Faculty Panel: Getting Faculty Positions

Panel: Matt Holman (MH), Julia Lee (JL), John Huchra (JH), Doug Finkbeiner (DF), Alyssa Goodman (AG)

Sukanya opened the panel saying that we would be asking for general advice, impressions on the faculty search.
The following are the questions, with answers from various members of the panel.
Sukanya asked: What are the first cut considerations to go from a large pool of say 300 applicants to a shortlist?
JH: The ongoing job search at Harvard for an observational cosmologist had roughly 90 applications. 300 is rare. It's a system of triage in which we cut up the list into thirds. 2 people read all applications, if both agree, then there's further consideration. If one agrees and one disagrees then the application is read by a third person. Generally there are very few yes/nos. Both people either agree or disagree Fare amount of agreement for top 30. Then the whole committee reads the top applications. People who don't make it to the top 30 or so list are mostly not a match for the ongoing search, and are either obviously not ready or are obviously in a different field.
Lisa asked: What do you look for in the subset? How do you make a further cut? For example is teaching important?
JH: Junior people are generally not going to have much teaching. Look primarily research activities, a little bit of service, TAships, outreach, publications. Most important things are the publication record, letters of recommendation, and research statement. I am personally interested in research statement. Does the person make connections to work/people/facilities in the department. Know your location.

Sukanya asked: Do you have people in mind for the job even before the search?
JH: Sometimes, not always. For the Harvard search 20/25 people were asked to apply. 75% of those people did apply, and the rest said no for various reasons. Either they were happy where they are or they did not feel ready and wanted to continue on a fellowship.
AG: Mostly junior faculty searches are open, so this is an exception. I look for independence in research. Candidates must have some goal - the specifics of the goal don't matter as long as it's a coherent program. Variety doesn't matter at every stage in career, so if people have spent a considerably amount of time on one area, that's not a bad thing. So I too emphasize the research statement and letters of rec. It really helps if the letter-writers are known the search committee.

Lisa: What's more important for letters? Name of letter-writer or that the person has more knowledge of what you do.
Committee says a bit of both.
JH: Some really big people always write the same letter for everyone. This is never useful. You want people who can write about you, what you've done.
JL: Be proactive about giving talks, making yourself known. That way it is not all dependent on the letter writers if you've made your own connections.
AG: Yes it's very important to go to meetings and increase your visibility. But be wary when you set up these talks that you don't overdo it and become a pest. It's a fine line.

Karen: It seems there's a fine line between actively pursuing a job search and actually getting work done.
JH: No substitute for having done some work.
MH: Yes, the publication record is very important, whether your publications have been cited and used. We don't look at number of citations per se, but we want to see that papers are used by your particular research community, whatever the size of that community is.
JH: Yes, so it's not necessarily the pure number of citations. For example in Physics - cold fusion is the most cited paper. So it's the quality of the work, whether the papers have impact.
AG: For example when grad students have 80 papers, you start to wonder which ones they've actually contributed to.

Question: Is there a minimum number of publications?
DF: No, but if you've been a part of large teams with many publications, it's good to separate out the things you really did. You don't want your real contributions to get lost.
JL: As an observer, it's useful to list projects that you lead and won on proposals. Show that you can bring in projects.
JH: Some universities care a lot that you can bring in telescope or super computer time and that you're successful at getting those things. It is often the letters of recommendation that will sort out the issue of what you've actually done when you've been working in a group. If the letters writers don't do that then you're in trouble.

Heather: Where are the job openings published?
JH: Most are in the AAS job register except for a small number of directed postdoc positions where information is sent around to friends of the PI. But for faculty, job openings are required to be posted. The job register won't have the job openings in other countries and some of the small colleges. And for Physics jobs in general it is also good to look in Physics Today, Nature or Spires. It costs $2000 to advertize in Physics Today. Spires is free.

Question:Are there official requirements to apply for a faculty position? For example do you need to have X number of years as a Post doc?
JH: We've offered jobs to people right out of grad school.

Question: Can you start your own group?
JH: Sometimes searches are targeted. But Junior faculty searches are generally open.
AG: At Harvard, we prefer if you do something that's not exactly the same as someone already here. But that depends on the place.
MH: The named postdocs for example, are generally wide open in terms of research and we just want to get the best person.

