cutting-edge researcher at an R1 institution, your teaching hardly matters at all - you need to do just enough to prove that you can do an adequate job at it, and really focus on researching and publishing (and networking!). If your goal is to go to a place where teaching and research are more balanced - say an R2, some  comprehensive master's level universities, elite liberal arts colleges - then you want to develop both your research and your teaching. Then it's okay to sacrifice some publications for more experience teaching, and you definitely want to get a sole instructorship or two in there if you can (although in my field many of the newly hired assistant professors didn't necessarily have one). If your goal is a less well-known teaching college or a regional baccalaureate, then teaching is probably more important than research, and a heavy focus on research might spark questions about why you are applying and whether you will be happy at the university (or try to publish your way out in 1-3 years).

 

A professor job doesn't have to be more about research than teaching. In fact, I would wager that at the vast majority of colleges in the U.S., the professors are doing more teaching than research. Some of them aren't doing any research at all. There are really only (relative to the total pie) a small handful of universities in the U.S. where research is the sole or overwhelming job function, and then a slightly larger handful of places where they are equally balanced. I'm like you, in that I have decided I want an academic career because I love research but also love teaching and mentoring, so to a certain extent I did pursue more opportunities to work with undergraduates over publishing more papers and getting involved in more projects.

 

Your advisor is there to help guide you, of course. Now, I will say that at R1 universities advisors tend to assume that you want to be a professor in the same sense that they are - also at an R1, also primarily doing research - and their advice is going to be totally colored by that. Much of the time, they are going to be at best unable to give you good advice about how to land at a college that's different (and at worse completely unwilling). But you can sort of use them, somewhat, as a compass to help avoid getting "lost" in teaching so to speak.

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The professor from my UG who helped me through most of the grad school applications essentially told me that I'd be better off given my aspirations to go to a more prestigious school that I was admitted to, citing this study: http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/1/1/e1400005

 

It means a lot that he said this despite being in a position to recruit me. I don't think you get very many people who advocate for you on that level in your life. 

 

I am not surprised that prestige apparently matters this much in my field, but I am a little disappointed. It has been really difficult to work my way up since I was a terrible high school student. The data about women in my field is even more disappointing. Honestly, though, it just makes me want to be really awesome at this whole graduate school thing and become a fantastic professor against all odds. 

 

I'm not positive yet whether I'll prefer a mostly-research professorship at a prestigious university or a mostly-teaching professorship at a less prestigious university, but I figure given that it's best to open myself up to both.

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I think you nailed the first step in asking, and in being honest with yourself on it being difficult!

Granted I'm in social sciences, so I don't know how generalizable my response is, but buckle up tight! If your field is anything like mine, you're competing with my colleagues from UCLA and Princeton who have been (unsuccessfully) trying to get a professorship for the past year or two.

I'm no professor, but the new professors that I met who recently graduated were also recently rewarded grants-- as in, they are traveling to their new university as a PI on a grant. On that note, being able to effectively write grants might be a step in the right direction because you're essentially bringing money into the program.

Edited by TheMercySeat

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Yeah, my sister isn't a professor, but did get her Ph.D. in bio, and said that the one thing that every single job interviewer asks her from her resume regardless of what she's applying for is about a DoD grant she got. So I will definitely be applying for grants. Do fellowships count similarly? I'm still waiting on two fellowships I've applied for (NSF and NDSEG).

 

I was also told to be upfront with my eventual advisor about wanting to be a professor, which is something I've only recently been able to admit publicly for some reason. So I've been practicing telling people that. It actually feels kind of good. In CS nobody assumes you're going for a professorship even at a top program, because there's so much industrial research going on (and it pays better). 

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Yeah, my sister isn't a professor, but did get her Ph.D. in bio, and said that the one thing that every single job interviewer asks her from her resume regardless of what she's applying for is about a DoD grant she got. So I will definitely be applying for grants. Do fellowships count similarly? I'm still waiting on two fellowships I've applied for (NSF and NDSEG).

 

I was also told to be upfront with my eventual advisor about wanting to be a professor, which is something I've only recently been able to admit publicly for some reason. So I've been practicing telling people that. It actually feels kind of good. In CS nobody assumes you're going for a professorship even at a top program, because there's so much industrial research going on (and it pays better).

I'd imagine fellowships are a step in the right direction!

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I agree with the posts so far with regard to publications, collaborations, networking, and funding. One thing that hasn't been emphasized is communication skills. Write well and then write better. Present well and then present better. These are ways you get remembered, get papers accepted, and get funded. These signal to departments that you will continue to do those things and departments are looking for people who do those things.

 

Another thing you should so is start reading about academic job searches now. That will give you a better idea of what you're up against while hiring and really drive home what really matters. Your field, Computer Science, has a ton of advice on the web:

http://www.cs.virginia.edu/~weimer/grad-job-guide/guide/index.html

http://33bits.org/2012/10/01/five-surprises-from-the-computer-science-academic-job-search/

http://homes.cs.washington.edu/~mernst/advice/academic-job.html

http://www.pgbovine.net/guo-faculty-job-search.pdf

 

Note many talk about how much easier it is to get to the interview if you already know someone at the school (or if one of your recommenders do). Networking and collaborations.

 

I've heard from multiple people that the NSF GRFP is good if have if you want to be a professor, even more so than harder to get fellowship. Personally I don't think it would be a deal breaker. However, anything that differentiates your CV can help especially where you don't have connections.

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1) Publish your arse off.  Use the protective "bubble" of grad school to your advantage.  Yes, you're broke, but you don't have the administrative/funding/service responsibilities that a PI does.  Publicize these publications through presentations, a lab website, blog, and social media.  Your lab doesn't have a website?  Create one.  Bonus: publishing more makes writing and defending your dissertation easier.

 

2) Network to enhance your scientific reputation and gain contacts for your job search, which comes sooner than you think (should begin around 12-18 months before you defend).  

 

3) Program prestige matters.  Basically, you'll be marketable to universities/colleges at tiers lower than your Ph.D. university.  Your saving grace is your Post-Doc university, so aim high when applying to those.

 

4) Read "Getting what you came for" by Robert L. Peters before your start.  It's a wonderful roadmap for grad students.

 

5) Apply for and win grants.  Winning small grants will help in the pursuit of large grants, as does publishing your arse off.

 

6) Gain mentoring/teaching experience.  Assisting and publishing with undergraduates will provide solid evidence to search committees that you can effectively mentor students.  Every job posting for an assistant professor job will ask for a Teaching Philosophy.  You should have some actual teaching experience to support this.

 

7) Grad school is isolating: it's your project, your successes, your failures/setbacks.  Be social.  Your colleagues and friends will serve as a great support group, as they will struggle too.  Don't think you're alone just because everyone's wearing a happy face.  

 

8) Publish your arse off, this bears repeating.  It will be much easier to compete for a coveted award/grant/post-doc with a well-padded CV.

 

Good luck and all the best!

Edited by SNPCracklePop

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This is the question that I've been thinking about recently.

 

So it sounds like the list includes: publications, conference presentations, funds/awards, networking, and teaching experience.

 

(1) What about grades and recommendations? I'm about to start a PhD program this fall, and I'll be taking only a handful of courses for the coursework phase. Of course the courses that I select should be relevant with my research, but should I target certain scholars in my field for recommendation purposes? Do employers care about grades and GPA at this point?

 

(2) And what about being involved in reputable conferences and societies? 

 

(3) Lastly, my field is humanities(!), so if you think that the above is only applicable to computer science, then I can start a separate discussion topic for the humanities. 

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