As a herpetology postdoc at the Smithsonian Institution, Jim McGuire had two open secrets. One, he got his bachelor's degree in business, not science. (Some may scoff, but there's something to be said for the strategy -- he never had to take a course in organic chemistry.) Second, and potentially more shocking to the postdocs around him, he already had a tenure-track job in the bag. In fact, McGuire had a job offer several months before he had a Ph.D.
At a time when most Ph.D.'s spend years in low-paying postdoc positions before landing their first tenure-track job, a few scientists still hit pay dirt before the ink on their doctoral diploma is dry. How can a doctoral student in the sciences land on the tenure track so quickly? McGuire -- now an assistant professor at the University of California at Berkeley -- and his fellow early-bird, Steven Poe of the University of New Mexico, were willing to tell their stories, secrets and all.
Like just about every other scientist in the snake-and-lizard business, McGuire has been fascinated with reptiles ever since childhood. It just took him longer than most to realize that he could study the creatures for a living. Once he decided to become a herpetologist, he worked like he had something to prove: Yes, a business major really can tackle the phylogenetics of collared lizards, organic chemistry or no.
The Master's Approach
As might be expected of someone with his background, McGuire took a somewhat unusual route to his Ph.D. Instead of applying for doctoral programs immediately after receiving his bachelor's degree, he decided to pursue a master's in biology first. "A lot of people discourage students from getting a master's degree," he says. "I encourage them to do so."
He took his master's research more seriously than most. He spent four years putting together his thesis, a project that generated some interesting data and even a few publications. "It could have easily been a Ph.D. project," he says. "But it wouldn't have set me apart in a Ph.D. program."
Instead of getting lost in a crowd, McGuire stood out. After earning his master's degree, he was accepted into a top-notch doctoral program at the University of Texas at Austin -- a program that never would have accepted him straight out of his undergraduate college.
When it comes to future employment, the quality of a lab means more than the name of an institution. Even Ivy League universities harbor some laboratories where young careers go to die. As it turned out, McGuire ended up in a lab of David Cannatella, an adviser with a seemingly magic touch. In fact, McGuire is one of three consecutive Ph.D. students from Cannatella's lab who found tenure-track jobs before completing their degrees. The other two are John Wiens, an assistant professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and Steven Poe.
A Different Path
McGuire is actually a bit of a laggard compared with Poe, his former lab-mate. Now an assistant professor at the University of New Mexico, Poe landed his job a full year before earning his Ph.D. Although McGuire and Poe achieved similar success, they took different paths to get there. Poe never majored in business, and he never received a master's degree. But like McGuire, he did make the most of his time in graduate school.
Specifically, Poe dedicated himself to getting his name in print as often as possible. "I realized early on that getting published is the most important thing," he says. To that end, he threw himself into several side projects that produced quick results. "A lot of people get focused on their dissertation, but often it takes a couple of years to see results from a great dissertation." In the end, he says, "a dissertation almost doesn't matter. Everyone has one. What you really have to prove is that you can get published."
Even with their hefty CV's, neither scientist felt very confident about his employment prospects. "You never know if you're going to pass muster until you put yourself on the market," McGuire says.
At first, there wasn't much muster being passed. On the advice of his adviser, McGuire applied for a tenure-track job at the California Academy of Sciences when he was still well more than a year shy of his Ph.D. He didn't get a nibble, but he did end up with some valuable raw material for his future job search. "Once you get an application together, it's very easy to tweak it for other jobs," he says.
At a stage when many doctoral students are obsessing about their dissertation, McGuire was tailoring his application for openings at the University of California at Davis, the University of Colorado at Boulder, Oregon State University, and Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. "It was a stochastic process," he says. "I'd like to say I had a real formalized plan, but that's not the way it happened."
The scattershot approach worked: LSU asked for an interview and offered him a tenure-track job as an assistant curator of the university's Museum of Natural Sciences, along with an appointment as an adjunct assistant professor in the biology department. McGuire gladly accepted, on the provision that he could complete a year-long postdoctoral fellowship at the Smithsonian first. "Postdoc training is important," McGuire says. "It was a chance for me to focus my energy entirely on my own research." (He transferred from LSU to Berkeley last fall, largely for the sake of his partner's career.)
Poe's job search was a little more refined: He sent out one application -- to the University of New Mexico -- got an interview, and landed the job. "I had no idea if I was really ready or if I would be the last name on the list," he says.
His credentials caught the university's attention, but the interview won him the job, he says. "I was very excited about this particular job, and I was able to communicate that." He also had the advantage of expert advice. McGuire and others helped him form a game plan for impressing the selection committee. He prepared by brushing up on the research of every scientist he would meet in the interview process. "It shows you care enough about the job to do the homework," he says.
Cannatella, the Texas professor who guided McGuire, Poe, and Wiens, takes little credit for the success of the students in his lab. "All three of those guys are really sharp," he says. He does, however, run his lab with a close eye on the future careers of his graduate students. From the beginning, he teaches them that research is never really done until it's published. He also strongly encourages his students to interact with other departments and even go to other lab meetings. This approach gives his students a broad understanding of their field -- and a leg up on the competition.
The phenomenon of doctoral students' skipping a long tour of postdoc duty and landing directly on the tenure track is rare but not unique to Cannatella's lab. Other young scientists have similar stories to tell. Teri Odom, an assistant professor of chemistry at Northwestern University, also won her job before completing her degree. In fact, the university offered her the assistant professorship two years before the position became available, giving her plenty of time to finish her degree and complete a postdoc before starting work.
In a tight job market, scientists like McGuire, Poe, Wiens, and Odom are the exceptions. Few doctoral students are ready to put themselves on the market, and even fewer will actually get job offers. But for those who happen to have the publications, the drive, and the nerve, there's no reason to wait.