In 2015, WPI started a small workshop to help graduate students and postdoctoral researchers learn the ropes for seeking and being successful in tenure-track faculty positions in the STEM fields. Now in its fifth year, the STEM Faculty Launch has proved successful both in preparing graduate students and postdoctoral scholars to transition into faculty roles and in filling what has become an obvious void in career preparation for academic careers.
Although held at WPI, the two-day workshop is geared toward a national and global audience—this year nearly 40 participants came from institutions around the country including MIT, Harvard, University of Texas, Brown, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Carnegie Mellon, and Georgia Tech for the October 2–3 event. The STEM Faculty Launch is open to all; women and underrepresented minorities are particularly encouraged to apply. WPI covers participants’ costs, including travel and lodging.
Covering All the Bases
Like a road map for starting an academic career, some workshop sessions cover nontechnical soft skills that are essential for employment. Tasks like negotiating a faculty contract and role, preparing application materials, understanding selection process criteria, or even successfully getting through interviews are addressed.
When Andrea Arnold, assistant professor of mathematical sciences, applied for the STEM Faculty Launch in 2016 during her final year as a postdoc at North Carolina State, she thought the program sounded like “exactly what I needed,” she says. “It was a good way to make sure I was on the right track. The one-on-one feedback was helpful. And we talked about negotiating—I had never done that before.”
The workshop shows students how to navigate the interview process by being ready to adroitly answer some questions and learning what questions they shouldn’t ask interviewers. For people who have spent years working on highly complex research projects, presenting that information in layman’s terms doesn’t always come naturally. Workshop participants practice how to present complicated, technical research findings to people who might not have any knowledge of the field and why it’s so important to be able to do so.
Helping Decipher Unwritten Requirements
When biology and biotechnology professor Karen Kashmanian Oates started the STEM Faculty Launch while she was Dean of Arts & Sciences, she wanted graduate students to understand the variety of their options, know how to make themselves stand out in the job search, and understand expectations once they are hired. “In the STEM Faculty Launch, they can ask questions they may not want to ask at their own institutions,” she says.
The energy behind this event also reinforces WPI’s commitment to the collaboration of diverse teams and to social justice initiatives.
“WPI’s vision of global impact is intricately linked to the diversification of the STEM workforce,” says Peterson Family Dean of Arts & Sciences Jean King. “Whenever we can advance the inclusion of all voices in STEM, it leads to enhanced innovation. At WPI we believe that social justice ‘stems from us’ by always doing our part to include all voices in innovation, leadership and global impact.”
Tiffiny Butler, director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA) and teaching professor of biomedical engineering, says the workshop’s focus fills a gap in career preparation for many. “I think in general we are serving a population of people that statistically are self-selecting out of careers in STEM,” she says, noting that her own workshop participation was tremendously helpful. “As an institution, we know that faculty mentoring is not created equal at every location and may not be in context for those from underrepresented communities. We provide workshop group mentoring that is also subject-specific by faculty committed to the success of people from diverse backgrounds.”
And while the workshop isn’t geared to find prospective WPI faculty, the relationships that come from this mentoring (often continued after the scholars return to their schools) spur some, like Butler and Arnold, to seek a position here.
Now an assistant research professor teaching mechanical and biomedical engineering at WPI, John Obayemi, too, is an alum of the program who now often participates as a leader.
“When I saw the program, I knew I wanted to be part of this,” he says. “One of the most important skills I learned was how to put the best application together for schools and how to present it so they will be interested in me and the things I wanted to do.” The value of preparing a professional research statement, teaching statement, and structuring a CV can’t be understated, says Obayemi. “They let you know what’s expected of you.”
Giving a Hand
Oates hopes the beneficial workshop format is adopted by other institutions as WPI can only accept so many applicants. She recently traveled to Syracuse University to lead a two-day workshop on how to structure an event like the STEM Faculty Launch.
In an industry that depends on collaboration, Oates sees this as one more way to assist the next generation of educators. Searching for a first faculty position can be “a very uncomfortable time in your life,” she says. “If we can make it a little easier, why don’t we do that?”
-By Julia Quinn-Szcesuil