lost in translation? (archived from LabSpaces)

originally posted 6 Nov 2010

A few days ago I learned the number of applications we have received for our TT job in my department. It was A LOT, which led me to write a little post about how, from what I can tell, we are going to sort through this giant pile to come up with a short-list. This post was written from a very one-sided perspective (mine, right after a faculty meeting). Odyssey jumped in with a more thoughtful and excellent post about how to make your application stand out. If you are going out on the job market go read it! Then Prof-Like Substance raised up something unexpected, to me at least, first in a comment at Odyssey’s and then a whole post. PLS asserted that the fact that we wrote a fairly general job advertisement that it suggested the department was dysfunctional. I started to comment over at PLS’s place, but it turns out I have a lot to say about this so I moved it over here.

First, I think my current department is pretty great. One of the main strengths, IMO, is the the fact that we have very diverse faculty research interests, yet the group is very collaborative. This has led to some interesting science that may not have come up in a different environment. We did discuss whether to make a more directed advert this year, but decided against it. We are looking for a colleague that can interact with all of us, whether a NMR spectroscopist, geneticist or cell biologist. The dearth of junior faculty is a problem-but not one that arises from dysfunction. It turns out that our department went through a major expansion in the 1950’s. Then there were some hard times during which hiring was effectively shut down by the state. So now many of the faculty are nearing retirement, and we have open tenure lines to fill. Of course, I didn’t include those details in my original post, so I can see how other interpretations were possible.

I would like to specifically address some of the points that PLS makes to clarify what I was trying to say.
“What a candidate reads – Divided department can’t or won’t decide on a specialty of interest for this position.”
I don’t think we are “divided” so much as “diverse”. Even though it is more work, I was very much against a narrow search. You never know who is going to be on the market, and I really think that we could miss out on someone that would be a good fit if we went in with blinders on. And, it is much easier to discuss the merits of individual candidates rather than “sub-fields”. It would be hard to decide whether we were going to hire a developmental geneticist vs. crystallographer in the abstract, BUT, in the past the structural contingent has happily supported developmental geneticists that they felt would make a good colleague (and vice versa).

““Good science” will be arbitrarily defined by a small number of overburdened committee members looking for any excuse to toss your application.”
I suspect this is true no matter if there are 250 applications or 600. In fact, the “search committee math” that Prodigal Academic describes for how they narrow the candidate pool is very similar to what I was trying to explain. To clarify how our search works: First, there is a quick triage round to get rid of applicants that are clearly not qualified or in the wrong field. We are a biomedical dept., so you have to at least hit that target. We require a PhD and at least one first-author publication from postdoc to get past this round. If you make it over this bar, I will assign your application to one of the “sub-field categories” based on a quick overview of your research statement. Yes, this will take < 2 min per applicant. Each sub-field group of applications will be read by faculty in that field, who will identify the top 10-20%. This is where Oydessey’s advice really comes into play. Your application has to really stand out to rise to the top of this pile. I would argue that if you haven’t caught my attention within 10 minutes you are probably not going to make it. So, yes, spend time crafting your application – research, teaching and CV. Make sure that the important points that show how awesome you are are easy to find impossible to miss and easy to understand. When the pool has been narrowed to the top 10-20%, the search committee members will read all of the applications and rank them. This will be the starting point for the discussions that will end up with a list of folks that we will have out for interviews.

We loosely define our needs because we don’t care about your time, your letter writer’s time (because we probably want LoRs up front) or that of our own administrative staff who have to process all this shit.
Wow. We clearly read job application advertisements differently. I never even considered this as a possibility when I was applying for jobs last year. In fact, I always liked the more general advertisements because I felt like they were willing to at least consider the possibility that there was interesting science outside of what was already represented in their department. For the record, LoR are submitted electronically so I’m not sure that it is such a burden on the writers. I remember being concerned with the burden to my writers last year and was informed by every last one that it was not a big deal. As for our administrative staff, they don’t deal with the search at this stage. All the files are electronic, so the chair just scans in the few letters that will inevitably be sent on paper, and then sends them along electronically.

p.s. If you don’t make the short list don’t expect to ever hear from us again.
I only ever heard back from ~25% of places that I didn’t get an interview. Even when I did get some form of rejection it was always a crappy form letter. So I don’t really know if it matters. But, I hear that we do sent out the form letter so I guess everyone will hear from us at least one more time. 

p.p.s. We also hate the environment because we’re printing all these apps out in triplicate for the committee.
Really? Who doesn’t do this all electronically these day??

“But if I applied for that position and got an interview, I’m still polishin’ up my eff you shoes for that trip. I’m going there looking extra hard for signs of a dysfunctional department.”
I suspect that if you go into an interview wearing your “eff you shoes” that you won’t be getting an offer. And I would strongly recommend that you poke around for signed of dysfunction no matter how warm and fuzzy the job advert made you feel. Every department is different and the interview process should help you gather information about how well you fit with them and how well they match what you are looking for.

“But chances are, if you rose to the top of a 600 applicant pile, you are likely to have competing offers. Maybe with departments who care more about the time and effort of 600 people.”
It is true that most folks we hire have competing offers. When I went on the market, it was assumed that you would have competing offers when negotiating your position. In fact, the last 3 people my current dept. offered the job to ended up going somewhere else. At PostDoc Inst. only 3 of 5 searches that I saw ended up actually hiring someone. That is pretty standard in my field: if everyone has 2-3 offers, then 50-60% of all jobs aren’t going to get filled. That is a fact of life for the TT search. And yes, this means that even though we get 600 applicants, there will be 15-20 people that get most of the interviews at all of the schools. I sometimes wonder how, in such a random process, these people always float to the top. Last year, I noticed that 2-3 other folks ended up interviewing at the same places as I did. And they were not in my sub-field. This did not make me feel like the dept. was wasting my time. Nor did it cross my mind that the number of applicants would in any way affect how much they cared about the person that they hired. There are certainly programs that “eat the young”, but we are not one of them.

Perhaps the difference in perspective between PLS and me arises from our different sub-fields. I’m interested to hear how other experiences line up on this spectrum. Another interesting point, I think, is the fact that the same job advertisement that got 600 applications this year only had ~400 last year when I applied. What is different this year? Some of my colleagues think that this is a good sign that the market is loosening up and the postdocs that have been in a “holding pattern” are feeling more confident and therefore applying for jobs. The more pessimistic view would be that things are hard, and that folks can’t afford to have postdocs in a holding pattern anymore…and that folks are being pressured to go out on the market even if they are not “ready”.

So, dear readers, what is your perspective:
1. What do “general bio” job adverts say to you?
2. Why do you think there are so many folks on the market this year?

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About gerty-z

scientist, mom, runner, beverage lover
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