My department is part of the College of Arts, Science and Engineering at the University of Dundee and the College has recently been running a new type (for Dundee) of recruitment scheme, called the “Dundee Fellows“. This is a cohort recruitment program, offering all sorts of mentoring, media training and cross college networking opportunities, as well as being a permanent academic post. It’s an excellent opportunity for good postdocs to take the next step on an academic career path and establish their own group. The application deadline passed yesterday and we have hundreds of applications in total. I’m not sure of the number in physics, but we have a healthy proportion of that, and it looks like we have a large number of excellent candidates. So I don’t have anything to grumble about – this scheme will help us add more talented researchers to our growing department. But…while the number of applications applications sounds like a lot, this covers physics, biomedical engineering, maths, civil engineering, computing and the myriad of things that artists and designers do.
There are, I believe, around 46 physics departments in the UK, and I would suspect the average number of 30 staff in each would not be unreasonable. I would also suspect that the staff:postdoc ratio must be as a bare minimum something like 1:1? So that would give us around 1500 postdocs in UK physics. Now as we are not really recruiting in a range of areas (nuclear, particle, astro etc) we can whittle this number down somewhat, say by 1/2, which would lead 750 still in the general areas of photonics, materials and biological physics and other stuff we would be interested in. Assuming a postdoc is 3 years on average, 1/3 of these will be in their final year, with at least two years experience, so 250. Let’s then assume half of these actively wish to leave academia, and that half of those who wish to stay couldn’t come to Dundee for personal reasons. This leaves around 60. We do not have 60 applications from postdocs based in the UK. My assumptions may be way off, but that number doesn’t sound too bad.
As you hear all the time about the poor state of career progression in academia (which is true), why is it that I do not have a much bigger pool of people applying for positions here? I am genuinely curious. Possibilities are (i) that we did not advertise well/clearly enough, (ii) we are not an attractive destination for aspiring academics in physics, (iii) postdocs aren’t really sure how to apply for such positions, or where to find out about them, (iv) postdocs overestimate the number of permanent jobs that come onto the market, (v) postdocs quite like being postdocs. I’m sure there are others. There are a fixed number of jobs, and a fixed number of locations, with usually one University per location – so the options and choices are not great. If you are not mobile in this market you will be very limited in what you can do. My advice is not to apply for every job that comes out, but if in doubt take a bit of a punt, you might end up in somewhere like Dundee and be very surprised at what you find (in a good way).
I’d be particularly interested to hear from people who are looking for a permanent post in physics, saw the advert and decided not to apply. Any other thoughts welcome too, of course.
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.