Working for Assistant Professors? Call Me After Tenure.

One of the best departmental outings ever was a trip to the race track.  Yes, The Track.  Not so much for the horses, but for the sociological experiment that was inadvertently performed.  As students and faculty lined up at the window to place bets, two clear populations emerged: those who bet a quarter per race and those who bet ten bucks.  In other words, the risk-takers and the risk-averse.  Interestingly, most of the risk-takers were also working for assistant professors.

Of course, a study with an n of 30 isn’t exactly statistically significant, but the trend was interesting enough.  Yet in addition to risk, there are several other factors associated with working for assistant professors that distinguish them from their tenured colleagues.  As a result, graduate students and postdocs may find their personalities and goals more aligned with one group or the other.  Below is a list of generalized traits that may describe the stereotypical assistant professor.  Would you consider working for one?


Advantages of working for assistant professors:

__ they’re usually excited and apply creative approaches to their work
__ they’re young and easier to relate to
__ you’ll (possibly) receive more individual time and guidance with the PI
__ you will learn first-hand what it takes to build a lab and chase tenure
__ you could help make the career of a new star (thus making your own)
__ you may be part of a close-knit team and play an influential role in the lab direction
__ they’re usually swinging for the fences so there is a huge potential upside to your research


Disadvantages of working for assistant professors:

__ they have an unproven ability to effectively run a lab
__ they will be under tremendous pressure to prepare for tenure
__ if you join after first two years and the PI doesn’t get tenure, you’re in trouble
__ you could be micromanaged since every experiment counts and there’s little room for error
__ you could have less flexibility in pursuing your interests or taking on side projects
__ the funding may be unstable beyond the start-up package
__ they have little name recognition to vouch for you in the event your project is a dud


So which side of the fence do you fall on?

If you were picking a lab, would you be more or less likely to work for an assistant professor (eg, non-tenured)?

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Any other advantages or disadvantages come to mind?  Did you work for an assistant professor? Did it pay off?



9 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. Ragamuffin

    wrote on May 2, 2011 at 9:44 pm

    based on my "finding a graduate program" experiences, I'm pleasantly surprised to see the poll swinging in the direction of working with assistant profs. working with a big name during your graduate training was emphatically extolled by my reliable sources. Ive had enough experience as a RA that I would be excited to work with an assistant prof. for all the reasons mentioned. we'll see whether that changes for me after rotations…

    I'd be curious to see the breakdown of this preference among graduates, post docs and RAs/managers.

  2. Bonnie

    wrote on May 3, 2011 at 12:20 pm

    I'm a postdoc working with a PI who was an assistant prof when I started, and I guess I'm lucky to have experienced most of the upsides and few of the downsides. I would generally describe myself as highly risk-averse; working for an early-career PI was not something I deliberately sought, but I really liked the PI, the lab environment, and the research.

    I'm glad I bet on a winning horse, unless I get fired for describing my boss as a horse. ;)

  3. Matt

    wrote on May 3, 2011 at 3:36 pm

    As with all of these polls … there is nuance.
    I think that it's best for your publication record to work for a "senior" assistant prof who has shown an ability to publish and get grants. They are proven/hungry/young/relatable etc.

  4. microdro

    wrote on May 3, 2011 at 5:16 pm

    I think it depends on your goals and stage. In grad school, might be better to work for an asst prof – more papers, newer ideas and techniques, etc. As a postdoc, I steered away from young profs in general. I knew I would need a lot of autonomy to develop my own project since my goal was finding a TT job. It's difficult to have this when working for a non-tenured prof fighting for grants,

  5. Chris B

    wrote on May 4, 2011 at 3:09 pm

    Completely agreed. My decision was very different as a grad student vs postdoc

  6. [email protected]

    wrote on May 5, 2011 at 12:33 pm

    As was mine. In grad school I worked for two very-well established PIs (co-PIs). Although the decision was made as a result of a number of factors (science, resources, lab, etc.), one of them was a hedge against a worst-case scenario project. I figured at least they could reach out to contacts and vouch for my ability as a scientist. As a postdoc, I worked for an assistant professor (who got tenure shortly after arriving), in part because I found the excitement for discovery and the "swing for the fences" attitude infectious.

  7. leigh

    wrote on May 3, 2011 at 10:56 pm

    my experience as a postdoc in a recently-established laboratory found me heavily stifled in many ways. it was an exercise in futility and wasted time. i booked it with nothing to show for my time/effort/blood/sweat/etc.

    much, much, much, much happier since i left. and insanely productive, i might add.

  8. Barefoot Doctoral

    wrote on May 5, 2011 at 6:38 pm

    I live in a non-lab science, so my mentor is not there as much for my funding, as (s)he is for my academic learning and later promotion. I would add one more consideration in whether or not to work with an assistant professor: try to gauge what their chance at tenure are. I went to a graduate institution that does not offer tenure to its assistant professors. I don't think this is official policy, but the department has not given such a promotion in nearly 15 years. At such a school, if you are a graduate student, don't work with an assistant professor unless you are prepared to hope your mentor can bring you along to a different university mid PhD. As a post doc, since my funding does not depend on my mentor, I would be happy to be officially under an assistant professor if there are other people in the department that are also interested in my research. Therefore, if my mentor were to move, I would still have other people to talk to.

  9. New postdoc

    wrote on April 13, 2012 at 12:40 pm

    I did my first postdoc in a newly established lab and unfortunately experienced the downs described here. No direction, loss of funding, little ability with managing the lab, conflicts between lab members and PI… the list is long. If I were to start again, I would have never chosen an assistant professor to work for, unless they already had NIH funding AND significant publications. So my little two cents- don't ruin precious years of your life working for somebody who has no proven record of success, as in the world of science it's simply too much of a gamble.

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