How scientific and fair can faculty hiring be?


If you have a committee of 6 choosing the 4 or so biologists to interview for a single position, what would a really accurate way to do it be? I think you would look hard at the error factor. If smart, unbiased professors are doing the choosing, shouldn’t they arrive at broadly similar conclusions? What are the odds that even the first sorting of the long list into a shorter list for everyone to look at will be scientific?

There are several kinds of errors to consider. One I really worry about is bias. Are we reading women and minorities differently? Being aware of bias helps, I think.

Another error comes from reading files too quickly. You might miss something important because you have so many files to read and there is a deadline. It is important to divide up files so people don’t read too many too quickly.

A third kind of error comes from weighting anything besides scientific excellence and promise of future success on the first pass. We need to cut down the pool by considering this crucial factor alone.

The fourth kind of error comes in especially in really broad searches. It can be difficult to compare very different kinds of people. I was dumbfounded at how little our top neuroscience candidates publish, but that is apparently standard for their field. If they were in our search, we would not choose them, possibly missing the best person. Even in a more narrow search like ours for an ecologist, different fields are hard to compare. Theoretical vs. empirical foci, for example, result in different levels of publishing. Women are generally known to publish fewer but  more substantive papers.

We could search much more narrowly of course, for an ecologist that studies the mites on buffalo, for example. We would have a better chance of picking the best person that does exactly this, but we would miss brilliance in nearby fields.

How do we overcome all these potential errors in choosing? We don’t. We can’t be fair. In fact, one might think it is not our job to be fair since it is so impossible. Our job is to hire an excellent scientist, colleague, and teacher. There are likely to be others even  better in the pool, but not discoverable by our imperfect techniques.


What having 8 people reading 60 folders and choosing the top 8 might look like.

Wow! That sure is sobering. How can I be so sure? Well, for starters, say we took our 200 candidates and had each person read 66 or so, choosing the top 8 from their pool. Further say two people read each folder. Shouldn’t there be broad consensus across readers? Has anyone ever studied this? I’m speaking hypothetically here, but I bet it is common for there to be very little overlap between the two readers. If there were no overlap, we would end up with 48 people to take to the next level if everyone kept to choosing just 8.  I bet in most searches the number after a first cut like this is over 35, a surprising lack of consensus.

If this were science, we would go back to the beginning and say our process was not discovering what we want to discover. But we do not do so. There are a couple of reasons. First, we do not have the time. Second, maybe it is likely that the very best people each person reads will make it to the top. It will be interesting to see if the final candidates were among the few chosen by both readers. By the way, the two readers are typically randomly paired in all combinations in the best processes.

Who are we likely to miss at this stage? I think it is the people with big ideas who do not publish prolifically. Or it might be the people with big ideas and excellent work who focus, as so many do, on what they are asking rather than what they have figured out. But probably most of the people we miss are just random errors, no good reason to have chosen Hannah over Isabel.

For better or for worse, this process will narrow the field to 48 or fewer people chosen by someone and the whole committee will read those files and discuss them. Will this lessen arbitrariness? We can again see how much overlap there is when everyone is reading everything. The goal of the next step is to cut this list by half or more in a process that begins to consider fit, collegiality, and teaching.

This is the process I most often see. But there are no rules from my university as to the best way to do this. I wish we could be informed more by social scientists who might have studied this and can tell me how best to optimize outcome and fairness while not sacrificing undue faculty time.

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Can a rubric help with faculty hiring?

Rubrics seem to be all the rage these days, whether they are appropriate or not. A rubric is simply a system for assigning points to different aspects of an assignment. They can be very useful for communicating to a student where they got points and where they did not. I have given a rubric for writing here. I have pointed out some of the problems with grading by rubric here. So isn’t using a rubric for choosing a new faculty member a great idea? Won’t it even avoid bias? After all, you could give extra points for minority status, or to women?

Here I argue that using a rubric for hiring is a terrible idea. Why? After all, we can all easily think of the elements that might go into a rubric. Here are a few: importance of the research area, research accomplished, independence, collegiality, teaching excellence, gender or minority status, and fit in the department. You might think of others. Yes, you might be thinking, those things are important, so why not weight them and pick the people with the highest points?

The problem comes from the very nature of the task of picking a new faculty member. Ultimately we will only hire one person from the more than 200 possibilities. A rubric evaluates all the characteristics at once. This inevitably devalues any given attribute, even if it is weighted higher than the others. Someone who is mediocre in research but fabulous in other characteristics could rise, for example.

