Faculty job searches – a perspective from the other side of the table

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 [1]), 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.

[1] Hypothetical example – we didn’t have any applicants from that lab!


43 thoughts on “Faculty job searches – a perspective from the other side of the table

  1. Pingback: Tales from the search committee | Drugmonkey

  2. What circumstances make a department more/less likely to focus on existing funding though?

    Also, how many existing faculty publish CNS in this dept?

    You say candidates had no CNS as postdocs….did any come with grad training CNS papers?

    • If you are a current PI applying for a lateral move, you need to have funding – and not funding that is expiring this year or next. Otherwise you probably won’t get a second look.

      If a department requires a new PI to arrive with funding in hand, I would take this as a sign of very shallow pockets at the institution. Not a good omen for future supportiveness in lean times.

      We are a mid-tier department, so true CNS papers are relatively rare – probably a few a year, all told. Lots of Cell and Nature subsidiary papers (e.g. Molecular Cell, Nature Genetics), which are still obviously very high-impact, and others at similarly high-IF places. And many others across the IF spectrum, none of which are sniffed at. (I will have a whole future post about IF and the job search.)

    • Oh, and there were candidates who had CNS as grad students, but I don’t think this was determinative either. I personally paid attention only to postdoc papers (assuming that they had at least something from their PhD).

    • Also, how many existing faculty publish CNS in this dept?

      Careful. This gets back to your post earlier this week about the qualifications of SS members.

      • K99 is definitely not a factor – we have never hired someone who had one and I can’t even recall whether anyone we interviewed had one. All our new hires get startup money that should sustain them for a few years until they get grants. CNS papers are helpful if authored as a postdoc, but more recent hires had Mol Cell, NSMB and the like. What we are looking for is high-impact science combined with letters that state that the project was really driven by the postdoc, and not that they were just hitching a ride on the lab’s reputation.

        Pedigree, on the other hand, is quite important. If prominent PI X says a candidate is great compared to all the other great people s/he has already trained, that carries a lot of weight. The pedigree factor could be outweighed by particularly stellar accomplishments in the lab or a relatively unknown or junior PI, but our recent hires have not fit that mold. It all comes down to the letters, in which case the ability to calibrate the letter-writer’s assessment becomes all-important. Of course, there are some big shots who seem to think anyone from their lab walks on water, so we have learned to downgrade those.

  3. I’ve always liked these articles from Cori Bargmann about the job search/interview process, published in Current Biology years ago: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S096098229500087X
    (no firewall).

    The K99 Program Officers are supposed to be on the watch for predatory institutions who are reducing the package offered on the basis that the applicant will come with a K00. Based on the stories post-docs tell me, they do a good job of this.

    Regarding the “pedigree”, I think this is an especially difficult type of bias to remove. Someone you know well and admire saying “this person is brilliant” simply carries more weight than someone you don’t know, whose standards may be completely different from yours. On the other hand, there are a few PIs who ALWAYS say that their people are in the top 2%. Those letters are completely useless, unless the committee has never seen a letter from the PI in question before. It’s very useful if the letter-writer can provide explicit comparisons, e.g. I put this person in the same category for creativity and intellectual ability as X, who now has a faculty position at institution Y. (As long as they mean it.)

      • I love these lines from the second Bargmann article:

        “I have a colleague whose talks are masterful performances, entertaining, full of substance, graced by the telling anecdote; I am mesmerized the entire time he speaks, knowing full well that I could never perform at that level.”

        The irony is, I have heard Bargmann speak (several times) and she most definitely DOES perform at that level. Learn how to do that if you want to get a job! All it takes is some creativity (to incorporate anecdote) and practice (to make it smooth).

      • Relating to Whomever’s comment about Bargmann. I would have said she is one of the most polished speakers I have ever heard- total poise and perfection in the one talk I heard.

      • I agree Cori is a wonderful speaker. She’s also modest…

        And she wrote these pieces 20 years ago, so doubtless she’s improved with practice.

  4. Sooooo, let me get this straight: of the 12 candidates that made your short list, 7 had a CNS paper. Of the 5 that you interviewed, 3 had a CNS paper. Please explain to me how that refutes the claim that you need a CNS paper to get a look? In my mind, it confirms it. Yeh sure, your eventual winner did not have a CNS paper per se, but what did they have? PNAS, sub-CNS paper (Nature Genetics, Cell Metabolism etc). Details, details….

