Of SLACs and STEMs: Learning the Lingo

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Thu Jun 15 12:58:55 UTC 2006

>>From the Chronicle of Higher Education

Learning the Lingo, Part 3
By Julie Miller Vick and Jennifer S. Furlong

Career Talk: Practical guidance for academic job seekers from professional
career counselors

Every field of study has its own jargon; the more entrenched you are in
that field, the more understandable its slang becomes. It is particularly
important for graduate students and new Ph.D.'s on the market to begin
learning the lingo of the academic world. It shows that you understand,
and are part of the culture.

We've been covering the language of academe in this column for some time.
We wrote in 2002 and in 2003 about terms bandied about in departmental
meetings, academic publications, and e-mail discussion groups -- terms
that might not be clear to all doctoral students, postdocs, and new

Since we continue to come across words and phrases that are not always
widely understood, we thought it was time to offer part three of this
series. Several of the terms we discuss here are specific to science and
engineering fields. But it is useful for even social scientists and
humanists to have a working familiarity with these terms, as they may work
with colleagues in the sciences on campus committees or may someday be
asked to judge those colleagues in the tenure process.

Chalk talk: A chalk talk is normally given by scientists or engineers
during the course of a campus visit and is less formal than a "job talk."
It is usually held on the second day of the interview or during a
follow-up interview. The name refers to the fact that candidates often
find themselves jotting down ideas on a blackboard as they explain their
future research goals. The chalk talk doesn't involve slides and should
demonstrate that you can think on your feet. Basically, you discuss the
research you would do while working on your first grant. As the talk is
informal, it is not unusual to be interrupted by questions from members of
the search committee and others present. Job candidates often tell us that
it is the toughest part of their interview.

Draft letter: This is an informal letter you receive from a department
offering you a job. It doesn't have all the signatures on it because it
hasn't been possible to get all the necessary parties together. It is to
show the department's intent to hire you and is followed by a formal offer

Exit interview: This interview takes place at the end of your campus
visit. Typically, you would meet for this interview with the head of the
search committee, or the entire panel, to clarify the time frame of the
hiring process and the mutual expectations. You may be asked about other
offers. There may be some preliminary discussion of your needs for space
and start-up money. (In a different context, exit interviews are held when
someone leaves a position and talks frankly with his or her boss about the
job, often offering suggestions for improvement.)

Faculty lines: Sometimes a reader will write to us to say something like
"I met Professor X at our annual meeting. He said his department would be
very interested in hiring me, but they don't have any new faculty lines.
What does that mean?"

The term refers to the number of full-time faculty positions an
institution supports and is often used in context of a new position. For
example, if two senior professors have retired, you might read a sentence
like this, "The dean evaluated the situation and determined we could have
two new faculty lines."

HBCU: That acronym stands for historically black college or university. As
many sources point out, HBCU is a term established by the Higher Education
Act of 1965, and defined as "any historically black college or university
that was established prior to 1964, whose principal mission was, and is,
the education of black Americans." The U.S. Department of Education's Web
site provides a link to a list of HBCU's and the State Department's Web
site features information about those institutions of use to international
students and postdocs who may be unfamiliar with the historical reasons
behind the founding of those institutions.

K99/R00 Pathway to Independence Award: As one way of remedying the
difficulties many young scientists face on the path to an R01 (see below),
the National Institutes of Health announced the "Pathway to Independence
Award Program" last January. The goal of the award is to help postdocs
make the transition to the role of independent researcher in a more timely

The grant provides one to two years of mentored postdoctoral support (the
K99 phase), followed by three years of independent support (the R00
phase), assuming the applicant has secured a research position somewhere.
The second stage of support is to help the grantee set up a lab, begin
conducting experiments, and prepare an R01 application. Some fear,
however, that the award will only make it tougher for postdocs who don't
receive it to find faculty positions. A recent article from
ScienceCareers.org summarizes the pros and cons.

NRSA: Here's another grant program, this one referring to the Ruth L.
Kirschstein National Research Service Awards. Named in honor of the first
woman to serve as director of an institute at the National Institutes of
Health, this award supports predoctoral and postdoctoral research in the
health-related sciences and professions.

Ph.D. Retention and Attrition: Anyone in a doctoral program knows that
many students who begin such programs do not complete them. Given that
even those who finish are competing in a tough job market, it might seem
surprising to learn that institutions are very concerned with retaining
Ph.D. students and understanding why they leave short of completion.

The reason is primarily financial: It costs an institution money if you
leave a doctoral program without completing the degree, whether you are in
your first year or final year. Universities are also wondering what it is
about the culture of graduate school that makes so many students quit.
Ultimately, it is advantageous to an institution to have happy, satisfied
alumni from all of its programs, including doctoral programs. For those
interested in reading more about the topic, the Council of Graduate
Schools is an excellent source of information.

R01: The R01 is the oldest research grant awarded by the National
Institutes of Health and is given for health-related projects in the
biomedical sciences. Its dollar value is limited only by what the NIH
determines to be the needs of the project. The grant pays for, among other
things, the salaries of the principal investigator (the person who wrote
the grant, also known as the "PI") and key personnel, laboratory
equipment, and other costs.

Getting an R01 is a significant milestone in the early career of a
research scientist. We are often told by faculty members at research
universities that it is extremely difficult, even impossible, for a junior
faculty member to get tenure without having received an R01 (or even two
R01s). Of concern to many doctoral students and postdocs is the fact that
the average age for receiving that first R01 has been increasing,
according to the NIH, from 34.3 in 1970 to 41.7 in 2004. Many young
scholars contemplating a career in high-level research worry about the
long years it will take to accomplish that goal.

SLAC: Here is a term you see a lot in The Chronicle's forums and on other
online discussion boards. It stands for "small liberal-arts college."
Sometimes it appears as "(S)LAC." The "s" can also mean selective.
Occasionally, you will see the phrase "elite SLAC" to refer to the more
prestigious of those colleges. Job seekers interested in positions at
SLAC's should make sure their application materials emphasize their love
for teaching and interest in engaging with undergraduates, as opposed to
those interested in working at major research universities, who would need
to highlight their scholarly accomplishments.

STEM: This mysterious acronym is not related to botany. Rather, it is a
quick way of referring to the fields of "science, technology, engineering,
and mathematics." While it lumps together a lot of disparate fields, they
have enough in common -- concerns about the availability and amount of
federal-research funding, and about career opportunities in academe and in
industry, for example -- for them to be referred to collectively.

Summary: A reader wrote, "I have applied for an assistant professor's
position. The department is asking me to write and submit a two-to-three
page summary. I have no idea what should be included in the summary." A
summary in a job description normally means a summary of your research
experience or expertise. It's another term for a research statement. In
the summary, you might discuss your current research and future plans. If
you aren't sure about something you are asked to submit for a job
application, contact the department and ask.


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