Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Revised: Primer on faculty searches, part I

It's that time of year again, with Chad Orzel and the Incoherent Ponderer both posting about the faculty job market and job hunting. So, I'm recycling a post of mine from last year describing the search process, at least the way it's done at Rice. I'm going to insert some revisions that are essentially tips to would-be candidates, though I think the IP has already done a good job on this, and some are basically common sense. An obvious disclaimer: this is based on my experience, and may not generalize well to other departments with vastly differing cultures or circumstances.

Here are the main steps in a search:
  • 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).
  • 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.
  • 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 - this is in the search plan). 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.
  • 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. This plan is largely a checklist to make sure that we follow all the right procedures and don't screw anything up. It also brings to the fore the importance of "beating the bushes" - see above. A couple of people on the search committee will be particularly in charge of oversight on affirmative action/equal opportunity issues.
  • 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.).
  • Applications come in and are sorted; rec letters are collated. Each candidate has a folder.
  • 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%.
  • 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.
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.

Tips for candidates:
  • Don't wrap your self-worth up in this any more than is unavoidable. It's a game of small numbers, and who gets interviewed where can easily be dominated by factors extrinsic to the candidates - what a department's pressing needs are, what the demographics of a subdiscipline are like, etc. Every candidate takes job searches personally to some degree because of our culture, but don't feel like this is some evaluation of you as a human being.
  • Don't automatically limit your job search because of geography unless you have some overwhelming personal reasons. I almost didn't apply to Rice because neither my wife nor I were particularly thrilled about Texas, despite the fact that neither of us had ever actually visited the place. Limiting my search that way would've been a really poor decision.
  • Really read the ads carefully and make sure that you don't leave anything out. If a place asks for a teaching statement, put some real thought into what you say - they want to see that you have actually given this some thought, or they wouldn't have asked for it.
  • Research statements are challenging because you need to appeal to both the specialists on the committee and the people who are way outside your area. My own research statement back in the day was around three pages. If you want to write a lot more, I recommend having a brief (2-3 page) summary at the beginning followed by more details for the specialists. It's good to identify near-term, mid-range, and long-term goals - you need to think about those timescales anyway. Don't get bogged down in specific technique details unless they're essential. You need committee members to come away from the proposal knowing "These are the Scientific Questions I'm trying to answer", not just "These are the kinds of techniques I know".
  • Be realistic about what undergrads, grad students, and postdocs are each capable of doing. If you're applying for a job at a four-year college, don't propose to do work that would require an experienced grad student putting in 60 hours a week.
  • Even if they don't ask for it, you need to think about what resources you'll need to accomplish your research goals. This includes equipment for your lab as well as space and shared facilities. Talk to colleagues and get a sense of what the going rate is for start-up in your area. Remember that four-year colleges do not have the resources of major research universities. Start-up packages at a four-year college are likely to be 1/4 of what they would be at a big research school (though there are occasional exceptions). Don't shave pennies - this is the one prime chance you get to ask for stuff! On the other hand, don't make unreasonable requests. No one is going to give a junior person a start-up package comparable to a mid-career scientist.
  • Pick letter-writers intelligently. Actually check with them that they're willing to write you a nice letter - it's polite and it's common sense. Beyond the obvious two (thesis advisor, postdoctoral mentor), it can sometimes be tough finding an additional person who can really say something about your research or teaching abilities. Sometimes you can ask those two for advice about this. Make sure your letter-writers know the deadlines and the addresses.
I'll revise more later if I have the time.


lottery_unwinner said...

"Applications come in and are sorted; rec letters are collated. Each candidate has a folder."

Exactly, it is much nicer to shred a full folder, rather than an incomplete one!

I am applying both in industry and academia (not the 1st year here), and due to the flood of people in academia the approach in these two environments is vastly different.

The way it feels is that the academia has set up a hoop after hoop to jump through.

In industry, one just needs a 2 page resume, and you get a call (or not).

In academia, a secretary of some sort will often remind you to complete your application (specifically, recommendation letters). So then your *full* folder can be shredded instead of incomplete one!

I don't mind much sending the requested documents that I can generate myself, but with the letters it is just such an uncool job to have to pull several strings at once to get letters to be sent to some place, especially since the ads do not come out at the same time. Some profs treat this the same way they treat collaborators on papers - delay needlessly.

My strong suspicion is that in reality the list of applicants gets down to ~15 people just by the CV alone, and then the other stuff such as proposal and letters fine tune it down to ~5.

However, some departments are just way above sending a quick e-mail to 15 people to ask them to request the letters. Thus tons of work gets generated for everybody with these letters so that the folders can be shredded in full, rather than just in partial form.

Now, add to this the desirability of having a customized application (since this is how the people on the committee would prefer it). This way you are not just tracking this stuff and sending the standard package out, but also putting in some more serious work (i.e., they also want your "blood").

