“Get a job, Ken!” Part 2: Proposal Preparation

In my last post I describe the timeline for my faculty job search. In this post, the second in the “Get a job, Ken!” series, I share my strategy for creating and vetting research proposal ideas.

The academic job application consists of a number of items. Most universities ask for a cover letter, CV, letters of recommendation, research proposals, and occasionally other materials (like a teaching statement). A candidate’s appeal to the search committee often depends on the presentation of his/her previous accomplishments (which I’ll discuss in the posts that follow) and, perhaps more importantly, research proposals.

Very few job posts provide guidelines for proposals. My understanding is that search committees want to see two or three original research ideas that are:

  1. Different from the work of previous advisors.
  2. Unique enough to show creativity and the ability to compete with others in the field.
  3. Interesting enough to be potentially fundable.

Many people, me included, encourage those planning to apply for faculty positions to start thinking about original research ideas while in graduate school. Thinking about proposals early allows time to work through ideas as well as build a broad knowledge based about cutting-edge research. Not everyone will come up with a new, creative idea while in graduate school, but it’s helpful to start practicing and developing the strategies to do so early.

One strategy to fuel the creative process includes learning about research outside of your immediate field. While reading papers or walking though poster sessions, ask yourself: “How could this research contribute to my work?” and “How could my expertise contribute to their work?” Many major research advances bridge the gap between sub-disciplines. Gap-bridging ideas also have greater potential to appeal to more members of the search committee. Most academic hires are decided by entire departments, representing individuals from all ‘flavors’ of chemistry.

Quick aside: be cautious when getting excited about a new idea. It is very disappointing to come up with a ‘new idea’ and then discover after a literature search that someone else has already published it. Yet, this unfortunate event has a silver lining. It suggests you’re on the right track to coming up with feasible/publishable ideas.

Coming up with new ideas is difficult. There is also a large activation barrier to formalizing new ideas and writing them as a research proposal. There are many strategies to start and maintain the process, such as establishing incentives, deadlines, punishments, etc. In contrast to these self- dependent and willpower-driven strategies, I found joining/creating an Aspiring Professors Support Group especially helpful.

Our Aspiring Professor Support Group was composed of individuals interested in applying for academic jobs (either in 2012 or beyond) in various domains of chemistry, including organic, inorganic, analytical, and physical.  The members of the support group respected and trusted each other – an important factor. We were comfortable sharing our ideas and there were no concerns about anyone stealing and misrepresenting other’s ideas as their own. Once the support group was formed, we set up meetings—with deadlines—for presenting our research ideas.

We began meeting once a week in early July, 2012. At each meeting three people gave either a chalk talk or power point presentation on one proposal idea (6 people x 3 proposals each = 18 proposals over 6 weeks). Scheduling the presentations gave us a tangible deadline and forced us to think through and prepare our proposals before job applications were due.

These meetings served as the first filter, outside of our own minds, to gauge whether we should commit to writing down a particular proposal. We presented and defended our ideas in front of an audience and if there were fundamental flaws with a proposal—like infeasibility or impossibility—they were abandoned or revamped. The diversity of our Aspiring Professors Support Group also proved an important opportunity to see how chemists from other areas/domains responded to each idea. The group’s questions helped prepare me for the questions I might be asked during an actual interview.

In addition to formalizing ideas, the group was also helpful in other aspects of the job search. We sent new job openings to each other and shared anecdotes/stories/advice for the application process.

In the next blog post I’ll describe the next step: putting research proposals on paper.

2 Comments

  1. Thank you for these posts. I was especially encouraged by this thought:

    “Yet, this unfortunate event has a silver lining. It suggests you’re on the right track to coming up with feasible/publishable ideas.”

    I’m a third year grad student, and I’ve had several ideas over the last 6 months, each of which were already published (one as early as 1980…that was a painful one. It made me feel really behind the curve). It’s good to hear that silver lining comment.

    • Kenneth Hanson says:

      @Chad
      Even if you see that your idea has already published it does not necessarily mean that you should abandon it. First you should ask “did they follow up on their published work?”, “can I expand on what has already been done?” and “can I apply the idea to a different area of research?”

      This is especially true for the paper you found from the 80s. If they or anyone else did not do any follow up you might be able to still pursue and expand upon it. A few weeks ago Mark posted a great example of this with his “Polymerase chain reactions, so good they invented it twice” post, where an idea from an abandoned publication/project later lead to a Nobel prize.

      Also, a lot of techniques and technologies have been invented and refined since the 80s. Maybe you could apply a new type of measurement to the research or make the old idea more relevant to recent problems/technologies.
      Don’t give up and keep working at it!

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