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Developing a Career in Academia

by Chad Kerksick, PhD, ATC, CSCS,*D, NSCA-CPT,*D
Career Series June 2017

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Are you interested in pursuing a career in strength and conditioning research? Chad Kerksick, Assistant Professor of Exercise Science at the University of New Mexico, provides insight into some of the advantages and disadvantages of a career in academia. Kerksick talks about how to choose a path, and the different types of academic jobs available today.

My Background

My name is Chad Kerksick and I am currently an Assistant Professor of Exercise Science in the Health, Exercise, and Sports Sciences Department at the University of New Mexico. I grew up in Lebanon, IL, a small town in southern Illinois with 41 classmates in my school. I first earned a Bachelor’s degree in Exercise Science from Truman State University before attending the University of Memphis and earning a Master’s degree in Exercise and Sport Science. I then attended Baylor University and earned a PhD in Exercise, Nutrition, and Preventive Health before beginning my first academic appointment at the University of Oklahoma in the Fall of 2006. I started my current position at the University of New Mexico in the Fall of 2012. My research interests center upon studying the impact of exercise and nutritional interventions and how they impact the performance, health, and recovery of healthy, athletic, and clinical populations.

How Do You Know if an Academic Career is for You?

This question is one with no clear answer, as there are no single definitive criteria to consider. If I was forced to state some characteristics that would be good indicators of whether or not a person is cut out for a career in academics, I would say you first need to love learning and the process that it often requires. Secondly, I would say you need to have a great deal of passion and excitement for your work. This second part is critically important as many parts of writing a thesis or dissertation are tedious and time-consuming, but it can become exciting if you are fascinated with what the process is teaching you along the way. These sentiments extend to observations I have made of many graduate students and faculty colleagues over the years, as many of them operate with a high level of excitement and passion towards their areas of interest.

From a personal perspective, very early on I remember being enamored and excited for the things I studied in my undergraduate program in exercise science. This was something I regularly witnessed on numerous occasions of the many outstanding graduate students I have had the pleasure of working with as a faculty member. Therefore, if you are not sure if an academic job is your calling, a completely non-scientific way of making this determination is to evaluate your level of excitement and passion towards your line of study.

What are the Pros/Cons of a Career in Academia?

Like all careers, advantages and disadvantages exist for a career in academics. Ask five different faculty members this question and you are likely to get somewhat different answers. I have identified five advantages that I feel exist for a career in academics. I have listed them below and I will follow with a brief explanation:
• Flexibility with your schedule
• Ability to focus on activities that you find to be interesting
• Stability
• Independence
• Compensation

As a full-time faculty member, you have a great deal of flexibility across the entire year. Each year you may have summers off, you get approximately four weeks surrounding the winter holidays, and most schools have a week off in March. These times off lend themselves nicely to being able to spend time with friends and family and also get other work done. Teaching in the summer is often available and if you decide to do this then you of course would have to manage this responsibility.

The second advantage is a big one to me. For the most part, faculty members end up teaching and researching on topics that they themselves find to be very interesting. When you consider that many people go to work each day and do things they could care less about, it has always been valuable to be able to spend my time doing things I truly enjoy. Overall, academic jobs are stable, as they typically are not jobs where people are hired and fired on a regular basis. This is even more the case after you have earned tenure.

The next advantage, independence, means that you are left to develop the courses you are appointed to teach on your own. In a similar light, faculty members are left to develop their own program of research and scholarly work. Put another way, I do not have a boss that is consistently checking up on me.

The last advantage, compensation, is probably the most surprising, particularly if any person reading this article is a faculty member. Generally speaking, salaries for faculty are low, particularly when you consider most people with PhDs have anywhere from 9 - 10 years of college education. But when you frame the level of compensation with the stability, independence, opportunity to work on things you value, and the amount of time you have off for any given year, I feel the compensation is adequate. Nonetheless, if you get into academics thinking you are going to be wealthy, you will likely be disappointed.

Like many others, a career in academics also has some disadvantages and some of them are listed below:


• Teaching load or scholarly/research expectations
• Service expectations (number of students you must advise and/or committee work)
• Teaching into evenings
• Propensity to bring work home
• Compensation

In my opinion, many of the disadvantages can be managed, particularly if you are able to clearly identify just exactly what type of academic job you want. For example, it could be problematic if you want to spend most of your time teaching because that is what you love, but you take a job that requires you to do more research. Interestingly enough, the exact opposite can be true for other people.

Typically teaching in a graduate program requires teaching evening classes and for some that is troubling due to family obligations or other personal interests. Probably the biggest disadvantage or area that I personally struggle with is the propensity to work on things at home. While I feel this struggle largely stems from my passion and excitement for what I teach and research, there is always another paper or quiz to grade, a grant or research paper to write, service to complete, or emails to send. My wife has a job that lends itself nicely to leaving it all at work when she is done for the day, and for me personally this a work in progress. Please understand, however, that this could be as much of an area of personal growth for me as it is a universal struggle across faculty.

Notice that I have also put compensation down as a negative simply because this is probably the number one negative voiced from other faculty. It is all a matter of what you focus on. If you want the larger salary, commissions, and bonuses, then a career in academics may not be for you.

I do not want this last section to come across as sounding like a person who is bitter about their job, rather I hope to offer some of the good and not so good things that many faculty members will struggle with from time to time. Overall, I will say I really enjoy working in academics and the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages. It is a rewarding career and one that allows me to continually learn and grow from an intellectual perspective. In particular, the opportunity to interact with students and all of their excitement is inspiring and routinely reminds me why I got into this line of work in the first place. In comparison to other common career pursuits in strength and conditioning, a career in academia can look pretty good (speaking from biased eyes, of course).

What is the Typical Path of a Career in Academia?

Many people would say there is no typical path to a career in academia. It is important to understand two things, however: 1) most faculty positions at universities and almost universally for positions that are tenure-track require a PhD and 2) by deciding to get your PhD you are basically saying you want to either teach or conduct research (or a combination of both). Certainly there are exceptions but these two things are mostly true of all situations.

First you must obtain your undergraduate degree and along the way be sure to earn good grades and take as many science-based courses as you can. The decision to move on to graduate education (first your masters degree and then PhD) is the next step and more thought and decisions need to enter your mind. From my perspective, I feel two major factors should dominate the decision-making process. First, I am a strong advocate that students should do their homework on programs and universities and look very closely (nearly exclusively) at schools that allow you the opportunity to work closely with a faculty member who is already researching things you find to be of interest. I closely followed this advice and I feel this was a major reason I was happy and satisfied through my graduate school experience. Further, to this day, I maintain an excellent relationship with that faculty mentor. I am convinced that students who follow this advice will be happier and more productive (which will please your faculty mentor). Second, going to a graduate program where you can earn an assistantship to pay your tuition and provide a stipend for living expenses should also be strong considerations.

Other important factors should enter your mind when deciding on on a graduate program, particularly a PhD program. Examples include “how much teaching experience do I need and how much of that experience will I receive?” Most academic jobs require you to be a good teacher and as a result, it is usually a good idea to get some teaching experience during your PhD studies. Another example question might be “who will I be working alongside?” Many students have visions of working alongside a widely known faculty member and are disappointed when instead their time is spent working with a laboratory coordinator or other graduate students.

I routinely tell students that your graduate work is largely what you make of it. If you truly do have aspirations to begin a career in academics, then I strongly encourage every student to treat their graduate work like a job. Be professional in how you act and present yourself. Be reliable, work hard, and most importantly be around. So many opportunities to test a new theory, piece of equipment, or learn from a mentor come from being around in the labs or the building where your program resides. Lastly, do not be afraid to work. Every very successful academic professional I have met and interacted with, has worked very hard and was very devoted to their craft.

Post-Doc or Not?

Post-doctoral studies seem to be becoming more popular as universities typically expect more and more research productivity from their faculty. Generally speaking, a post-doc would consist of a 2 – 4 year period after receiving your doctorate where you would work closely with a faculty member and further develop your skill set for conducting research. These jobs are typically located at larger institutions in well-populated areas and you end up working with someone who has established themselves as a researching professor. I personally think the best advice about doing a post-doc or not is to closely identify what type of academic job you would like to have (see discussion below) and make a determination if it would be beneficial. Many factors enter into this decision so no one thing can universally be used, but if you desire to hold a job that requires to completely support your research program, all of its personnel, and even a portion of your own salary, it would wise to consider a post-doc.

