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Senior faculty: should one stay or should one go… August 18, 2010

Posted by apetrov in Near Physics, Particle Physics, Physics, Science.

This post is motivated by the fact that one of our senior faculty (a Full Professor) would be leaving this Fall to take another senior faculty job at another University. So, the questions that I want to ramble about are (1) why would one want to leave? and  (2) if one does decide to leave, how easy is it to get another tenured job?

1. Well, the question numbero uno has a simple answer: there is something at the  current place the person does not like. Examples could include academic environment (University is not prestigious enough, colleagues that are perceived to be unfriendly, perceived quality of  students, etc.), physical environment (tired to live in a city/country, etc.), salary (in most cases, too low), or spouse’s employment. I think most of the reasons can be reduced to those four. Or a linear combination of those four. And th0se reasons could be quite opposite: one wants to be in a big group, while another moves to organize a group — which in many cases would be smaller…

2. The second question also has a simple answer: it is not easy, unless you are a Nobel Prize winner (or Edward Witten). Or simply very good. And that’s where the question becomes hard: what does it mean to be “very good”??? To be successful at writing influential papers? securing grants (and/or having those NSF/DOE CAREER awards)? having a lot of awards? teaching and graduating good students? being on TV all the time? playing hockey?

This is a good question — and quite a relevant one, since (as part of a major theory expansion) we’ll be hiring a particle theory assistant professor this year  and it would be nice to hire someone who is “very good.” Although, admittedly, assistant professors are often judged “on potential,” and if the potential is not realized, a young assistant professor would not become an associate professor… This is one of the reasons while the Departments often prefer to hire nontenured Assistant Professors over tenured Associate and Full ones. That and the salary.

So, one of the possible criteria for a senior faculty that I would like to propose is a publication record — number of publications and citations to them (or/and an h-index for an applicant) compared to the same of the current members of a given research group that is doing the hire. In particular, if the h-index of a candidate is higher than that of the current members of the group, the person is good. Admittedly, it would not work for a junior faculty (well, if it does, the hiring group should get that person right away), but might be ok for a senior hire. Second criteria could be the record of securing external grants — the reality of life at most of research Universities is that the person should fund his/her own research… Moreover, while for an assistant professor getting the first grant is hard, it also serves as an opportunity to see what your peers in the field think about your research. So it is not all about the money — or the amount of it for that matter. A good record of graduating PhDs and having leadership positions (for an experimentalists in big collaborations) should round up the list. Did I miss anything?

Is there a recipe/a set of criteria? Probably not. But it would be interesting to know…


1. Charles - August 18, 2010

Nice post. What is “very good”? I have seen a lot on h-index recently.

See link.


Below are the h-indexes of the 2010 J.J. Sakuari Prize winners – a subset (barring reform from the Swedish Academy) will be awarded a Nobel some day. Note that Higgs is by far the lowest. Is he “very good”?

TWB Kibble h-index 31 g-index 84
F Englert h-index 31 g-index 56
R Brout h-index 24 g-index 51
CR Hagen h-index 19 g-index 46
GS Guralnik h-index 14 g-index 36
PW Higgs h-index 9 g-index 22


2. apetrov - August 18, 2010


You point out a well-known problem with an h-index: it does not “reward” people who rarely publish, but when they do, they have very high-impact papers. Higgs is one of them. That’s why I said one should look at a combination of factors: publication record (including total number of citations), h-index, etc. Also, one has to remember that a professor is also a teacher and a citizen (committees, consulting for colleagues, etc)… finally, we are speaking not in absolute terms (h-index (publication record) relative to all physicists), but in terms of an h-index (publication record) relative to other members of a hiring group in the Department…

3. postdoc - August 18, 2010

If a department has already an esstablished group in the area of interest of a newcomer, they can evaluate the work of the candidate and its impact better than any h-index or other activity/noise ratio estimators. If the department doesn’t have enough expertise, it can look for a recomendation from an independent external source (friends). In other words, do you take grad students only based on their GPA or you look deeper? GPA is a good starting point, but it’s far from being ideal measure. With a faculty hire you have a bit more time to spend understanding a candidate than when you admit a grad student.

4. apetrov - August 18, 2010

> they can evaluate the work of the candidate and its impact better

Using what criteria? That is precisely I’m trying to understand! Is it more than gut feeling? What do you think?

Once again, I’m not arguing to use h-index alone — but I’m curious about the set of criteria that one can use (besides the usual CV/statement of research/statement of teaching/recos).

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