Faculty job searches (3) – “I didn’t come here to make friends”

Thanks to everyone for their interest in these posts, and apologies for the 2-week gap since the last one. When I left off, our search committee had made an unexpectedly easy cut from 160 applicants to 27, and our next job was to reduce this “long-short” list further to a group of 5 whom we would invite for interviews.

As is my wont, a bit of digression first. I’ve discussed previously aspects of the academic job search that I consider, if not myths, then at least not hard and fast rules in any search that I’ve been part of here at my State U. Of these, the one I feel most confident in rejecting is the idea that having PI-level funding (e.g. a K99/R00 award) is a prerequisite for a successful job search. See the comments to the last two posts for more on this and other topics. An additional myth I would like to bust is that a search committee “already knows who they want to hire” before the applications come in. It is true that we have had searches in the past that were focused in terms of research area, e.g. we wanted to hire someone in genomics, but if we run an ad on Science Careers or somewhere similar, we have no idea of what specific individual we want to hire. This isn’t to say that we have never pursued and hired specific individuals, usually as “poaches” of PIs from other institutions, but unless you are scouring our university’s human resources site, you wouldn’t even know that these positions were open to begin with. (As a public university, we are obliged to post positions even if we do have a targeted hire in mind – at private universities, such hires presumably occur entirely out of sight). If you see an advertisement for an open position in my department, it really is an open position.

A related idea is that, to get noticed by a search committee, you need some direct, semi-nepotistic connection to the department – e.g. your boss calls his buddy the department chair, and tells them how great you are, and then you get invited for a job talk. This must happen sometimes, but it didn’t happen with any of our candidates. But candidates do benefit from the sort of extended web of connection and reputation that falls under the rubric of “pedigree” – as I mentioned in my last post, almost 1/3 of our “long-short list” of 27 applicants had National Academy of Science members as postdoc advisors – someone else can run a hypergeometric test to confirm that this is greater than would be expected by chance. Among the benefits of pedigree is that you are coming from a lab with, potentially, a track record of turning out successful new PIs; another is that your work will glitter with the reflected “excitingness” of your advisor, to the extent that they are familiar to the search committee. On the other hand, very few PIs, even NAS members are true “household names,” and on a relatively diverse search committee like ours, it is rare that more than one or two members really knows your advisor’s work well.

So how did we go about winnowing down our list of 27? First, we each read every application in depth, including the papers that each applicant included in their package. I can’t say what every committee member was looking for, but for me there were three major questions, focusing on the candidate’s research statement: is it interesting, is it distinctive, and is it feasible?

Interesting is subjective, of course, but I think we all made a good faith effort to consider the judgement of our colleagues whom we were representing on the committee. And it is amazing how many CNS papers turn out to be boring data dumps when you actually read them – this seems to be especially true at Nature and Nature Genetics. Being first author on a 50-author behemoth suggests that one has serious managerial chops, but would more than a few people in the department actually be excited to hear about your work?

By distinctive I mean, are you doing something that nobody else is doing at the department or at the university (or, ideally, in the world)? Our research community is small enough that we try to avoid the potential for conflict between new and established faculty, and our department is diverse enough that we want to avoid piling up too many people in one specific area. In addition, if you come from a super-high-power lab, are you setting an agenda that takes you out from under the shadow of your former advisor?

In considering feasibility, I was thinking mainly about the potential to attract sustainable funding. One thing I’ve learned from NIH study section service is that there is a vast wasteland of stuggling faculty out there who seemed to start life with every advantage – CNS papers as postdocs, prestigious new-faculty awards from the American Cancer Society – but now suffer from a persistent inability to land an R01 or publish a high-impact paper on their own. Looking good on paper is not enough! This is the dark side of pedigree – you come from a Cell factory lab, with a very creative and dynamic advisor, and it turns out that the creativity and Cell papers don’t come with you.

A danger sign for me, then, was a too-vague research statement – so you’ve isolated 10 new cancer susceptibility genes, but you can’t tell me what you’re going to do with them. Almost as bad, though, is if you tell me you’re going to do proteomic analysis of each of these gene products, but all your previous training is in human linkage mapping. Ambition is nice, but BS is often easy to smell out.

On the other hand, I think there are specific strengths in our department and university (as at any institution), and if I could imagine you taking particular advantage of those strengths – especially if you had a track record of collaboration in your training – then this counted as a positive for me.

After we spent a week or so reviewing our long-short list in detail, and before we met again, I asked everyone on the committee to rank their personal top-tier and second-tier choices, around 5 of each (i.e. a number similar to the number of candidates we planned to interview). It was once we all met that the search process began to resemble a “Survivor”-style reality show, with calculation and horse-trading and alliance-making. The problem is this: if you want to recruit someone in developmental genetics, say, but the other committee members have other interests, then you really need to find a single candidate in that area and throw your support behind them, to ensure that they get an interview. If you try to push two or three candidates equally hard, you will seem inflexible to your colleagues who want to invite people in other disciplines. But if you signal that you are willing to be flexible, then you will probably find another committee member to back your choice, while you back theirs.

The result, however, is that the process of narrowing down the final list inevitably has some feeling of randomness, as if, with a slight fluctuation in the space-time continuum (or a slightly different committee roster), the “second-best” developmental geneticist could have ended up as the favorite, without any detrimental effect on the overall quality of candidates invited out for interviews. In other words, we almost certainly failed to interview applicants as good or better as the ones that we did bring out. And given the imperative to bring out a diverse slate of candidates, it would have been challenging to bring out both developmental geneticists – one good applicant ends up “laterally inhibiting” their research-space neighbors.

If everyone had come to our meeting with the same 5 candidates in their top-tier list, however, our work would have been done. As it happened, 13/27 candidates ended up in someone’s top-tier list, while 7 actually ended up without any top- or second-tier votes. It was straightforward to eliminate this latter group, as well as the 7 candidates who received only second-tier votes. These 14 who didn’t make the cut included 6 applicants with CNS papers, and two with K99 awards, for those scoring along at home.

Of the 13 who comprised the “short-short” list, one got top-tier votes from all four committee members, so they were a definite invitee. It was obvious that we wouldn’t be able to cut down the remaining 12 without some serious arguments, so we decided to seek outside opinions: for each application, we chose one or two additional faculty (in our department and in others on campus) to consult with, based on their familiarity with the candidate’s field. And we returned to studying these applications in more depth over several days before meeting again.

Our last meeting was definitely the most contentious, but we did manage to narrow down to a final list of five candidates. Not surprisingly, each committee member got at least one of their top-tier applicants into the final group (apart from the one who made everyone’s top list). And all of us are still talking to each other, and we did end up making a successful hire!

In a last post, hopefully next week, I’ll try to summarize the key lessons from my inside view of the faculty search committee, and perhaps discuss a little bit about how we ended up narrowing down from five candidates to one job offer. Thanks again for reading, and I will try to answer questions in the comments section in the meantime.