4

I am coming into (hopefully) the last year of my PhD and starting to think more seriously about next steps. I am really enjoying my research, as well as several teaching assistant experiences that I have had. I would like to continue doing academic research and so I am thinking about applying for faculty positions. As I am looking around at universities/departments to apply to, one question I have is: do university departments tend to take on additional tenure-track faculty members for existing lab groups, and under what circumstances?

Would I have a higher chance of success in applying to a department that doesn't already have an established lab group in my specific area, rather than proposing to expand an existing lab group?

To illustrate with an example:

Let's say my research area is small satellites (it's not). I'm looking at the Texas A&M Aerospace Department and they already have a lab group that is researching small sats (I don't know if that is actually true). Is it possible they might take me on as an additional junior faculty member for that group (if I have done some impactful work in that area), or would that be very unlikely?

To clarify further:

By 'lab group', I mean a small-ish group of researchers (~5-15) who are collaborating together in a fairly specific sub-field. It could be theoretical or numerical, I don't mean to imply that they are necessarily doing experimental research.

Also, my focus is primarily on research groups in the US.

8
  • Here what do you mean by group? Institute? Center? Lab?
    – Dawn
    Nov 8, 2023 at 14:45
  • Is this "lab group" concept something that you're aware of being formally recognized anywhere in academia? Or even that you think you perceive anywhere? Nov 9, 2023 at 18:48
  • 2
    @Time4Tea, I've been around academia a long time, and the terminology "lab group" is new to me. The terminology "research group", on the other hand, is very familiar. These vary greatly in size, from just a few people to dozens, but they are invariably led by a single faculty member. In the sciences, at least, many faculty do hire postdoctoral researchers into their research groups, and that is a common career step in some fields, but posdocs are not faculty. Nov 9, 2023 at 18:59
  • 2
    @Time4Tea, certainly terminology differs, necessarily so where English is not the primary language. But I think the main source of confusion is that you're asking about an alien concept. Faculty members engaged in academic research have their own groups with which to perform it. They do not join others' groups. This is a distinguishing characteristic of being faculty. At universities that expect faculty to perform research, ability to create and lead an independent research program is one of the criteria on which faculty candidates are judged. Nov 9, 2023 at 20:13
  • 1
    Have you considered talking with your Ph.D. advisor about your career goals and how to approach them? Many Ph.D. advisors consider such career assistance to be part of their mentoring duties. Even if yours doesn't, they are much better attuned to the norms in your particular field, and to your particular strengths and weaknesses. They can give you better advice than we can. Nov 9, 2023 at 20:23

4 Answers 4

6

No. It is considered inefficient.

The rare exception would be: When hiring a very famous faculty member (such as a Nobel Prize winner) the new faculty member may be promised the opportunity to hire a few assistant professors over a few years.

Cluster hiring is a thing but it means hiring several different research groups with a related theme over a few years.

If a faculty member is entering retirement gradually, a replacement might be hired before the retirement is complete. The replacement also might never be hired.

My answer is for universities influenced by the US and UK. I think it's quite different in German-style universities.

4
  • Ok, I appreciate your insights. However, if an existing lab group is active in a research area that is rapidly growing, is it not possible that the size of the lab could grow to the point where the number of students is too much for a single professor to handle?
    – Time4Tea
    Nov 8, 2023 at 16:33
  • That professor hires a lab manager and postdocs…
    – Dawn
    Nov 8, 2023 at 17:30
  • Professors always think they can handle more. I know a university that caps the number of PhD students per professor, but the cap is very high it is easy to cheat. Nov 8, 2023 at 18:46
  • 3
    What you do get in the UK is research fellows within (or attached to) an existing group. These fellows, whether internally or externally funded have some independence of their own (unlike postdocs, generally). Whether you can map this situation onto "faculty" in another systems is a semantic question.
    – Chris H
    Nov 9, 2023 at 14:18
4

When you say "lab group," are you thinking of physical lab space with expensive equipment?

