After years of dormancy (good luck finding the old stuff!), I’ve been badgered back into the blogging game. In particular, I was urged to offer my perspective on the life sciences faculty search process, from the searchers’ perspective. Starting a little over a year ago, I served as chair of my department’s search committee, which concluded in the spring with a successful hire. With that experience still relatively fresh, I hope I can share some important insights into how our top candidates caught our eye, as well as the behind-the-scenes process of selecting those candidates. In addition, while respecting the bounds of confidentiality, I will try to talk about what made our final choice rise to the very top.
As a bit of background: my department is a basic science department at a medical school, part of a R1 state university in the Intermountain West. Our department, our biological research university and the university as a whole are what I would consider solidly upper-middle-tier. Think, say, Penn State, not Stanford. Not coincidentally, Penn State was one of the other offers I was considering when I took the job here, while Stanford’s offer must have been lost in the mail. But I love my department for its diversity and enthusiasm, and this was the job I wanted the most when I was done with my own first interviews over a decade ago.
Right off the bat, I think it is worth addressing three claims that are often made regarding the postdoc experience, two of which I think are pernicious fallacies and the third of which is something I hope to explore in future posts.
First: You need a Cell, Nature or Science paper to get a job. There is no question that you need a “high impact” paper to get noticed, but worrying too much about specific journals is a fool’s errand. Of our top 12 candidates, 7 had a CNS paper during their postdoc, winnowed down to 3 of the final 5 that we interviewed. And the candidate who got the offer? Spoiler alert, as this will be the subject of a future post, but they were one of the two CNS-less applicants in our final pool.
Second: You need to “bring money with you,” preferably in the form of a K99 award. This one would make me laugh, if it weren’t so destructive. Zero of our top 12 applicants had a K99 award, or any other grant that would contribute substantially to their independent research. Expanding the list to our top 27, there were 3 K99s as well as 3 more established PIs who already had existing funding. In other words, having PI-level funding was no guarantee of getting interviewed, nor was lack of such an impediment. If you are considering a job where you need to “bring money,” you should ask hard questions about the financial fundamentals of that department/university. And if you find out that your potential future department sees your funding as an opportunity to offer you a smaller startup package, run don’t walk away. (And if you are a current faculty member running a job search under such conditions, get in the fucking sea.)
Third: You need the “right pedigree” to get a job. This one is probably the most troubling, because it is hard to refute. I tried, consciously, to avoid using pedigree as a selection criterion, but even looking at my own notes I can see that I often noted “XXX lab,” where XXX was a PI whose work I knew relatively well, when summarizing a candidate’s research interests and background. Was this because it served as useful shorthand (“Bruneau lab – oh, they’re into cardiovascular development ), or because it served as a marker of possibly unearned prestige? I will try to keep the relationship between pedigree and applicant strength in mind, in future posts; although this is something that any postdoc about to go on the job market can’t do anything about, it is something that PhD students need to consider when planning their future training.
 Hypothetical example – we didn’t have any applicants from that lab!