Thursday, December 7, 2017

Observations on searches

One of my most popular posts ever was from 2010 on how our search committees deal with applications for TT positions based on my early experience at ProdigalU. The process certainly is very opaque until you are on the other side, so I can understand this. It is now 7.5 years later, and I have some more thoughts on academic searches.

It is still the case that about 2/3 of the applicants are removed from consideration from the CV alone. Those who have the minimum qualifications (like a PhD in the right field) are usually eliminated by lack of productivity. Someone who can't publish reasonably regularly at the level of good society journals in an already established and funded lab is unlikely to be able to do so when starting from scratch no matter how wonderful their ideas are. Also, there MUST be non-review first author publications. There is no minimum number really, since productive means different things in different fields and sub-fields.  In my area (a physical science), 3-5 publications from grad school is typical (usually 2-3 first author, the rest as a contributor). Postdocs typically are 1-2 years, so 1-2 first author publications is pretty normal, also usually with some mid-author contributions as well. In my field, one Science/Nature publication does not make up for having nothing else, so trainees who plan to stay in academia that are currently in glam hunting research groups should make sure to look out for other publishing opportunities (like find a collaborator). 

For the remaining 1/3, the research plan/proposal is the main difference maker. For a TT hire, we are looking for someone who can both teach our classes and set up a successful research group, where success is ultimately determined by the ability to get funding. This means TT applicants need to demonstrate that they can write clearly and communicate the excitement and novelty of their ideas effectively. In addition, they must have SOME idea about research practicalities (like how much things cost, how much time things take, and what sorts of instrumentation they might have access to). This really comes out more in the interview, but I have seen some application research plans that require access to some unique instrument found at the PhD or postdoc institution, or that rely on unreasonably large amounts of synchrotron time/user facility time.  Fit is also important--we already have people at ProdigalU, so we want to hire someone who brings something new, but not so new that they can't find students in our applicant pool.

Reference letters are also important, but usually not the clincher. A good letter will address the specific contributions the applicant made in research as well any other important relevant ways the applicant contributed (mentoring, writing proposals, teaching assistance, etc). This is so useful in evaluation! I find it is often helpful to letter writers to respectfully suggest specific things to address in a letter, because the letter writers are busy people who may not remember to put in something important to the applicant. Letter writers can also help address specific issues that are hard or inappropriate for an applicant to bring up, which can be important as well. Red flags in a letter are taken very seriously (also true for grad student applications), and can definitely sink an application.

The teaching statement matters. Honestly, we don't usually look at the teaching statement until the long list point, but at that point, it is part of the decision. We are a University looking for people to teach our students, so we want someone who takes teaching seriously.

The perceptions of job seekers and search committee members are far apart, but also strangely both correct. When I was looking for a job, all I heard were horror stories about 500 applicants for one opening, and about how people spend years searching and never get a position. Now that I am on search committees myself, I hear about searches where there are hundreds of applications, but practically none are good enough/have the right qualifications to be brought in (this is usually caused by a bad ad, in my opinion), and I hear horror stories of searches taking 3 or 4 years to make a hire.

The funny thing is that both things are true, in my experience. There are searches with 30-40 people under consideration for the interview list (usually 4 or 5 people at ProdigalU), all of whom look really good, but only one of which can be hired. There are also searches where the committee didn't end up finding anyone the department wanted to make an offer to.

The prior experience/training time is getting longer. When I first started, it was pretty typical that most of our pool consisted of applicants in their first postdoc. While postdoc length remains 1-2 years in my field, more and more of our applicants are applying from a second postdoc or from a non-permanent, semi-independent position (like group leader, other sorts of fellowships, or contract positions). So the time between finishing the PhD and starting on the TT is rising. Not as dramatically as in the life sciences, but the experience level of our new hires is also creeping up.

In talking to potential applicants at conferences and/or our own interviewees, some of this is voluntary (commonly this is from people who wanted experience abroad and then wanted to apply from a position in the country), but some is not (people who couldn't get a permanent job and/or perceive themselves as not competitive without a second postdoc). I am not sure what to do about this, but it came up for discussion in our last search as issue in evaluating productivity.


Anonymous said...

People will be unsurprised to learn that at four-year colleges (instead of research universities like this) the research/teaching emphasis is reversed. We look at your teaching statement before your research statement. We look at your research statement to see if you can involve our undergrads. Your teaching experience is more important than your publications (but we still require those).

But we do consider grants the applicant has PI'd... it's quite bizarre to me that Prodigal U., a research university, doesn't require prior grants, or even consider them. (My field is also a physical science, so I wouldn't expect things to be too different? Although we can't be the same field because our postdocs are typically three years.)

But then Prodigal U. has an interesting approach, because you apparently don't do phone interviews either. I applied to a lot of places back in the day, and looked at rumor wikis for many others, and had never heard of a place that didn't do phone interviews before campus interviews. It's a useful way to check verbal communication skills, among other things, which are crucial for being a professor but don't show up on a CV.

prodigal academic said...

Thanks for the comment, Anon!

It is so interesting how different interview culture can be across fields. When I was on the job market, I didn't have any phone interviews, so I didn't think it odd when I started here. At ProdigalU, we are toying around with Skype interviews, but we definitely don't use any sort of pre-visit interview as part of our usual process. It is probably a good idea, though.

We definitely don't require prior grants--this has not been a criteria for any of the searches I've been on in my department or in related departments. Prior funding is definitely a plus on the CV, but we've hired people who never PI'd a grant before and it never came up for discussion. If someone can write a strong research proposal for the job application, we assume they'll be funded. Interesting that you look for prior funding at a four-year college. Maybe because your funding landscape is so different from ours? My friends at four-year schools think it is harder to get funded than at a research school.

Anonymous said...

Re: Anonymous 9:19 - I don't know your or prodigal's field, but I do know this - in my own field, Chemistry, postdocs essentially never get grants. They might get fellowships independent of their institutions, but not research grants. It's just not a thing in our field. It is the same in Physics, to the best of my knowledge.

A while ago I attended a postdoc event, specifically a panel discussion about how to get a tenure track position. Unfortunately, the panelists were all bio-med people, and spoke primarily of the importance of getting various NIH training grants (I can't remember the letter-number combinations...). So the panel was entirely meaningless for me, but for them this issue was central. I find it remarkable how different the fields are in this regard, despite being so close scientifically.

Regarding phone interviews, my current experience (applying this year) shows that while most places do phone interviews, several (very highly rated) universities don't, for whatever reason.