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The Faculty Search

Currently my department is hiring. We have at least one position for a lecturer (equivalent to a US Assistant Professor) and one for a full Professor. You have to be a big cheese in the UK to get to call yourself “Professor”. This is the first time I have been on a search and selection committee for a faculty member and it’s a interesting and tough process. I thought I’d just share some thoughts on how we have gone about this, for prospective applicants into UK Universities. In our case we spread our net fairly wide. The position is in a generic area called “Physics Aligned to the Life Sciences” which is one of the core themes of the Scottish Universities Physics Alliance or SUPA, which Dundee is part of. Within this theme pretty much anything bio-related to physics is covered. We decided not to hone down on a more specific area and try and recruit the best person we could that aligned with one or more of our research themes. This led to us getting a large number of very high quality applications. It was a tough choice – so how did we decide?

Fit to specification: The first bit of advice I have is to make sure that you write your cover letter, CV and research statement so as to clearly state how you fit the position. While our call wasn’t specific as to topic area it would seem clear that applicants should be able to state how their work aligned itself to the life sciences. Writing that you were really interested in biology wasn’t going to cut it, and for some really strong physical sciences applicants this is where they fell down. We wanted to see at least some evidence of how applicant’s work either had been applied to biophysics research or evidence that they had thought out how their work might be applied in Dundee (and not just generically).

Experience: Clearly what you have done to date matters a lot – it shows the kind of trajectory that you are on, how much of an original thinker you are and what you might be capable of. So the areas you have worked on, your general productivity and the papers you have produced make a big difference, but the reality is that this is only part of the package – you might have been unlucky in where you have worked, or the projects you had been assigned may just not have gone to plan. We recognise this, and so if your papers and background are a little lacking for whatever reason then your research statement becomes really important. We did consider how applicants would look as far as the upcoming Research Excellence Framework (REF) review is concerned. This is perhaps a little unfortunate, but the reality is this is a strong consideration.

Metrics: So does your h-index matter? Does your publication count make a difference? Number of citations? Where you publish? In modern academia these things to have a huge significance attached, and probably much more than they should. I don’t think we compared anybody’s h-index – bearing in mind these are entry positions, and the wide variety of postdoc positions that people have means you can’t compare such things, or even the number of publications in any strong meaningful way. One of my colleagues had a clear idea that as a postdoc you should be producing one decent paper per year, and this was used as a rough kind of bar, but not a digital pass/fail barrier. I think we did consider numbers of citations as part of the indication of the value of the papers published, but this, again, was to help us form a view of how valued work was, and clearly for a paper published the week before application there will be no citation data. Papers that were in peer review or ‘to be submitted’ were of little value in helping any decision to be reached, but those under review gave some small indication of overall productivity, if not quality. Finally I think the panel probably paid more attention to where papers were published over other metrics, but again we did very much try and look at the whole picture – I’m fairly pleased that we put more emphasis on the research ideas and potential to deliver than pure numbers.

Potential: So you want to come and work with us, but what are you going to be doing? Your research statement  needs to outline a coherent program of work, and has to address something interesting in an innovative way. Incremental changes are not so persuasive. Clearly you also have to be realistic, and this is where the challenge lies – outline something of grand enough ambition but in such a way that we can believe you will be able to deliver. For our position we also wanted applicants to try and identify how their proposed work would fit in Dundee – one of the criteria was to bridge gaps between physics and life sciences and medicine – so we wanted them to really think about how they would fit in and who they might work with. We wanted them to show that they really wanted to be at Dundee. In my mind this is almost the most important section – it gives you the opportunity to show your talent regardless of what you have achieved.

Interview: You make a good impression on paper but you have to be to talk the talk as well. We decided on an American style full day visit for each interviewee. So the candidates got to speak to a range of people across the University. Again we asked applicants to think about who they might like to see, with a view to pushing them to think about why they wanted to be here and what they might do when they arrived. They were also asked to give a talk. All this information was fed back to the interview panel to try and give us a rounder picture of each applicant. Our interview panel had physicists, biologists and others on it, and it meant that we could push candidates to really get down to the detail, the potential and the importance of what they were proposing to do. The main thing that came out from this was that candidates who had written strong research statements were able to give much clearer answers as to what they would be doing should they come to work in Dundee.

The bottom line was we want new colleagues with great potential, people who will try and push at big challenges, either by attacking them directly or by developing new and innovative techniques that can be applied in a more general sense. We are looking for people who would be good colleagues, who would ‘fit in’ and who were able to interact with undergraduates and help grow our teaching programmes. After this really interesting process I think that is what we will get.

  1. November 12, 2012 at 7:08 pm

    Thanks for sharing, interesting info to keep in mind when sending out applications..

  2. KW
    November 13, 2012 at 10:33 am

    Interesting read, and some good tips for applicants. I think it is also important to flip the coin: the search committee and the department/university in general have to also sell themselves well to the applicants, it’s not one-way traffic.
    The best candidates for the job may well get offers from other universities too!
    I have been in a situation once where I got multiple offers, and I chose the department that had done the best in showing me how they would work with me – not just the head of group and some prominent professors, but also people from human resources, research support office etc. One university in particular did not just answer my questions, but went out of their way to volunteer information that may be important to me without me having to ask first (e.g. childcare and school options for kids, options for moving/relocation, help with financial arrangements etc.). In addition they made sure I had a chance to talk informally to every member of staff in the department by having several social events in the 2 days they had me there – which gave me a chance to find out who I could really work with, on a scientific as well as a personal level.
    This pro-active approach made me feel incredibly welcome. I chose this university, even though it is considered less prestigious than some of the other places that made me an offer.

    • November 13, 2012 at 12:57 pm

      You are absolutely right, and this was one reason we went for one full day per applicant, which in my experience is rare for UK Universities. We wanted to show what we had on offer, how we felt people would fit in and to make the applicants feel that they wanted. The best people are going to have multiple offers, so we also need to do what we can to demonstrate why you might want to spend a chunk of your life here, and why you might want to make a move from, say, another country to come to Scotland. I hope the candidates did feel that we were putting in that extra effort.

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