Wednesday, April 04, 2007

A primer on faculty searches, part III

Here is my long-delayed third post about faculty searches, a follow-up to Part I and Part II. One reason for the delay is that I was chairing a search. That took quite a bit of time, and I also didn't want to give an unfair advantage to any of our candidates who happened to read my blog.

In Part II I'd described the process in fairly complete detail. What I want to do here is give a few pointers to would-be candidates, and answer a couple of questions that people have emailed me in the interim.
  • Look over the department webpages before you visit. If the school gives you an advanced or draft copy of your schedule, actually look at the pages of the people you're going to meet. More than likely, most of the people you meet are on the search committee. You want to have some sense of what they do so that you can (a) ask decent questions as you meet them, and (b) pitch your own stuff at the right level. An astro person may not have any idea what "valley degeneracy" is.
  • Listen to what your point of contact tells you about who the audience is for your talk(s). No one wants a talk aimed at the wrong level. If you're supposed to give a general colloquium, that usually means that your audience is very broad and may contain undergrads, grad students, and faculty from different subfields. If you're supposed to give a seminar, that usually implies a more specialized audience. Remember, people need to know why they should care about what you're doing.
  • Rehearse your talk. Speak clearly. Do not speak super-fast, especially if you use technical terms or people's names.
  • Listen carefully to physics questions that you're asked, either in the talk or one-on-one. Repeat the question back at the person asking, rephrased slightly to confirm that you know what you're being asked. It's ok to say "I don't know" in response to a question, but don't use that dismissively. If you think of the answer later, make it a point to try to tell the questioner.
  • Don't use terms that you don't understand or can't explain. Don't assume that everyone in the audience has heard of the So-and-so Effect. Make sure that you know all the relevant numbers for your work. If you're a theorist and someone asks you how to measure the effect you're calculating, at least have a handwave idea. If you're an experimentalist and someone asks you about errors and uncertainties, make clear that you've thought about those issues.
  • When discussing budgets, etc., make sure that you know who actually is the point of contact for negotiations like that. In our case it's the department chairperson.
  • The rule on startup packages is generally "you might as well ask". Show some reasonable judgment, though. A junior person asking for $5M in startup is not reasonable. A junior person asking for 5000 sq.ft. of lab space is not reasonable.
  • Find out whether lab renovation costs are counted separately from your startup. That's the case at all the big schools, but some places can be funny about this.
  • Ask about the tenure process. Ask about tenure history in that department.
  • Ask about the department's long-term plan - where are things trending?
  • Find out what their schedule is. When do they think they will be wrapping up the search?
I've been asked about whether politics can enter decision making in these searches. Someone emailed me who had not been offered a position somewhere despite having multiple first-author papers, and the candidate that had been offered the position had many fewer and less postdoc experience. The short answer is, well-run searches make decisions based on the whole package (departmental needs; research quality; communications ability; personal interactions; etc.). So, it can be hard to say from the outside why a particular committee made particular decisions. Can there be poorly run searches? Can there be searches where one category or need trumps the others, and the candidates don't know about that, and isn't that unfair? Sure, and we don't do that because it's long-term stupid - that's not the way to hire for the future and build up a department. I'm not sure that the situation is worse in academia than in any other profession, though. There is no question that where someone comes from and what their "pedigree" is can have a big impact, as discussed here by the Ponderer, but the process is inherently complicated. Hopefully these postings have clarified things at least a little.

61 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm curious about the pedigree issue. Where were the people who interviewed at Rice from (if you're allowed to say)? You'd think that the search committee would be a little more amenable to giving qualified candidates from smaller and/or lesser-known schools a leg up given that Rice is one of those good but small schools. I mean, do grad students from Rice lack any upward mobility in terms of pedigree? Not that there's anything wrong with not working at such a fancy-pants school, but I hope you guys didn't only pick out of the "elite" tier of schools like MIT did in the blog post you linked to.

This brings up an interesting thought. Where was your PhD from? If from a top tier school, did any of your colleagues act surprised you took the job at the small Southern school instead of shooting for a (arguably) higher pedigree position? Do you ever find your work disrespected by snootier school folks?

