Post Tagged with: "proposal"

“Get a job, Ken!” Part 7: Research/Proposal Talks and Meeting with the Chair

The research talk and proposal talk are arguably the most important parts of the on-site interview. This post, part seven in the “Get a job, Ken! series” delves into both, as well as the final meeting with the department chair.

My first piece of advice for those preparing for an on-site interview is to purchase and practice with a slide-advancing remote (a.k.a. a laser pointer or ‘clicker’). I find it tragic when a great scientist appears incompetent because they don’t know how to use a borrowed clicker. It’s worthwhile owning a clicker that you know like the back of your hand. In fact, for young graduate students, I recommend investing in a clicker and practicing with it as soon as possible. I am partial to the Logitech Wireless Presenter (The author declares no competing financial interests).

The Research Talk

Standard seminar talks have one primary goal, to share science. Research talks during an interview have two additional goals. The first is to briefly introduce your area of research and lay a foundation for the concepts and techniques relevant to your proposal talk. This groundwork will allow for extra time during the proposal talk (vida infra) to discuss your ideas. Of course, it’s important to seek a balance since not everyone who attends your proposal talk will be at the research talk, and vice versa.

The second goal of the research talk is to demonstrate your teaching skills. The presentation will be open to all faculty and students—basically any involved in the hiring decision—and they’ll be asking themselves: How engaging and eloquent is this applicant? How well does he or she explain new concepts? What kind of teaching methods do they use (analogies, examples, images, etc.)? How good is she or he at answering questions?

I have seen way too many talks that care more about demonstrating “I’m smart!” than actually communicating ideas. In these “I am so smart” presentations only two or three audience members have the expertise necessary to follow along past the first few slides. Please be assured that the audience already knows you’re smart, competent, and can publish complex ideas in top-tier, peer reviewed journals. They want to know if you’re also able to share your ideas with non-experts (i.e. students).

The research talk will generally be scheduled for one hour, which will include a short introduction and a ten minute question and answer session at the end. I made sure to avoid 1) going over the allotted time because it can imply time management issues or 2) finishing the presentation in under 30 minutes, which might  suggest a lack of content/results. I did my best to aim for a 40-50 minute presentation. Most audience members will not mind if they get to leave a little early.

Also, presenters usually have about 15 minutes to prepare before the talk. But be forewarned that when earlier meetings run long, you’ll have to jump into the presentation without any prep time.

Proposal Talk

The job interview proposal talk is a lot like a graduate student proposal talk (also sometimes known as a qualifying exam) but with a slightly different focus. The primary focus of a qualifying exam is to defend your ideas.  In addition to defending your ideas during the job proposal talk, you’re expected to provide tangible ways of pursuing the ideas and mentoring young researchers along the way. Similar to the written proposal, the general outline for most proposal talks is 1) introduce a problem that needs to be solved, 2) mention how others are trying to solve it, 3) introduce how you are trying to solve it, and 4) discuss why your method is better and 5) mention the possible implications of your work.

I started my proposal talk with an outline slide. While everyone was getting situated they were able to view the slide and familiarize themselves with my flavor of research. Below is an outline slide example:

Not all audience members will have read your proposals or attended the previous research talk, so you’ll also want to briefly introduce a few important concepts while explaining your research plans. In all likelihood, you’ll be the foremost expert on your proposed research area since they wouldn’t have brought you in for an interview if they had someone already in that niche. You’ll also be asked a number of questions. In addition to the questions from the phone interview (previous post), here are several questions that colleagues and I were asked during the proposal talk:

