Archive for: March, 2011

Failed Search

Mar 29 2011 Published by under faculty, interviewing

A longtime reader recently asked an excellent, interesting, and perplexing question:

Why do some faculty searches fail?

A failed search is one in which candidates were interviewed but no one was hired.

Given the large pool of highly qualified applicants for every faculty position, you'd think that searches would never fail. It should always be possible to hire someone good; and not only that, but someone who wants and needs the job. Yet searches do fail, and, although certainly less common than successful searches, failed searches are not so rare.

Economic issues may be involved, but these are typically resolved at an earlier phase of a search. For example, an anticipated search might be canceled after the application stage but before the interview stage, owing to budgetary issues. In some cases, however, a search might be canceled after the interviews. In my academic youth, this happened to me with one position for which I interviewed. After the interview, I got a call saying that the position was "on hold" owing to budgetary issues.

So, economics can play a role, perhaps even more so today, but I'd be surprised if most failed searches are owing to lean budgets. I would expect economic concerns to squelch a search before candidates are brought to campus to interview. Every failed search with which I have been directly involved as a faculty member has failed owing to non-economic reasons.

What are some of these reasons? Here are a few, and I hope readers will add to this list from their own experiences:

1 - All the candidates looked great on paper, but  in person, they were all jerks and/or lacking in creativity, communication skills, and/or ideas for future research. Being a jerk has not traditionally disqualified some faculty from being hired, but encountering a series of unpleasant and uninspiring interviewees definitely decreases a department's enthusiasm for hiring any one of them, especially if they all turn out to have no ideas beyond their awesome doctoral research (e.g., interviewees who say: "I plan to keep on getting more data just like these and see what falls out.").

It's unusual for every candidate interviewed to be deemed unacceptable to hire, but it happens.

As I've described in the FSP blog, I have been surprised over the years by the degree to which some interviewees are willing to be rude, patronizing, and disingenuous to faculty, students, and staff. One minor example from the FSP archives: A candidate for a faculty position, during a meeting between the candidate and the faculty (and only faculty), singled me out to wish me luck with finishing my thesis. That's nice, but, as a tenured professor, I didn't appreciate his kind wishes. This incident was one of several ways in which this candidate demonstrated that he was "out of touch" and unlikely to be a dynamic or desirable colleague. Also, his interview talks were boring.

That search failed, but only temporarily. The search was redone the following year, with great success. This is typical of many failed searches -- the position is filled during a do-over search process.

2 - The top choices accepted other offers, and none of the remaining candidates were deemed hireable. This situation arises if:

(a) The top candidate or candidates have what they consider a better offer or offers, owing to considerations of salary, start-up, geographic preferences etc.; or

(b) The timing of offers is uncoordinated, such that the top candidates have to make decisions about other offers before the university in question is able to put together an offer.

I've also heard of candidates turning down offers because they knew they weren't the #1 choice. I personally think that is a mistake, as there is commonly no real difference among the top candidates, and the ranking of #1 vs. #2 or #4 may come down to details about research specialty. If you take the job, being #2 or #4 in the search doesn't mean your colleagues will forever think of you as second- or fourth-rate, especially since they probably never thought that about you to begin with (although there are exceptions).

Most of the failed searches with which I have been involved had elements of explanations #1 and/or #2, but there are other possibilities:

3 - The department was impressed with all or most of the interviewees, but the Dean would only allow offers to be made (successively) to the top n candidates, with n < number of interviewees the department considered hireable. This happens, although I suspect it is more rare than the other explanations (correct me if I am wrong). Most academics -- including Deans -- know that every single interviewee might be an excellent hire, and, as noted above, ranking them is only done because it has to be done. The one who ended up ranked 4th or 7th or whatever might be a great hire, so why not keep making offers until one is accepted? If the search is terminated after the first or second offer is turned down, it's possible that there are reasons not known to the faculty, but it could mean that an administrator is being short-sighted and focusing only on the ranking (i.e., giving the ranking more significance than it warrants).

A failed search is a tragic thing for all concerned, and represents a lot of time and money. If a department is lucky, it gets to re-do a failed search, perhaps with success the next time because the applicant pool is different, the search is taken in a new direction, or a different search committee is formed to make initial decisions about interviewees.

Some universities have the luxury of being in continuous search mode, rather than conducting episodic searches when a position is open and the powers-that-be permit the search. A few times, I have been invited to give a talk at another university, only to realize during my visit that the department was in crypto-recruiting mode and had brought me in to ask me if I'd consider moving from my current university. In that mode, searches never really "fail", they just keep going until the department finds a good match. That works for some searches, but of course it limits the searches to people who are already known to the faculty, and may not give the searching department a very broad view of the possibilities. I think an open search is better for getting a large and diverse applicant pool, even if this type of search could ultimately fail.

