What do you look for (part one) ?

I am a faculty member in a university physics department, who finds himself periodically involved in faculty searches and hires. How do I evaluate the curriculum vitae of an applicant for a tenure-track position?
What do I look for, and what are the red flags? Does it really boil down to counting (first-authored) articles, impact factor of journals where they were published, citations, invited talks, or maybe places where and individuals by whom the applicant has been mentored, as a student and postdoctoral associate?
Do I even look at the research plan? If so, how do I judge it?
What about teaching potential and/or experience?

Because I am asked these questions rather frequently, I thought I would articulate here how I personally go about doing that. I emphasize the word personally, even if this is my blog, because opinions differ significantly among academics, when it comes to assessing what constitutes evidence of excellence in the application package (AP) of a tenure-track faculty candidate [0].
So, even though I do not think that my criteria set me at variance with the majority of my colleagues, anyone interested in this subject had better collect a number of opinions. Obviously, my philosophy largely reflects the fact that I do theoretical work, and that my discipline is physics — not that I believe that things in other scientific disciplines and subfields are vastly different, but for experimental scientists some of the criteria that I list below doubtless need to be adjusted somewhat. The main difference is that most of the experimental work nowadays is collaborative, which makes it tricky to isolate and assess the specific contribution of an individual, in turn making evaluation a more intricate proposition.
This is a rather complex subject; thus, I am going to devote to it two posts (hey, I have some catching up to do, after all). In the first one, I am describing what in my opinion should be regarded as a good hire, i.e., someone accomplishing in time what I describe below should be regarded as a successful colleague.
In the follow-up post, I shall list what kind of evidence I look for, in a candidate’s AP, of “excellence”, defined as what is likely to make the person “successful”, according to my definition.

The perfect hire
Let me quote from the advertisement for a tenure-track faculty position at my own institution, which is a research university.
“The successful candidate will be expected to build a strong research program, supervise graduate students and teach at the undergraduate and graduate levels.”
I was not involved in the drafting of the advertisement, but I wholeheartedly agree with its wording. It’s fairly standard in some respects, but it does cover all the bases. And in particular, in my mind a “strong research program” and the expectation that the person be able to “supervise graduate students” should be regarded as inseparable.
There is of course also the expectation that the person be able to “teach at the undergraduate and graduate levels”, but for the reasons that I expound below, to me the research aspect is by far the most important.

Strong research program
What does that this expression mean, exactly, aside from standard stuff — you know, making stunning discoveries at breakneck pace, churning out articles on high profile journals, attracting lavish amounts of funding, being invited to give plenary talks at all major conferences, receiving international prizes and accolades and being named Times’ person of the year ?
Don’t get me wrong, I am all for having colleagues who make important discoveries, become worldwide celebrities and bring distinction and bragging rights to my institution, much like any professional basketball player in the 90s would have wanted to have Michael Jordan as team mate. There are few Michael Jordans around, however, in any field. Academia, like basketball, cannot survive as an enterprise based on the Michael Jordans (or even the Scotty Pippens) alone, it needs to tap into the majority of Tony Kukocs and Steve Kerrs. Thus, for all their silly rhetoric infused with words such as “superstars”, most academics realistically know that the successful outcome of a faculty search will be the hire of a competent, dedicated and enthusiastic professional, who, without perhaps ever surging to international (or even national) prominence, will nonetheless make a distinguished, long lasting contribution to the scholarly research program of the university.
So, what does constitute a “strong research program”?

My way of looking at it is very student-oriented. While it is clearly necessary and desirable that the research work carried out by a faculty meet some minimal standards of international recognition, novelty and significance, a research university is different from a national laboratory. Its primary goal is imparting advanced education to students; this should be accomplished through a combination of coursework and hands-on research [1].
An effective faculty member should be able to contribute effectively to both the research and teaching aspects of this operation, but the research component is really what differentiates a university from a liberal arts college. The immediate consequences of this tenet, for the purpose of evaluating the activity of a faculty at a research university:
a) Teaching alone, no matter how outstanding, is not enough. There must be a significant research component.
b) Conversely, a colleague who is prolific, innovative, scientifically brilliant, but who is unable to engage in his/her research activity graduate and/or undergraduate students, cannot be regarded as entirely successful.

Explain, please…
Suppose I am a beginning graduate student, or maybe a fourth-year undergraduate major, interested in carrying out research work in the area of the new tenure-track faculty. Say I walk into the person’s office and ask them to be my advisor.
I am not one of those exceedingly few, exceptionally good students who have their my own original ideas and are capable to come up with their own projects. No, I am just like majority of common mortals. I am generally interested in the field as a whole, but do not objectively know much about it. I am brimming with enthusiasm and eager to learn. What do I expect of them?
First of all, I expect them to give me a project — a simple one, just to get me started with research work in that subfield. Ideally, by working on that first project I shall:

  • familiarize myself with the literature, the terminology, and the main ideas underlying the class of problems in which my starting project falls
  • begin to learn how to use a computational technique, or to develop some skill needed to carry out experiments in that area of research
  • obtain some publishable results in, say, one year
  • learn how to write a manuscript for publication
  • learn how to give a short presentation, to the department if not at a conference.

    Longer term, if I like the person and the research work, and wish to continue on to work under their supervision as a graduate student, it is my expectation that they be able to direct me toward an interesting research project — one addressing an important, outstanding scientific question, on which I shall be able to work over a few years, of sufficient breadth and potential impact that any novel results will be of interest within a reasonably broad community.
    I expect that my work, if carried out to the satisfaction of my advisor, will lead to a reasonable number of publications in respectable journals [2], make someone want to read my preprints, come and listen to my presentation the day I go to a conference, make me an appealing candidate for a high profile postdoctoral position at the end of my graduate studies. In order for that to happen, my research subject must be widely perceived as relevant, timely, involving non-trivial technical aspects (calculations or experiments), and original [3].