    • I’ll get to the details in a later post. Your point is valid – CNS is very helpful, but is it worth worrying about Nature vs Nature Genetics or Cell vs Cell Metabolism? I don’t think so.

      See also comment from “Established PI,” re their recent hiring experience.

      • Can’t wait for that post because you have done nothing to convince me that you did not follow the predictable trend of filtering candidates based on CNS almost exclusively. Given that your choice did not have a CNS (the details I feel will not be so clear cut), how do you know you didn’t miss some excellent candidates when you were screening apps early on based on CNS? Has the experience changed the way that you would approach hiring in the future?

      • Surely Prof Booty was not saying that having a paper in the set of journals you cite (CNS, PNAS, the Cell/Nature clones) is entirely useless. Why would that be true?

        One worry I have is that the journal a post-doc has published in may affect their careers for other reasons than the alleged bias from the selection committee. Does the post-doc who published in MBoC rather than Cell get just as passionate an endorsement from her PI as the one who was slightly luckier? Does she get invited to give a talk at the Gordon Conference she’s attending, and get the chance to catch the eye of someone on a search committee? Etc.

        Dave, if your institution does it better, how do you do it? Do you read all papers by all candidates in detail, or what? Or if you’re not at the search committee stage, then what would you propose as the basis for the first cut?

      • I can think of a significant exception in our department to the CNS/CNS- trend and that was a number of years back when we had a candidate whose focus was on methods development in an important area. By their nature, none of his papers were in the aforementioned journals, but every letter raved about the candidate and said that he was going to be a major figure that would drive the field forward in the years to come. We tried hard to recruit him but lost out to another institution. (The predictions of the letters were accurate, by the way.)

      • @Becky: my institution is in the firing business, not the hiring business. My department hasn’t had a search committee in > 5 years.

  5. I just finished a 3 year term as search committee chair (3 successive year-long searches for 3 total positions) at a top 25 med school in the midwest. We needed to see success in 2 places (grad school and post-doc) to ensure that success followed the candidate. We needed to see some evidence of granting/writing ability – at a minimum, an independent F32. They didn’t have to have C/N/S papers, but needed to have solid pubs. At the interview, it needed to be clear that they would be good colleagues. They had to have a clear plan to run their lab, and they needed to give an excellent talk that would stand up to criticism. Pedigree was important, though, as the committee’s eyes were drawn to give the higher pedigree CVs a closer look in the first stage. With that said, we had some poor interviews with some excellent pedigreed people. Two cents from my experience.

    • I think it is always the case that there are some poor interviews out of apparent top candidates. I suspect if people down the list ever even got an interview, there would be some absolute quality hires in there. Problem is that pool of candidates takes all the oxygen, and even though this is a MASSIVE buyers market, places would rather have a failed search than take a risk down the list. Likely because study sections will probably maul candidates with less strong publication records.

      • I suspect if people down the list ever even got an interview, there would be some absolute quality hires in there

        Right, and it’s a damn shame that they likely will never get a shot.

    • I understand the rationale for the F32, or similar proof. However, I see two problems with this. First, doesn’t this mean that if panels for F32’s require CNS papers, your institution now ends up requiring them indirectly? Your institution inherited all the biases study sections have.

      Second, what about immigrants that have much diminished opportunity for funding. Specifically, most will not qualify for F31 or F32, or much foundation/state money. Is it a fair requirement? What tells us more about a candidate, what they have achieved, or what they have achieved within what was possible?

      The funding expectation may be appropriate in the sense of reducing the risk to your institution of hiring someone who later has trouble getting funded. But from the perspective of someone who immigrated and doesn’t qualify for these awards, this looks like a double hill to climb to even get to the starting line.

      • This is a very good point, and in fact we were cognizant of this – there were numerous immigrants among the applicant pool, with no access to NRSA funding, and they were not dinged for this. Indeed, both our “long-short list” and our “short-short list,” resulting from our first and second search committee meetings, included individuals (mostly from China) who had no funding for this reason.

        Also, NRSAs most definitely don’t require CNS papers – most often, the applicant will be judged on their PhD publications, and I know of numerous examples of students from my institution who have gone on to postdocs and gotten NRSAs without having had a CNS-level paper from their PhD. They do need to have papers, of course, preferably multiple papers and published in reasonably good journals, and you are 100% right that, in this as in many other ways, we “inherit the biases” applying to other external evaluations of our candidates.

