Thursday, November 19, 2009

5 year rule - Judy Cannon's experience

My experience of the postdoctoral fellow/scholar to research associate/assistant professor transition. Judy Cannon, Research Associate/Assistant Professor, Department of Medicine

After 5 years as a postdoctoral fellow, I became a Research Associate/Assistant professor. To stay at the University of Chicago, there are several options available to postdocs after the 5 years of “postdoctoral” status ends. If there is a tenure-track position open, a postdoc could apply, go through the process of being selected for an interview, interview, then receive a job offer and become an assistant professor on the tenure track at the University of Chicago. Very few postdocs I know who stay on go through this process.

Instead, most postdocs take either a non-tenure track faculty position or a research staff position. Research Associate/Assistant professor is the non-tenure track faculty position. To obtain this position, we started the process approximately 4-5 months before my 5 years were up. My mentor had to write a letter to the chair of the department, and it might have gone to the dean as well. The job needed to have a job description and the job description posted nationally (usually Science Jobs or the like). I obtained 3 letters of reference, one from outside the University of Chicago. I was given the impression by my mentor that the appointment is not just up to her, but had to get approved by both the department chair and the dean. The fact that I had publications from my postdoc and funding as a postdoc definitely helped to get the appointment, but I’m not sure if this is a requirement. The funding for the position is dependent on the mentor, so if the mentor cannot guarantee funding, there will be no appointment. Also, the appointment is a yearly reappointment process, much like the postdoc status. It has to be renewed each year. So, again, if your advisor loses funding, you will not be renewed. I thought I was told that there is also a minimum salary associated with the position, I wasn’t sure what it was. This may provide a disincentive for some mentors as they must pay a certain salary. Above this minimum, the salary is negotiated with the mentor.

The advantages of the research associate position is that it is a faculty position. It is non-tenure track, which means no startup funds, no space allotment, no faculty standing within the department. But, a faculty position, even non-tenure track, means that you can apply for independent funding as the PI of any grant, including young investigator grants and even R01 level grants. I know RA/APs who have received R01s. It’s harder to convince outside reviewers for funding, as those reviewing know that the RA/AP position is not truly independent, but again, it is possible. In the staff position, there is no chance to apply for funding. In addition to this, the benefits as an RA/AP are more or less the same as the faculty benefits, including health insurance, retirement, etc. With lab school enrollment preference and tuition benefits, you are considered a faculty member.

It is also possible to move up through the ranks of the RA track. The RA track, like a standard tenure track system, is up or out. It is limited in time, you can only be 6 years as an RA/Assistant Professor. At the 6 year point, you also have to apply for a promotion to RA/Associate professor. The standards for the promotion, as far as I know are similar, but less stringent, than tenure. You have to demonstrate independence, have your own reputation in the field apart from the mentor, have funding and publications. There are several people I know of in the Dept of Medicine who are RA/Associate Professors and even RA/Professors. I’m not sure how common it is, but they are there. Some still work with a tenured faculty member, one is more or less independent.

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