    Finally, I expect that my supervising faculty be a reasonably well-known, respected member of the community within which they operate, for their letter of recommendation should carry some weight, if I am to make inroads later on in whichever professional endeavour I choose (need not be academia).

    So, this is what I look for:
    An effective faculty member is one who will be able to provide the kind of research mentorship described above, to both undergraduate and graduate students. In particular, in my mind they should be able to:
    1) Be productive. This is obvious, in that if they are not productive, their students will not be productive either. Duh?
    Well, I never cease to be amazed at how often, these days, obviously unproductive individuals are picked for faculty jobs.
    2) Generate interesting, original, research projects, of sufficient depth and breath to constitute a student’s graduate research portfolio. There has to be an element of originality, in that if students end up working on the same, identical projects on which their peers at other institutions are working, using the same identical approach, likely obtaining similar results, it will be difficult for outsiders to see the value in their own individual effort.
    3) Be an active member of some respectable scientific community, broadly defined through the common research interests. This means not only that their articles will be published on non-obscure journals, but also that they will be periodically be invited to give seminars at conferences and/or at other institutions. The beneficial impact of that is not only that by showcasing their work they may be able to attract to their own group potential students and postdocs, they also generate interest to their own institution.
    4) Teach students advanced research skills and methodologies that will set them apart from their competitors. The knowledge that these individuals are not only good at using buzzwords, but also bring valuable technical expertise, not easily found among their peers, will make them more appealing to prospective employers.

    OK, and what about that “teaching” thing?
    Teaching is obviously very important, because an essential part of the academic profession entails classroom teaching. Of course a new hire must be able to teach a wide variety of courses in the relevant discipline, to the satisfaction of the students. However, it is my opinion that, aside from some obvious cases (e.g., individuals manifestly unable to speak in public, or not mastering the language to a sufficient degree and thus difficult to understand, or displaying unusually abrasive personalities), easily spotted at interview time and ideally commented upon by references in their letters, it is exceedingly difficult to predict whether an applicant will be a successful instructor (especially if “successful instructor” is defined as “one capable of receiving favorable ratings on student evaluation forms”). And because assessing one’s teaching potential (again, aside from extreme but rare cases) is so difficult, I personally tend not to make teaching part of my selection criteria. I do not give much importance to courses that an applicant might have taught as a postdoc, much less to “teaching experience” acquired by serving as a TA, nor do I regard a single seminar given by the candidate during the interview as a cogent indicator of their future classroom teaching ability. Fact is, classroom teaching is almost an art, and in my observation it greatly benefits from experience built over the course of a few years, mentoring from senior colleagues, and feedback from students.
    Furthermore, classroom teaching is only part of the teaching activity of a faculty at a research university, training and education imparted through supervised research being at least as important.

    So, how do I look for what I have described above in the someone’s AP?
    That is what the follow-up post is about, when I get around to write it.


    [0] The application package normally consists of a resume, which should at a minimum include a list of publications and invited conference presentations, mention any past or present research grant(s), as well as anything that could be meaningfully construed as “teaching experience”. It will also include a list of references.
    The application package is of paramount importance, because an application will make it through the initial screening based on it alone. Other things, like letters of recommendation, will play little or no role, at that stage (in fact, they may not even be sought for applicants deemed unfit for the position, and unsolicited letters will likely be ignored).
    I am not discussing at all the interview part in this post, nor letters of recommendation.

    [1] The emphasis on coursework and research is obviously different at the undergraduate and graduate levels. However, infusing ideas and elements of one’s research activity into classroom teaching is important in undergraduate teaching at a research university.

    [2] Publications are necessary, of course, but three good papers are plenty enough. Moreover (I shall never get tired to say this), to focus on the number of publications alone is a mistake. I do not want to publish a bunch of irrelevant articles, after working on a number of incoherently scattered, disconnected projects, of little or scarce relevance, because that will take me nowhere.

    [3] Last but not least, I would prefer it if my supervisor had the means (i.e, funding) to allow me to focus on my research as much as possible, i.e., without me having to spend a substantial fraction of my time working on some kind of teaching assignment, especially in my last two years in graduate school. After all, I am in competition with my peers at other institutions who have that luxury, and it would be desirable if the playing field were levelled.

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    7 Responses to “What do you look for (part one) ?”

    1. Schlupp Says:

      Gee, thanks. I was planning to have a nice New Year’s Eve, instead, I can now worry about points 2, 3 and 4 of your “effective faculty member”. (I refuse to worry about 1, on account of having 6 PRLs this year.)

      • Massimo Says:

        You know, you really should be thanking me, look to what a degree I am willing to go in order to offer you a bragging opportunity… Anyway, congratulations on your six PRLs, that’s seriously impressive. I mean, it’s almost like a paper on the RMP, I believe… (running for cover)

        • Schlupp Says:

          Hey, what’s your problem? I *did* thank you!

          (And I’ll generously accept the RMP with one “being written up in physics” thrown in.)

    2. Massimo Says:

      I just read this comment on the bus, using my shiny new Galaxy Note 2. Remind me, man, what was I doing with an iPhone again?

      • Arrik Says:

        Hey as the still happy owner of a less-than-2-month-old iPhone 5, please don’t puncture my balloon just yet!

        Oh, and great post Massimo. I agree with everything you wrote.

    3. transientreporter Says:

      People who ride buses use Android. People who drive Ferraris use iOS.

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