Sunday, December 14, 2014

2014 as The New PI

Following DrugMonkey's lead I put together a year in review post, as dictated by the blog meme rules:
-Post the link and first sentence from the first blog entry for each month of the past year.

Despite realizing that my first sentence is often quite verbose, I found that this really reflects what my blog is all about and some of the greatest hits of 2014 made it in.

January: Happy 2014 everyone!! A new year is starting, so I thought I would talk about trends and about how the world in changing...

February: The NIH emailed me 2 months ago that my Progress Report was due on February 15 and so as busy little bee I started working on my progress report and got everything done until I found out that the Research Performance Progress Report (RPPR) is the new progress report format for NIH funded multi-year awards starting on January 31 (NOT-OD-14-026).

March: I wanted to share a couple of books which list all the things I wish I knew before I applied for my first research grant from the National Institutes of Health: Research Proposals: A Guide to Success and How the NIH Can Help You Get Funded: An Insider's Guide to Grant Strategy.

April: I now have one year of being a PI under my belt.

May: Your website is your labs' ambassador to the outside world.

June: When I was leaving my postdoc lab, my boss told me to be careful about my effort because when he started he did not pay much attention to it and soon he was stuck with no effort to give. In my head I was thinking "That's a nice problem to have, but that will definitely not happen to me".

July: Lovingly nicknamed the "kangaroo" grant by the NIH, the K99/R00 Transition to Independence award is designed to help postdoctoral fellows leap into a faculty position by supplying two years of mentored research time to obtain training to develop their independent project (K99) and supporting the newly independent investigator for 3 years (R00).

August: As my team grows I have been fretting not only about finding the best people, but finding the best people who are compatible with each other.

September: Wikipedia defines a pilgrimage as "a journey to a shrine or other location of importance to a person's beliefs" and I would add that in general you embark on a pilgrimage to ask for something or reach some kind of enlightenment.

October: A recent NYT article on women being criticized in workplace reminded me of the time I received a lecture on how not to be a bitch.

November: For the first time I am learning what it's like to be in the SfN host city and while everyone in the lab gets to go for cheap, the prep is not trivial.

December: I finally made it to the other side!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Life on an academic search committee

I finally made it to the other side! Not only I have a faculty position, but I get to be involved in picking other faculty since I'm now part of a search committee. I already had the sense that there were a lot of variables to be considered when finding a job, and now I'm even more certain of it. Bottom line, don't take it personally if you don't get an interview!

You have no idea what is going on in that room.  There are some great posts out there describing how a search committee gets to the short list (here and here) and why jobs sometimes disappear (here), so I don't need to rehash in detail that there is a huge amount of politics and that there are directives from the people who hold the purse strings. Unless you or your boss know someone at that institution who can tell you what current priorities, you will not know whether you are a good fit or not. Even if you have excellent publications, your very worthy application may be dropped because 1) you don't have the right expertise the group is looking for, or 2) you don't bring in enough money (or are likely to bring in money) or 3) it's badly organized and difficult to read.

While I used to be obsessed with helping people develop the perfect research statement, now I realize that there are other parts of the application which are as critical, simply because when you have >100 applications to read in a limited amount of time, you look for any kind of short-cut to get rid of 85-90% of them. As a newly minted assistant professor, I did my absolute best to develop a coherent spreadsheet and look at every single app with an open mind, because I still remember when I was applying. Be certain that more senior faculty has no time whatsoever to do this.

My strategy was the following.

1) I would look at the CV and look at the number and quality of first author publications, then look at the number of fellowships and grants. That got rid of around 70% of the applications. The fact that every CV looked different was a huge problem as you have to scroll up and down all the time to figure things out. If you want to make the life of people in the search committee easier I would recommend to a) make sure your CV is organized and readable; b) list the amount for each grant you have active/completed (Do not list $100-200 travel grants...those don't count. Put those in the Honors section.); c) number your publications and separate those accepted/in press and those in preparation, because padding your CV with 10 articles in preparation looks pretty bad and make this committee member annoyed.

2) Then I found myself gravitating to the cover letter more than the research statement. A really good cover letter giving a succinct and clear summary of your interests and a brief overview of your past accomplishments can actually do wonders to sway a search committee member. In my case it informed the decision of whether or not I was interested in reading the research statement or not.

3) I finally read the full application of the top 30 candidates based on my spreadsheet and narrowed it down to 10 as required by the chair, but also flagged another 10 which would be equally good. The applicants and committee members were from a variety of fields and there were some candidates who would not have been interesting to me, but could have been interesting to other people. For this reason, i.e. that search committee members can be from different departments, remember to make your research statement very simple and clearly understandable.

Since this was my first time, my primary objective through the meeting was to stay quiet because I really didn't want to make the faux pas to put someone down or to step into some interdepartmental infighting. There were very clear directives from the top, which gave us some guidelines, and luckily many of us agreed on several candidates, so that my 3-4 top people actually made it to the short list. It was a bit terrifying to see how easily someone's hopes and dreams could be cast aside, but the applicant pool was exceptional so many great candidates were left out. I know people don't want to hear this, but that is where a call from your boss to the right person or a friendly face in the committee can make all the difference, because literally all that is takes to get you in the shortlist is a strong advocate or just someone that knows you and can say you are good.