Let’s say that you just finished your PhD and have decided to stay in academia.1 Typically, the next move is applying for a temporally position as PostDoc at some good university. To get a good PostDoc, at the end of the PhD your profile will be rigorously evaluated. At this point, you want to get a PostDoc offer leading to some “tenured track” so that you can eventually become an Assistant Professor. But hold on because getting a good PostDoc is just the beginning of an arduous journey. You are about to jump into one of academia’s deepest and most competitive waters (i.e., the hyper-competitiveness for getting a position as a Tenured Professor). To succeed in this endeavor and reach what seems to be “the end of the track,” you should have a publication profile that is appealing to the academic recruiters. But even if you have a ton of impactful publications, research experience, and talent, all of this is not enough to climb the long peak. You also need enough teaching experience to demonstrate that you can perform well as a professor and scientist simultaneously. I think that if your goal is to stay in academia, it is better to anticipate all this and start working in the right direction during your PhD studies. Let’s be prepared!

The academic arenas, where researchers give it all
© The academic arenas, where gladiators researchers give it all. Photo from Tekniska Högskolan station.

The Goal

After finishing PhD studies, there are basically three different career directions to follow: (1) staying in academia, (2) moving to the industry, or (3) starting your own company. The simplified career paths look like this:

flowchart TB; a[Finish PhD] --> b[Stay in Academia]; a[Finish PhD] --> c[Get out of Academia]; c[Get out of Academia] --> j[Get a Job in the Industry]; c[Get out of Academia] --> z[Start Your Own Company]; b[Stay in Academia] --> d[Become a PostDoc]; d[Become a PostDoc] --> e[Become an Assistant Professor]; e[Become an Assistant Professor] --> f[Become a Tenured Professor]; f[Become a Tenured Professor] --> k[Enjoy!]; j[Get a Job in the Industry] --> k[Enjoy!]; z[Start Your Own Company] --> k[Enjoy!];

If you decide to stay in academia, the natural goal is to become a tenured professor. Achieving this goal is not easy, to say the least. It will take about ten years to get (approximately 4 to 6 years working as a PostDoc, plus approximately 5 to 6 years working as an Assistant Professor).

The success or failure of the academic career path depends on many things. Some of them are under your control, e.g. your research performance, but other depends on luck, networking, and the perceived impact of your academic contributions. For example, if you are into Theoretical Computer Science, then getting a large number of good publications during your time as a researcher is typically very difficult. This is true, especially when compared to other research fields, such as Machine Learning, where there is more opportunity to develop so-called “multidisciplinary research,” leading to more publications.

The performance of researchers is tough to measure and evaluate. Having less publications does not necessarily mean that one is bad researcher, neither having a lot of publications is an indicator of excellence. Measuring performance of researchers an inherent problem of academia, and there is nothing we can do about it.

Overall, most people agree that success in academia is mostly based on prestige and networking. The prestige is often obtained through impactful publications, and it can be roughly measured with some bibliometric variables. There are several metrics that attempt to rank researchers, more notably are the citations count and H-index.

Apart from the research-based metrics, other metrics consider the teaching experience. For example, the number of supervised students, courses taught, etc. On the other hand, networking determines the chances to get well positioned by meeting the “right people.” These people are the already established professors you may contact in the future when seeking for academic job opportunities. Networking is typically performed at conferences and scientific events, when delivering technical talks, or by visiting other research departments.

Getting Prepared

There are no workarounds for getting tenured when choosing the academic career path. You have to go through the well-known process by working hard and being consistent. It is better to be prepared in advance because, as a researcher, your profile will be evaluated several times. There are three major evaluation layers, and the goal should be to pass them as painlessly as possible.

From PhD Student to PostDoc

If you graduated as a PhD in Computer Science, then you’re lucky because PostDoc candidates in this field are scarce. After graduation, many PhD students move to the industry, motivated by the much higher economic revenue received when working in large IT companies. Thus, after graduating with a PhD, getting a position as PostDoc is typically not very difficult. Basically, all you need is a good publication profile with at least 3 strong published papers and the ability to communicate your research very well.2

These are the general steps to becoming a PostDoc:

  1. Identify the research teams that work on similar topics as you do.
  2. Submit your profile and statement of interest directly to head researchers in those institutions.
  3. Prepare for an interview (a coding exercise is probably not mandatory).
  4. Present your research expertise and agenda.

From PostDoc to Assistant Professor

Here is when everything starts becoming more challenging. An Assistant Professor should be a talented researcher and a good teacher. Therefore, at this point, you should have demonstrable teaching and research experience to put in your resume. The evaluation of PostDoc candidates is typically done by experienced professors and approved by their corresponding institutions. Look at some examples as follows.

Qualification for Associate Professor in France:

  • Review done by the CNU (Conseil national des universités), a national consultative and decision-making body (divided into 78 sections (Computer Science, Math, Philosophy, etc.)
  • Each section is composed of Associate Professors from French universities.
  • The Computer Science section currently has 97 members.

Qualification for Associate Professor in Spain:

  • Review by governmental agencies: The National Agency for Quality Assessment (ANECA) and regionals.
  • ANECA is an autonomous body whose aim is to provide external quality assurance for the Spanish Higher Education System and to contribute to its constant improvement through evaluation, certification and accreditation.
  • The European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA).

From Assistant Professor to Tenured Professor

To get Tenured Professor title, you not only need to rank high in some research bibliometrics such as the number of publications, or getting teaching and supervision experience. You also need proof of your ability to attack funding from public institutions (i.e., research grants) and demonstrated leadership at successful research projects. Here are some examples of must-needed qualifications.

Qualification for Tenured Professor in France:

  • Candidate sends the CV.
  • CNU Section computer science assigns reviewers.
  • The reviewers judge the quality of the PhD thesis, publications, and the number of teaching duties done.

Qualification for Tenured Professor in Sweden:

  • UKÄ (Swedish Higher Education Authority) is an independent government agency in Sweden. Its operations comprise three main areas:
  • Quality assurance of higher education and research, and appraisal of the degree-awarding powers of public-sector higher education institutions.
  • Legal supervision of higher education.
  • Monitoring efficiency, follow-up and horizon scanning as well as responsibility for statistics in the higher education sector.

Other Career Paths for Researchers

I want to mention that researcher is somebody who actively does research, including:

  • A PhD
  • A PostDoc
  • An Assistant Professor
  • A Tenured Professor
  • A PhD working in a institution that do research
  • A PhD working in R&D at a company

Therefore, if you have a strong passion for research and don’t like teaching, then there are other ways to be a researcher outside academia.

Conclusion

Given that you have enough passion for your field and the solid determination to continue in academia, you should know that the job can be a holy grail, but only after becoming a tenured professor. Unfortunately, there is a long way to go before reaching this idyllic position. On the way, candidates must go through a long path full of competitiveness and work uncertainty.3 This situation obeys a simple market law: the demand for these positions is higher than the offer! If you still want to go through this professional adventure, you know what to expect after reading this post.

References

Footnotes

  1. No, this post is not about whether staying in academia after a getting a PhD in Computer Science is a good decision or not. But let me know in the comments below if you want me to write a post about it. 

  2. Good technical communication is a skill you have supposedly acquired during your PhD studies. 

  3. Work contracts in academia are typically short-term. Even talented Assistant Professors should often self-found themselves through public research grants.