  6. *Need* is a big word. Would you contend that none of those three things increase your chances? Don’t you think a K99 winner with Nature papers from a famous lab is getting a good hard loooong look from every search committee? Or to put it another way, get you past the first cut.

    • Don’t you think they should? That’s a pretty high bar.
      Her point is just that it is neither necessary nor sufficient to have those things.

  7. Point 1: I agree with what you’re saying. When people say you need a C/N/S paper to get a job, what they’re really saying is that you need at least one (and probably two or more) papers as a postdoc in journals with a high impact factor (> 7). This means that PNAS or some of the PLOS journals may be enough to get you an interview if everything else is ideal.

    Point 2: My university, which is similarly an R1 medical school inside of the coasts, will not interview anyone who doesn’t have some type of K award. However, the basic science departments outside the college of medicine do not require funding. So in general I agree with your statement, but it obviously gives you more options if you have a grant.

    Point 3: My own experience would confirm your statement. I never worked in a famous lab, but was very productive and had high impact papers, and I got a job. I think I actually got more credit for my success because neither of my mentors were famous.

  8. The whole article totally ignores endowment. Rich schools can afford to offer faculty positions to those without grants. Regular bread and butter schools cannot. As a counter example, I too was on a search committee last year… >150 CVs, short-list of 9, of which 8 had K awards. Let’s do the math…

    New R01, full $250k modular budget (ha ha yeah right), 4 years, 50% indirects = $500k in the institute’s pocket. Tops.

    50% salary coverage, say $85k/yr for asst prof (R1 med such), 35% fringe = $115k/yr. = $230k overall for 4 years
    Start-up say $500k for equipment (I’ve heard recent numbers 300-800 depending on circumstances, YMMV).
    Renovation, lab refurb, moving expenses, blah-di-blah, another $100-200k.
    Total $600k-$1.2m.

    So, even for someone arriving WITH a grant, and assuming ALL indirects get kicked back directly into paying for young superstar’s existence (which then assumes electricity, HVAC, facilities, etc. = zero), there’s a short-fall. If the grant is a K99, the gap is bigger. If there’s no grant, it’s a chasm! There is simply no way that a new faculty hire, even with a grant, is a break even proposition for the first 4-5 years!

    So, if you’re in a school that’s even considering hiring people without grants, there’s a sugar daddy picking up the tab! It might be the state. It might be the clinical enterprise at a big med school. It might be a big endowment. But make no mistakes, the gap is being filled somehow.

    If your institute can afford to hire people with no grants, bravo. Slow clap. But for most applicants reading this article, it’s not like that. For most faculty on search committees, we’re not about to jump in the sea, but thanks for the suggestion, because we obviously suck so bad that we deserve to drown. Why can’t we all be like you? #SMH

    • My colleagues will laugh at the idea that we are at a rich school that uses its endowment to fund faculty slots. Our endowment doesn’t even make this ranking of universities with endowments >$1B. We are as “regular bread and butter” a university as you can imagine. Yet somehow we manage to offer startup packages of the size that you describe without requiring incoming faculty to bring in K awards. Perhaps it is something to do with the med school administration – who controls the hiring pursestrings, and correspondingly absorbs the lion’s share of indirects – having a >4-5 year horizon when considering the productive careers of its faculty, I don’t know. I do know that, as a postdoc, I would be hesistant about taking a position somewhere so hand-to-mouth that they can’t support me while I get my first PI-level grants.

      • I agree that this person is way off in thinking that the university is calculating whether or not they can recoup their startup funds from indirect costs in the first five years. However, there is truth to the fact that poorer schools care a lot more than richer ones about having a grant. Places like Rockefeller U don’t care at all whether new faculty members have K grants. But to get a job there, you’ve got to be the most special of snowflakes, so it’s hardly even worth talking about.

    • Hah, at my school the endowment is many billions of dollars, yet almost none of this is spent on faculty (how can you have the largest per-capita endowment if you spend it???). We make offers to junior hires w/o funding with the understanding that the school gets to skim a lot off the future R01’s and charge usurious grad student tuition!

  9. Most of your post resonates with my experience at a couple of places–one private the other public: >CNS papers garner the interview but not necessarily the job — the real ‘job killers’ here are the public seminar and the chalk talk. So many people from ‘prestige lab’ give poor seminars and incomprehensible (or nearly so) chalk talks. I’m amazed that apparently no one bothered to give them advice on how to give a talk to a general audience…nor how to answer questions.