Karen asked the panel to comment on the importance of doing research on a hot topic area. Generally this is quite important.
JH: In the case of directed postdocs, you need to have the skills to do whatever the work is. For faculty jobs again the research area is generally very open, with the exception of Princeton physics, which is known for hiring people basically as senior postdocs to work with some faculty member in the department.
MH: So pay some attention to what research area the committees are looking for, but you don't have to stay totally within the lines. Sometimes when good people become available committees are willing to shift focus.
Sukanya asked: Does it matter if you've already been rejected once from a particular opening for a job?
The panel didn't seem to think this was a problem. AG got the job at Harvard on the second try. It's important to realize that your record is changing every year. On the other hand, DF did 8 interviews one year without getting any offers, and the 5 places where he was called to interview the next year did not overlap at all with the original 8.
JL: Practice helps. If you have done some more things by the time you re-apply, then it's fine.
AG: When you're visiting places as a faculty candidate, instead of only talking about your own research, always ask people what they're working on. That way you don't get bored by the time you give your talk.
DF: Also when you question people about their work, they will generally think that you're smarter.
MH: If you're on a shortlist, make sure that you meet with the whole selection committee. Each member will already have their top person. So if you can at least make a good impression, when the negotiations happen, then even if you're not everyone's top candidate they'll at least be happy to have you as a member of the department.

Question: What if you don't know who the selection committee is?

Question: How should you structure your research statement? Is it enough to identify people that may be interested in your work in the introduction or conclusion, or should you interweave this information throughout your whole statement?
AG: Could be time consuming to tailor each statement. I would usually make connections at the end. Personally for me it doesn't have to be a beautifully interwoven statement. Just remember that issue of independence and strike the right balance. Show that you are coming to start a research career of your own. This is true for most jobs, but not for instrumentalists.

Question: Should you email people that you know in a department and tell them that you're applying for a position? Should you also send your research statement?
AG: Yes, but this depends how well you know the person. Even as a letter-writer, you're always trying to figure out how to strike the right balance in promoting someone, and whether you're being a pest. Generally, the letter writers should promote people. If I can't write a good letter for someone, I try to give an indication of that to the person in some way. So watch for clues from letter-writers, because most people don't have the stomache to just tell you that they can't write you a good letter.

Question: What is the deal with about being invited to apply?
You should definitely apply! You shouldn't assume you're on the shortlist, but at the very least it might mean you'll get a nicer rejection letter.
JH: Top 20 people will be very good. It's not easy to distinguish between them. Once you're at this stage, subsequent choices are not made on clear criteria: generally criteria are fuzzy like how well will someone fit in to the life of the department? For Harvard it's important that you're doing something different than faculty already here. But there are departments where they want to build up a particular research group.
AG: Very often it comes down to people's talks. When you're equivalent on paper, then the talk is important. Don't under-stress the talk. It has to be a mixture of being very well prepared and relaxed at the same time.

Question: What are your tips for how to make the job search fit in with the rest of your work? How much time do you spend doing the applications?
DF: You lose two months of your life when you apply, no question. Figure out who is your advocate at the places you apply. Then ask them the questions. What is your department really looking for this year? etc. I spent a lot of time fine-tuning things.
JL: Try out the waters. It didn't occur to me to contact people in the department, and for me it was more of a process. Just give a talk whenever you can.
MH: Every talk you give is a job talk. I remember when people give good talks. When you give a good talk it may have unintendedly good consequences.

Question: Should the talk be in-depth in one field or should you describe everything you've done?
AG: Don't give review talks.
DF: I talked about what I thought was interesting, rather than give a review of everything I'd done. For example I didn't talk at all about SDSS.
JL: Find a common them for all your work if you're describing different projects.

Question: What about if you give a lot of talks one year and then you're invited for an interview? Part of the room will have already heard your talk. Is this a problem?
JH: You want to be interesting. Even if it's on the same subject, say something different and new. Not necessarily a whole new talk, but at least address latest results.
MH: On the other hand, an audience likes to feel smart, so it's not necessarily a bad thing if you give the same talk even if members in the audience may have already heard it. If it's interesting enough, then they'll take away new things from it.
JH: The currency in science is ideas. Need to have ideas. You have to come forward and show that you have ideas about what to do next.
Karen: It can take several years to get a faculty job. When do you give up?
DF: You have to approach it like failure is not an option.
AG: Biggest problem is that people don't know what they want. You have to really think about what you would be happy doing.
JH described a study which kept track of where AAS full members work. 40% at research unis; 30% at FFRDC = govt labs; 10% small colleges, 10% industry, 10% other, science writers, etc. So roughly a third of active people (who want to be considered full members of the AAS) get jobs in academia.

Question: How do you get feedback once you've applied and not made it?
DF: Hopefully you know someone at the institution and can get feedback from them.
JH: It's my intent to write every one on the shortlist a letter.
AG: Your letter-writers may have some knowledge. Also can talk to the chair of the search committee or chair of the department.

Question: Do you see differences between the letters written for men and for women?
AG: I haven't personally seen things that are not actually true. For example, women tend to have fewer papers than men. Presumably there's a reason for this, maybe women hesitate to write papers unless they have something to say.
JH: You used to see a lot of letters with an extra paragraph emphasizing personal qualities especially for women and minorities. I think that now people have realized that this is not a good thing to do.
JL: Definitely women tend to question more if we're ready for the job.
AG: If there are any doubts about the independence of a particular candidate, then for women people definitely question attachment to the advisor more.