Anonymous said...
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Incoherent Ponderer said...

to second anonymous - I suspect I know who you are talking about, and yes, it is rather strange - even though there are 4 publications, not 2 (using ISI Web of Science).

Selection is often rather arbitrary, which is why I would argue for "blind" publication/citation record evaluation of CVs before considering candidates - this is a bit more time consuming but can be done relatively easily and can help eliminate some built-in biases against certain groups or individuals.

By the way, I think some "pedigree" bias is totally justifiable. All things equal I'd rather have a postdoc who went to MIT rather than Podunk State. The only question I would raise is - what if someone at Podunk State is absolutely brilliant - how much of the bias do they have to overcome to compete with folks with PhD or postdocs done at MIT or Princeton or whatever?

As to Rice - I will let Doug defend his fine institution, but it's not just a random "small southern school" as the first anonymous says. This goes against my yesterday's rant against ranking, but Rice is ranked #3 in nanotechnology:

http://www.in-cites.com/institutions/rice.html

Doug Natelson said...

First anonymous - Very good questions. Without violating anyone's confidentiality, I can say that we interviewed candidates with PhDs from a spectrum of places (from big name private schools to large public schools that aren't necessarily the top, but the particular advisors are solid). The postdoc experience was also a spectrum (two Ivy League, two European, one at a large state school/national lab). Do Rice students lack upward mobility in terms of pedigree? That's a tough question. From my own limited experience so far, I'd say no - two of my students are NRC postdocs at NIST, and one is a postdoc at Sandia. On the other hand, I know I've been very fortunate to get such good students. As for me, my PhD was from Stanford, my postdoc was at Bell Labs, and noone was particularly surprised that I came here - I interviewed at some big name places (e.g. Stanford, UIUC) but didn't get the offers. I think that had more to do with the impact of my work to that point than to my pedigree in particular.

Second anonymous - sure, one can sweep all sorts of ills under the nonquantifiable rug. I think I know the case you mean. I don't know the candidate(s) involved and I don't know how that school made its decision. I do know that it is possible for a candidate to have a stellar publication record but give a completely unintelligible job talk. As unsatisfying as my next statement is, it's largely true: places "hire on promise and tenure on accomplishment". If someone is hired that really can't compete, it will catch up with them in the long run. They won't be able to get funding, and they won't get tenure. (note that the inverse is not necessarily true - just because someone doesn't get tenure doesn't mean that they're not competitive; look at Sean Carroll at Chicago).

The Ponderer raises good points, as always. I'll write more sometime soon about some of these issues....

Anonymous said...

To Incoherent Ponderer: yes, you're right, it is 4 but 2 of them are not indexed by ISI because they are one-page conference abstracts.

To Doug: yes, talks might went wrong. But how can all other candidates' talks all went wrong? If not due to political reason, a candidate with such a record should not even pass the first round of screening. Even though the doing-wrongs will get their return in long term, they ruin others' chances.

rudolfpeierls said...
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Incoherent Ponderer said...

Regarding posts 2 and 5 - there may be many internal reasons for hiring someone who does not seem to be terribly well-qualified, credentials-wise:
for example, many-body problem (hiring superstar A at department X at the cost of also offering a position to the spouse B at department Y). There could be a drive to increase diversity (racial and gender), even at significant cost to quality of science. Finally, it's possible that the committee decides that the future proposal is solid, despite relative lack of past accomplishments. Or maybe someone has a very useful but rather technical expertise that has not yet produced a lot of results but will in the future. Finally, there's always a chance it's a basic example of cronyism, but I doubt it.

Incoherent Ponderer said...
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Doug Natelson said...

Rudolfpeierls - please stop derailing conversations with semirandom accusations, and stop berating people. "Podunk", if you don't know, is an American slang term meaning "some little middle-of-nowhere town". See here.

Anon - regarding people passing the first round of screening.... Generically I agree, though letters of recommendation can factor in very strongly. IP has outlined very realistic possibilities.

stevenweinberg said...
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stevenweinberg said...

I am sorry... My link to the paper is wrong. It is not in arxiv. You should check M. Greiner et al. In Nature(2002).

peppermint said...

