Advice from a Faculty Hiring Committee Chair

by Guest on January 19, 2017

This post is from an anonymous professor who has served as the chair of a faculty hiring committee.

I was recently the chair of the hiring committee for a new faculty position. I am a junior faculty member and, based on my experience on both sides of the table, I wanted to pass along some advice (to be considered in complement with lots of other good advice available on AstroBetter’s blog and wiki).

In order to speak frankly, I’m posting anonymously, but I’ll give you a sense of the position we advertised. At my lesser-known institution, faculty are research active, teach 3-4 classes a year, and are expected to publish and get grants. We’re the kind of institution that focuses on research and teaching (which seems to be common today, even at institutions known for research prowess). However, much of my advice will apply to the whole spectrum of academic (and many non-academic) positions.

The position was tenure-track, focused on a particular astronomical niche, but open to a variety of positions. Sound familiar? It seems like most faculty job postings have a preferred area, but are technically open to anyone. Let me help you read between the lines: the position is often really for the particular area advertised, but if a superbly incredible applicant in a related field applies, the hiring committee wants to have the (legal and ethical) option to hire outside the originally stated field of interest. This bait-and-switch does happen occasionally, but it seems to be pretty rare since hiring outside the preferred area can upside intra-departmental group dynamics.That means that the preferred area is really the goal of the committee.

It follows that you should understand the position you are applying for. Every position is going to have components that you aren’t excited about and approaching these positions with realistic expectations will help. Let me try to guide some of your expectations now.

At almost every institution, you should expect to spend a significant fraction of your time teaching classes that need to be taught. It’s rare to teach a class of your own design since most departments already feel pressure to teach the classes that are on the books. Yes, your new department will probably want you to teach classes that you are expert in, but occasionally you’ll have to teach a class that’s a bit of a stretch. Therefore in your teaching statement and in your interviews, you should be familiar with several existing classes that you would be willing to teach. Limiting yourself to teaching a narrow range of classes can doom your application.  

You should expect to do a lot of undergraduate research mentoring, as this is a clear trend and highly desired by many schools. This will lead to far fewer publications and scientific productivity than postdocs working for you (which are actually rare as the funding environment gets tighter). In fact, you should clearly anticipate a SIGNIFICANT decrease in scientific productivity as you switch from a ~100%-research focused postdoc to devoting a sizeable fraction of time to teaching, service, and mentoring.

Be prepared for another MAJOR shift that I’ll call “workplace hierarchy.” As a postdoc, you are often pretty autonomous with little supervision and significant control over your time and efforts. In particular, postdocs often don’t have to work FOR anybody and it is a very individual-focused position. A faculty position is a MAJOR shift to the bottom of the workplace hierarchy at a university, a large classical organization (think Dilbert). You’ll have a boss that will give you assignments that you don’t want and co-workers that you’ll interact with all the time, potentially for decades. I consider myself very lucky to have found an institution with a positive workplace environment, where faculty meetings are quite positive and congenial. But there’s still contentious discussion, uncomfortable questioning of your position, and many situations where you will acquiesce to do something that you’re not entirely happy with. I’m not talking about ethical breaches, but simply group dynamics which are at a completely different level than when you are a postdoc.

Therefore, the hiring committee is looking for people who “play well with others” beyond just research and teaching abilities. I have heard of cases where it was primarily personality issues that led to rejection of a faculty application. The postdoc in me cries out “Hey! If I’m doing good science then who cares!” But the reality is that scientists who want to be faculty are joining a large organization with workplace hierarchy that requires people who interact positively with one another. While the history of astrophysics has some eccentric personalities who were hard to get along with, I feel like this is not nearly as common among current junior faculty hires. Faculty should plan on making an effort to work smoothly with a large variety of people, including students, co-workers, administrators, and managers.

Indeed, while first-author journal articles, research grants, and experience teaching and mentoring students will get you in the door, one of the main goals of the final selection process is to identify the right “fit” and this includes personality. In order to fit, you should be willing to adapt yourself somewhat to the needs of the position. So identify in advance how much you are willing to adapt.

This is also when previous networking will pay off. If you have an “insider” who can vouch for your “fit” and who is championing your application, it can make all the difference. Since it is hard to predict where you will be applying to, you should network widely: talking with people at conferences, serving on grant review panels, participating in workshops, etc. (My favorite networking tip is to send a congratulatory email to colleagues when they have a paper accepted or posted on arXiv.)

Even if everything goes smoothly, there is a large stochastic element to hiring decisions (from both the university and the applicants). I  would recommend that even fresh postdocs apply for a few best-fit faculty positions (in order to gain experience). As you might expect, your net (and willingness to adapt) should get wider with time.

Hopefully the advice in this post will give you perspective on how the hiring committee thinks and will allow you to appropriately manage your expectations. Good luck!

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 George Lake January 26, 2017 at 6:23 am

I’ll add a bit…

My experience regarding ads and final hires is very different. The politics around the job ad are often very different than those around the hire. Different people are often involved. I’d say that we’ve hired someone different from the desired area stated in the ad in the majority of searches that I’ve been on.

Some very important advice: spend some time looking at what the institution and its people do. In one search, the candidate was asked what he would like to teach and replied “I suppose that I’ll teach all graduate astronomy courses”. It was a Department of Physics and Astronomy where he’d be the second astronomer (there was also a LIGO team member) and there was no Graduate Program in Astronomy yet. He had no idea what the Dept did.

The main way that candidates flame out is to show their disinterest in people. You always get a schedule for your visit before you go. You should look at the research of the people that you’ll talk with and ask them questions. My department chair in a larger astro department used this as test. If he spent a half hour with the candidate and he didn’t ask him anything about what science he did, there was no way he was going to let that person be on our Faculty. We all agreed with that.

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