What is a better process for choosing? It is a hierarchy of selection. Think of it as a series of successive sieves with the first one selecting only on the most important characteristic. What this is might differ among institutions or searches. In our searches for a tenure track faculty member, I think this first most crucial sieve should retain only the most excellent researchers. These people have chosen important research problems and are showing every indication of making fundamental advances. This is what CVs are about. This is what the letters talk about. This is what will get these people funding and international recognition. These are the people most likely to have a career of sustained excellence and interest. These are the people that will make our institution shine and get ranked highly. Anyone that is not the very best in research, a star or someone who gives every indication of being a rising star should simply not be chosen, no matter what their other characteristics are.


Use a sieve, not a rubric.

When you first select on this ground alone, the initial discussions by the committee will be about research. What is an important question? What exciting progress has a candidate made in a given area? What are new and important research areas? What areas are playing out? Where might the field be in a decade? In two decades? Is this person moving in an exciting direction? These are the fun conversations because they are about science, what we all love.

Out of our 200 candidates, this sole focus on research might yield a pool of ten or fifteen people. This selected pool might even be larger if the committee has diverse perspectives on research, but it is not likely to be much larger because we will educate each other in the discussion focused on science.

Only when we have this smaller pool of amazing researchers should we start worrying about balance, fit, collegiality, and teaching excellence. We might have more actual sieves, ruling out people that seem to be difficult, for example, but we need to be sure that we are not introducing bias at this level.

Yes, what about women and under-represented minorities? How do we get them in our final pool and on our faculty? I would argue it is not by giving them a point or two extra with a rubric. After all, that cannot overcome our very well documented tendencies towards unconscious bias. We have to think about that bias and its consequences at every step of the way, from the first screen of research excellence to the final screens that yield our interview slate and ultimate hiring decision. Take out that bias and women and under-represented minorities will naturally make up a big percentage of that final pool. After all, we have survived in an often unfriendly system because of our passion for research.

Oh, I hope I don’t even have to mention that there are a lot of things that should not be a part of the discussion at any stage. Some of these are illegal to consider. Others are pointless. After all, we do not have perfect information on them. So don’t talk about who might move. Don’t talk about the partner of the potential candidate. You get the idea.

Our task is challenging and vitally important for our department and our university. Let’s not forget what it is all about.


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Explain the oddities on your resumé or we’ll make something up

You have a four year gap in your timeline. Please explain it or we might think you were in prison instead of simply taking time out for family. Your job is in Houston but you are living in Boston. Don’t think we won’t notice. No one mentioning this or its reason screams a lot louder MYSTERY than any actual explanation.

We humans are story telling animals. We want to know your story. If you don’t tell a part of it, we’ll make something up. We can’t help ourselves, though of course we know it is fantasy and we won’t share it. You may think we don’t read your file closely enough to notice your quirks, but we do. Especially if you get high up on our list, we’ll comb that professional narrative very carefully. Once you explain something, it ceases to interest us and we get back to the really challenging business of choosing as carefully as possible a few people to interview who shine and are a good fit.


Great colleagues that had clear applications

Of course there are things you do not have to tell and things it is illegal for us to ask. Whether you have a partner who needs a job falls in this category. In fact it is probably the biggest thing that falls here. I am of two minds as to what to do about this. You don’t have to tell us and these days most of you do not. Why even bother telling us you do not have a partner needing a job in the same field if we are not allowed to ask this?

It is not something I ever hid, but I guess after a certain point hiding it would have been impossible. What happens if we know? In the best scenario it gives us more time to think about how we can get you both here. Would we write you off and move on to the next single person? At the institutions I have been at, this is unlikely since generally everyone has something complicated about their situation. We are humans after all.

So, share what you want. Hide what you choose. We will pour worry into oddities and gaps and that might not be in your best interest.

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How to make your application stand out among hundreds

Who are you? What have you done? How do you compare to our metrics? Can you make it easier for us to find this out? I am getting very cranky because I am spending my weekend reading file after file where the authors and letter writers spend much more time telling me what you work on or who you have worked with and not what you have discovered. Neither you nor I want me to count publications, or look up your silly little H, so help me out.


Might one of my great current undergraduates be the next star?

This piece is focused on academic hiring, but some of it applies to anyone applying for any job. The simplest, most crucial part of the message is to figure out what we want to know and tell it to us in the most clear way possible. A faculty position is complicated, so we want to know a lot of things. First among those are probably what you work on, what you have figured out, and how effectively you have communicated it. It is only after you make this first intellectual cut that I will start looking at things like collegiality, mentoring, and teaching. These latter three are crucial, but alone won’t get you past the first cut. Without them, you won’t make the last cut.

