Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Faculty search process, 2011 version.

As I have done in past years, I'm revising a past post of mine about the faculty search process. My thoughts on this really haven't changed much, but it's useful to throw this out there rather than hope people see it via google.

Here are the steps in the typical faculty search process:

  • 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 main challenges are two-fold: (1) Ideally the department has some strategic plan in place to determine the area that they'd like to fill. Note that not all departments do this - occasionally you'll see a very general ad out there that basically says, "ABC University Dept. of Physics is authorized to search for a tenure-track position in, umm, physics. We want to hire the smartest person that we can, regardless of subject area." The danger with this is that there may actually be divisions within the department about where the position should go, and these divisions can play out in a process where different factions within the department veto each other. This is pretty rare, but not unheard of. (2) The university needs to have the resources in place to make a hire.  In tight financial times, this can become more challenging. I know anecdotally of public universities having to cancel searches in 2008/2009 even after the authorization if the budget cuts get too severe. A well-run university will be able to make these judgments with some leadtime and not have to back-track.
  • 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.  In cross-departmental searches (sometimes there will be a search in an interdisciplinary area like "energy"), a dean would likely put together the committee.
  • 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 like the type I mentioned above. Historically MIT and Berkeley had run the same ad every year, trolling for talent. They seem to do just fine. 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 usually 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, or their marital status).
  • Applications come in and are sorted; rec letters are collated.  Each candidate has a folder. Every year when I post this, someone argues that it's ridiculous to make references write letters, and that the committee should do a sort first and ask for letters later.  I understand this perspective, but I largely disagree. Letters can contain an enormous amount of information, and sometimes it is possible to identify outstanding candidates due to input from the letters that might otherwise be missed. (For example, suppose someone's got an incredible piece of postdoctoral work about to come out that hasn't been published yet. It carries more weight for letters to highlight this, since the candidate isn't exactly unbiased about their own forthcoming publications.)  There is a trend toward electronic application review, and that is likely to continue, though it can be complicated if committee members are not very tech-savvy.
  • 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. Creative people can want to express their creativity in the classroom as well as the lab.
  • Once all the folders have been reviewed and rated, a relatively short list (say 20-25 or so out of 120 applications) is formed, and the committee meets to hash that down to, in the end, four or five 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 and human nature, 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 - I've now been here 12 years, and we've enjoyed ourselves (my occasional Texas-centric blog posts aside).
  • 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". I know that some people may think that research statements are more of an issue for experimentalists, since the statements indicate a lot about lab and equipment needs. Believe me - research statements are important for all candidates. Committee members need to know where you're coming from and what you want to do - what kinds of problems interest you and why. The committee also wants to see that you actually plan ahead. These days it's extremely hard to be successful in academia by "winging it" in terms of your research program.
  • 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. (I should point out that truly negative letters are very rare.) 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. The more you can do to make life easier for your letter writers, the better.
As always, more feedback in the comments is appreciated.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Science, communication, and the public

This week's issue of Nature includes an interesting editorial emphasizing how crucial it is that scientists and engineers learn how to communicate their value to the general populace.  This is something I've thought about for quite some time, as have a number of other people - see this article in Physics Today (subscription only, I'm afraid), this related blog post, and a discussion in the Houston Chronicle's science blog

It's hard not to get down about this whole topic.  Industrial R&D funding (for projects with more than a year lead time) is a shadow of what it used to be, and looming fiscal austerity may well cripple federally funded basic research.  If companies aren't willing to invest for the long term, and government is unable or unwilling to invest for the long term, then technological innovation may shift away from the US.  If more of the general public and politicians appreciated that things like the iPad, XBox, the internet, and flat screen TVs didn't come out of nowhere, maybe the situation would be different. 

By the way, I find it interesting that the Nature editorial discusses looming cuts to Texas physics departments, a topic I mentioned here and was discussed in the New York Times, and yet our own Houston Chronicle hasn't bothered to write about them.  At all.  Even on their online science blog.  Yes, they're aware of the topic, too.  Clearly they've had more newsworthy things to worry about.

Monday, October 17, 2011

A few fun links.

I'm buried under a couple of pieces of work right now, but I did want to share a couple of fun science videos.

Here is a great example of magnetic levitation via superconductivity.

Those Mythbusters guys had a great time trying to make a giant Newton's Cradle using wrecking balls.  It didn't work well (and I assigned a homework problem looking at why this was the case).

I just heard yesterday that there's a full-length version of the theme song to the Big Bang Theory.  Pretty educational, though the lyrics imply that there'll be a Big Crunch, and we now know that's unlikely (see this year's Nobel in physics).

Here is a cool collection of videos, from minutephysics.  Good stuff! 

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

What's wrong with modern American economics.

According to this, Google stock may take a hit because their revenues only grew year-over-year by 30% this past quarter. Specifically, analysts are worried because Larry Page said that he cares more about the long term health of the company than goosing the stock price.  

