Link to home

Advice for Researchers Interested in a Career in Academia

Laura Ramos, CADRE member

If your long-term career goal is to run your own research program in an academic institution, this article could be helpful. In this article Dr. Barbara Christ, Senior Associate Dean of the College of Agricultural Science at The Pennsylvania State University, provides some advice to undergraduates, graduate students, postdoc scholars, and new professors on how to succeed as a professor in either research or teaching oriented universities. 

About Dr. Christ

Dr. Christ attended The Pennsylvania State University for her undergraduate studies. She completed her master’s degree at the University of Minnesota and for her Ph.D. she went to the University of British Columbia. She returned to Penn State University as a professor in Plant Pathology to work, among other projects, on disease resistance breeding of potatoes. She spent 20 years as a faculty member before she took responsibility as head of the Department of Plant Pathology at Penn State University. As head of the department she was involved in numerous leadership meetings, including some that discussed the need for a new Senior Associate Dean. The Senior Associate Dean position required, among other skills, a robust understanding about how to operate a department, and people knew that Dr. Christ could be a perfect fit for it. She was reluctant about whether to apply because she was running for president of the APS that same year. Dr. Christ ended up being both, Senior Associate Dean and president of the APS (2010). She has been involved in the plant pathology field for more than 31 years now; therefore, her input is greatly appreciated for this article.

What would be your advice to graduate students and postdoc scholars interested in faculty positions?

For both, graduate students or postdoc scholars, the priority should always be to do good research. For graduate students, it is also important to do well in their course work. After you are done with your courses and research work, you must take all the opportunities available. You need to have experiences in different subjects: teaching, mentoring, writing and collaborating. Dr. Christ advised to: 1) ask your adviser to allow you to give some guest lectures, 2) volunteer to give talks in extension activities at growers meetings or field days, 3) get involved in some other researchers’ projects in the same department or in other departments (she once drove a tractor for another graduate student fellow, for example), and 4) get involved in the department’s associations. At the end you want the entire faculty to know who you are, emphasized Dr. Christ. And finally, networking! Dr. Christ recommends attending national and meetings, which is always a good investment in a person’s career. In summary, search out and take opportunities, take the chances people offer. 

Could you please elaborate on how a graduate student and postdoc scholars can successfully apply for a faculty position?

Read the application carefully, you need to make sure that you are a perfect fit for the job description. Beyond your research, teaching, mentoring and writing abilities you have to convince them that you fit perfectly for the position. Write and make sure other people approve your curriculum vitae, teaching philosophy, research statement and cover letter. Open yourself up; a terrible mistake is to think that you know everything, that you do not need help from others, stressed Dr. Christ. Once you are on the short list, prepare a great seminar, here is your chance to show people you can be a good teacher. Go online and look for who you are going to be meeting, what they do, their interests, and their background. Think and discuss which questions you are going to ask during the interview. Make sure other people approve your questions too, just like you did with your CV for example. Prepare mentally for the whole interview. Then just relax and be yourself. *As a graduate student or postdoc scholar, it is good to serve on faculty search committees or any other faculty committee; this will allow you to have better insight of how the department works.

What would be your advice to newly hired professors so they can achieve tenure and support agriculture with their research projects, teaching and mentoring?

Sit with the department head and ask what it takes to be a successful professor. The department head should be able guide the new professors on how things work in the department and college. The department head should be clear about what it takes to get tenure and what is the process for evaluating teaching. Second, document everything you do! Keep a folder, with for example an advertisement of the meetings you attended. Dr. Christ mentioned that she would have a folder with all the information and when she had some free time she would fill the annual evaluation forms based on the information she had in the folder. Research gets documented by papers, the rest of the activities it is up to you. Do not rely on staff, they are very busy too. Do not overlook anything either. Do not engage in a lot of committees that are not from the department; start with departmental ones. After a couple of years, the department head can help you decide on which committee outside the department you can be helpful. There are a lot of details, but they are going to be specific to the university you end up and position you get accepted, but always talk to the head of the department and document what you do.

What would be the biggest challenge(s) new faculty face and how can they overcome them?

The amount of funding opportunities for professors has decreased drastically. They need to be good writers and communicators. Furthermore, they should be able to work in teams. That poses challenges in terms of who gets the credit and all the conflict that happens when you are trying to work together. Faculty should be able to negotiate and lead other people, including colleagues. Take the leadership on the project or grant. In fact, if you think you need some leadership training, attend leadership workshops.

In which areas of plant pathology do you see future academic careers opportunities? Where do you think plant pathology is heading in the future?

We need classical plant pathology people that have a basic knowledge of molecular biology. There is always a need for someone who has the skills and ability to deal with old issues or new emerging problems in crop protection. “Second, microbiology! It is already here, not only for plant pathologists but for all agriculture scientists” said Dr. Christ. Microbes are the big frontier. As plant pathologists, we already work with microbes; we need to expand a little in what we do and try to address some other problems. Can we use microbes as fertilizers, instead of chemicals? Can we balance and reduce plant disease using already symbiotic microbes? The microbiome area is huge, can we remediate certain environmental issues using microbes? We need to collaborate and be able to interact with people studying microbes in other areas outside our department or/and college.


I would like to finish with something that I really liked. Dr. Christ said; the thing that she has enjoyed the most in her career is the people she worked with.