What do you look for (part two)?

Having expounded in my previous post what kind of person I look for, when serving on the search committee for a tenure-track hire, now it is time to list the criteria that I adopt to try and spot my ideal candidate, as I go through application packages (APs).

I am going to state upfront that, to me, the most reliable source of information about a candidate are the publication list and the person’s research plan (RP), both parts of a regular AP. I have consistently found that a careful, dispassionate examination of the RP and of the publication list allows me to form a pretty well-defined opinion of an applicant, one that letters of recommendation, and even the on-campus interview, usually end up confirming. On those few instances where that impression was at odds with the content of the letters, eventually (following the interview) I concluded that the applicant’s references had been either reticent or downright untruthful, and that the impression based on the AP was actually accurate.

Another thing that I need to state upfront, is that very rarely is any of the items listed below a deal-breaker per se. Obviously, I attempt to make as comprehensive an assessment as I can, based on the whole picture, rather than a single observation. However, if I start accumulating too many “red flags” about a candidate, using the criteria listed below, then the likelihood that that AP will not end up in my short list increases.

Yes, these are important. It may not be “publish or perish” anymore (if it ever was), but there is no getting around the fact that publications are the most commonly adopted indicator to evaluate the scientific output and overall contribution of scientist. But, aside from that obvious remark, a publication list contains a lot of valuable information about the applicant. In particular, these are the things I look for:

Number. Based on my two decades in this business, my personal rule of thumb is that a reasonable minimum number of publications that a tenure-track candidate should have is given by 3 + 2YPD, where YPD is the number of years that the person has spent on postdoctoral appointments, the moment I receive his/her AP. This is because I assume at least three publications coming from one’s graduate work, and that as a postdoc one should on average be able to co-author two articles a year. For the typical tenure-track candidate, that means a number of publications between 6 and 10. A significantly greater (lower) number thereof might be indicative of uncommonly high (low) productivity, although a careful, thorough examination of the publications themselves is always necessary.

Journals. I usually tend to ascribe less weight to publications on relatively obscure, low impact journals, as well as to unrefereed conference proceedings, unless they happen to have received a significant number of citations. In other words, while I do not necessarily regard “minor” articles as liabilities for the candidate, I am not particularly impressed by long list of publications featuring a relatively large fraction thereof.

Who did the work? These days, one occasionally looks at the publication list of a tenure-track applicant and sees more articles in glamorous journals (e.g., Nature) than most of us will publish in our lifetime. Of course, in some cases this simply reflects the genuine brilliance of the applicant, who is a notch above the rest of us — nothing surprising about that, make no mistake. I for one would love to call “colleague” any one of those extraordinarily gifted young scientists. However, I have witnessed many, many cases of postdocs with stunning publication lists, who then fail to continue to perform at the same level as soon as they take on their first faculty appointment. How does that happen?
Well, this is the pink elephant in the living room, that many pretend not to see. The playing field for young scientists in North America is not levelled. In other words, not all graduate students and postdocs are created equal. Favorable circumstances, such as being at prominent institutions, part of large, highly productive groups, headed by worldwide famous scientists, make it much, much easier for one to build relatively quickly a publication list that, if taken literally, could easily set one apart from 90% of the competition, in terms of both quantity as well as prestige [0].
Often times, however, the difference with the competition in terms of actual ability, is not as great as the impressive sounding publication list would suggest. These people are abruptly brought back to reality as soon as they find themselves operating as faculty at second tier institutions, no longer enjoying the same access to first class resources and collaborators that they enjoyed while at Harvard, Stanford etc. (and suddenly facing much more hostile grant and manuscript reviewers and editors — just kidding). That is when they realize that thinking of their own projects, instead of receiving an endless supply thereof from their mentors, and carrying them to fruition by themselves, as opposed to with the aid of ten or more collaborators, is something of which they should have thought more during their years in training. Next thing you know, the productivity of these individuals takes a dive, and tenure anxiety sets in.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I said above that I do not necessarily hold long lists of low profile publications against applicants, and I am certainly not suggesting that long lists of high profile publications should be held against them either. However, search committee members should try and exercise good judgment — there is such a thing as too good to be true, even in this business.

So… These are my personal red flag raisers:

  • Most of the applicant’s articles are multi-authored, the candidate is not the first author in any or few of them, and/or the authors tend to be the same.
  • A lot of the articles are co-authored by the applicant’s doctoral supervisor, including some or many published (long) after the applicant completed his/her doctorate and moved on to another institution for the first postdoctoral appointment.
  • For applicants for theory positions, singly-authored manuscripts score big with me. Obviously such a requirement is unrealistic for experimentalists, who are essentially bound to collaborate by the sheer complexity of the experiments.
  • Many short articles on disconnected subjects, with no sense of a coherent, long-term research plan.
  • Weak citation record. Based on my experience and observation, for a tenure-track applicant that means a value of the h-index less than five.
  • One or more of the above, and I start wondering whether the applicant has yet matured into a full-fledge, independent and creative scientist, capable of establishing an original and self-sustaining research program that will generate meaningful doctoral projects for years to come.
    Obviously, all of that has to be taken with a grain of salt (damn, too late — I can see Schlupp’s comment on its way…). The above are not meant to be rigid criteria, just things for me to investigate and about which to find out more — by reading letters of recommendation, calling references, visiting the candidate’s web site [1], possibly talking to the person informally at a conference, or during the interview, if it comes to that.

    Research Plan
    This is an absolutely crucial part of one’s AP. I never cease to be amazed each time I go through an application and see no Research Plan (RP), or maybe half a page of banalities hastily put together just because the advertisement required it (shame on you, postdoctoral mentor!).
    I wrote extensively about this subject in this old post, and I have not really changed my mind [2].


    [0] The competition consists of individuals based at second tier universities, who do not enjoy the luxury of having many other graduate students, postdocs and even faculty with whom to interact on a daily basis. Why is that a “luxury”? Because it allows one to be involved relatively easily in collaborative efforts with outstanding individuals, ultimately beefing up one’s CV with several, often high profile (if multi-authored) articles.

    [1] Yes, if in the year 2013 you claim to be looking for an academic job, but cannot be bothered to put together a basic web page describing everything one would ever want to know about your research, then I am sorry but I question whether you really want a job.

    [2] Halfway through rewriting it I was reminded of it by a good samaritan — thank you, friend.

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    3 Responses to “What do you look for (part two)?”

    1. qaz Says:

      “and suddenly facing much more hostile grant and manuscript reviewers and editors — just kidding”

      Why are you “just kidding”? While it may be true that paper reviewers treat famous or not equally, it is very very clear that editors do not. (I’ve had cases where two reviewers say “NO!” and editor accepts the paper. Being one of those two reviewers is very frustrating.) And, of course, since track record is important for grant reviews, grant reviewers are more forgiving of famous people from famous places. (Whether they should be or not is an interesting discussion. But it is very clear that they are.)

    2. Schlupp Says:

      You must be mistaking me for someone else: while I do nitpick, I do not typically argue against having some reasonable standards and rules of thumb. Quite the opposite, I was usually on your side in these discussions.

    3. GMP Says:

      Yes yes yes! I am on a search cte and I second your thoughts. Especially the one on the (I think too great) importance of pedigree — you pretty much have to outpublish by a factor of 2+ the folks from high-pedigree schools to make up for a second-tier PhD school. Also, the darn website — at this day and age anyone can have a decent looking website on wodrpress or Google Sites. I have found that many people do have websites but don’t put them on the application, which is really mysterious to me — don’t they think we can google? Just give me the darn link.

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