So, faculty readers, have you been involved in a failed search? Why did the search fail? Was it re-done at a later date? With your responses, perhaps we can compile A Semi-Comprehensive Guide to Failed Searches.

33 responses so far

Rat Race

Mar 22 2011 Published by under career issues

Blogging has taught me many interesting things about academic ecosystems other than my own. I have been particularly fascinated to learn about the inner workings of various disciplines, departments, universities, countries, genders..

Every year, I attend quite a few conferences, visit other universities, advise a lot of students, review and edit 57 million manuscripts and proposals, and collaborate with quite a few other scientists on several other continents, but my view of the academic world would nonetheless be quite limited without blog-input and e-mail from readers.

However, much of what I have learned, although fascinating, has been second-order compared to this:

People in the biomedical sciences seem to suffer a lot more than those of us in just about every other STEM field.


My data: 87% of my blog-related e-mail is from unhappy, bitter, troubled, distraught biomed grad students, postdocs, technicians, and early-career faculty. Others write to me with problems, but these tend to be of the "I'm frustrated with my advisor" sort rather than the "I'm being tortured, abused, deported, sued, and I fear my academic career is over" sort that I routinely get from biomed people.

I specify biomedical rather than the life science in general because, as far as I can tell, the ecologists and botanists and ornithologists and whatnot seem to be reasonably content, or, at least, not more stressed out or bitter than your average chemist, physicist, or engineer. No, it's you people doing the important disease-curing research etc. who really seem to have the most difficult academic lives of all.

Of course there are happy biomed people. I can think of at least 2, maybe 3. And I hasten to admit that I don't really understand much of what I read in some of the biomed blogs, especially all the posts focusing on NIH R2D2 grants or whatever. So maybe I don't know what I'm talking about, but the e-mail data nevertheless indicate that something is going on over there in the biomedical departments.

What could explain this phenomenon? Possibilities include:

- My database is flawed, my assumptions are baseless, my conclusions are wrong. Perhaps there are lots of happy biomed people, including biomed bloggers and blog-readers, but the bitter ones make the biggest impression (and write to me more often than the others). The happy ones have no reason to write, and have other hobbies.

- There are more biomed bloggers and blog-readers and this gives the artificial impression that there are more unhappy biomed people.

- Biomed is a total rat race. Postdocs in my field are respected, paid well (+ benefits), and get good jobs, whereas most biomed postdocs seem to be serfs with bleak futures. Biomed people work in large, fractious groups involving people with huge egos stomping on the peons who do the real work. NIH grants are large, but are not large enough, and are difficult to get. And so on.

Of course, those of us who are not curing cancer are glad that others are working on this, but, if biomed is a difficult and unrewarding career path for many who try to pursue it, can anything be done to fix this? Or is it actually a more exhilarating and rewarding career path than one might think from my e-mail inbox and from semi-casual grazing of the biomed blogs?

Obviously, I have no answer to this question, but perhaps some readers would care to comment?

105 responses so far

Grant Expiration

Mar 16 2011 Published by under graduate school, grants

This post addresses grant-related questions sent by readers who wonder how to deal with the mismatch in timing that may occur between the life-time of a grant and the time-frame of a grad student supported by a grant. What do you -- as a PI or as a student RA -- do when the mismatch in time is rather large?

If a doctoral student and a 3-year grant start at exactly the same time, and the student finishes their PhD in 4-5 years, things are probably going to work out fine if the grant goes into a no-cost extension for a year or two (it may not have any RA salary left in it, but it can cover some research expenses) and if the student and advisor are efficient about publishing dissertation-related papers so that any publication costs can be charged to the grant.

PIs in doctoral programs that typically take >4-5 years need to get successive grants in order to support a student fully during their grad program.

In a 4-5 year PhD program, if a grant kicks in after a doctoral student has started, chances are even better that one grant will cover the student's research expenses during the entire program of graduate study. And of course it is also possible that a later, related grant might be acquired that can reasonably cover a student's research expenses during their grad school years (and perhaps beyond, if there are continuing expenses relate to the dissertation research).

But what if that doesn't work out? What if the student, for reasons beyond the control of the advisor, takes a really long time to finish their PhD, and the original grant or grants have long expired? Or, in one case described by a reader, what if an advisor suddenly leaves (quits, retires, dies) before a student has completed their research, or leaves just after a student finishes but the student has post-graduation dissertation-related expenses that would normally be covered by their ex-advisor's grant?

