Getting a tenure-track faculty position at a university has become harder, but several UCF recent graduates are beating the odds.
For many students, an academic position is the goal. For others, it’s industry. Getting into academia is challenging. The American Association of University Professors reports tenured faculty positions have declined to approximately only 21% of the academic labor force.
“Academic jobs are challenging to obtain — maybe more so than ever,” says Daniel Franklin ’18PhD, a UCF physics alum who joined the University of Toronto in Fall 2021 as a full-time tenure-track assistant professor in biomedical engineering. “I would guess this is due to the extreme level of competition from a vast number of highly qualified scientists.”
UCF Physics Professor and nanooptics researcher Debashis Chanda mentored Franklin during his time at the university.
Throughout Franklin’s years at UCF, his work was exemplary. He received the Order of Pegasus honor. His research on plasmonic structural color displays was selected by the U.S. National Science Foundation as a “Year of Light 2015” favorite. He also received the international Displaying Futures Award by Merck Germany and was awarded NSF grants of $300,000 and $400,000. After graduating, Franklin extended his physics background to biomedical engineering applications and became a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University in the lab of John Rogers.
Franklin received multiple faculty interviews including one at the University of Cambridge, U.K.
“The best you can do is position yourself within this competitive cohort [and] realize that the final cut will be due to ‘research fit’ at the hiring institution and things outside of your control,” Franklin says.
He emphasizes that although he is working in academia, it is not the only path to fulfillment.
Many of the greatest discoveries and inventions of the past century have been developed outside of academia, Franklin says.
“Be set on positively impacting the world with your research regardless of where it takes place,” he says.
The Postdoctoral to Faculty Process
Not many students go immediately from a Ph.D. to an academic position. Often it takes a postdoctoral appointment or two before landing that academic position — and even postdoctoral positions are competitive.
A postdoctoral appointment is an added training period in between being awarded a doctorate degree and becoming an independent academic researcher. They usually last between two to four years and are more common in certain fields, depending on the job market and additional training necessary to become competitive in those fields.
Postdoctoral researchers represent a critical component of the research ecosystem. For principal investigators, these are emerging colleagues, says John Weishampel, senior associate dean and director of the interdisciplinary studies MA/MS programs at UCF. They have skill sets and knowledge beyond graduate students and may help manage the research lab, mentor students, and create new areas of knowledge.
In certain fields, such as biology for example, having one or two postdoctoral appointments is almost mandatory to obtain a tenure-track position at an R1 institution, Weishampel says. These appointments can expand one’s research experience and scientific network to assist in landing a tenure-track position.
The process of becoming tenured is highly individualized and extremely difficult to accomplish. On average, it takes approximately six years to complete.
When graduates interview for jobs, they aren’t just competing with other graduating Ph.D. students. They are competing with postdoctoral researchers and mid-stage assistant professors. As Ph.D. students, they are competing internationally within their research area.
Excellence and Persistence is Everything
Abraham Vazquez-Guardado ’16MS ’18PhD received both his masters and doctoral degree in optics and photonics from UCF, also under Chanda’s supervision. He received the Dean’s Fellowship in 2018. Vazquez-Guardado became a postdoctoral fellow and continued his research projects under Chanda at the Nanoscience Technology Center. Vazquez-Guardado’s research on chiral optics received an NSF grant of $360,000. He went on to gain another postdoctoral fellowship at Northwestern University, where he currently conducts research in implantable devices for applications in biomedical and neuroscience research, from 2019 through 2022.
After submitting more than 30 applications to various departments at several institutions, Vazquez-Guardado was offered 14 different interviews. Of the 14, he received three on-site interview offers from North Carolina State University (NCSU), Lehigh University and Harvard.
“He played a key role as a Ph.D. student to build my group and contributed a lot to [the NanoScience Technology Center] and CREOL,” says Chanda about Vazquez-Guardado’s contributions at UCF. “Obtaining faculty jobs at a top university is not just rare from UCF, but extremely difficult in general. I am so impressed with his enormous success.”
It takes many years of preparation to be competitive in the job market, Vazquez-Guardado says.
“You must have massive track records of academic achievements to prove your potential as an independent researcher capable of generating new ideas, fundable ideas, that will support your research enterprise in the years to come,” he says.
Vazquez-Guardado suggests that prospective faculty candidates remain focused and resilient.
“Temptations to divert to other career paths will pop up during the academic program,” Vazquez-Guardado says. “If you really love what you do, the hunt for a faculty job will be less of a hurdle but an embracing challenge.”
Vazquez-Guardado has accepted a position as a tenure-track assistant professor in the electrical and computer engineering department at North Carolina State University and will begin his post in January 2023.
Another recent UCF alum on a tenure-track is Frances Abderhalden ’20PhD, who graduated with her doctorate in criminal justice and has been working as an assistant professor in the School of Criminal Justice and Criminalistics at California State University, Los Angeles beginning in May 2020.
The Importance of Mentorship
Under the mentorship of Associate Professor of Computer Science Pamela Wisniewski, three other UCF alums have also secured tenure-track positions: Karla Badillo-Uriquiola ’14 ’15MS ’22PhD, Kevin Pfeil ’10BS ’13MS ’22PhD and Afsaneh Razi ‘22PhD.
“They worked very hard to get to where they are, so they deserve the success they achieved,” says Wisniewski. “Nobody handed it to them.”
Badillo-Uriquiola obtained her modeling and simulation doctoral degree this spring and will join the University of Notre Dame’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering this fall as an assistant professor. Both Pfeil and Razi also graduated with computer science doctoral degrees in Spring 2022. Pfeil will be joining the University of North Florida on tenure-track also as an assistant professor. Razi is bound for Drexel University as an assistant professor.
“Although many dream of tenure-track positions at R1 institutions, plenty of students go into industry or to teaching schools as well,” says Wisniewski. “True success is doing what makes you happy and something that can make the world a better place because you are part of it.”
UCF graduates in the arts go through their own rigorous process, which is also highly competitive. Many who have earned their Master of Fine Art have secured tenure-track positions. For example, Victor Davila ’97 ’07MFA and Matt Dombrowski ’05 ’08MFA earned their degrees at UCF and stayed on as tenure-track faculty. In the performing arts area Tara Snyder ’07MFA and Elizabeth Horn ’10MFA also earned MFAs from UCF and are now tenured at the university.
“Those we mentor are in many ways our greatest contributions to our field,” says Associate Vice President for Research and Professor of Optics Winston Schoenfeld. “It speaks volumes when they are successful in securing offers for faculty positions at prestigious institutions.”