Yes, it's always a good idea to have a thousand-citation Nature paper on your CV, or at least some decent first-author papers. If that's not an option, I agree with Doug about the recommendation letters. A thoughtfully-written letter from a rising star can bring an average candidate's true qualities to light.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

See, it is still a political reason. Isn't recommendation letter a kind of politics?

Also, please note David Goldhaber-Gordon had almost nothing other than his breakthough paper about Kondo effect in QD published in Nature when he got hired by Stanford as an assistant professor . So 1 David has at least one first author paper before he is hired. 2 It should not be difficulty to realize the significance of David's paper even though it is only one; 3 although Stanford made a correct choice in that case, but statistically such cases are rare and most time such choices are mistakes.

Incoherent Ponderer said...
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CarlBrannen said...

I was once a starry eyed grad student who was shocked to lose faith in the system.

It would be better if they weren't raised to think that life was always going to be fair.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

If it were for other professions, it would be more easier to accept the presence of politics. However, it is higher education. A incompetent professor would ruin lives of innocent students.

To incoherent ponderer: you are absolutely right about the discouraging effect. Once I asked a person who was very productive but failed in winning that why he did not give another try, the answer is simply "I already knew the rules of games. They don't work for me." Counting this case, I already saw 3 cases in the past 3 years where politics play more or less critical roles.

Doug Natelson said...

Weinberg - the rumor mill is out of date.

deepthroatinphysics said...

Doug, how much importance is the gender's effect? I heard rumors that if some department hires a woman, the college will cover the start-up and some other cost while nothing for a man. Are this type of things true?

peppermint said...

Yes, it's all true. It's really cushy being a female physicist. If you weren't born that way, you can always have the operation.

Dan M said...

Doug, this has to be your most popular blog post so far. You seem to have hit a nerve. My thought is, if you can't handle a job in which politics plays a role in major decisions, then you can't handle any job on earth, at least not one of any significance. Friendships, handshake agreements, bias, and the like are ALWAYS a role in any major decision in any job you could ever imagine happening. And I would venture to propose that this is not necessarily a bad thing, although sometimes it is. Might as well get used to it.

Anonymous said...
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stevenweinberg said...
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JasonD said...

I agree with DanM that if you can't deal with politics, than it's not just academia that you are going to get frustrated with. I think a big part of surviving the job search process is accepting that once you send off your application materials, a large portion of the process is completely out of your control. My job search just finished 2 hours ago literally. I started in August. There were times I panicked and there were times that I remembered that the whole thing was out of my hands. All you can do is do the best you can on your application materials and do the best you can if you get invited for an interview. At the end of the day though, what goes on with the search committee and how they decide is out of your control.

Yes, papers and citations are a factor. What is considered a good amount varies so much with the research field and the applicant's time in research. However, if you look at hirings cycles over the last few years, it is also obvious that certain fields are hot one year and cold another year. There were a lot of schools that I applied for that I thought were a good fit but that I did not get an interview with. Yes, I would love to hear an explanation from those schools, but at some point it's unrealistic. The whole freaking process takes too long as it is for both candidates and the search committees. Yes, you may have more publications than the guy/gal who got the job, but there are recommendations, ability to interact with the faculty, future research directions, etc. The whole package idea is valid and is not a cop-out.

Incidentally, I am in favor of scrapping the current system and developing a type of faculty draft similar to that used in the NBA and NFL. Job candidates could go to a "combine" of sorts in the fall where they would give talks and get interviewed for a week (having physics people doing the 50 would be interesting as well). Representatives from schools with openings would attend and then a nationwide draft would take place in late winter. My only worry is that I would be drafted by a school and then traded to another for a used AFM or other piece of equipment....

Incoherent Ponderer said...

stevenweinberg - what are you talking about? Bloch got PhD from Munchen, and subsequently worked at Stanford, Bonn and Max Planck.

If you think Munich=Podunk State, maybe you never heard of the following fellas who call it alma mater: Bethe, Binnig, Debye, Heisenberg, Hertz, von Laue, Planck, Roentgen, Stark, Wien and Ketterle?

Doug Natelson said...

