Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Cramer's Corner: admissions/the application process for professorships

Friend of the blog Chris Cramer (professor at the University of Minnesota, computational/theoretical chemist, former director of graduate studies for the University of Minnesota's department of chemistry) has a number of great contributions to the chemblogotweetosphere. 

First, a series of tweets from Chris about how to think about applying to graduate school.

Second, a longer comment from him about the process in hiring a new professor. It's longer, so I'm putting it below the jump:



So, it seems as though lots of people would like a glimpse into the process from the other side, if only from a purely logistical standpoint. When a search is authorized (usually late spring, early summer for an R1 -- I don't claim expertise for PUIs or others), the first step is creation of an ad and a search committee. The ad may target specific areas (because of identified needs) or it may be area-open. The latter is WAY better from the standpoint of maximizing diversity in the pool (area, gender, ethnicity, etc.) but sometimes real teaching needs dictate a focused search. Generally, the ad will specify either a “deadline” or a date at which evaluations will begin. The latter is far more honest than the former – every department wants the best possible person, so the idea that someone would be rejected for being one day late is just silly, especially since usually a HUGE slew of applications arrive in the last day or two (as everyone polishes their proposals one. last. time.) and the committee doesn’t have a hope of getting through them all in under four weeks, so a late arrival or two is hardly noticed.  
In addition, as I noted in an above post, it is OFTEN the case that not all letters for a candidate have arrived on time, and the Chair of the search committee generally devotes some time at this stage to rustling up those missing letters if a candidate’s file seems to be of interest. Finally, HR rules can be rather constraining, so by not using the word “deadline”, one does not eliminate individuals who arrive a day late…  
In any case, at Minnesota, at least, our goal is for the search committee to narrow things down to 20 or so candidates (from a pool of a few hundred, typically) and that process generally takes about a month – so, an October 1 formal start leads to a reduced pool by about November 1. At that stage, we ask for feedback from the faculty as a whole on that reduced pool to determine whom to invite to interview, generally shooting for, say, 6-8 interviews per position available. [Note, as an aside, that search ads for an assistant professor position often say something like “appointment at the tenured level and/or to a higher rank will be considered as appropriate”. This is again an attempt to preserve the maximum possible flexibility. If someone senior unexpectedly shows up in the pool, or inquires indirectly, steps will be taken to assess the desirability of exploring such an option. That’s a story for another day, as it tends to be considerably more subtle and complicated.]  
Calls then go out to the short list. The time frame I’ve outlined above tends, at least for us, to mean we interview about half our short list before the winter holidays and half afterwards. There’s always a desire to frontload things as much as possible (out of the paranoid fear that someone, somewhere else is moving faster) but somehow beating the holidays never seems to happen. We often discuss the initial batch of candidates before those holidays. The goal of that discussion is to share impressions, but also potentially to decide that we are SO enthusiastic about someone that we want to persuade the Dean to let us make an offer immediately without foreclosing the opportunity (and obligation) to see the remaining candidates.  
At a large institution, the ability to take such risks is easier (the worst thing that can happen is you hire more wonderful people than you were planning, and you mortgage away some future lines to bridge the funding issues), but many times there is not overwhelming enthusiasm, so the interviewing continues afresh in January. Once all invitees have been seen, there is a long and intense hiring meeting. For what it’s worth, the discussion is very, very detailed, and a remarkable number of options (in terms of prioritization, mostly) tend to be discussed.  
In my experience, and you might be surprised to hear it, RARELY are start-up costs considered – if you want someone, you want them, and you do whatever it takes to make it work. That’s also true for partner situations, although again, you might not believe it. That one is personal for me. My job as associate dean means I spend most of my spring trying to solve two-body opportunities, and if they were revealed at an earlier stage (everyone seems to be counseled to keep them secret) it would certainly make MY life easier. In any case, we often emerge with a fairly detailed plan of, say, make offer to person A, set deadline B, depending on outcome move to person C (or simultaneously offer to A and C, with decanal approval), keep D and E in reserve, etc. Sometimes the decision is made to go back to the pool and bring in other candidates who were not seen as being as well suited originally, but who were nevertheless still considered perfectly viable.  
Every year is different, frankly. At that point, the rest is negotiation and nimble reaction to evolving events, so hard to be general. Happy to answer questions to anyone who wants the curtain pulled back further!
 Thanks to Chris for the revealing look! 

21 comments:

  1. Bookmarking this post. Thank you so much, Professor Cramer.

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  2. Thank you for the grad school application tips.

