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Navigating the academic job market

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Navigating the academic job market

MIT CEE alumnus Hejian Zhu shares his pathway to a full-time faculty position.

Finding a full-time faculty position in academia can be a daunting task for doctoral students, but with the right resources and planning, it’s possible to attain before graduation.  

As a graduate student in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Hejian (Patrick) Zhu’s research focused on the multiscale modelling of the mechanical properties of clay minerals, aiming at enhancing and strengthening clay and other natural geomaterials to support environmentally friendly engineering. The motivation for his thesis, he says, was “to contribute solutions to the growing demands our cities are facing to develop environmentally responsible and resilient infrastructure.” Now, as he begins his career in academia as an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Zhu reflects on his graduate studies at MIT, and his great appreciation for the mentorship and support that guided him through his job search.

“The unwavering support from my thesis advisor, Professor Andrew Whittle, was pivotal in steering my research in the right direction,” says Zhu. “His mentorship not only honed my technical skills but also encouraged me to develop a well-rounded approach to academia, emphasizing the importance of teaching, collaboration, and community engagement.”

The diverse perspectives offered by committee members and professors challenged Zhu to think critically and explore different paths of research, helping him refine his own research methodology, ensure the reliability of his findings, and connect his research to other disciplines.

Zhu’s desire to pursue an academic career began during his graduate studies, as he was able to cultivate his passion for helping others broaden their knowledge. “I was deeply drawn to the process of knowledge creation and sharing within the academic community,” he says. He found satisfaction in mentoring his fellow students and understood that pursuing a career in academia would allow him to contribute to the education of the next generation of engineers in a meaningful way.

Zhu recognizes that navigating the competitive nature of the academic job market can be a particularly difficult task. To help with this, he embraced a proactive approach that included publishing his research in academic journals, presenting at conferences, and collaborating with renowned researchers and experts in the field. He sought out opportunities that he felt would contribute to the development of his teaching skills, and through this was able to refine his vision for his career in research and academia.

One opportunity that Zhu was able to take advantage of was attending the Marseilles Winter school, which helped to lay a foundation of the basic knowledge and tools required for his research. Zhu attended the Marseilles Winter school sponsored by MIT MISTI, a program that enables MIT students to gain global learning and collaboration opportunities to make positive changes in the world. He encourages current students to attend conferences, as the department can provide reimbursement for travel costs. Attending job talks, sharing sessions, and workshops allowed Zhu to network with alumni who recently started their academic careers.

“CEE’s tight-knit community provided a nurturing environment that encouraged collaboration and fostered lasting relationships with faculty and fellow students,” says Zhu. “The flexible curriculum gave me great freedom to take courses and get to know the professors from other departments.”

Zhu emphasizes the importance of seeking membership in professional organizations related to your area of research, however he also recommends attending interdisciplinary events to connect with researchers from diverse backgrounds. “Collaborating on projects with other institutions can also expand your network and open up new avenues for research,” he says. Having a wide range of knowledge outside of your research topic will allow you to start conversations, make connections, and gain fresh insights in your field.

In addition to obtaining his PhD and securing a position as an assistant professor, Zhu celebrated another milestone with the arrival of a baby. He encourages current graduate students who are balancing their education and family life to lean on their support systems, and to remember that it’s okay to ask for help when needed. He says that time management, open communication, and support from family and friends were key in helping him transition into fatherhood.

“For those interested in pursuing a similar career path, I would emphasize the importance of passion and perseverance,” Zhu says. “Also, don’t underestimate the value of effective communication and teaching skills, as they are essential in the academic world.”