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The neuroscience tenure-track

The point of this post is to tell my story and explain, as best I can and in as much detail as possible, my path toward accepting a tenure-track position at UCSD. I will attempt to give as many factual and quantitative details as possible (where appropriate) for people who might be looking to "compare" in their own job hunt.

Brief aside: I'm going to shy away from discussing issues of gender, sex, nationality, class, parenthood, and race because--while I know those factors play a huge role in academia--they're too complex for me to be able to adequately address. However I would like to happily note that the chair of my new home department of Cognitive Science, the chair of the search committee, and the two other computational faculty are all women from a diversity of backgrounds. For those who are curious, I myself am of mixed race from a working class family, but that is as much as I will say on the matter.

We all know that the academic path is variable and uncertain. When I was on the job hunt I remember looking at other peoples' CVs to see how mine stacked up. I looked at where other post-docs (my competition) published their papers. I looked at their h-indices and grants and conference proceedings. I remember thinking, "what do I have that could possibly make me stand out compared to these amazing scientists"?

We encounter this uncertainty repeatedly in academia:
  • Will I pass my qualifying exams?
  • Can I come up with a novel hypothesis and run an experiment, from start to finish, to test it properly?
  • Do I know enough to do so?
  • Can I successfully defend my thesis?
  • Find a post-doc?
  • Run experiments over and over again?
  • Delegate work?
  • Get a grant?
  • Get a tenure-track job?
  • Run a lab?
Do I even want to keep doing this or just go and make real money? Academia isn't the only job for us. If you don't really want it, you should seriously ask yourself why you're pursuing it.

I've struggled at every step along the way. There's been doubt, for sure, but I've talked about all these things in detail on here already and tried to give advice where possible. I'm also trying to do my part to mitigate the doubt of future scientists (and this post is yet another attempt at that) while being as honest as possible. That's important to me because I feel like there's a lack of clarity in the academic job process.

So let's get to the details (skip to the very end if you just want to compare numbers and CVs).

I first tried applying for faculty jobs in Oct/Nov 2010. I applied to psychology jobs at both Stanford and UCLA. This was very early; I'd just finished my PhD but three of my thesis projects were published that that year, one each in Neuron, PNAS, and Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, each cited (by now) at least 30 times (so they had a decent scientific impact). It was a big year so I thought I'd "dip my toe in the water" and strike while the iron was hot, so to speak.

Note that no one--no friends, faculty who wrote my letters of recommendation, etc.--actually thought I'd get a job, but I wanted the practice in applying.

(Ah, the academic life before parenthood... I finished writing my job applications on a ferry leaving Kobe, Japan after giving an invited presentation at the International Congress of Clinical Neurophysiology, which was an amazing trip for my wife and I.)

In response to this round of applications I got nothing back but form letter rejections around Feb/Mar the following year. But I honestly didn't mind because I had a good post-doc job and I wasn't expecting anything anyway. I really wasn't emotionally invested (by intent).

Pause here: I want to note that the applications I sent weren't great. The research statements were weak and I didn't do a good job explicitly stating my overall research theme and goals. This is a skill at which I often fail but one the importance of which I cannot emphasize enough:

You know your work better than anyone which makes it easy to forget to be explicit and connect all the dots, but you need to connect those dots and frame your work clearly within the bigger picture.

The committee reading your application won't know your subfield like you do. If you apply to a department that has a broad mission like Cognitive Science--which ranges from computer science to anthropology--you need to make sure you explain your work in a way that everyone can understand and appreciate.

Lesson learned.

When the 2011 application deadline came around I didn't bother applying for any jobs because I'd just had my first child a few months beforehand. Furthermore I'd just started my current post-doc and I was really excited to get those projects going. I wasn't in a rush.

For the 2012 applications (again, Nov/Dec) I decided to make a second tentative attempt. My post-doc grant still had a few more years of funding, but several jobs opened that just "felt right". Stanford had a vision science position that sounded like a good fit, UCLA had an opening in psychology, and UCSD had a position in the Department of Cognitive Science for a computational cognitive scientist doing work in data-mining, BCI, etc.