Sure, it is the employer market, so anything will fly!

Naturally, a lot of this is out of desire to make "the best" hiring decision. But who are the committees trying to kid? The tenure track position is kind of a lottery, where singular events like a high profile journal paper or a grant or a couple of good students skew things to a very large extent. Thus past is a weak predictor of the future. Finally, many profs are quite opinionated, thus the bulk of the like/dislike decision is made within seconds, just like everywhere else (read "Blink"). However, since this is the "ivory tower", the BS to have to put with is a lot more substantial.

In addition, I have noticed that in terms of people skills a large fraction of academics are not the brightest candles on the cake, with massive blind spots (for some reason this is even more true for very top places than for lesser ones, I observed this first-hand). So often the candidates are evaluated with respect to the self-reference, where some singular occurrence of luck could have boosted the entire career. Then this becomes the benchmark, and the other ways one could become successful are discounted. Add to the mix the other end of the spectrum, the cognitive dissonance that takes places at SLACs, where the attitude "we are smaller by nonetheless still exclusive" is in full force.

Anyway, this is a view of this hiring process from the other side. Of course, if one does not want to put up with this, perhaps, he/she is no match for academia. Sucking up to the "gatekeepers" (hiring committee) in each and every way is paramount.

End of rant.

lottery_unwinner said...

Let me also add that with respect to the getting the interviews part, if you got Science, Nature, or PNAS paper you'll be opening the doors with your foot, so to speak. If you ain't got that, then you'll beg for scraps. This is a well-known secret, just check the candidates who did get the interviews. The ones with tons of interviews had one of such papers with high probability. So much for careful evaluation of the "entire" application!

JasonD said...

"Don't wrap your self-worth up in this any more than is unavoidable."

While this is a tough thing to do during the job search process, I agree completely with Doug's statement above. The entire process is very time-consuming and exhaustive in itself and beating yourself up about is the last thing you need to do. In the end too, if you get an interview, self-confidence is never going to hurt you.

In regard to begging for scraps...I know plenty of people who have gotten interviews, offers, and jobs without a Science, Nature, or PNAS publication. Yes, there are a lot of people who have gotten jobs with just one of those publications, but it's a stretch to say that their whole career is based on that. More often than not, these individuals have substantial publications in other well regarded journals Phys Rev, APL, Optics Letters, etc. There are some instances of people being hired by universities that leave you scratching your head wondering why, but most of these new hires have stellar careers. I wish that I could have been one of those when I applied, but I wasn't. If by begging for scraps, you are referring to institutions that aren't Berekely or Ivy League, than you are just cutting yourself short as there are a wide variety and number of universities out there that may not be held in as high esteem as the aforementioned ones, but you can still have a nice research/teaching career at them.

Why is the process so much more complicated than industry jobs? Well, there's a lot more risk with the academic job search process as a new tenure track position is a huge investment in terms of time and money by the university. It's a lot easier for a company to recover from making a bad hiring decision than it is for a university department to do so.

I do agree with lottery_unwinner about the letter situation. It would be so much better for everyone involved if letters were only asked from those applicants who had made it past the first cut.

Doug Natelson said...

I know letters are work. However, they are one source of real information beyond raw publication lists and research statements. I would be concerned that without letters even more of a premium would be placed on high profile publications. I had no Science or Nature papers when I interviewed, and I'm pretty sure my letters were a major asset.

hypnose said...

This whole myth about number of publications and science/nature papers is just bullshit. There are many nobel prize winners who have no science nature papers. Alan Guth, who has been in the shortlist for physics nobel prize for many years now(I expect him to win soon) has only 37 papers in ISI web of knowledge and many of them are just review papers, however he has one paper in 1982 which has 2880 citations as of today. Take home lesson from this is that the citations are the only thing that count at the end of the day. If you can have one single paper with 3000 citations you are done.

lottery_unwinner said...

Here is an update on the current job market. I was checking out chemistry ads, where most of deadlines are Oct. 15. A lot of departments still want paper applications, so they do not have to print them before putting them into folders. What is even funnier is that some of them now demand both paper and *.pdf (!!!), I saw a couple of state schools doing that! Basically, the school is too poor to spend 10 pages of paper to print out an application, when they want to put it into a folder. Here is a fresh idea, they should start asking candidates to attach their picture in the clown suite, people are desperate, they will do anything.

To answer "hypnose" about Science and Nature, I guess he/she is not too familiar with the details on how the job market works. The system here is quite simple. Either one is from a group of a big shot who consistently (!, this consistency is very important) send people to assistant prof. positions, or one gets Science or Nature so that the merit is very obvious to committees. Without that making the interview list is quite tough.

