With tenure track positions being few and far between and thousands of applicants to each position that opens, successfully getting a permanent position as a professor requires more than just becoming the best scientist you can. Follow this guide to increase your chances of getting tenure after postdoc.

When you first begin your Ph.D. program, you probably envisioned a career path where you would graduate, complete a postdoc (or maybe two) and obtain a tenure position at a respectable research institution. A few years down the road, you dreams haven’t changed. You’re still working long hours in the lab in an effort to produce quality publications and hopefully get an edge on your competition so you can finally become an independent researcher. The only problem is that there are significantly more postdocs applying to very few tenure track positions, and this is true across the nation.

There are more postdocs than there have ever been. Scientists are spending more time in a postdoc position than they had previously done. They’re also completing more postdoc fellowships than life scientists before them completed to get into their permanent position. This guide—combined with some good luck—will help you maximize your chances of getting a tenure track position at the completion of your postdoc.

postdoc tenure track, how to get it? learn more in this postdoc survival guide download for free

Network, Network, Network

While this is true for any field, networking is extremely important when it comes to advancing your academic career in the life sciences. With few tenure-track positions available, having contacts in your field and at institutions you’re interested in can make a huge difference when you are trying to get your foot in the door. As a postdoc or nontenured faculty, reach out to those who have tenure positions at not only your university, but others in your area as well. Attend conferences and network with people there; get their contact information and be sure to write down any details you remember about their position and research. Another way to network is to reach out to people who have published papers that strike your interest and ask them about their work. Simply getting your name out there before it’s time to apply for a tenure-track position can help your application stand out.

Avoid the Perpetual Postdoc

I’m sure you’ve heard it before—timing is everything. You don’t want to apply for tenure-track positions before you’re qualified and armed with a competitive application, but it would worse to wait too long to apply. With postdoctoral fellowships lasting longer and longer, many life scientists are getting caught in the trap of never leaving their postdoc position once complete and starting another postdoc cycle.

So when is the best time to apply? First of all, you should be nearing completion of at least one postdoc before you start applying for tenure-track positions. It is not uncommon to have completed two postdoc positions before receiving a position, however, according to Science, completing more than two may actually hurt your chances of getting a professorship. Avoid becoming the perpetual postdoc by preparing early—publish as much as you can in high-quality journals, broaden your area of expertise and showcase your skills on your application.

ProTip: If you become first-author of important research in your field that is published in an impressive journal, do not delay applying for tenure-track positions. Having recently published, relevant work can be a great way to get your application noticed and get an interview.

Ace the Application

Often times the application is not only the first impression the hiring department will get of you, but it can also be the only impression if it does not impress enough to receive an interview. Because the application is so important, you have to ace it. Let’s talk about how.

  • Cover letter: The cover letter will determine how much time the reviewer or committee spends looking at your application, if any time at all. You should have a fresh cover letter for every single job you are applying for. Using a generic letter will not convey the reasons you are a great fit for that particular position and institution so take the time to cater your letter specifically to the job you are applying for. Tell the reader why you want the position for which you are applying and why you are a great fit. Also include information on where you did your training and describe your most interesting current research projects. It is also great to include what your future research plans are and how you will accomplish them in this position. Convey excitement and passion for your field and the position throughout the letter.
  • Application: Follow any and all instructions provided to you by the institution. Be sure that all of your answers to application questions are catered to the specific position you are applying for and even to the school you are apply to work for. Include an updated copy of your CV, which highlights the specific experiences you have that pertain to the job you seek.
  • Mailing the application: If there is an online application, use it to apply and attach your CV. If there is only a paper application, you can scan and email it, send it via FedEx or another mailing service, or simply send it via standard USPS. Pay attention to any deadlines you may be approaching and take any necessary steps to make sure the application arrives on time.

Be Flexible

With few highly-sought after tenure-track positions available, one of the best ways to optimize your chances of being offered a position is to be flexible. There are only so many universities in each state and even fewer in a single city. If you are not tied down to a specific location for family or other reasons, applying for positions all over the country can greatly increase your odds of getting a position. Universities will usually pay for your travel expenses for interviews so it is an advantage to seek out these opportunities if you would be willing to make the move for a tenure-track position.

Make a Plan B

Whether you’re going to use your plan B or not, it’s always nice to have one in case plan A doesn’t work out. There are many postdocs who continue to apply for tenure-track positions and don’t succeed. It can be easy to stay in the postdoc world and hope that next time you apply things will be different, but you should also consider careers outside of academia. After crowdsourcing information from a variety of sources, I have found that most life scientists agree that after completing two postdocs and applying for tenure-track positions during and after them, a back-up plan should be considered. You can read about alternative careers for life scientists in my previous article. Of course, I’m not saying you should give up on academia if it is your dream, but you should be aware of the other paths and options that exist because they can be very rewarding, too.

postdoc's guide to getting tenure plus more information and checklists and interactive worksheets in this postdoc survival guide free e-book download

Following these guidelines will give you the best chances of getting the tenure-track position you are working so hard for, but my best advice to you is to not let the stress of looking for a job get you down. Finding the perfect university and position to fit your skills and personality can take some time, and many current tenure-holders were denied positions before they made it to where they are today. Stay positive and be open to all opportunities that come your way—academic or otherwise.

Rebecca Talley
GoldBio Staff Writer

Rebecca is a medical student at the University of Missouri.
She previously worked as a lab technician while studying
biology at Truman State University. As an aspiring
reproductive endocrinologist with an interest in global
health, Rebecca has traveled across Central America on
medical mission trips. With a passion for the life sciences,
she enjoys writing for GoldBio.

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