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.