Chalk talks are awesome!

Many articles discuss the process of obtaining an independent academic position. Some articles aim at objective quantitative analysis of data while other articles present particularly clean and well controlled cases. To this collection, I want to add my experience and to focus particularly on important aspects that cannot be captured by systematic analyses of aggregated data. My account, on the other hand, is certain to be biased by aspects specific to my background and research.


The good

I interviewed for 12 positions and I enjoyed the interviews, every single one of them. There are many good experiences to discuss, but I will focus on the highlights. The first highlight is that in every search committee, some professors had read my research articles carefully and understood them deeply. This enabled very thoughtful and fun discussions. The second highlight, in a similar vein, were the chalk talks. I absolutely loved those. At every single chalk talk, I received engaging and thoughtful questions; my chalk talk at EMBL was particularly memorable in this regard. I feel that the collective experience of my 12 chalk talks contributed much to refining my future research program.


The bad

For most of my interviews (except for 2), the heads of the search committees and the senior professors told me that they have decided to make me an offer and they are in the process of finalizing the formal steps. In many cases, the formal steps were never finalized, and I never received offers. In some of the cases, I know that the deans decided that they cannot afford to spend the allocated money of the budget on a start-up. In another case, the offer was halted by interdepartmental differences in preference. Such promises that did not materialize were my only significant negative experience.


The bottom line

My experience of very thoughtful interviews contrasts markedly with the widely discussed cynical views that selection is mostly based on grants, and papers in magazines with the highest impact factors (IF). It could be that none of the IF-focused committees invited me for interviews because I never published in Nature and Science magazines. My doctoral mentor refused to be a senior author of papers submitted for publication to Nature or Science. I accepted this attitude in large part because none of his influential papers were published in these magazines, and in fact many of the most influential papers transformed scientific paradigms despite being published in journals without exceptional claims.

I was, at the time, very disappointed that some of the offers fell through, particularly for one of the places that seemed to be absolutely ideal for me. In retrospect, however, I feel less certain that in the long run that place would have been better for me than Northeastern University, especially considering my personal life. There are many ways leading to success, and their beginnings are not always predictive of their future meanderings.

Based on my experience, interviews for tenure track positions are not to be feared but to be anticipated and enjoyed. If your experience is anything like mine, you will meet many thoughtful colleagues and perhaps even start new collaborations. Enjoy the adventure!

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