    I have a question about grades: I had a rather low undergraduate GPA of around 3.2, but I still have an admittedly far-fetched dream of getting into a top program, since getting into such a program would help me land jobs and tenure track positions much better. Since my grades were largely constant throughout the years, with no improving trend, I was considering returning to school for a terminal MS degree or maybe even a new undergraduate degree.

    To the eyes of the admissions, which would be better in showing a true improvement in grades? I'd rather do an MS, since that's cheaper, shorter, and have more advanced courses, but everyone says that the grades are so inflated in MS programs that I am worried that even if I get a very good GPA there, they might not see it as an improvement.

    I think I already have decent research, with 1 first author publication in an ACS journal (not JACS) and two non-1st author papers, but it could be better, so I am of course planning to continue research either way.

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    1. My advice would be to go straight to the best Ph.D. program you get an offer from -- the topmost schools don't get many applicants with M.S.s and it's not clear to me that it influences their thinking much. Moreover, to be frank, if you're interested ultimately in a faculty position, you're certain to have to do a postdoc, and it is the person with whom you work in THAT position that is foremost in the minds of search committees (whether people regard that as fair or not...) Generally, individual postdoctoral mentors are not so focused on WHERE you do your Ph.D., but far more on WHAT you accomplished and with whom. So, my bottom-line advice is, treat grad school like a chance for a fresh start -- do well and you still have many, many options. And, by the way, 3.2 is not that bad a GPA, especially depending on how your undergrad school grades. If you can get a letter writer to speak to that for you, it may do you good.

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    2. I've found over the years that there is no simple advice to give to someone with a questionable GPA. People do come out of these holes. I've met them. But no two people do it the same way.

      With that being said, you're way better off than you think. My undergrad GPA was a 2.3, and that's rounding up. Zero undergrad research. I can write a book about my experience, but the short version is I went into industry, found my way into R&D, built up a record of accomplishments, and along the way found a research interest (mild obsession, really). I got into grad school at a large state university. Not a premier program, but I'm working with a well-known, well-connected person on research problems I care about. As Prof. Cramer said, it's a fresh start. If things don't work out, I would still have regretted not going for a Ph.D. more than whatever outcome I face.

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    3. I agree with the above and your situation was similar to mine. I had a 3.2, including one C in the course I know teach! My significant undergrad research experience and a modest publication (non-ACS) are probably what got me into a top 20 grad school. I worked my butt off there cause I was confident in my intelligence and work ethic (the latter being perhaps the most important) and that propelled me to an ivy-league postdoc. I addressed my mediocre undergrad performance in the teaching philosophy section of my faculty applications and made the case that my early struggles are actually what make me an effective teacher/scholar. Prior grades mean very little when you get into a graduate research lab; I've seen many A+ students who can't handle the frustration of research, where 90% of what you do fails. Great success in grad school can easily mitigate your undergrad gpa. Work hard and go for it!

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  3. "one way maximizes diversity but the other way is better if we need to really get things done" is my takeaway

    "best possible person" lol

    ps remember kids, half the department money is spent on a trailing spouse.

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    1. ugh. clearly a comment from someone bitter that they are #ForeverAlone

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    2. Well, a little cynical, but I'll try to offer a non-snarky reply. Bottom line is, if you're desperate to get bodies in front of organic chemistry lectures, for example, you're gonna restrict your search to organic chemists (and, for the record, you're gonna take a diversity hit in your pool as a result -- a situation that deserves ongoing work to fix, no argument from me). Second, "trailing spouse" is a pretty objectionable term, to be honest. It's just "spouse" (or "partner", or whatever the couple prefers...) And, sometimes, it really IS a great opportunity. It's HARD to move a couple! As somebody who sits in the Deans Office part time, if I can more effectively nail two great faculty into place (apologies for THAT metaphor), I win and the institution wins. And, the question of how it's financed varies wildly. The bottom line is, we NEVER hire somebody as faculty without the receiving department really WANTING them, so at worst we need to figure out how to bridge some time before a line would open in any case. When it isn't a case of hiring as a faculty member (but perhaps as a postdoc, because they're not on the market yet, or they're not interested in academia, etc.) it's generally not that big an expense to accommodate. Keep in mind the ENORMOUS investment that modern start-up packages are -- getting close to average $1M for experimental chemists. An extra $70K per year to make somebody loyal and happy? Well worth the investment...

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  4. The reason people keep academic two-body situations secret is because a lot of institutions still don't have good policies on how to handle them during the job offer process, especially at PUIs that don't have the resource flexibility to add additional tenure lines with such short notice. If there was an easy way of handling "two-body opportunities" at Minnesota, then I'd think Prof. Cramer would not need to be spending most of his spring dealing with them! Admittedly, two-body situations that involve a spouse in a non-academic field are a whole different issue.

