1. Be the best at what you do and wait. In the final analysis, departments, colleagues, hiring committees, etc., always want to say “We hired the best person in X!” In fact, if a search was originally broad (e.g., “integrative biology”) and the search committee narrowed it down to a “cell biology” candidate versus “genomics” candidate, the most common next question is “If we opened a search in cell biology, would this person be the best?”
You need to become best at something but you can only be the best at a narrow range of things—it is hard to be the “smartest” person; even if you were, it would be hard to convince people that you are, in fact, so smart. The problem is when there are no positions for what you are good at. Trendy topics can come and go; and often never come back. But, core areas are always needed. At some point, some department somewhere will need to hire a physiologist, for example. If you study physiology but couple it with some state-of-art approaches, you would be in a fine position.
2. You have to stay ahead of the crowd--which gets harder with time. If you look at your own PhD? program, how often do they hire? A typical department might accept 10-12 PhD? students per year and have one open faculty search per year. That means a replacement rate of 1/12 to 1/10, or 8-10%. That is, 8-10% of PhD? students will have a chance at a faculty position in a department comparable to the one in which they did their PhDs?. So, you should be at that 90+ percentile. Of course, it is hard to know what that means. But, just to be crass, let’s go by number of publications. Suppose on average PhD? students publish three papers when they graduate with a standard deviation of 1.5. If you publish twice the standard deviation, say six papers, you are in good shape. Now, the problem is that this standard deviation increases with time, even by just random walk. So, after four years of postdoc, instead of needing three extra papers, you are likely to need six extra papers than the average (which also grows with time). It’s a tough thing, but you have to keep a growth strategy. And, like any dynamical process, it is easier, if you get ahead early. It’s a frequency dependent process and the initial trajectory matters the most.
3. Don’t be cynical; understand the long-term structural trends. Stem cell biology might be the hottest thing, but if that is the case then lots of people will jump into it and market forces will make the field just as competitive as any other. You may think cancer research has lots of funding while your chosen field of X has so little. But, then lots of people will be in cancer research. NIH funding is tight and everybody is complaining—but the fluctuation percentages are actually small. Lots of things that seem to impact your life are transient in the long-term. When adversarial things happen people tend to get all cynical or generate conspiracy theories. Good papers or good grants do get rejected because of mistakes—but, when you think about it, any merit system, especially for something as ethereal as scholarship, would be doing well if it is 60% accurate. (On the flip side, don’t be that self-smug reviewer and try to see the big picture and increase this accuracy rate.) So, try to look beyond trends, statistical fluctuations, and stay optimistic.
4. Go get it. Way back when, I once complained to George Church about the lack of funding in computational biology compared to other biomedical fields. He told me “Then you have take it away from them.” I try to live by this advice. If something is important to you, don’t complain about the system. Figure out how to make it happen.
5. Enjoy what you do and hope for the best. It is not easy when 1 out of 12 get the job they want. And, the rewards you deserve don’t happen, over and over again. I don’t know how many times I thought “this paper will have real impact”—and blah, nothing. In the end, you have to enjoy what you are doing on a daily basis and hope it all works out. One great thing about the sciences is that if it doesn’t work out there are a lot of alternative options that leverage your training.
When I was younger, a prominent scientist said to me, “Take care of Science and Science will take care of you.” I thought that was pretty pat and easy for him to say who was already successful. Well, I’ve been lucky with a good career so maybe it is pat for me to repeat it, but I feel that “taking care of science” is about what we can do and everything else is beyond personal control.