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How to get a faculty job in physics February 17, 2007

Posted by apetrov in Physics.
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Even though the title of this post sounds promising, I actually don’t know the answer to this question. The whole reason for this post is that we started interviewing candidates for the faculty position (which is not in my field) that we have open this year.

So everybody knows that selecting a faculty candidate is a rigorous process. Indeed, we are choosing our colleague that we hope to have with us for the duration of his or her whole career. Wayne State is not exactly Harvard or Yale (of course we’d like to be), but we do get some excellent candidates — after all, I don’t know any other physics department in the United States that has five CAREER and onePECASE awardees in the last five years. So precisely because we are not Harvard or Yale, we do try to select faculty who we think will get tenure in our Department.

So, what is the process? Well, the prospective candidates send their CV’s, statement of research interests (sometimes the statement of teaching philosophy is also requested, but I don’t think that it plays a big role if you are trying to get a job at a research university; we don’t even require it) and ask their peers to send recommendation letters on their behalf. This is rather standard. But what happens then? It might be different from one University to another, but the main stages are the same. First, secretarial stuff separates all the documents into folders. At WSU, however, we have an electronic application system, where all the applicant’s information is stored electronically. Then, search committee looks into the pool of applicants to select a “long” and then a “short” shortlists (usually, 10 and 5 candidates respectively). The candidates on the “short” shortlist are invited for a campus interview, give a colloquium, talk to the Chair and some faculty members (usually, members of the search and executive committees), and visit the Dean. Then, search committee, executive committee and the Chair get together, select the candidate, make recommendation to the Dean and the person is offered a job. That is it! In the best case scenario, the offer is accepted and the person shows up in the Fall. If not, the process comes back to the point when the search committee, executive committee and the Chair get together, select the candidate, …

What’s the probability of getting the job one applied for? This is a loaded question. Statistically speaking, it depends on the number of applicants. But this counting is clearly wrong. First, the hire is usually made in some particularsubfield . It might or might not be spelled out in the ad, but there is usually some agreement that unless a star applies for a position, the person from another (sub)field will not make the shortlist — if something like that happens, there is usually no shortlist at all and the hire is called “target of opportunity” and is often made at a more senior level. Second, the person “on the paper” may look completely different than the the person “in real life.” In fact, my postdocadvisor at JHU kept saying that “your research puts you on the shortlist, what happens then — depends on many other factors”. Those factors include knowledge of one’s field, general breadth of knowledge, how the person communicates… They also include how the candidate presents his or her colloquium. This is actually important. See, most of the faculty in the audience do not work in the same field, so a colloquium should really be… a colloquium — that is, a presentation of the candidate’s field (including one’s own work) to physicists working in other fields. This is one way how teaching ability is evaluated. Same goes for individual interviews with faculty members — often use of jargon, references to the names of equations and methods very particular to one’s narrow subfield without explanation of what they actually are do not impress, but rather annoy the other side… and it’s that side that participates in the decision-making… Even a genuine interest in the department makes a difference — it shows that the person is interested in coming, not just in using the potential offer to leverage salary/startup at some other place.

So I’m looking forward to seeing what candidates come for a visit this year…

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