To make the first cut, you will therefore have to convince me with your publications. Better papers are generally in better journals, the discipline tops like Ecology, or Ecology Letters, or even the more general top journals like PloS Biology. So bold the journals. Put publications all in one list, not broken up by topic. We want to know that you are consistently productive.

It is no secret (Google it) that the nomination to the National Academy of Sciences is a 250 word summary of accomplishments, a 50 word abstract, and 12 publications. You are much earlier in your career than these people, so surely you can tell us what you are about in this length. In fact, I think the 50 word abstract should be at the top of your CV.

I do not mean that this abstract is all you should send us, because we really dig in towards the end when we have 20 or so people to look at, not hundreds.

There are three searches for new faculty in our biology department right now, neuro, genomic, and ecology. I’m on the committee for the last one and so have been reading over a hundred files. For the first two searches I only read the long short list of 20 or so folders and let the committee know about my top 5 or so picks. Ultimately the committee presents a list of people to interview, usually 3 to 5, and the faculty usually goes along with that list, just as they usually acquiesce to the committee’s ultimate decision.

This process seems to have worked fairly well, in that my most recent colleagues are all great, creative, industrious, smart, and collegial. However it is impossible to know if in 20 years time they will prove to have been the best out of the pool of applicants. Is there anything else we might do?

What we are looking for with the ecology search is to hire the next Robert MacArthur, or G. E. Hutchinson, but odds are, they are not in our pool. Even if they had been, would we have recognized them early on? One of the many things I worry about is that with our blinders on for stardom, we miss a lot. How do we avoid falling for the prolific but superficial and ignoring the truly creative scientist that may not publish so excessively? What a hard time Bill Hamilton had getting a job. After all, he only changed the face of animal behavior, ecology, evolution, genetics and any field that looks at interactions.

No doubt more will come to me as I work through more files on this brilliantly clear 20 degree (F) day when I should be out hiking. If I don’t share now, though, life might move on. My parting message is to pick your top 12 publications (or top 5 if you are just starting out), write your own 250 word and 50 word statements, and keep those updated. Not to get into the NAS, but to remember to keep your eye on the big questions and figure stuff out.

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Here’s why you should waive access to your letters of recommendation

Applying to graduate school or medical school is a complicated business. One important part of it is getting great letters of recommendation. It is too late this year to establish the relationships that form the basis of solid letters based on evidence, not opinion. But it is not too late to ask for the letters or to apply to graduate school.

One thing the programs all ask you when you give the names of your letter writers is whether you waive your right to see what those letters say. Nearly everyone automatically waives access. And so should you. There are strong reasons for waiving access. The first is that everyone does it, so you do not want to seem different in this way. It might imply you are a difficult person. No level of brilliance will get you into most programs if you are solidly perceived as a difficult person.


Is the next step graduate school?

The second reason is that letter receivers want the letter to be completely honest and frank. The letters will be weighted less strongly if access is not waived. You probably have excellent letters, so you want them to count as much as possible.  Anyway, to the extent US letters are ever negative it is by omission, not criticism. It takes a seasoned letter reader to even pick up these differences. So it won’t do you much good to see the letter. You won’t be able to tell a strong letter from a weak one.

If we had a system where all letters were open, it might be different. There are traps to not seeing the letters. I myself fell into them. One was that I later heard that someone had written me a bad letter for grad school. He said I was very strong willed and not afraid to voice my own opinions even when they differed from those of that particular professor. If you know me, you know exactly what to think of that letter, but in 1974, I’m guessing these were not considered desirable traits in female grad students, generally, though UT Austin delighted in them. That bad letter came from someone I had a couple classes from but did not know well, so remember to get to know 3 professors!

My second mistake was imagining someone wrote me a weak letter when in fact it was a letter stronger than I deserved. He ended up showing it to me to my great shame. So, I’m always happy to show people the letters I write for them. But come ask me directly. Waive your right to the letter.

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Why hard money is better than soft money – what are they anyway?

You might think that hard money is more difficult to get than soft money. But anyway, isn’t money just money? What are these terms in academia? Actually, it is quite simple. The terms are usually used for funding of salaries. A hard money position is typically funded by the institution indefinitely. A soft money position is dependent on repeated grant writing to stay funded. A soft money position is likely to disappear if the grants that fund it end and are not replaced.

Professors at universities, whether tenure track or not, tend to be funded with hard money. Technicians, postdocs, and research scientists are more likely to be on soft money. Medical schools are a bit different. There faculty are generally expected to bring in some of their salary, making those positions at least partly dependent on soft money. If times are tough, or a discipline goes out of fashion, funding could get challenging. Since administrative positions in medical schools are more based on hard money, this situation can drive great researchers into more administration.