On the subject of Nobel prize winners, the best way to think about publications as short term/long term investing. Science and Nature is like buying a stock that appreciates by 200% within a year, so you can pocket the money now and go party. A PRB that eventually collects many citations is like a stock that consistently appreciates by 20% a year, which is respectable, but you cannot cash in quickly and have to keep waiting (and working). I hope this explains the setup clearly.

hypnose said...

I know very well how things work in academia, however, you do not seem to since you look like a loser just like your nickname implies. Doug already explained that science/nature stuff is irrelevant. By the way, if you think your connections matter to get a faculty job, you would be surprised to learn how much they matter more for the industry. Unless you know someone from inside the company personally, you can forget about getting a job there virtually. There is no such thing in academia. The game may not be entirely fir but it is much fairer than industry. What is entirely fair in this world anyway? This is life. Wake up

Andrew said...

I don't think Doug is saying that Science/Nature papers are irrelevant. I'm sure they do in fact help. I think he's just saying that they aren't the be all and end all of faculty applications. If you have them, it's great. If you have a solid and consistent record publishing in top journals like PRL and APRL (for physicists), that's great too. If the physics community knows you, that can help a lot. And if someone whom people trust writes a letter on your behalf, that can go a long way. Now, I'm only just applying for faculty jobs myself, so I don't know for sure, but it seems to me that most departments have a lot of smart, reasonable people, who are capable of looking at each candidate's complete package, without applying any kind of arbitrary Science/Nature litmus tests.

That said, it is a game of rather small numbers, and there are a large number of applicants. Because departments don't actually hire a new person in a given field each year, it makes the hiring decisions very important, so I would guess that departments feel more comfortable hiring folks they have heard of before. While this bias might make them miss out on candidates, it's hard not to do this when you can only hire one out of every hundred or so applicants. I would bet (and this is just from looking around at my friends who are postdocs) that there are too many people who seem quite qualified on paper, and it's hard to make cuts to bring the number down to something reasonable. A lot of folks do really nice work, and really interesting topics, and when that happens, cuts have to be a bit arbitrary.

(Disclaimer: I'm only a postdoc, and so this is mostly conjecture, so take all of this with a grain of salt)

Doug Natelson said...

Andrew took the words right out of my brain.

One 3000 citation paper may not mean anything if you're the sixth author. That's why some people like h-numbers rather than citation counts. However, as I've written before, I don't think h-numbers mean much until someone is a mid-career scientist. Even at tenure time, they are often a metric of what kind of group your thesis advisor ran (giving an advantage to people who came from large groups that publish multiauthor papers in Science and Nature over small groups that publish 2-author papers in PRL), rather than a measure of your output as an individual.

This is why well-written letters can be so helpful. It's like using wavelets rather than sines and cosines to describe a complicated function. If a wavelet basis exists that really overlaps the function, then the wavelet description is a compact way of telling you everything. If a trusted writer can say, "This candidate reminds me of Prof. Jones at this stage", that can tell you much more complete information than just "This candidate is clever and a good communicator."

Atomic in Arkansas said...

I once heard a story about D/an K/leppner giving recommendations for postdocs over the phone simply by comparing the person to two people: "he's better than X but not as good as Y."

hypnose said...

Doug, why do you think the fifth author on a 3000 times cited paper does not count? According to this logic, Charles Lieber does not have any science/nature papers(even though he has two dozen of them at least)? What does this say about the ethics of science? If you are PI, you count even if you are the fifth author, but as a grad student and postdoc you have to be the first author, otherwise it does not count?? Are you kidding?

Doug Natelson said...

Hypnose, being deliberately obtuse is a poor rhetorical tactic.

A person who is on many highly cited papers (e.g. Lieber) is clearly productive. A person who by virtue of a large collaboration happens to be a minor author on a single highly cited paper is not a priori productive as a scientist just because they have a high citation count from that one paper. Clear enough for you?

Schlupp said...

Doug, how do you write reference letters for your first PhD students? At that time, you still a young professor, so you don't have a large base to compare the candidate to. My problem ist that my PhD advisor writes not-so-great letters: They are good in the sense that he says that I'm good, but they are short and not terribly informative. I just hope that the other letters can make up for that.

hypnose said...

Doug, this blog together with incoherently scattered ponderings turned into gossip column. I hardly see any scientific substance here anymore. I think the folks who need advice on postdoc&faculty jobs can contact you privately. Is there a way you can start covering some science so that this can be a science blog again? Let me kickstart the discussion. Have you seen Hongkun Park's latest nature article where they demonstrate the efficient coupling of a QD with a nanowire and generate surface plasmons? Looks fascinating...

Anonymous said...

Why is the process so much more complicated than industry jobs? Well, there's a lot more risk with the academic job search process as a new tenure track position is a huge investment in terms of time and money by the university. It's a lot easier for a company to recover from making a bad hiring decision than it is for a university department to do so.

This is hysterically ignorant.