On Hiring.

Over at YoungFemaleScientist, MsPhD has a brief survey up for those of us in the biomedical sciences that either make or participate in hiring decisions for faculty (I can only presume that she meant faculty). The opening question is this:

Which single criterion is most important for making the first cut?

And the options are:

  • Name of Postdoc’s PI
  • Institution of Postdoc’s PI
  • Minimum number of papers (regardless of journal)
  • Minimum one high impact paper
  • Other (please explain)

Wow. Thinking about my own experiences in this area I can honestly say it’s not so simple for me. Allow me to explain.

First, let’s define the ‘first cut’. When I have a big stack of applications on my desk, I have to have an efficient way to go through them and figure out which applicants in that pile are competitive for the open position. This makes the first cut divide the non-competitive applications from those that are competitive- even moderately so.

What makes an obvious non-competitive application? I will see applications from foreign and domestic applicants who are clearly not qualified for a tenure track position. Period. In these applications it is obvious from the application letter, their previous experience (for example, no postdoc and coming from industry in a foreign country) and their CV (few papers written in a foreign language are difficult for me to evaluate)  that they don’t know what a ‘tenure track’ position really entails (no thought/plan/or indication of awareness about obtaining independent funding), sometimes their research interest is clearly outside what tenure track people would be doing (at least in situations I might be involved in hiring for) – and these are very, very easy to pick out. Other types of applications that don’t make this first cut include applications with no papers within the last 5 years or so… that kinda seems obvious. These applications get culled from my pile in the first pass, and actually that can take a reasonable number out.

With the applications that are left- I do a ranking system- just about every faculty member that I know does this kind of thing has their own system. Usually the administrative help that is collecting the applications circulates a spreadsheet with applicant info on it- and this can include things like terminal degree, research area/interest, postdoc mentor, grant support, degree granting institution where the applicant obtained their terminal degree- and the name of the doctoral mentor (if the terminal degree is a Ph.D.), etc.  It is helpful to have such a list to keep things organized. At this point I look carefully at every application that remains in my pile- and give each applicant a score. Some applications get a little lighter treatment than others- when it is clear that the research area just doesn’t fit with the existing program or it seems like a direction that the operative department isn’t growing into and won’t in the future. Some of these applicants are totally awesome, they are competitive, and they will get a job somewhere- but they just wouldn’t fit in the position/department/institution that I’m involved in the hiring for. When I know of a search elsewhere on campus that might be a better fit for such applicants, I try to make a match where I can and with permissions from all the right people…. usually this just takes a minute of effort and can have strangely fortuitous results.

What do I think about when I’m doing the rankings of what’s left? I read the cover letter, and look at the CV carefully for first author papers published  (in a defined time period- that’s the same for all applicants) and quality of the journals that these papers are in. Also on the CV I look for funding.. whether or not the applicant has federal (or other) grants pending, or do they have a grant- and from where and for how long. I look at the research plan- and decide what I think about the research area- is it a competitive area, is it an under-investigated area that has potential, is it a really hot topic at the moment… most importantly is it fundable?? … Oh, and does it fit into or compliment existing research areas in the department seeking the new member.  (As an editorial aside… I AM NOT GOING TO READ EVERY WORD A 5 PAGE RESEARCH PLAN FOR EVERY APPLICANT REMAINING IN MY PILE- people- keep it concise and to the point.) I read the recommendation letters to pick up different views of the applicant- from different points in their career. Sometimes these letters can be very revealing about the applicant- and anything other than an unreserved, glowing, glittering, stellar letter of recommendation about the applicant’s science, collegiality etc. -can raise warning flags with me. Remember that when you are hiring a faculty member you are hiring a colleague for the long term (if you are doing this right)- and so more slippery attributes like collegiality and working well with others ARE somewhat important. And finally- you can pick up personal details from these letters that might cause you to consider an applicant differently (having a baby, caring for a terminally ill parent, just for example). This stuff happens to people- and my personal opinion is that it should not remove someone from consideration for a faculty job.

Do I think about who an applicant’s postdoc advisor is when I’m doing this whole process…. sure. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t. But I hope I come at this from the perspective that there are applicants out there who will be awesome tenure track faculty regardless of whether they are from the top lab or not. I can honestly say though, that I don’t think about the postdoc mentor’s institution much when I’m looking through these applications. I suppose that’s because I think that the actual postdoc mentor themselves can be equally awesome and be at Harvard or at University of North Carolina… so I’m not much into looking at the institution itself. And teaching statements… I have to make a confession about these too- I don’t spend much time on them at all. I imagine that these are important in institutions that have heavy teaching loads – and mine does not, so that’s just my own bias.

Anyway- I once I’ve done all that I come up with a score for each applicant- and I use this to figure out who my top 10 or so candidates are going to be. How this goes forward from there depends on how the search committee operates- and this just depends on a lot of variable factors. I know that the process I describe seems somewhat nebulous- but it is just not a cookie cutter one-size-fits-all thing I can lay out criteria such as 6 first author papers in the last 5 years, $$, 2 science papers, top lab or you don’t make the cut.

But with that said- it’s not rocket science either.

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18 thoughts on “On Hiring.

  1. Do I think about who an applicant’s postdoc advisor is when I’m doing this whole process…. sure. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t. But I hope I come at this from the perspective that there are applicants out there who will be awesome tenure track faculty regardless of whether they are from the top lab or not.