A university would probably rather not dedicate the space to having 2 copies of e.g. a very large & expensive microscope. So if your research relies on such lab equipment, and somebody's lab there already has it, your job application would have to be clear about how you plan to collaborate with existing faculty -- how you will augment their skills & research directions with your own ideas, but share the tools nicely. (Ideally, these other faculty would already know your work and be inviting you to come work with them.) Otherwise, if you know you'd be competing rather than collaborating, you're probably better off applying somewhere else that doesn't already have such a lab.

On the other hand, if what you have in mind is more theoretical, it probably doesn't matter as much. If your work is in a particular field of pencil-and-paper theoretical mathematics, and you're applying somewhere with other faculty who already work in the same field, you wouldn't really be competing for resources. You can each run your own independent "labs" and hire separate grad students or postdocs, but still benefit from being in the same department e.g. by inviting colloquium speakers who work in this shared research area.

6
  • 1
    Thanks for your answer. Your initial question is why I had initially used 'research group' rather than 'lab group', because I hadn't meant to necessarily restrict to an 'experimental lab'. However, that seemed to cause confusion. What I really mean is a small-ish group of people (~5-15) working a particular (fairly narrow) sub-field of research, within a university department.
    – Time4Tea
    Nov 8, 2023 at 17:48
  • OK, then my last paragraph might be more relevant. The hiring process for faculty (at least in USA) is usually not at the lab level, but at the department level. If you aren't planning to duplicate resources or compete with others for resources, then you just need to convince the department you'd be a good fit & good colleague. (On the other hand, a postdoc or a lab technician would apply to the lab PI directly, not to the department.)
    – civilstat
    Nov 8, 2023 at 19:37
  • When you say "research group" that is not an "experimental lab," the example that comes to my mind from my own prior experience is the CMU StatML reading group: statml.cs.cmu.edu/people.html When the Statistics or Machine Learning departments hire new faculty members, they are welcome to join the reading group; but they wouldn't be hired "by" the research group. It might make sense for your application to discuss how your research makes you a good collaborator for StatML group members, but "join that lab or not" is completely separate from how CMU would think about "hire or don't hire."
    – civilstat
    Nov 8, 2023 at 19:41
  • 1
    That comment seems helpful, that a junior faculty member is hired by the department, not by a lab group. However, if I were hired by a department, would the general expectation be that I would be starting my own 'lab group', or is it possible that I could join an existing group, if there were one that was a close fit to my research area?
    – Time4Tea
    Nov 8, 2023 at 23:49
  • 1
    In the fields I've seen, you would not join some other faculty member's lab. You'd start your own. When you are hired by a department and start advising grad students or postdocs, you can simply declare that you and your students are now the "Time4Tea Lab at XYZ University." Maybe this is different in your field -- if so, please share a concrete example of the kind of lab or research group you have in mind, because it's hard for me to imagine what you mean. You mention Texas A&M Aerospace; their webpage lists a bunch of "labs" but most are "one professor + students + postdocs."
    – civilstat
    Nov 10, 2023 at 2:29
3

Most university faculty hiring is to fill some perceived need. Mostly that would be bringing in new ideas to an existing group. As faculty near retirement, new people can keep the vitality of a research program going. This is a fairly conservative approach. Continue to do what you know how to do.

The exception would be when some new research field emerges, such as is currently the case in some aspects of CS (big data, generative AI, ...). But note that even there universities might be quite conservative. A new, untested, faculty member in a new field can be seen as a risk, thought the tenure process mitigates that to some extent.

But for advice in the job market, I'd look for things that match your skill set. Most ads are pretty clear about what they are looking for.

If you have a lot of grant funding success in some area then you might be able to sell yourself to a place that doesn't already cover your field well, but, otherwise, that doesn't seem to be the best strategy. Doing research alone can be very difficult. A university looking to break into a new field will probably be looking for people already successful. Not universally true, of course, but not much is.