I will share that I strongly considered doing a post-doc, as advice from faculty members at the time was nearly split down the middle. I know I would have enjoyed it, but when the opportunity came to secure an academic position at a university I would have been happy to receive after a post-doc, I accepted the job instead. Alternatively, a doctoral student who worked with me at my first academic position was an absolute rock star and was more than prepared professionally and emotionally to succeed as a faculty member, but he was steadfast in his desire to do a post-doc. He has since completed that post-doc, learned a great deal, and was offered an excellent job package at a major university in the southeast.

Types of Academic Jobs

I have referred to this section on multiple occasions. I feel four types of academic jobs exist:
I – Research-only jobs that require little to no teaching
II – Jobs that require a good bit of research productivity but also require you to teach one or multiple classes every semester
III – Jobs that require you to teach multiple classes every semester and have minor research expectations
IV – Teaching-only jobs that require you to teach 4+ classes every semester but require no research productivity

When mentoring our students, I routinely refer to this breakdown and implore them to think long and hard over what type of job they want. I have even made it a habit to ask students who are thinking about coming to our PhD program what type of job they want. I feel it is critical for people who are considering a career in academics to identify what type of job they want as every job offers its own advantages and disadvantages. For example, level I jobs are commonly referred to as “get funded or get fired” jobs. This means you will typically have next to no teaching expectations (1 – 2 lectures per year) and generous amounts of research equipment and lab space. However, you better bring in external grant funds to support your research program and other programs at your university; if you do not, you will be replaced.

Level II jobs are commonly located at the larger state schools and require people to develop a productive research program, but they also demand you to teach 1 – 2 classes per semester. These jobs are commonly referred to as “publish or perish.”

Level III jobs are often at state-funded schools, but they may be at a smaller or regional state-funded school. These jobs demand that you are committed to being an excellent teacher and many of these jobs are required to develop a modest but functional research program.

Level IV jobs are many times at small colleges or universities. They typically require you to teach four or more classes each semester and in exchange have no research expectations.

From my experiences as a student and faculty member, most students begin to identify early on why they are getting their PhD and nothing could be more important. For students who want to do the highest level of research, you need to find a PhD program that will immerse you in research and position you to compete for the most competitive of post-doctoral positions. Through this path, you will be exposed to the research process and also likely exposed to writing federal grants to fund your research program. Many students want a mixture of both, but are intimidated at the thought of having to get grants to support their own work. In these situations, students are best served at going to a program that will expose them to research and also give them an opportunity to develop as a teacher. Finally, many students identify early on that they want to teach. These students should be directed more towards teaching opportunities and faculty who are well trained to mentor and enhance their effectiveness as a teacher.

Honing Your Craft and Making a Scholarly Impact

I hope to close by offering two tips that were shared with me from other faculty members. For starters and once you have earned your position, be a good colleague. Be supportive and helpful and if your line of work allows for it (most do), do not be an island unto yourself. Find ways to collaborate and connect with other faculty members. This can go a long way in developing collegiality among faculty, garnering support when you need it, showing how you can engage with others, and it will certainly help to solidify support towards tenure.

Another faculty member recommended to those interested in research to exercise patience with publishing data. His point was to not be so driven to get another publication that you fail to learn how to build upon your existing work and to truly develop a line of productive research. In this respect, it is important to keep in mind that it often takes established faculty members decades of work to garner the reputation they have. In other words, “Rome wasn’t built in a day” and make sure you work to grow and improve each step along the way.

Network/Volunteer

Begin developing your professional identity very early on by attending state and regional clinics and national meetings. This is where the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) has been invaluable to me. Specifically, the NSCA provides a platform for you to present your research at national meetings and volunteer for various committees. The conversations and people you meet in these environments are invaluable. You never know when someone you meet will be the search chair on a position you hope to earn or be a collaborating colleague on your next research study or project.

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Chad M. Kerksick, PhD, CSCS,*D, NSCA-CPT,*D

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Chad Kerksick is currently an Assistant Professor of Exercise Science in the Exercise Science Department in the School of Health Sciences at Lindenwoo...

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