Case 1: student time-to-degree >> expiration date of grant(s), through no fault of advisor

Unless the advisor has a slush fund (from indirect cost return, from an award, from residual start-up funds) and is very nice, there may be some expenses that can't and won't be covered: e.g., publication costs, travel to conferences to give presentations related to the dissertation research. This case sounds straightforward, but it may not be if the reasons the student took so long to finish and write their papers were owing to health problems, family situations (including childbirth/adoption), or other factors that have nothing to do with procrastination, writing problems, or a strong desire to remain in graduate school as long as possible. As has been much discussed elsewhere, however, PIs have limited means to provide long-term financial help in these situations.

In this case, students should think ahead and be aware that their advisor might not be able to pay for some research-related expenses after a grant has really and truly expired. PIs should communicate about these issues as well, but students can be proactive about getting the information they need about the lifespan of grants.

Case 2: student starts project after grant has started

Sometimes it can be hard to recruit a student to start on a project at exactly the same time a grant begins. I can typically get someone by Year 2 of a grant and then deal with the mismatch via no-cost extensions, but sometimes even this is not sufficient. It is the PIs responsibility to make sure the student has sufficient resources to do their research in a reasonable time-frame, perhaps by getting a new, related grant to continue the project.

Case 3: the advisor leaves academia (e.g., quits, dies) during or soon after their advisees' years of graduate study

If a PI leaves academia before a grant expires, another colleague can take over the grant so that it can continue to fund ongoing research by students and/or postdocs. It is the department's responsibility to find the best solution that minimizes harm to the personnel involved.

I once had a colleague leave suddenly to take an industry job; we were co-advising a student in his department. I had been PI on the first grant that funded the student, but after that expired, my colleague was PI on the second grant. When he left, his department chair got a professor in that department to take over the grant (there were logistical reasons why I couldn't do it) and co-advising responsibility until the student finished. These things can be worked out.

The department's responsibility may not, however, extend beyond the graduation of a student. If there are lingering expenses for publications etc., a former student or postdoc could contact the department chair to see if there are residual funds, but if not, the outcome is not so different from in case 1 -- when a grant is gone, it's gone -- but in this case there is no chance of additional funding to continue the research.


My biggest challenge with this general issue has been finding ways to pay for publications by students (long) after a grant has expired. PIs can't just charge expenses from one project to another, unrelated grant. In fact, we aren't even supposed to use a pencil bought by one grant to scribble a note or equation or brilliant illustration related to another project. Actually, I don't think we are even supposed to buy pencils with grants. In any case, there are restrictions. So, even if a PI seems very well funded, it doesn't mean that s/he could pay for your publication costs if s/he weren't so cheap.

It would be nice if grants never really expired, and continued to pay for all justified research expenses for as long as needed, but so far this doesn't seem to be a realistic option.


12 responses so far

Left Behind

Mar 09 2011 Published by under career issues, graduate school

An occasional theme of e-mail that I get from readers involves angst, anxiety, or anguish about possibly (or definitely) "leaving" science. In these cases, the "leaving" in question is voluntary and stems from a lack of interest (to put it mildly) in an academic career and/or a discovery of an interesting non-academic career path.

Keeping in mind that I am speaking as someone who has long been a science professor and has never had any other job since college and that I am therefore speaking from the point of view of a science professor and advisor, my advice is: Don't worry so much. It isn't really "leaving" science if your career will somehow involve science, even if your new career is not research-oriented. And even if you do "leave" science, partially or entirely, why feel bad about that? What's so bad about leaving something you don't want to do?

I know, some people do in fact feel very bad because they have spent several (or many) intense years with a group of peers who are focused on science careers, academic or otherwise, and it can be difficult to admit to wanting something else; perhaps something that friends and co-workers might not respect (even if the rest of the world would).

Some of my readers worry that they are letting down their advisors by "leaving" science. I have colleagues who do, indeed, feel that their *most successful* advisees are the ones who are clones of themselves -- science professors at major research universities. I admit that it does feel good when an advisee wants to pursue a similar career path as my own rather than run screaming from anything that resembles having a life like mine. But that doesn't mean we professors don't like and respect those who choose other careers, and it doesn't (necessarily) mean that those who want to have a different kind of career are repulsed by the thought of being like their advisor (although some are).

I will say, though, that some advisors will not appreciate it if an advisee uses the fact that they don't want a research-focused career as a reason to scale down their efforts while still in graduate school. Just because someone wants to have a career in which they never have to publish, give a conference presentation, or write a grant proposal doesn't mean that they don't have to write papers, give talks at conferences, and perhaps contribute to grant proposals while they are still a graduate student. Maybe they don't have to be quite as intense in some ways as those revving up for an academic job at a university, but an RA supported on a grant has responsibilities no matter what their ultimate career goal.