The above applies primarily to research universities. In teaching colleges and universities there is probably more emphasis on breadth of coverage of a field, though research takes a lesser role at such places.

1
  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Academia Meta, or in Academia Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – cag51
    Nov 8, 2023 at 21:21
2

Collecting and expanding on my comments on the question:

Do university departments take on additional faculty members for existing lab groups?

TL;DR: no, but faculty do sometimes hire Ph.D.s into their research groups.

my focus is primarily on research groups in the US.

And so is this answer.

By 'lab group', I mean a small-ish group of researchers (~5-15) who are collaborating together in a fairly specific sub-field. It could be theoretical or numerical, I don't mean to imply that they are necessarily doing experimental research.

You seem to be coining the phrase "lab group". At least, it is not one with which I am familiar.

What you describe is similar to what I know as a "research group", and I recognize that you used that terminology in an earlier revision of the question. From comments, I think that's indeed what you mean, but in that case, the question belies an unfamiliarity with the conventional organization of academic research that seems surprising in someone approaching completion of their Ph.D..

I suspect that's among the reasons that your question has been difficult for many of us to understand. No, faculty are not ever hired into existing research groups, because at academic institutions where faculty are expected to perform research, they are expected to do so by forming and leading their own research groups. The ability to do so is one of the criteria on which such institutions evaluate faculty candidates. Running an independent research program is one of the defining characteristics of being faculty at a research university.

Thus, when you ask about faculty being hired into existing "lab groups", we're primed to think that you mean something other than "research group". In fact, in the laboratory sciences, it's relatively common to use the term "lab" interchangeably with "research group", so a "lab group" could be interpreted as some kind of higher-level group of multiple faculty members' research groups. And collaboration among research groups is very much a thing -- often, even, across multiple institutions.

Alternatively, the term could be interpreted in the sense of access to physical laboratory facilities. It is indeed common for research institutions to share some equipment, especially expensive equipment, among multiple research groups.

But neither of those interpretations seems to be what you mean, so going back to "research group": no, faculty are not hired into existing research groups because that's inconsistent with being faculty. However, it's fairly common, at least in the sciences, for faculty to hire post-doctoral researchers into their research groups. Postdocs work under the direction of the supervising faculty member, but they generally have more independence than graduate students. Perhaps that's the kind of environment you're looking for. And in some fields, it's hard to get a faculty job without first doing a postdoc stint or two, which may be another reason to be looking in that direction.

Any way around, your Ph.D. supervisor is the best person to advise you here. No one else is as well attuned to both the norms in your particular field and your own personal strengths and weaknesses. Many faculty consider providing such career guidance to their students to be among their mentoring responsibilities, but even if yours doesn't consider it a duty, I certainly hope they would be willing to have such a conversation with you.

4
  • 1
    ‘lab group’ is a very common general synonym for ‘research group’ where I’m from, across the sciences. they haven’t coined the phrase
    – user438383
    Nov 10, 2023 at 16:32
  • I wouldn't dream of denying your personal experience, @user438383, but I've been around academia for a long time, in multiple sciences, at multiple institutions, interacting with colleagues from all over the world, and I never heard "lab group" before. I'm familiar with "group", "lab", and "research group" as synonyms, but not "lab group". None of the other answerers seem to recognize "lab group" as a synonym for "research group" either. Make of that what you will. Nov 10, 2023 at 17:41
  • 1
    Thanks for your answer and valuable insights. I think part of my initial confusion is that, in my department, there are at least a couple of what seem to be higher-level 'umbrella groups', which include several faculty members working in a similar area. I had viewed those as 'research groups' containing more than 1 faculty member, but I now understand that those faculty members are each independent, with their own funding and students, but collaborating in the same general area.
    – Time4Tea
    Nov 11, 2023 at 18:23
  • @user438383 Yes. I'm doing a PhD in highly-regarded US research university, and in my institution, the terms 'lab group' and 'research group' are used more-or-less interchangeably.
    – Time4Tea
    Nov 11, 2023 at 18:25

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .