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Career Advice

So you want to be a science professor?

An indispensable checklist to help you answer: "Is a science career in academia right for me?"


It’s probably the most difficult choice you’ll face as a graduate science student: whether to remain in academia following the completion of your degree, or to pursue a career path in a research field away from the ivory tower. The answer may depend on the sort of person you are. It’s probably safe to assume you’d bring the prerequisite insatiable curiosity – you wouldn’t have made it this far without it. But have you been honest with yourself about whether you possess the other traits generally accepted as vital to an effective, satisfying career in academia? Do you have the high energy, extroverted personality and the leadership skills to guide students looking to you for direction? If you answered yes, keep reading; you may have what it takes for a career in academic science. If not, click here.

A day in the life of a career science academic

There are three parts to a career in academic science: research, teaching and administration. Running a research lab means managing personnel and training and mentoring students, as well as writing and reviewing research grants. Your teaching responsibilities could include courses at both the undergraduate and graduate level. Also you can expect to spend a considerable amount of time participating in the training and mentoring of graduate students, in addition to the ones you supervise, through committee meetings, comprehensive examinations and thesis defences. Add to that traveling to, and presenting at, international conferences, as well as publishing in, and reviewing for, peer reviewed journals. Oh, and don’t forget keeping up with the latest published work in your field.

The passion of the scientist

You’re enticed by a career of research, teaching and administrative duties. But what personality traits do you need to be an academic? “You have to be passionate about science,” says Vasek Mezl, a professor and former graduate program director in the department of biochemistry at the University of Ottawa, and a late-career academic himself. “You are constantly thinking, obsessing, writing about your work,” he says, noting that his average workweek is “definitely” more than 40 hours.

You’ll also need to be a self-motivated, even entrepreneurial, go-getter. “It’s very similar to being self employed: You get out what you put in,” explains Jackie Vanderliut, a former University of Ottawa postdoc who was recently hired by Memorial University. In other words, don’t expect to leave your job behind at the office at 5pm. While you will bring work home with you and stress constantly about getting the next big grant, you will also enjoy the academic and intellectual freedom conferred upon university professors and the feeling that you are your own boss.

The ivory tower can also be a competitive place: “You have to be thick-skinned and willing to take a punch and get back into the ring,” says Steffany Bennett, a professor in the biochemistry department, also at the University of Ottawa. Patience, empathy and a capacity not to get bitter, she adds, are essential traits of the future academic. But it’s about more than just fighting for your ideas: “You need to be convinced that one person can change the world, despite evidence to the contrary,” she says. Ambition, resilience, idealism, check? Okay, then. Keep reading.

Dollars and sense

According to the Statistics Canada’s “Salaries and Salary Scales of Full-time Teaching Staff at Canadian Universities, 2006-2007: Preliminary Report,” the minimum salary for an assistant professor is listed at $42,234, at Université Sainte-Anne, while the maximum entry level salary listed in the survey – and don’t expect this in the faculty of science – clocks in at $103,000, at Ryerson University. The vast majority of schools across the country offer entry-level assistant professors between $50,000 and $70,000 to start. Associate professors tend to make between $60,000 and $90,000. Meanwhile, full professorships at most universities command salaries between $80,000 and $120,000.

If you’re open to an international career in academia, you’ll want to consult the report entitled: “The Status of Higher Education Teaching Personnel in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States,” prepared for Education International by David Robinson, associate executive director for the Canadian Association of University Teachers. The 2006 document details the salaries, working conditions and rights of academic staff in those countries. As you start competing for jobs, you should be aware that your qualifications will enable you to apply for jobs in the United States and internationally.

Climbing the ladder

Beyond the major steps from assistant to associate and then to full professor, there are actually some pretty exciting places an ambitious scholar of science can take the job. Dr. Vanderliut points out you can become an editor for a renowned journal such as Nature, Science or Cell. Or you can associate with, or act as an administrator for, non-profit organizations such as the Canadian Association of Neuroscientists, the Stroke Network or the Stem Cell Network. You can even become the head of a research institute. There are also opportunities within the administrative setting: department chair, various assistant and vice-dean positions, all the way up to university president. Most importantly, Dr. Bennett explains, you must work hard to build your reputation, including internationally, in order to win grants, get published and attract the best and brightest minds as recruits.

Still with us? Great. Now you just have to get the job. To find out how, read on.

Getting your foot in the door

Breaking into academia is a tough, soul-searching process. So be prepared to draw upon that resilient spirit of yours. You may want to ask your supervisor, mentor or a faculty member who’s opinion you respect whether they think you’ve got the talent and personality for the job. Are you – and don’t take this the wrong way – “good enough” to beat the competition? Remember, if you do ask this question, to give them room to let you down gently. And don’t be afraid to ignore their advice if you disagree. Sometimes being told you can’t do something is the motivation you needed to succeed in the first place.

After you’re through your first (and possibly second) existential crisis, you’ll need to start padding your CV. Before you even start mailing out applications, you’ll need to have postdoctoral work under your belt – at least one or two depending on your publications record, or whether you’ve switched fields from your PhD research. After that, it’s time to start applying for jobs, which you can find posted in abundance in the magazines Science and Nature or, more specifically for jobs at Canadian institutions, at University Affairs’ online job listings.

Here are tips for how to create buzz and hopefully get your resumé to the top of the pile, which is key to landing an interview:

  • During your PhD training and postdoctoral work, go to as many conferences as you can and make contacts;
  • Get involved in your supervisor’s collaborations to network and to get your name on the papers;
  • Shoot for three first-author papers in your PhD. It will make you hot for the market.

If you’ve made it this far, you’ve probably got what it takes to be a professor of science. Congratulations and good luck with your job search.

Dr. Nicole Arbour is a recent graduate from the biochemistry graduate program at the University of Ottawa and currently works as a research scientist with Spartan Bioscience in Ottawa.

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  1. Joseph / December 5, 2012 at 23:42

    how about the chance of a foreign country trained scientist to get a science professor position in Canada?