Deepthroatinphysics - All I can tell you about is what things are like here at Rice. What you say is just false. There is a bit of extra money around, but it pales compared to startup packages, and tends to be directed toward the recruiting process. That is, if you need an extra $1K to bring in one more candidate for an interview, there is support for that. I should also point out that our financial structure means that the departments wouldn't really benefit fiscally from what you described anyway. The large majority of the budget for startup and lab renovation comes from the Deans and Provost's level. From the perspective of the department, a new hire costs the department the same regardless of race or gender. It may be different at other schools.

Weinberg, if you feel the need to badmouth my departmental colleagues essentially by name, you can start your own blog. This isn't the place for anonymous personal attacks. I will point out that the person you mention has been successful in getting outside funding, has published a PRL in the first couple of years of the junior position, and had work featured by the APS as a highlight of this year's March Meeting. I will also point out that in this case the "superstar" was the spousal hire, not the person you mention.

I'm done talking about specific instances of hiring.

stevenweinberg said...
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deepthroatinphysics said...
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deepthroatinphysics said...
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Doug Natelson said...

JasonD - I like this idea in general.

Deepthroatinphysics - The short answer at Rice is that the department chair generally has nothing to do with ranking candidates or sequencing visits. The search committee chair, at least in my experience, has only marginally more influence than any other member of the search committee. Often interview visits are determined more by the schedules of the candidates than by any particular wish on our part. We don't try to put the 'best' person first or last or anything. It's tough enough to get everyone on the calendar efficiently when all the other schools are also trying to schedule visits simultaneously.

Aaron said...

Doug, there has been some discussion of the order in which candidates come and interview. Do you really think there is an advantage to going first/last/or somewhere in between. I mean, can the search committee be so blown away by an early candidate that they just cancel later interviews (that would seem counterproductive to me)?

Also, once offered a position, is there a period of "haggling" for how much start-up funds are offered, or is that really determined by the project proposal part of your interview (I guess what I am saying is if you say you need $$$ to start, is that what the department will give you?)?

Incoherent Ponderer said...

I hope with all controversy in the comments, Doug is enjoying the extra attention his posts are getting. This is only because your post comes at a time when a lot of hiring decisions are made.

I intended to blog about it for a while but my posts already ramble on for too long, and your series cover pretty much everything.

A few extra points though:
department chair makes an offer and negotiates with the dean for startup package and other things, but usually not involved in search committee matters. Therefore when someone on committee asks you what you may need for your startup needs, they typically try to find out if you have thought your lab organization and future projects through, rather than trying to size you up in attempt to hire the "low cost" candidate.

This may depend on the department, but a lot of times money raised for startup have nothing to do with the department's funds - in other words, individual faculty members will not benefit at all if your startup package is 50K instead of 500K - it's not like they can divide whatever is left between themselves. Lab space is a different matter - this can be often a zero sum game.

Prepare a few questions that you can ask during interview - not asking anything makes it seem like you are disengaged.

Cost of students, lab space and overhead is often one of the "hidden costs" in startup packages, and is a good question during interview. So is teaching load/course selection, whether it's typical to teach the same course for 2-3 years.

What is expected to get tenure may vary from place to place. Obviously in most research oriented places (top 50-70 grad schools) research takes precedence. Research-teaching-service is a three-legged stool, but research leg is by far the thickest. Grants, running a well-equipped lab and publication record is among top criteria. In most places tenure is evaluated during your 6th year, but sometimes one can request tenure decision once the key criteria are met (funding, active lab, publications).

Teaching is not as important, but nobody will own up to actually admitting it. You can compensate for so-so teaching record by being a super-star in research, but usually not the other way around. Your seminar/colloquium during job interview is a good indicator of how good you are as a teacher. If you are terrible at conveying ideas, chances are - you are going to give a terrible seminar and not make the cut anyways.

Make sure that you have several short-term as well as long-term ideas for your future research, so that you can paint a broader picture, as well as fill people in on details, if necessary. Considering that most people you meet are not specialists, big picture wins over details 9 out of 10.

