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How to Become an Assistant Professor: My Experience Finding a Job in Academia

By Lu Zhang on May 28, 2022


One of the great benefits of earning a doctoral degree is the range of academic positions a PhD can prepare you to pursue. If you want a career in academia, jobs range from the obvious, like a university professor or assistant professor positions, to positions beyond the classroom in research or administration. 

Lu Zhang recently completed her PhD in Mathematics at Southern Methodist University — her research focuses on the numerical studies of wave propagation phenomena — and she she began her career as a teaching professor as the Ju Tang Chu and Wu Ping Chu Assistant Professor of Applied Mathematics at Columbia University in New York City. 

Here's what Lu had to say about her experience searching for and landing her assistant professor position. 

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Lu ZhangWhy did you choose to pursue a job as a professor in academia? 

In this academic career, I have the freedom and time to follow my research interests. Another reason I chose a job in academia is that I enjoy the liveliness of campus life. I didn't consider jobs in industry or outside of academia. 

What kind of support did you receive from advisors, the department, and other faculty with your job search?

I received all kinds of support — mental, financial, social, everything I could imagine. I would say my thesis advisor Thomas Hagstrom, was a particularly huge help. He is one of the best in our research area and quickly identifies problems, is always accessible and generous with his time and support, and is the best collaborator to work with. I wouldn’t have achieved all my accomplishments without his help and support. 

The math department at SMU is very strong in computational and applied mathematics. Graduate students have all kinds of access and support from the department to attend not only departmental colloquia and seminars, but also local and even national workshops and conferences. 

Professor Alejandro Aceves provided me with a lot of useful advice from his administrative experience. Professor Wei Cai has been very caring and encouraging in my job search. Professor Johannes Tausch and Professor Daniel Reynolds have help me hone my presentation skills. I also learned a lot from Professor Daniel Appelö through our collaboration.

What challenges did you encounter while you were searching for a job?

My greatest challenge was dividing my time between job-hunting and my already full schedule. 

What was your interview experience like for this job? How did it compare to other interviews you’ve done?

It was nice, and they liked my presentation and my research. The other interview I had was an online interview for a postdoctoral position. It was a bit different, but I prepared for both in similar ways.

How did your doctoral experience prepare you for this job?

As I said before, SMU is very strong in the areas of computational and applied mathematics. As a Ph.D. student, we have been well trained in not only the core courses in these areas but also in state-of-the-art research through the classroom, seminars, and colloquia.

What advice would you give to students who are starting their search?

Develop your research taste but also be open to different areas and fields. Go to the seminars and colloquia. Talk to those who have more experience than you. Ask simple questions and seek answers. Finally, always be prepared — opportunity is for those who are prepared no matter where they want to work.

Get started on your PhD at SMU! 

If you have a desire to teach in a university setting, you'll likely need to earn your doctoral degree. You can get started on your Ph.D. journey by exploring some of the many resources SMU has to offer, including our guide to Choosing, Applying for, and Thriving in a PhD Program and our Guide to Graduate Admissions at SMU (which includes a full list of all the programs we offer). If you have more questions about your application, funding, or anything else you can reach out to us in the Office of Graduate Studies. We wish you luck on whatever career you decide to pursue! 

Are you thinking about earning a PhD? If so, Dallas is an ideal city for graduate students. Find out why (and virtually explore the city) in our resource — The Graduate Student's Guide to Living in Dallas.

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Lu Zhang

Written by Lu Zhang

Lu Zhang received her Ph.D. in Mathematics from SMU in Spring 2020. Her research focuses on the numerical studies of wave propagation phenomena. In Fall 2020, she will begin her teaching career as the Ju Tang Chu and Wu Ping Chu Assistant Professor of Applied Mathematics at Columbia University in New York City.

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