(Can you tell I really wanted to stay in California?)

Given that my brainSCANr paper was just published and some of the work I had currently under review were data-mining projects, UCSD seemed like an excellent, rare fit. Again, it was a bit early because none of my post-doc work was published and, again, I wasn't emotionally committed (meaning I was steeled against failure), but I'd have kicked myself if I didn't try. The cost of entry is very low.

My applications were much stronger this time. While my CV wasn't phenomenally better, by this point I'd begun running my own mini-lab inside my post-doc lab and I had two really strong papers under review at "good journals" (bleeeeech I hate saying that).

In late January I heard that I wasn't short-listed for the UCLA job. Apparently I was "strongly considered", and much-discussed, but in the end they wanted a behavioral neuroscientist (not a cognitive/computational person).

As opposed to the first time I tried applying, this time I got personal letters back from faculty on both the UCLA and Stanford committees ("I decided to write you to thank you personally for your application... I am a real fan of the work you are doing...") Honestly I wasn't even upset; those folks seriously know how to make someone feel good about being rejected!

As I was sitting at home with my wife the night I got the rejection from UCLA, I received an email from UCSD while I was nursing my wounds (i.e., watching Game of Thrones or whatever). They asked me if I was still interested in the position to which I had applied.  I re-read that email several times to make sure I wasn't misunderstanding. I had my wife read it, too, to verify. I was pleasantly surprised, to say the least. So I set up a phone meeting with the UCSD cognitive science search committee chair and we arranged a date for me to fly down for my job talk.

There were six weeks between that phone call and my interview. Now, I've given a lot of scientific talks, both for large audiences and small, for lay-people and specialists. When I gave my first practice talk at my lab's meeting a few weeks before my job talk, it was okay, but far from great. I made four mistakes that you should avoid:

  1. I did a poor job explaining the narrative flow linking one experiment to the next.
  2. I tried to fit in too much (the "everything plus the kitchen sink" approach). I'm excited about research--my research in particular (hence why I want to stay in academia)--but you have to know which parts to cut. Less really is more.
  3. I didn't leave people with a strong feeling of the overarching theme of my work...
  4. Nor did I adequately leave them with a sense of excitement about the future of my work.

These are hard problems to tackle! But the solution to several of them is essentially: be explicit. The narrative flow is an easy problem to address, because it essentially recapitulates what really happened during the course of your research career. Meaning papers n, and n+1 are extensions based off papers n-1, n-2, ...n-i.

So talk about them that way.

I practiced my talk in front of other people two more times: once with my PhD lab and once for my wife and a friend. I did a final practice run on my own, speaking slowly to make sure I wouldn't go over time.

Make sure you do not go over time.

Everyone hates that. Don't make everyone hate you because of a dumb issue like amateur time mismanagement. Everyone's time is valuable; don't hold your audience hostage. It's rude.

My visit to San Diego was not without some frustrations. My visit was scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday, with my talk being Wednesday at noon. The visit was to begin with an 8am breakfast, followed by meetings with the search committee chair and departmental chair, and then my talk. After the talk there were more meetings, dinner with some faculty, and then another full day of one-on-one meetings with faculty.

Unwisely (in hindsight) I decided to fly down late the night before my talk so that I could help my wife with getting our son from daycare, fed, bathed, etc. My flight was scheduled to arrive in San Diego at 10:40pm. I assumed I'd grab a taxi to my hotel near UCSD's campus and be in bed by midnight. No problem.

Unfortunately, as we were landing the pilot suddenly kicked the engines into high gear (or whatever the aeronautical equivalent term is) and began to ascend. After circling San Diego's airport for about 30-40 minutes we were informed that, because of dense fog, we were being diverted to Los Angeles. We finally landed at LAX at around 11:30pm, after which time we were to wait around for busses that would then drive us to the San Diego airport.

Now I was all carry-on so I was ready to go as soon as we landed. But I did the quick math and, by the time all the other passengers got their luggage, the mob figured out what to do, boarded the busses, and finally got on the road, it would be about 1am. Add a 2-hour drive to the San Diego airport, and then another 30-40 minutes back north to UCSD... that would get me into my hotel room at around 3-4am. I opted out of that arrangement.

After calling a few friends in LA to see if I could catch a late-night ride to San Diego (and offer up my hotel room to my generous driver for a night) I was reminded that the following morning (the morning of my job talk) was my good friend's memorial service. A close friend of ours had recently, unexpectedly, died, so all of my closest friends in LA were attending his services (which I had to miss for the job talk... ugh).

Thankfully I also work for a car company so I requested an Uber to come pick me up. I explained to the the poor guy that came to get me that this wasn't a quick 20 minute ride (long drive, late night, job interview, etc.) I told him I didn't expect him to do such a long trip so late at night in the middle of the week. Amazingly the guy agreed to drive me anyway and was a god damn champ. As I apologized for the bumper-to-bumper 1am Thursday LA traffic he just kept saying, "my job is to get you to your job interview well-rested, so don't worry."

By the time I got checked into my hotel it was about 2:00am. I figured I'd get up at 7:30, quick shower and shave, throw on my suit, and meet for breakfast in the lobby at 8am. But whomever stayed in the hotel room before me had different plans, so surprise! when the alarm in my room went off at 6:15am (I was using my phone's alarm plus a wake up call to wake me up... I hadn't checked the room's alarm clock). Once I figured out how to turn the damn thing off I was awake. Too excited from the cortisol/adrenaline rush to go back to sleep now!

So I took my time, got ready, had some coffee, checked my email, and went for a walk around the hotel (which was beautiful, by the way).

Needless to say I had no problem getting to my 8am breakfast on time. But I was looking at a non-stop 13-hour day of interviews, job talk, meetings, and socializing on about 3-3.5 hours of sleep (and knowing all of my closest friends were grieving for another very close friend).

When I first did that simple math I suddenly became very thankful for the last 18 months of parenthood for teaching me how to cope with sleep deprivation.

Surprisingly I was so thrilled to be there that I don't really remember feeling overly tired. Thankfully the department had a lot of water (and a nice welcome bag with UCSD CogSci schwag) waiting for me, so I just kept hydrated and kept talking!

If you're curious, here are the slides from my talk (not including all the extras I tack onto the end in case I get follow-up, clarification, or methodological questions... remember to always be a step or two ahead!) You'll note that I'm very text-light in my talks. I know my slides well so I use the figures and images on the pages to prompt me (no written or digital notes). I'm also a one-figure-per-page speaker when I can get away with it.

If you want to hear me give a very rough version of this talk, here's a video from a talk I did at Berkeley City College about 6 months beforehand:

As a point of comparison for you bean counters, here's my CV, frozen at the time I got the job offer from UCSD. My h-index was 8. I didn't have any Nature or Science papers (but I did have a PNAS and Neuron paper) nor any fancy grants (no K99, NRSA, etc.) My most highly-cited primary research paper was an open-access paper published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. I also had a few methods papers, including the more... non-standard... brainSCANr paper.

The other unusual thing I included was my "crowdsourced letter of recommendation" which definitely seemed to have gotten peoples' attention. My extracurricular activities (zombie neuroscience, blogging, outreach, etc.) weren't even really mentioned (in the positive or negative) so I'm not sure what the committee thought of all that.

There you go.

I hope this helps give some idea of what this process is like. Remember that there really is a lot of luck involved. The departments need to be looking for someone who fills a niche they're lacking. While you can't control your academic fate because of this "luck" factor, you can do a few things to tip the balance in your favor:
  1. (Obviously) do good science in a field you love.
  2. Network and get your name out there: speak at conferences, run symposia, reach out to faculty at universities when you're traveling to see if you can give a department colloquium or lab meeting. But I think physical travel is becoming less important as social media and email grow ever more pervasive (invasive?).
  3. Make sure other people know about your research (send PDFs of your papers to colleagues who've inspired your research).
  4. Keep your shit together and remember that this is a job and not your life.