Extremely eminent Oxford University professor, Stu West, trying and failing to get stung by a fire ant at Texas A & M University.

Another bit of jargon is when you refer to a position as a line. Generally a hard money position is a line, meaning the position will continue even if the person currently holding it leaves. Sometimes departments have unfilled lines. This means they have nominal agreement from the institution that they should have 3 more people, for example, but they do not have the space or the start up funds to hire them now.

Some people have endowed professorships. This means someone, the person that has named the hard money line, has given enough money to generate most of the funding for a line and some money for research. Universities vary a lot as to how many endowed chairs they have. Some don’t really pay much of the salary and others pay a lot from the donor’s funds. Either way, it is an honor to have one and always comes with some research funding, usually beginning at about $10,000. My endowed chair is named for Charles Rebstock who made his money in whiskey and gave a lot of money to biology at Wash U just before prohibition kicked in. I would love to have one of those glass bottles with his name on it. I do have a nice card he sent to his bank from a wonderful student.

These days a lot of the people that teach undergrads are on hard money lines, but do not have tenure. They usually have titles like Instructor or Professor of the Practice. They are evaluated on their teaching and usually not on their research. Some of our best teachers have these titles. They may be doing their own research in their field or also in pedagogy, the science of teaching. They are more likely to be innovative and experimental and to put time into understanding how teaching works.  There are fewer of these people generally at liberal arts colleges compared to research universities. I’m still struggling with a piece on the different kinds of colleges and universities, but at its most basic, a liberal arts college does not offer the Ph.D. degree.

Hmm, start up is another thing worth defining. I should write a whole glossary, but not today. Start up is money the university gives a faculty member to get their lab and research going. In the sciences at top universities this can amount to as much as a million dollars, or even more. I’ve written about how to get a great start up package, here. This money is for salaries for postdocs, technicians, or grad students (soft money), and for equipment. Lab renovation is usually separate.

Sometimes we don’t even recognize jargon until someone asks. Yet it takes a certain level of comfort to even ask, perhaps perpetuating the problem of academic mystery. It is hard not to use jargon, so ask if you don’t understand what someone is talking about, or even if you think you do, but are not sure.

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Hurry! We have an opening at Wash U for an ecologist in any specialty!

Please share this exciting position for a tenure track ecologist of any flavor! We have a great group and are in a world clss city! Join us! Below is the advertisement.


Washington University in St. Louis
Department of Biology


The Department of Biology at Washington University in St. Louis is pleased to invite applications for a tenured-track faculty position in ecology at the Assistant or Associate Professor level. We are searching broadly for an ecologist who addresses exciting conceptual questions using theory and/or empirical approaches. We welcome applicants working on interactions among organisms of any taxa, including microbes, and in any area of ecology, including population, community, ecosystem, evolutionary ecology or ecological genetics. Qualifications include a Ph.D. in biological science and a strong record (for Associate Professor, a strong tenurable record) in research, mentoring, and teaching. Washington University aims to provide the start-up funding, laboratory development resources and ancillary support to facilitate continuing that strong record.

The successful candidate will contribute to research, mentoring, and teaching at graduate and undergraduate levels. She or he will develop an exciting, externally funded, and internationally recognized research program. Duties include research and writing for publication, mentoring both graduate and undergraduate students, teaching, academic advising, and university service. Teaching duties will be in the general areas of ecology and environmental biology.

We offer a collaborative, intellectually stimulating, and supportive environment in which faculty can thrive. We are strongly committed to openness and diversity and have a very welcoming climate that spans biological research areas. Besides the Department of Biology ( resources available include: the Tyson Research Center (, a 2,000-acre field station less than 20 miles from campus and an ideal venue for large-scale studies in a variety of local ecosystems; an interdepartmental graduate program in ecologyIMG_7342 and evolution (
Pages/Faculty.aspx); the International Center for Advanced Renewable Energy and Sustainability (, which fosters cross-disciplinary environmental research; and significant collaborative opportunities with regional partner institutions such as the Missouri Botanical Garden (

To apply, please collate the following into a single pdf file: cover letter; curriculum vitae; and no more than four pages total on research, mentoring, and teaching. Please also send pdfs of 3 publications and arrange to have 3 letters of reference sent in support of your application. All application information, including letters, should be sent electronically to: Questions can be directed to David Queller (, who is chair of the search committee. Review of applications will begin on 15 November 2015.

Washington University in St. Louis is committed to the principles and practices of equal employment opportunity and affirmative action. It is the University’s policy to recruit, hire, train, and promote persons in all job titles without regard to race, color, age, religion, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin, veteran status, disability, or genetic information.

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