Search process is political and complex, and it takes a long time. Hiring decisions are usually business, not personal. Whether you are a good match for a department has as much to do with department, as with you and your science.
Even if you don't get an offer, a visit is a great opportunity to establish relationships with people who might be your proposal/manuscript referees, collaborators, etc. It's a great way to "network".

Doug Natelson said...

Aaron - I don't think there's much of an advantage or disadvantage either way, except in extreme cases. For example, some schools may interview 10 people (which we would never do). For them, I could imagine that by the time the 10th person comes through, no one can remember the first one. We would never renege on an interview invitation, regardless of how spectacular an early candidate may be.

Conventionally, any haggling that takes place occurs after the (informal) offer. I'm a bad person to ask about this, as I didn't really haggle, and I wasn't trying to play one offer off of another. Typically the candidate says, "I'd like to have this, this, and these." The university person (dept chair in our case) comes back and either says "fine", or says "how about this, this, and half of those?". Departments aren't out to be cheap (or at least, they shouldn't be). Rather, they're out to get the resources that their young faculty need to succeed. Since it comes from the dean/provost, the department has every incentive to be an aggressive advocate for their candidates' needs.

deepthroatinphysics said...

Doug,
How do the committee rank the candidates? Is it like a sum of scores for several aspects, like job talk (5 points), research records (5 points), research & teaching potential (5 points), personal skills (5 points), ect?

Is it scored very precisely or just vaguely like A, B, ect?

If the candidates are ranked according to the sum of points that they earned, the rank should be ready right after the last candidate is interviewed. Do the committee members discuss again, and possibily change the rank, before submit the ranking list to the dept chair and the faculty meeting?

Anon III said...
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Doug Natelson said...

DTIP - Well, here, folders are initially ranked in an A/B/C sense by the committee. Seeing who gets the best aggregate rankings + discussion, the short list is chosen for interviews.

After the interviews, we don't re-do numerical scoring. As I've learned from serving on many NSF panels, "rigorous" scoring isn't really practical because different people grade on a different scale. That is, there are harsh graders on certain areas (e.g. clarity of talk) but not others. What we do is reconvene the committee, and go around the room asking for people's rankings of the interviewees, with some verbal justification of the ranking. Often one rises to the top. Sometimes two rise to the top, which means figuring out priorities.

As you've no doubt inferred from the rumor mill, it is possible for the number 1 person to get an offer with a short timeframe. If that person turns the place down, the number 2 person can get the offer.

In an ideal world, people would learn where they stand as quickly as possible, and we try to enable that. Sometimes it is very tough to do this, though. What if there are three people that you'd be willing to offer the job, and the first one strings you along about their status because they want to do a few more interviews? The differing schedules of various schools exacerbate the problem. My last interview (after my Rice one) was at Cal Tech at the end of March, 2000. Turns out I was the first candidate that they'd brought in, and they weren't going to be ready to make decisions until almost May! All of the hiring decisions are strongly entangled. To use another example from my cohort, two of my contemporaries racked up something like 10 offers each. They were the stars that year. Once they picked where they were going, everyone else fell into place. Unfortunately that's just the nature of the process.

deepthroatinphysics said...
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Doug Natelson said...

DTIP - All I can tell you is what we do. Each place has its own decision-making process. I think ours is the norm, and works pretty well.

anon iii said...

I don't know about the facts of the case. I'm betting there's good reason for the hire, because I'm not jaded.

Regardless, you sure sound like you have an axe to grind, DTIP. It's distasteful.

third party said...

Doug, I think references to your colleague should be removed from this blog, or his/her initials blanked out.

Ironically, one of the reasons why I read your blog is precisely to find gossip like this!

stevenweinberg said...
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Doug Natelson said...

You didn't give a name, but you gave initials and a department. The other discussion is also marginal, but doesn't reveal the department in question.

third party said...

It took me about 5 seconds to find out who was behind the initials of the Rice professor (I'm from another place).

My guess is that many people at Doug's institution read his blog, so keeping things anonymous has much less to do with hypocrisy than with congeniality...

Random User said...

Must you feed the trolls, Doug? This whole thread was totally inappropriate.

deepthroatinphysics said...

