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.


  1. Thanks for the post. My experience with applications has been useful. The main thing I'd say to applicants is don't underestimate how much you need to make you application easy to process. There are going to be more amazingly qualified applicants than interview spots. If your application is hard to read because of formatting, bad organization or just too much jargon then it is unlikely to make it to the very top.

    1. Thanks for the comment. That is absolutely true. I'll add it in the text, because organization is crucial!

  2. "I know people don't want to hear this..."

    No, I for one want to hear what really goes on, so thanks for sharing. I do have a question: what about references? You didn't mention anything about that. Were they not collected at that stage during your search? I guess what I'm wondering is what is the impact of having one of your referees, who may not be a superstar but knows someone on the committee, put in a good word for you vs. a superstar calling someone on the committee that don't know with equally glorious praise for you?

    And along those lines, what if you had been professionally and/or personally acquainted with an applicant and thought they were good. Would you have felt comfortable lobbying for them, or would you feel that you had to recuse yourself because you couldn't be objective about them?

    1. The impact of your referee or you calling someone you know in the department or the search committee is HUGE! This is where the human factor comes in. Hiring faculty is not like hiring a postdoc, it's hiring a colleague and possible friend who could be with you for the next 20-30 years. As people we prefer a known good that an unknown good, and pretty much everyone is looking to attract their friends to their institutions because who wouldn't want to work with their friends? The next best thing is someone that your friend or trusted colleague says will be an asset to the department and a close collaborator. Everyone on the search committee has an agenda and preferences, but unless you have a real vested interest you're a bit agnostic. If an authoritative voice says, "This person is very well respected" "This person is a close collaborator of mine and would love to come and work with everyone here" or "This person will never get funded because this type of research, though cool, is not in right now", that is enough to make everyone else pick or drop the candidate. The disclaimer "By the way, you should know that this applicant is my collaborator and that I may have a vested interest" is actually a veiled endorsement...and a very effective one. In this situation lobbying is all that you do. It's actually your job to lobby for your own research program, your colleagues or your department.
      As for letters, some places ask upfront and some ask later when they have a short list. I'm still tentative about letters because they should all say you're the best thing since sliced bread, but the truth only comes out in person. Some search committee chairs will personally call the mentor to get the scoop on someone of they're short listed.

    2. Thanks for your response. I have a few more questions, if you don't mind indulging me.

      You write: "It's actually your job to lobby for your own research program, your colleagues or your department." I can easily imagine situations where what's best for you may not necessarily be what's best for your dept. and vice versa. So how do you interpret your "job" in those cases? How do you balance those competing needs? Or do you?

      Also: "pretty much everyone is looking to attract their friends to their institutions because who wouldn't want to work with their friends." What if your friend isn't actually the most qualified for the job? Do you lobby for them anyway? I know that "fit" is an important criteria, but it seems to me that this kind of thinking has the potential to perpetuate the negative outcomes for those in the minority that we've all witnessed. Wouldn't we want to get away from that by encouraging people to be more objective rather than prioritizing who they feel most comfortable with?

      Finally, do you think it's unusual that you were asked to serve on this committee given that you're so new? I don't mean to imply that you're not qualified to be on it, but doesn't it feel a bit odd to be talking up an institution that you yourself are you just getting to know?

    3. As disclaimer I'll say these are just my opinions and I'll try not to make any references to the specific search committee I'm on, since that's supposed to be confidential. So hypothetically:
      1) Regarding competing interests. My understanding is that it's completely up to you. If you are a team member and consider all interests involved, you weigh pros and cons of different candidates and compromise. If you don't care and want to push your interests above anyone else's, you do just that and that is where conflict could arise in committee meetings.
      2) Advocating for your friends. In general you want the most qualified candidates, so your friend would have to be as qualified as the best candidate. I would lobby for someone I know, if I knew that they are a great scientist and they are going to be a good colleague. You always have to be thinking about making the department the possible best it can be and to make your research program the strongest. Hiring someone sub-par is not going to help anyone.
      3) When to serve on a committee. I think the timing can vary, but you need service. As far as service search committees are a pretty good one, since they are actually useful and will get you to help picking your colleagues. Committees are usually quite large (6-10) people so there may be a few young people and most of the faculty is more senior. As a junior member you don't have much power I think and as you say, you feel like you don't know the dynamics in the institution, so you usually defer to the more senior members which makes you a little bit of a "yes man" and you just enjoy the learning experience. Also as a junior member it's difficult to say no to service and you get to be the one hosting candidates, going for dinners and doing the work nobody else wants to do...

    4. This was extremely helpful and has boosted my morale. I applied to about 25 positions this year. Just as background: I have K99/R00 funding and 30 authorship's in journals with an IF=6-12. I applied to top-100 universities .... what I have found is that I have only snagged interviews (N=3) at schools where my PI has a contact. My guess is that my low impact publications are working against me or factors are outside of my control. Do you have any advice on identifying a list of the "most promising schools" to apply to. Does the NIH provide guidance on the job search? any pointers would be greatly appreciated!

    5. The low impact pubs may be influencing things a bit, but I was in the same range with all my first author ones around 10-12 and it was okay. I had friends with Nature or Science papers who submitted 50-80 job applications and didn't get a single interview, so even a high profile paper is not a guarantee. I think the focus of your research is one of the determining factors because in a lot of cases people are looking for something specific. A good cover letter and a good research statements always help. I knew someone who had different research statements depending on the department to try and expand the possibility of a fit. The NIH can help once you have an offer to make sure you don't get shortchanged, but they don't really help with the selection or the search. I would talk to your mentor (or different mentors) to try and identify places that could be a good fit.