    My spouse and I observed these issues firsthand during our interviews for chemistry jobs at PUIs. We both had interviews at the same school very early in the interview season, and we told them of our status, and the circumstantial evidence/hearsay is that there was no way the administration was going to make it possible to hire two people. Of course the job offer went to the 3rd candidate the day of my spouse's interview. That person accepted within a few days, so for the entire rest of the interview season, we had that experience hanging over heads. Of course this might have happened because they thought one or both of us were terrible during the interview, but we still did not tell any other schools about our relationship before offers were received.

    That made for some rougher negotiations with several schools, but I would say the good thing is the majority (but not all!) of them at least tried to make room for both of us, and one school did come up with two tenure track positions.

    I know this is a little humblebraggy, but think I it's important to note that we had this "tough time" even though four schools invited both of us out to interview without any prior knowledge of our relationship. So clearly they thought we both might be decent candidates. I imagine this situation would be harder for a couple that has more asymmetry in how much a school is interested in them.

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    1. Since you've been in the two body, applying for PUIs position, you might have some thoughts on this. If you and your partner were applying for two different TT faculty lines that were posted in different sub areas of chemistry--which is rare but does happen-- and both got interviews, when would you disclose? There would be no negotiations to open up a new line because both partners could fill a niche in the department that is open. However, if they really want one spouse and the second spouse made the shortlist but is not the number 1 choice, I could see how it could be beneficial to be open about the situation sooner rather than later.

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    2. Interesting question because there's usually at least one or two postings for two jobs at the same PUI, so this conundrum must happen occasionally. For us, the hesitance to share came from being worried that a PUI's relative difficulty in creating a second position would preclude the offer from going out to one of the spouses for the first position... that would not be a problem if two positions already existed.

      So, I agree in your hypothetical that I would want to tell the department before they started deciding on which candidate to make an offer to. I'm not 100% sure about when to do that, but perhaps during the final meeting with the chair of the department, during the second spouse's interview? Some people might wait to do it by email, but that seems a little awkward to me.

      Definitely don't want to put oneself in the position where the offer for the second position goes to someone else. That's almost guaranteeing there won't be room for the shortlisted spouse.

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  5. One point about deadlines: in some countries (public) university professors are civil servants and the hiring process is under strict regulations. This often means that given deadlines are legally binding. If your application is five minutes late, the university may be unable to consider it.

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    1. I know of a situation where a grad school classmate of mine was chosen for a professor position, but the university was required to advertise the job to comply with some regulation. They advertised the job in the local newspaper in the university's rural town, and of course no one else applied!

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  6. Is there an official definition of which universities qualify as R1, or is that just a way of saying it's a big research university and not a PUI?

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    1. KT: check here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_research_universities_in_the_United_States

      Much of the above advice also applies to R2s and R3s.

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    2. Thanks for the link. Googling "R1" wasn't much help!

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  7. It looks like most of Chris's two-body situations involve finding a spot for a second professor, or sometimes a postdoc. At least a non-academic spouse can probably find a white-collar office job in some cubicle farm around Minneapolis. My graduate alma mater was a big state U in the middle of nowhere, and it was common for them to find jobs in university administration for spouses because there weren't many other white-collar options in the area.

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    1. Meeting your spouse in grad school, where you likely spend about 85% of your day, is understandably quite common!

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    2. You're quite correct that we exploit our major metro-area location shamelessly... :-)
      (and, to be clear, helping make appropriate connections OUTSIDE the U is my job (and others'), too, but it becomes non-budgetary at that point)

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  8. "...if you want someone, you want them, and you do whatever it takes to make it work." I've observed the same attitude at Georgia Tech. The problem with this is that our department does not account for implicit biases that figure into the "wanting"—race and gender notwithstanding, there's a scientific element to all of this, too. Someone who thinks just a little too much outside of the box or whose research does not "fit" (whatever that means) with the department's "culture" is not "wanted" as badly as someone who does. Throwing resources at rock stars then depletes future opportunities, and the faculty keep passing the buck to future generations.

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  9. Thanks for writing this Prof. Cramer, it is very nice to get some insight into the hiring process from the point of view of a hiring committee member. Out of all the documents required for applying to a faculty position (i.e., typically, the cover letter, CV, research plan, teaching statement, diversity statement, recommendation letters), which do you think has the most impact? Specifically, what is the first thing the committee would probably look at in order to narrow down the pool of candidates? I am asking because I am not sure about the importance of the cover letter. Since it is most likely the first document that is read, I worry that any details not mentioned in the letter might be overlooked if the committee doesn't get to the CV/proposal.

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