To random user,
Isn't a very nice thing to have some senior person discuss on some never-clarified but very important factors in life-critical events? As long as no personal attacks and enough privacy kept, I think it a good idea to discuss some cases (otherwise everything is possible.)

Random User said...

OK, the parts of the thread where Doug adds to what he posted about were fine. It's useful and interesting and I'm glad he does it, although I'd be interested to know how his fellow search committee members would react upon reading the thread.

The discussion of the 'weird' hire (with clearly identifying details for anyone in the business) was totally inappropriate, and the discussion of a specific member in his department was beyond the pale.

deepthroatinphysics said...

random user,
I think you're trying to intimidate Doug. And I don't think you have the moral virtues to judge what is inappropriate and what is beyond pale on someone else's blog.

Your words make me suspect that you enjoy black-box games where someone can get unfair benefits. And you want everyone to shut up. Don't you know one function of the Internet is to deminish the black-box games?

stevenweinberg said...
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Doug Natelson said...

All right - this thread is closed. Let's talk about something else.

Doug Natelson said...

Upon further reflection, I've deleted more comments from this thread, scrubbing out potential identifiers.

I haven't been 'intimidated'. If anything, I realize now that I may need to start moderating comments. Publicly criticizing the work of others from behind a veil of perceived anonymity is not something I want to encourage here.

deepthroatinphysics said...

Fortunately I saved the discussions every time I visited here. I will publish somewhere else.

deepthroatinphysics said...

Sigh, why good people often get beaten by bad guys. If even free initials without any affilation information are still considered as attack? Too sensitive.

deepthroatinphysics said...

What's the sense of bloging? Should we limit us just talking about "how is the weather in Houston?" (sorry, this is violation of the privacy policy because 'Houston' -- a real name, is used.)

stevenweinberg said...

I agree with deepthroatinphysics, this is ridiculuous... My entry is erased because I said Lisa Randall is single. I guess it requires security clearance Q to know that. Big deal? What are we gonna talk about? I think this entry is gonna be erased too so I should not bother with writing more. I am done with this blog

Doug Natelson said...

DTIP, Weinberg - I cut out the comments that mentioned the initials of the controversial hire. If my name is on this, it's going to reflect my professional opinion about appropriate conduct. Feel free to leave and start your own blog if you don't like my groundrules.

John DoE said...

Perhaps we could talk about the institution that made the "controversial hire" instead? Then we won't have to mention any person's names, right? heh!

Anonymous said...

It's interesting seeing the strong feelings that this subject brings out. A question I have for Doug and other faculty - how much does the place you are working at affect the quality of your research output? Clearly, for faculty working in experiment, I can see two possible advantages to being at a more prestigious institution:
(1) The quality of graduate students on average is better.
(2) The chance that you will get your grant is higher.
Are either of these really true? It would be nice to hear your opinions on this.

Anonymous said...

I have got a question for a specific hiring case. When a school posted an ad with the application deadline being Feb 28, and wanted the hired person to start on July 1, does this mean the school already have someone in mind, and every other people are just wasting their time to even think about apply to?

That school is UCLA ...

Doug Natelson said...

Anonymous w/ comment 58: It is true that where you are does affect what you can do. As far as student quality, the issue usually isn't with the top of the distribution - for all kinds of reasons, the best students at even second-rank institutions can be extremely good. The real question is, how broad is the tail of the distribution. At Rice, I've seen some students that are as good as the best students at Stanford, but I think the tail is larger here. As far as funding goes, the more direct impact of your institution is the resources that you have available to do good work. Rice has pretty much all the high-tech infrastructure I need to do my research. That would not be true at many places. Your institution can also strongly determine the size of your startup. A good undergrad-focused place like Amherst College simply can't afford startup packages that can approach $1M at top research places.

Anonymous w/ comment 59: The "start date" is almost always set by the school's fiscal year. Rice's fiscal year, used for budgeting purposes, runs from July 1 through June 30. So, what that date means is that that's when the funds become allocated to start paying a salary line. That is definitely a late application deadline, but that may not mean anything more than they were late getting approval for the position. Super-narrow wording of the ad would be more of a tip-off.

Anonymous said...

Doug, thanks for the pointer. :-)

Anonymous #59