    >K awards not relevant at either place though with the caveat that joint appointments (e.g. to centers which may not have sufficient funds for start-up) are looked favorably on with K awards.

    >Pedigree has a huge effect at least in the sense that it ‘gets one in the door’. Again, so many seem to fail upon giving talks so we’re left to puzzle as to how involved the BSD really was with mentoring the postdoc

  10. In terms of hiring trends, it’s probably also useful to distinguish typical med school practices from those at non-med school R1s. My experience at a solid (but not top tier) state university is that candidates who have successfully competed for postdoctoral fellowships have a bit of a leg up on the competition. Having a K99 is definitely not a “must have” to get an interview, even for searches that are focused on biomedical fields. Of recent hires, perhaps 1/3 to 1/4 come in with a K99. Once the interviews occur, K99/funding status becomes even less relevant (might come into play if our top two candidates are very well matched), and it becomes far more about the job talk, chalk talk, and how well the candidate interacts with the faculty. It is an interesting dynamic in that the faculty want an engaging new colleague who will do exciting research, while the university administrators are more focused on immediately pulling in IDCs. However, the faculty are making the hiring decision, not the administrators. Our department does receive a small portion of the IDCs, but departmental share of IDCs on a K99 is not going to sway the faculty vote.

  11. The whole point here is that selecting candidates based on CNS (and Ks etc) is fine because the market is such that this is the way things are. There are clearly many excellent candidates with these qualifications, and there are obviously a fair amount of shite ones also. But whenever you hear/read that CNS is not required (i.e. in this post), it almost always turns out that, well, that’s not really true now is it. At the so-called R1 schools, it seems almost universal. That’s what bothers me here. The data, anecdotal and otherwise, completely and utterly refutes statements like CNS doesn’t matter, Ks don’t matter. They do. Just admit it. It’s OK. Why not just put a fucking tick-box on the application page asking if the candidate has a CNS paper and/or a K grant? It will save a lot of people a lot of time.

    And, for the record, nobody is saying that productivity should not be the most important factor when considering candidates for Ass Prof positions, or that jobs should be easy to get. This is a debate ultimately about whether CNS screening filters productive vs. non-productive candidates. Some say yes, some say no. Also the distinction of whether CNS is required for the interview or the actual job offer per se is completely irrelevant because your chances of even getting past the first screening are extremely low without a CNS. Without pedigree, it seems your chances are almost 0%.

    And I’m with Ola on the funding thing.

    Now, where is that sea……….

    • Maybe you should read a blog that is written in simpler English, since you clearly have a hard time with mine. If we had used a CNS or K screen, we would have excluded our actual hire. That’s why filters like that are a bad idea and why, in my experience and the experience of several commentators here who are at better universities than mine, they are not used.

      • In a few cases, there are candidates that circumvent the CNS rule. Seems pedigree is the big one, but there is usually glam-like pubs or background (the Eisen factor). But to deny that a disproportionate number of CNS+ candidates get interviews doesn’t seem helpful. Other commenters here support that. Believe me, I would love for you to say that your hire has a solid record of society-level pubs from a strong but not glam lab, and I will eat my words. But that seems unlikely.

        But can we agree that without either CNS or pedigre, ones chances are almost zero at a school like yours?

    • We enthusiastically hired someone with one publication from grad school (not in CNS), and only methods papers from his post-doc. Yes, he had been in high-profile labs. I do agree that it would be much harder to spot the occasional genius who had none of the three magic criteria. Then again, I believe that most (not all) terrific people have managed to identify terrific labs and talk their way into them, or at least into a collaboration with them. Identifying a lab that is doing interesting things is a fairly central skill for a scientist, wouldn’t you say?

  12. At our ILAF medical school, the basic science departments can offer generous start-up packages that are fully funded by the Dean’s office, while clinical departments are required to scrape together their own funds for start-ups. As of right now, hiring in the basic science departments is limited by availability of laboratory space much more than start-up fund availability.

  13. My experience is that there is OK correlation between how well written the research plan is and the chalk talk. But a chalk talk only had value really if questions are asked. I find faculty not cool that complain about certain things that could have been addressed but remained silent until discussion of candidate in fac meeting. Some applications are extremely well written. I suspect some hidden gem candidates in that pile. If job searches regularly invite candidates that give atrocious seminars and chalk talks, maybe something ican be improved with the process.

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