  • What type of group structure do you envision for your research program?
  • In terms of personnel, what would your lab look like?  How many graduate students/post-docs/undergrads in 5 years? In the long-term?
  • How do you plan to integrate students into your research projects?
  • What will be your approach to mentoring and supervising student progress?
  • Which proposal do you like most?
  • Which proposal is likely to give results the fastest (I.e. which is safe and which is high-risk/high reward)?
  • Which proposals/projects could new students work on right away?
  • Let’s say that next summer you’ll have 2 graduate students and 1 post-doc, what projects would you start them on?
  • What do your proposals have in common? Or what is your proposals central overriding theme (synthesis, electrochemistry, mechanism, etc.)? How do you define yourself as a chemist?
  • Does your proposed research projects depart from your mentors’ work and if so, how?
  • Are you aware of any competitors in the areas of your proposed research? How do you feel about competing with them?
  • Given the courses that are in the U of X handbook, which courses would you prefer to teach?
  • What preliminary results do you need to get in order to go after major grants or a career award?
  • What happens if a fundamental aspect of your proposals fails? Could you still salvage a paper and what would the community learn from that “failure”?

All of my proposal talks were either during or immediately following lunch on the third day. The length of the talk varied between 60-90 minutes, but the number of slides I actually made it through varied depending on the number of questions posed by the audience. In one of my interviews the audience only asked scientific questions so I got through everything in under an hour. In another interview the audience asked at least 30 minutes worth of logistical questions about teaching classes and running a research group so I didn’t finish the presentation in the allotted 90 minutes. Since the presentation portion is so unpredictable the best you can do is put together a presentation where you hope for the best, but are prepared for the worst.

Final tip: Be genuinely enthusiastic about your proposals. If you are not excited then it will be difficult for your audience to be excited too.

Meeting with the Chair

The last formal meeting of the interview will most likely be with the chair of the chemistry department. While sometimes casual, the 30-60 minute meeting was much more business-focused (i.e. startup funds and lab space). This meeting might have been my favorite part of the interview because it included a tour of my potential lab and office space. The tour was my  first real glimpse into what it might be like to run a lab in that particular department. I would walk through the rooms envisioning students working on my research and thinking about where I would put the UV-Vis, potentiostat, fluorometer, etc.

This meeting isn’t time to negotiate space, but going into the meeting it’s helpful to have an idea of what kind of space you’ll need during the first 5 years. Ask yourself: Is your research going to be focused on synthesis or characterization? If so, how many fume hoods? How much bench space? Do you need room for laser tables? Do you need/want proximity to departmental equipment or researchers doing related work? Most of the chairs I met with already had a rough idea of what space I would need based on my background and proposal, but they still ask for my rough estimate. I recommend touring your current advisors space and taking an inventory of how many hoods and square footage they have per person as a starting point.

You’ll also likely be asked—either in this meeting or even before arriving—for a rough budget estimate. For the most part, this budget will include the major pieces of equipment needed to conduct your research and their estimated cost. Although unusual, I sent my budget proposal to the department chair a week before I arrived on campus for the interview. I wanted to show I was serious, had done my homework, and that I was prepared to run a research group. My biggest concern was that the budget I proposed was off the wall, but I followed the suggestion of others. A reasonable budget proposal will depend on your flavor of research (spectroscopists are more expensive than synthetic chemists are more expensive than theoreticians). Also, top 50 schools budget proposals (including personnel) are usually somewhere between $500,000 and $1,000,000 while top 50-100 research institutions are usually somewhere between $300,000 and $750,000.

During this final meeting I also was given an update on the faculty-hiring timeline. I’d find out when the last candidate would be interviewed, when the committee planned to meet for a decision, and when I’d likely hear the department’s decision. In practice, the actual timeline more often than not ended up being about 2-4 weeks longer than the estimate.

By May 23, 2013 1 comment Uncategorized

“Get a job, Ken!” Part 3: Proposal Format

Continuing my “Get a job, Ken!” series, this post builds upon the last by suggesting how to turn research ideas into written proposals.

Strong proposals contain a competitive research idea (as discussed in my previous post), clearly communicate the idea, and concisely propose a plan to pursue it. The plan being the materials, measurements, expected results, and potential complications you may run into while attempting to turn the never-before-implemented idea into something real. Finally, strong proposals sell the idea by explaining why it’s unique, scientifically significant, and attractive to funding agencies.

A large majority of job openings do not specify a page limit for the proposal component, but I followed the advice of several friends and Professors to keep it at or under 10 pages. In these ten pages I included a cover page, three proposals (at three pages each), and one page of references. Below I break down each of these sections in greater detail.