What the hell is wrong with these people?  It's not enough that Google is making enormous profits.  It's not enough that Google's enormous revenues are 30% larger than they were last year.  Rather, apparently the free market will penalize Google because they expected the earnings to be 32% larger than last year, and it's apparently a bad thing that the management has talked about prioritizing long-term health and growth.   How is this attitude by the financial sector at all a good thing?  This attitude is exactly why corporate long-term R&D has been nearly obliterated in the US.

Monday, October 10, 2011


I was going to do a post about quasicrystals and this year's chemistry Nobel, but Don Monroe has done such a good job in his Phys Rev Focus piece that there's not much more to say.  Read it!

The big conceptual change brought about by the discovery of quasicrystals was not so much the observation of five-fold and icosahedral symmetries via diffraction.  That was certainly surprising, since you can't tile a plane with pentagons; it was very hard to understand how you could end up with a periodic arrangement of atoms that could fill space and give diffraction patterns with those symmetries.  The real conceptual shift was realizing that it is possible to have nice, sharp diffraction patterns from nonperiodic (rather, quasiperiodic) arrangements of atoms.   The usual arguments about diffraction that are taught in undergrad classes emphasize that diffraction (of electrons or x-rays or neutrons) is very strong (giving 'spots') in particular directions because along those directions, the waves scattered by subsequent planes of atoms all interfere constructively.   Changing the direction leads to crests and troughs of waves adding with some complicated phase relationship, generally averaging to not much intensity.  In particular symmetry directions, though, the waves scattered by successive planes of atoms arrive in phase, as the distances traveled by the various scattered contributions all differ by integer numbers of wavelengths.  Without a periodic arrangement of atoms, it was hard to see how this could happen nicely.

It turns out that quasicrystals really do have a hidden sort of symmetry.  They are projections onto three dimensions of structures that would be periodic in a higher dimensional space.  The periodicity isn't there in the 3d projection (rather, the atoms are arranged "quasiperiodically" in space), but the 3d projection does contain information about the higher dimensional symmetry, and this comes out when diffraction is done in certain directions.  The discovery of these materials spurred scientists had to reevaluate their ideas about what crystallinity really means - that's why it's important.  For what it's worth, the best description of this that I've seen in a textbook is in Taylor and Heinonen.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

A modest proposal for Google, Intel, or the like.

A post on quasicrystals will be coming eventually....

Suppose you're an extremely successful tech company, and you want to make a real, significant impact on university research for the long term, because you realize that you need an educated, technically sophisticated workforce.  Rather than endowing individual professorships, or setting up one or two research centers, I have a suggestion.  Take $250M, and set up research equipment endowments at, say, the 50 top research universities.  Give each one $5M, with the proviso that the endowment returns be used for the purchase or maintenance of research equipment, and/or technical staff salary lines, as the institution sees fit.  That could buy one good-sized piece of equipment per year, or pay for several technical staff.  This would be a way for universities to replenish their research infrastructure over time without being dependent on federal equipment grants (which are undoubtedly useful, but tend to favor the exotic over the essential, and are likely to become increasingly scarce as fiscal austerity takes over for the foreseeable future).  Universities could also charge depreciation on that equipment when assessing user fees, making the whole system self-sustaining even beyond endowment returns.  Alternately, critical staff lines could be supported.  Anyone at a research university knows that a good technical staff member can completely reshape the way facilities (e.g., a cleanroom; a mass spec center) operate.  You put all the decision making on the university, with the proviso that they can't spend down the principal.   This strategy would boost research productivity across the country over time, get more and better equipment into the hands of future tech workers, and be a charitable write-off for the company that does it.  It could really make a difference.

I'm completely serious about this, and would be happy to talk to any corporations (or foundations) about how this might work.  

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Nobel speculation time again

It's that time of year again - time to speculate about the Nobel Prizes.  Physics gets announced Tuesday, followed by Chemistry the next day.  While I feel almost obligated to mention my standard speculation (Aharonov and Berry for geometrical phases), it seems likely that this year's physics prize will be astro-themed, since there hasn't been one of those in a while.  Something related to dark matter perhaps (Vera Rubin for galaxy rotation curves?), though direct detection of dark matter may be a necessary precursor for that.  Inflationary cosmology gets mentioned (Guth and Linde?) by some.  Extrasolar planets?  Fine scale structure in the cosmic microwave background as a constraint on what the universe is made of?   There certainly has been a lot of astro excitement in the last few years....  Feel free to speculate in the comments.

Update:  The 2011 Nobel in Physics has been awarded to Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt, and Adam Riess, for their discovery (via observations of type IA supernova) that not only is the universe expanding, but that expansion is (apparently) accelerating.  Makes sense, in that this work certainly altered our whole view of the universe's fate.  Combined with other observations (e.g., detailed measurements of the cosmic microwave background), it would now seem that the universe's total energy density is 4% ordinary matter, 23% dark matter (gravitates but otherwise interacts very weakly with the ordinary matter), and 73% "dark energy" (energy density associated with space itself).  For a nice summary of the science, see here (pdf).  Congratulations to all!