Tuesday, November 07, 2006

A primer on faculty searches

It's been suggested that it would be valuable for me to post a brief description of the faculty search process. An obvious disclaimer: this is based on my experience, and may not generalize well to other departments with vastly differing cultures or circumstances. Anyway, here are the main steps in a search:
  1. The search gets authorized. This is a big step - it determines what the position is, exactly: junior vs. junior or senior; a new faculty line vs. a replacement vs. a bridging position (i.e. we'll hire now, and when X retires in three years, we won't look for a replacement then).
  2. The search committee gets put together. In my dept., the chair asks people to serve. If the search is in condensed matter, for example, there will be several condensed matter people on the committee, as well as representation from the other major groups in the department, and one knowledgeable person from outside the department (in chemistry or ECE, for example). The chairperson or chairpeople of the committee meet with the committee or at least those in the focus area, and come up with draft text for the ad.
  3. The ad gets placed, and canvassing begins of lots of people who might know promising candidates. A special effort is made to make sure that all qualified women and underrepresented minority candidates know about the position and are asked to apply (the APS has mailing lists to help with this, and direct recommendations are always appreciated). Generally, the ad really does list what the department is interested in. It's a huge waste of everyone's time to have an ad that draws a large number of inappropriate (i.e. don't fit the dept.'s needs) applicants. The exception to this is the generic ad typically placed by MIT and Berkeley: "We are looking for smart folks. Doing good stuff. In some area." They run the same ad every year, trolling for talent. They seem to do ok. The other exception is when a university already knows who they want to get for a senior position, and writes an ad so narrow that only one person is really qualified. I've never seen this personally, but I've heard anecdotes.
  4. In the meantime, a search plan is formulated and approved by the dean. The plan details how the search will work, what the timeline is, etc. A couple of people on the search committee will be particularly in charge of oversight on affirmative action/equal opportunity issues.
  5. The dean meets with the committee and we go over the plan, including a refresher for everyone on what is or is not appropriate for discussion in an interview (for an obvious example, you can't ask about someone's religion.).
  6. Applications come in and are sorted; rec letters are collated. Each candidate has a folder.
  7. The committee begins to review the applications. Generally the members of the committee who are from the target discipline do a first pass, to at least wean out the inevitable applications from people who are not qualified according to the ad (i.e. no PhD; senior people wanting a senior position even though the ad is explicitly for a junior slot; people with research interests or expertise in the wrong area). Applications are roughly rated by everyone into a top, middle, and bottom category. Each committee member comes up with their own ratings, so there is naturally some variability from person to person. Some people are "harsh graders". Some value high impact publications more than numbers of papers. Others place more of an emphasis on the research plan, the teaching statement, or the rec letters. Yes, people do value the teaching statement - we wouldn't waste everyone's time with it if we didn't care. Interestingly, often (not always) the people who are the strongest researchers also have very good ideas and actually care about teaching. This shouldn't be that surprising. As a friend of mine at a large state school once half-joked to me: 15% of the faculty in any department do the best research; 15% do the best teaching; 15% do the most service and committee work; and it's often the same 15%.
  8. Once all the folders have been reviewed and rated, a relatively short list (say 20-25 or so out of 120 applications) is arrived at, and the committee meets to hash that down to, in the end, five or so to invite for interviews. In my experience, this happens by consensus, with the target discipline members having a bit more sway in practice since they know the area and can appreciate subtleties - the feasibility and originality of the proposed research, the calibration of the letter writers (are they first-rate folks? Do they always claim every candidate is the best postdoc they've ever seen?). I'm not kidding about consensus; I can't recall a case where there really was a big, hard argument within the committee. I know I've been lucky in this respect, and that other institutions can be much more fiesty. The best, meaning most useful, letters, by the way, are the ones who say things like "This candidate is very much like CCC and DDD were at this stage in their careers." Real comparisons like that are much more helpful than "The candidate is bright, creative, and a good communicator." Regarding research plans, the best ones (for me, anyway) give a good sense of near-term plans, medium-term ideas, and the long-term big picture, all while being relatively brief and written so that a general committee member can understand much of it (why the work is important, what is new) without being an expert in the target field. It's also good to know that, at least at my university, if we come across an applicant that doesn't really fit our needs, but meshes well with an open search in another department, we send over the file. This, like the consensus stuff above, is a benefit of good, nonpathological communication within the department and between departments.

  9. That's pretty much it up to the interview stage. No big secrets. No automated ranking schemes based exclusively on h numbers or citation counts.


Incoherent Ponderer said...

great stuff, thanks!

jake ciszek said...

Doug, its some interesting stuff you've got here. I'll be sure to pass it our group members who are looking this year and next.
BTW, "associate" looks quite nice next to your name now.

yuhuang wang said...

Doug, hi!

this is very interesting! Are you writing another one on the interview process? Look forward to it.

Doug Natelson said...

Thanks, Jake & Ponderer! Yes, Yuhuang, at some point when I have some time, I'll write up a bit about the rest of the process, including some suggestions for would-be candidates.

a quantum diaries survivor said...

I join the bandwagon - a well written and detailed account of what goes on in a search, and I learned something.

One thing you did not say:
When they hired me as a postdoc at Harvard, the next day MIT wanted me too. I ended up with the worse deal in terms of $, but the project that fit me better. Do you find it happening often that you sort out the best candidate, and he just accepted another offer elsewhere ?


Doug Natelson said...

The small numbers game does become frustrating. As you say, if your department thinks someone is really good, chances are that candidate is also going to get other offers. Rice's approach historically has to try to get the search going as early as we can, so that our offer is the first offer. On the other end of things, when I was on the job hunt I interviewed at Cal Tech in applied physics in mid-March, and found out that I was the first candidate that they'd even brought in. They weren't going to be ready to make offers until the end of April at the earliest - waaay later than everyone else that year. In the end, they didn't hire that time around.

Anonymous said...

Doug, great job and great help for us. Would you comment as to how much does pedigree matter in the process? what are the chances that a foreign Ph.D can make it to the academics?

Look forward to otehr stuff you promised.

Thanks oncce again.