The Cover Page

The search committee members will be bombarded with hundreds of applications. They simply will not have time to read through a three, let alone ten, page proposals from every applicant. I’ve heard from a few professors that they do not look at CVs or recommendation letters until the candidate list is whittled down based on the first page of the proposal alone. The cover page may be the deciding factor between making it through the first round or being cut. This is why it’s very important to spend a lot of time making a clear and compelling cover page.

The general format I used for my cover page can be seen in the image below. Forgive me for not sharing my actual proposal cover page. I haven’t had the opportunity to pursue the ideas yet.

As shown in the image, my cover page included:

1) My name and contact information at the top of the page.

2) A Research Overview, explaining my flavor of research and what I’ll be known for in five years if given the chance to pursue my proposals.

3) A subsection for each proposal that included:

  • A title
  • Page numbers
  • A brief summary, which was structured similar to an abstract. It introduced a problem to be solved, how I intend to solve it, and the potential implications.
  • A pretty image depicting the research idea.

The images accompanying each proposal might be the most important part of the cover page. They should be descriptive, aesthetically pleasing, and eye catching. The goal is to get the search committee curious enough about the ideas so they will look through the proposals and other application materials.

The Proposals

Each proposal should be three pages or less. Since the faculty search committee may include a broad range of chemists, you should try to limit the use of jargon and not assume too much prior knowledge about your research area. Compressing this information into three pages or less sounds like a monumental task and, to be perfectly honest, it is. It will take a lot of time and effort to put a short but solid proposal together. In an effort to help, below is a generic form of my proposal format.

As shown in the image, each of my proposals were organized into the following three sections:

1) Background and Significance

  • Introduce a problem that needs to be solved.
  • Describe how others are trying to solve it.
  • Describe how I am going to try to solve it.
  • Discuss how my method is better.

In this section, I included one bold sentence that clearly summarized the nature of my proposal and an italicized sentence outlining a few specific goals.

2) Plan of Work

  • Explain the logistics of how you’ll pursue your idea (i.e. the materials, measurements, expected results, and potential complications).

 

3) Impact and Funding

  • Remark on the potential implications of the proposed work.
  • List a few potential funding agencies.

When mentioning funding agencies be very explicit. Include the agencies (NSF, NIF, DOE, ARO, etc.) as well as the divisions and sub-divisions within the agencies. An easy way to find possible funding agencies is to look at the acknowledgements section of the papers cited in your proposal. Chances are you will be applying to the same funding opportunities.

Example: “The importance of solar energy conversion research in our current economic and political climate leads me to believe my research program will appeal to both students and funding agencies like the National Science Foundation (CHE/MSN, DMR/SSMC) and Department of Energy (BES/MSE, CSGB).”

Citations

 I made sure to fit all of my citations on one final page to keep the total page count at 10. As far as citation format, I went with ACS standard formatting but others might work just as well.

 Other Formatting Notes

Although some people choose a one-column format, I decided to go with two columns because it is more analogous to many journal articles and, for me, feels easier to digest. I also made sure to include at least one pretty picture per page. It breaks up the wall of text.

Proofreading

I started drafting my proposals early (June or July) so I had time to play around with and re-write the text many times. Maybe more importantly, the time also allowed others to proofread what I’d written. Our aspiring professor support group (described in “Get a job, Ken!” Part 2) was particularly useful for proofreading.  We set up an editing rotation: I shared each of my proposals with three different people for feedback. I also read nine proposals from six different people.

After the aspiring professor support group’s initial screening and revisions, I also asked for comments/suggestions from several professors who had either been on a hiring committee before or just went through the job application process. This included my previous advisors and several Profs. at UNC. They were a big help because they let me know what they found compelling and memorable as well as where I could improve. Finally, I turned outside of the chemistry world to people like my wife to proofread for language and spelling errors.

In the next blog post I’ll share a similar breakdown for the other application materials.

By May 4, 2013 4 comments Uncategorized