Even so, if you are working hard and thinking of a different life, don't feel guilty or anxious.

So: I personally do not feel let down if a PhD advisee wants to pursue a non-academic career, but, to be completely honest, I am not sure I have always felt this way. I think that it gets easier to feel this way, as an advisor, when you've been around for a while -- long enough for various advisees to follow various career paths.

And that leads me to my questions for readers:

To those who are or have been the advisor of PhD students, especially those in fields in which academic careers tend to be valued (within academia) over non-academic careers: Do you feel particularly satisfied when students choose to pursue a research-oriented science career (preferably in academia?)? What do you think of those who "leave" science? Do you just want them to be happy, or do you feel that time and money have somehow been wasted?

To those who are or have been a PhD student who does/did not want to pursue the career path that is widely viewed to be the *best* by others in your department: Did you admit to your interests in an "alternative" career and/or your desire to "leave" the field chosen by most of your peers? If not, why not? What did you fear most? And if you did, how do you think you were viewed as a result? Do you have any advice for others in your same position?

51 responses so far

Talking About Your Research (in class)

Mar 02 2011 Published by under teaching


Is it a good idea or a bad idea to talk about one's research interests and results in an undergraduate class? Does this enhance the class or does it bore and alienate the students?

While serving on committees that involve gazing at a large number of teaching evaluations for professors at my university, both within and beyond my department, I have been fascinated by examples in which students comment on professors who mention their research in their lectures in undergraduate classes.

Some students hate it when professors talk about their research in a class. Some students think it is very interesting and a great addition to a class.


What interests me is that it is rare for there to be a mix of opinions for any one professor. That is, either students make mostly positive comments about a professor's discussion of their research or they criticize the professor for discussing research in the class.

It seems, therefore, that there are good ways to talk about your research in class, and there are bad ways to talk about your research in class.

From what I've inferred from reading a large number of teaching evaluations, it is seldom the case that criticism of research-mentions in class is the only negative comment that students make. If students are unhappy with other aspects of the class (e.g., organization, clarity, degree of difficulty of exams, perceived fairness of grading, accessibility of professor), they may interpret the mention of research as one more piece of evidence that proves that the professor doesn't care about teaching. In these cases, students write in teaching evaluations: "Professor X only cares about research."

If, however, students are engaged in the class and feel that the professor cares about them, in-class discussion of the professor's research is interpreted as one more piece of evidence that proves that the professor cares about teaching. In these cases, students write in teaching evaluations: "Professor Z is the perfect example of a university professor because he effectively integrates his research with his teaching. I wish more professors at the university would do this." [real example, paraphrased and included with permission of Professor Z]

In some cases that I have seen in which students wrote in a teaching evaluation that the professor only cares about research (mentioning specifically that the professor talked about his/her research in class instead of the "relevant" materials), there was abundant evidence in the dossier as a whole to show that the professors did in fact care a lot about both teaching and research. These professors, however, are not (yet) effective teachers, at least for certain types of courses (typically large lecture-format courses for non-majors).

Some naturally talented teachers can probably integrate research examples seamlessly into their classes from Day One. For the rest of us, it's best to get the course running smoothly in terms of logistics first, show the students that we respect them and are interested in helping them learn, and then make sure that references to our research are clearly explained in the context of the class.

It might seem like there is a major difference between inserting interesting examples of a topic about which we are passionate and that we think will help our students be more engaged in the course material vs. talking about something that really interests us instead of the boring course material we were assigned to present, but, perhaps from the perspective of the students, this distinction is not so obvious, especially if they are anxious and confused about the course.

Some recent criticisms of US universities have specifically complained about professors who talk about their obscure research interests in class, as if no one could possibly be interested in these topics except the professor in question. A professor who talks about their research in a class is wasting their students' time.

I disagree. I think that talking about research in any class -- from a large lecture-format intro class of non-majors to upper level courses for majors -- can be a very good thing that enhances the class experience for the students and engages them in the topic. The integration of research into classroom teaching has to be done carefully and well, but it can and should be done.

I am speaking from my point of view as a Science Professor who sees a lot of interesting and cutting edge Science being done at her university. It's important to tell students about this, to involve them in the excitement of discoveries, and let them see how scientists work. The research being done at their university is not being carried out by anonymous, unknown people in distant labs. Some of it is being done by their professor and by their teaching assistants, perhaps in the same building in which the class is held. And perhaps some of these students will get involved in a research project as part of their undergraduate studies.

I am most familiar with incorporating elements of Science research in teaching, but I strongly believe that the general principle applies no matter what the academic discipline and no matter how (apparently) obscure the research topic.

16 responses so far