My job search experience in Biostatisitcs (2022 winter)

This blog post is written to share my job search experience and some thoughts, which can potentially benefit future faculty candidates. I want to thank the support of my postdoc mentors Drs. Dylan Small and Nicholas Jewell and my PhD advisors Drs. Michael Rosenblum and Brian Caffo. I also have deep appreciation for Drs. Mark Low, Scott Halpern, Fan Li, Michael Harhay, Yi Zhao, Rossi Xi, Jin Jin, Chan Park for their help and advice during my job search.

1 My experience

1.1 Background

  • Season: 2022 Fall - 2023 Spring

  • Target: tenure-track faculty positions in Stat or Biostat in the U.S.

  • My background: PhD from Johns Hopkins (biostat) and postdoc of 18 month at Penn (Stat)

  • CV: click here for my CV during job search

  • Source of job postings: University of Florida Statistics Jobs

1.2 Results

  • Submissions: 16 Biostat and 15 Stat departments

  • Onsite Interviews: 9 Biostat (2 virtual) and 1 Stat. Some universities have zoom interviews for pre-screening. Most interviews are arranged in January, 2023.

  • Offers: 5 offers in total, all from Biostat.

2 Things I learned

2.1 Stat versus Biostat

Briefly, the Stat department is usually “hard money”, while most Biostat departments have “soft money” components. “Hard money” means a faculty gets paid from teaching and service, while “soft money” means a faculty have to cover their own salary by grants, either independent fundings from NIH or NSF, or collaborative fundings from other departments. “Soft money” often indicates additional efforts to get paid and hence are regarded as inferior to “hard money”. The proportion of “soft money” varies by universities and career stages, typically ranging from 25% to 100%.

Biostatistics departments also put more emphasis on collaborative researches, i.e., your contribution to the advance of domain science. This emphasis is usually reflected by an anticipated fraction, say 40%, of your “soft money” salary supported by collaborators. For collaborative research, the role of a statistician can range from trial designs to data-driven statistical modeling. Meanwhile, independent methodological research is also important and much appreciated as in a Stat department. Many Biostatistics departments seek for a balance between collaborative and independent research, while their definitions of balance may vary.

If you are an applied statistician or interested in health science, a faculty position in Biostatistics can be a good fit. If you are obsessed by statistical theory and would like to publish more papers in Annals of Statistics, then Statistics departments are more appropriate. However, applicants for Statistics are often way more competitive than Biostatistics, given my experience and stories I heard. If you choose to go for Biostatistics, also be mindful about the “soft money” pressure in the future.

2.2 School of Public Health versus School of Medicine

For Biostatistics departments, there are some differences between School of Public Health and School of Medicine. The former highlights more on the education, meaning more teaching load, while the latter emphasizes collaboration, indicating more collaborative duty. In addition, school of Public Health often has a smaller proportion of soft money, less grant pressure, lower salary on average, and more free time for individual research.

2.3 Grant writing

Due to the “soft money” nature of Biostatistics departments, grant writing is an important part of work. First, for promotion, many departments would expect a single PI R01 grant (or equivalent). Second, if you have your own grant, then you will have more time to do your own research (You will be your own boss!). Third, extramural grants are strong evidence of academic independence and reputation.

It is hard to get an R01. According to NIH summary statistics, the chance is less than 15%. Therefore, getting an R01 is often the most challenging part for junior faculties. Surprisingly, most faculty candidates have no experience in grant writing. If a candidate has demonstrated a successful grant writing experience, then it will be a big bonus. For grant writing, I wrote another blog sharing my experience.

There are many opportunities to gain grant writing experiences. NIH has T grants and K grants, which are intended for trainees. Many universities also have internal grant opportunities. For international students, there are fewer opportunities, but K99 is a very good venue for postdocs.

3 Tips for interviews

3.1 The job talk is the most important thing

All faculties I asked for interview advice agreed that the job talk is the most important. Unfortunately, many faculty candidates with strong CVs gave bad job talks, and attributed their failure to the unfair market.

Presentation is an art. Therefore, different people have different standards of good arts. Here are some high-level standards I hold:

  • Less is more. Most presentations I have seen put way more words in slides than necessary. More words are not helpful since people can get exhausted very quickly. It is just a lazy way to put every sentence we want to say into the slides.

  • Design your story. We like watching movies and shows because they are so well narrated and vivid. There are a lot we can learn from them. For example, make the story attractive at the beginning, and make the punchline in the end. Use figures to replace words. Introduce some humor. Pause or accelerate at different slides.

  • The first 10 minutes are key. This is the maximum of time to let the audience know what you are doing and why it is important. Some people want to talk about many papers in 45 minutes, which makes the first 10 minutes super challenging. If the audience are lost in the first 10 min, then they will lose all the rest. In addition, since most of the audience will not be in your field, the first 10 minutes should be as non-technical as possible.

  • Practice. The key to give a good talk is to practice and practice. Good presenters will provide valuable feedback. Tough questions can test our ability to provide responses. The more to practice, the better it will be.

3.2 Ask more questions

A big component of onsite interviews is to talk to faculties. This component starts from breakfast and ends after dinner. It is exhausting. Some faculties will keep asking questions, and what we need to do is to appropriately respond. For examples, ideas of each paper, vision, plans, teaching and mentoring and collaborative experiences, etc. So, be prepared.

What I want to highlight here is to ask them questions. Here are some questions I keep asking:

  • What questions do you think are important in your field and promising in the next few years?

  • What is your suggestion to junior researchers like me for their career development?

  • How do you define success as a faculty in Biostatistics?

I really benefit a lot by asking these questions. First, it is an excellent experience to learn from established faculties. For most faculties, the job interview is probably the only time I can talk to them one-on-one. And I do got valuable advice. Second, I saved my energy by letting them to talk. People just like talking about their own work and providing advice. Third, these questions can usually lead to positive impressions since they are mindful and non-standard.

In addition to these questions, also prepare some general topics to talk about informally. It is human nature that people like those who are alike. If you can find anything in common with the faculties, they are more likely to like you. For example, sports, music, workout, cooking, shows, etc. Besides, It is also helpful to prepare some funny stories to share during the dinner.

3.3 Reading materials

  • The Professor Is In” by Karen Kelsky. This book tells a lot details about the entire job search procedure, including basics like job application materials and tiny things like what to order in faculty dinners. Although this book is best suited for social science, I still highly recommend reading it.

  • Ted talks”. More broadly, any book or material that teach you how to be a good presenter. It is such a pity if excellent research cannot be presented in an excellent way. We are trained to produce good research, and we should also learn how to sell it.

Overall, job search is stressful and exhausting. However, this is also perfect time to know people and build connections. Life is a marathon and this is only one of the steps. Whatever the result is, try to enjoy the procedure and embrace the future!

Hope you find this article helpful!