Hiring is one of the most important things we do. A new hire is a colleague for years, possibly decades. The new professor will figure out things we don’t know, will even completely change the way we view a major area of biology. The new professor will join us in figuring out curriculum, effective teaching, and mentoring. Our new colleague will teach us to think differently. She or he will attract a team of great researchers at all levels. How do we pick the best person?
The most important thing to remember is probably that there is not a best person. There are probably at least ten people in any pool that are excellent and would do splendidly. Our applicant pools run from over a hundred to two hundred self-selected people, so this is not too surprising. Also, I have generally viewed nearly all the people we interview as potentially great picks. So how do we decide?
I should say that it is never solely up to me. This is a good thing. Who would want all that responsibility? But I have been deeply or peripherally involved in three searches in our department and have heard job talks in two others just this year, so I have some insights. Here are five things I think are most important.
First is collegiality. Are you a cooperative person who will help others thrive and not put them down? Can you communicate your ideas in ways that encourage rather than terrify others? I put this first because it is probably the only thing we really need the interview for. All the other things can generally be learned from reading your papers, looking at your CV, and reading the letters that recommend you to us, though only the committee will take the time to do this. Perhaps there are some universities that would hire brilliance even packaged in a mean, selfish human being. Not us. I’ll include in this category evidence that you will be good at teaching, mentoring, service, and possibly outreach. This is simply because you care to share and to help others. Almost no one that I have seen interview has failed this criterion, but it is possible, and has happened.
Second is what you have done. What ideas have you pursued and what have you figured out? This is our best guess as to what you will do in the future. We read your papers and see if they are interesting, address big questions and arrive at answers. We get a sense of how careful you are and how willing you are to make clear what you can and cannot answer. If you reach the interview stage, you have certainly succeeded with this one. Generally we have to make tough choices and lots of people we do not interview also succeed with this. Just be sure you go for big ideas and break your stuff into publishable units. Really thorny problems you might never feel are ready for publication can still be published at some point. Just make it really clear in the methods what you did and what the shortcomings might be.
Third is your promise for the future. Do you make clear where you are going? We want to see big ideas in your five or ten year plan. Some universities expect that you will fundamentally change some part of your field with your research in ten years. So don’t pick a tiny corner but go big. Part of this is intellectual plasticity. We want to see that you can bring in different collaborators for different projects. We want to see that you can lead as well as follow. We want to see that you can add new techniques fearlessly to your approach. Think about your big contributions. Here are a few that I think David Queller and I have contributed. Early adoption of microsatellites for measuring relatedness in social insects. Insights on costs and benefits in insect sociality: fortress defense and life insurance. Bringing social evolution theory to the social amoeba Dictyostelium discoideum. Redefining the organism. There are others, but I digress.
If we can figure out where you stand on categories two and three largely from your written material, if we have interviewed you, it is likely we think you are great on these two categories. I would also argue that we have very little power to foresee the future and predict which of you will most shine in the coming years. This brings us to the last two categories and they are things that matter to us but you can’t do much about.
Fourth is diversity. We do not want to exclude faculty because they are not part of the traditional pool of faculty members. We particularly want our students to see themselves in our shoes, not because we want them all to become professors, but because we want them to see all choices as open to them. Remember that great photo of Barack Obama bending down so a small boy could run his hand over Barack’s hair? I would like to think that when that little guy felt hair just like his, the world opened a bit for him. He may have thought he too could be president some day. Or even if this is not so likely, he may have generally felt more positive about his options, more fearless about trying for something big. In my view, this means we should hire under-represented minorities and women whenever possible, and certainly if our department is below the average in the pool in these categories. We should also remember that we have implicit biases that color our assessment of people even if we don’t want them to. Therefore I think we should identify and carefully evaluate every applicant in these categories a second time after the first evaluation.
Fifth and last is fit in the department. We are not Noah’s Arc. We can’t have one or two of everything. Small foci encourage collaboration, give graduate students interested in a particular area choices, and may generally make a department more collegial. This is also why students should choose their graduate programs carefully, for all universities do not do all things. These categories are usually informal, often arising organically. I do not think fit should be too tight or narrow. Generally we advertise broadly, for a neurobiologist, or an ecologist, or a biochemist. We do not specify exact subfield or exact organism. We want the best, but fit does come into it. Some get excluded as being too close to someone we have. This one is tricky to generalize but matters.
That’s it! Just remember to apply broadly and don’t second guess your applications or the places until you get the offer.