    I look for post-docs who have been extremely productive in non-established/non-famous labs. These are highly likely to be self-starters.

  2. C PP- Holy Cow- did you read this while I was writing it? That’s the fastest comment turn around ever. But, as to your comment- I know some postdocs who were from top labs that never had an original idea. I also know some postdocs from smaller labs who pretty much did the equivalent of inventing the wheel.

  3. I agree that it’s too simplistic to say that one specific criterion is the most important in making the first cut for a TT faculty search … apart from “Other: lack of doctoral degree”.

  4. C PP- Holy Cow- did you read this while I was writing it?

    An earlier draft appeared in Google Reader before you published the final. You must have published and then unpublished the rough draft.

  5. Aww.. How I wished that those people in the position to hire anybody would think like you do! In my school, those people in position would only care about ONE thing — your skin colour. This is very sad, but it’s the truth.

  6. Whimple- 😉 , about 2/3 of recent hires have been women, and the same proportion (by weird coincidence) were ALSO minorities.

    Missy Ph.D.- Please elaborate.

  7. Dr. J & Mrs. H.- I know we’ve been reading the same blogs – and your comment could never, ever be considered anything more than the very mildest bit snarky. 😉

  8. “I read the recommendation letters to pick up different views of the applicant- from different points in their career. Sometimes these letters can be very revealing about the applicant- and anything other than an unreserved, glowing, glittering, stellar letter of recommendation about the applicant’s science, collegiality etc. -can raise warning flags with me”.

    My postdoc advisor wrote me a positively shitty letter. Took me a while to find out.. two season’s applications worth. That is despite me publishing 5 papers with him in 3 years. All 1st author. Apparently he just does that. My other 5 letters (2nd postdoc advisor, PhD advisor & collaborators) were stellar. (So I was told by the search committee member that leaked that info). I declared a conflict of interest, dropped him form the list, and finally got a position.

    You might wan to note that a bad reference letter that contrasts with others is more indicative of the writer that of the candidate.

  9. Andrew- Bad reference letters are a tricky thing and can be a reflection of many things including a sour relationship between the applicant and his/her advisor, an applicant who didn’t do a good job, or an advisor that is a jerk (to put it bluntly)- I have known cases where applicants DID NOT ask their advisor to write reference letter- and put an explanation of this into their application.

  10. Great post! Mostly what I suspected.

    But do you see my point? How SUBJECTIVE it is? If every person on a hiring committee has a different ranking system for assigning points and cutting people from the list?

    Although we might agree on some of the main criteria being important, the weighting of those is different depending on the person doing the ranking and on the position that happens to be open.

    It’s hard for me to see how, as a scientist, I’m supposed to be okay with a very un-systematic system. Different rules for different people, and changing all the time? That smacks of a breeding ground for bias, if you ask me.

    I also think it’s quite interesting that you ignore the teaching statement, although I know this is the norm in the R1 schools. To me, the TS is usually QUITE revealing about a person’s attitude toward mentoring and science philosophy, so even if there wasn’t a large teaching load, I would look at these carefully for signs of a standout thinker with some real creativity… or a standoffish snot. Or someone just doing everything for show- typing in some plagiarized list of cliches for a teaching statement… that person might also be ethically bankrupt enough to do the same with their science.

    You get a gold star for one part- I particularly liked the part where you said if you found someone good who didn’t fit with what your department needed right then, but you could hook them up, you would do that. I would love to think that all search committee members are willing to put in the extra minute it takes to do that. But I suspect you’re in the minority there.

    A final minority point- I would be curious to know how many WOMEN have been able to declare a conflict of interest with their advisors and still get faculty positions. With only a single exception I can think of (and she was from an older generation), all the success stories I’ve heard of postdocs who managed to estrange themselves from interfering advisors were men.

    My impression is that the women who find themselves in this kind of situation often end up leaving science altogether, or going to industry where conflict of interest with the current boss is more the norm than the exception (job searches are often confidential from the current employer, etc.).

  11. Pingback: On Hiring… the subjectivity of it all. « Blue Lab Coats

  12. The good part about folks who e.g. write horible letters or are otherwise weird? Is that although the junior person on the short end of the stick usually doesn’t realise it, that behaviour/personality is known in the field.

    I had one really, really bad postdoc experience where the lab head, after I told him I was leaving, told me in writing through a third party that ‘you are a little %^$# and I will never speak to you again.’

    Did I ask him for letters? Er, no :). But in the course of interviewing, it became clear that no-one was surprised by that, and in fact would often share their own experiences with the gent in question.

    Just to say that absence of a letter may not be as bad as it feels to the person whose letter it is.

  13. Ewan- yes- quite right. Reputations for bad behavior get around, and they get around fast. However, I will say that if you are interviewing and such a topic comes up (i.e. why didn’t you ask so-and-so-important-person-in-your-career for a letter- one better have an answer ready, and one BETTER not engage in trash talking ANYONE during an interview. I know that’s not what you were saying up there, but a little reminder to the crowd never hurts.

  14. Ewan: you had the advantage of knowing that you would get a bad reference and did not ask for one from the get-go. I thought I had a perfectly good relationship with my advisor, and if it were not for a search committee member who leaked me the information, I would still continue to ask him for the letter, and wonder why I am not getting any interviews.

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