What is a faculty search committee looking for?

Oliver Steinbock

This short essay is based on my personal experience as a full professor at a large state university that hires candidates who can establish a strong, externally funded research program. During the past 20 years, I have served and chaired several search committees and also witnessed numerous other faculty searches in action. My comments are limited to junior faculty searches, i.e. job openings for tenure-track assistant professors in chemistry.

In my research area (physical chemistry), we receive between 100 and 150 applications. The search committee typically consists of four or five faculty members. The first challenge for each committee members is to narrow the applicant pool to perhaps 10-15 candidates prior to the first serious committee meeting. Making it into this group is crucial and certain things have to stand out because each application consists of a c.v., research proposal, teaching statement, and three recommendation letters. In other words, subtle details don’t matter at this stage because each committee member is looking at 1000-2000 pages of information. In my opinion, these are the first evaluation criteria (in random order): number of publications and quality of journals, number of first-author publications, and the reputation of the PhD-granting and postdoc institutions. The reputation of the undergraduate institution is in my opinion irrelevant. Next I have a quick look at the recommendation letters. Again, the reputation of the letter writer (if known to me) and his/her institution play a role. I also look for red flags in the letters.

While the first stage is not too surprising, things get more complicated once a personal judgement about the research field is injected. Some searches look for a specific (but not too narrow) area, say optical spectroscopy or biophysical chemistry in the widest sense. In my experience, however, a good search casts a wide net and looks for the best scientist. The committee members now begin to evaluate whether a research area is promising for the next 5-10 years or whether it peaked a couple of years ago. Clearly everyone would like to hire during the upswing of a field, a time window that is ideal for a junior faculty to establish a name for themselves. The research proposal is important and judged from the point of view of a NSF, DOE, etc. referee. What we want is a document that is ideally ready for submission to an external funding agency (although the document at hand should probably portray a slightly wide vision that could result in several grants and several PhD projects). The proposal should most importantly summarize an exciting research thrust. Obviously different people have different ideas about what’s exciting, but I often (not always) find a significant degree of agreement between the committee members.

At this point, smaller details become more important such as the number of talks presented, conferences attended, and the relative productivity during the PhD and postdoc years. For example, publishing six or seven strong papers during PhD looks good, but only one second-author paper as a postdoc might raise concerns whether the candidate can work and publish independently. I rarely (never?) look for the number of years spent in the PhD program, but if the PhD is not recent (say >5 years), I search for possible reasons why the candidate didn’t secure a faculty position earlier. I think awards and honors are an indicator whether the candidate has the energy to seek external funding and recognition. Despite what most people think, we do read the teaching statement/philosophy and it is often eye-opening to the see the differences in intellectual clarity between different candidates. I also often notice a striking difference between the writing style in the teaching statement and the research proposal, and usually conclude that the (poorer) teaching philosophy is more representative of the candidate’s written English. Prior teaching experience is not an important factor. We might check the number of citations of the applicants’ papers but most of us do not consider this an important factor during a junior faculty search.

Lastly, the search committee compiles a final short-list (3-5 candidates) for two-day interviews during which the visitor presents two talks, one on their prior research and one on their future research. The short-list is run by the Chair, the Dean, and HR. Typically, no objections exist and the committee chair makes phone calls to invite the candidate and schedule the visit. Only very rarely does the committee return to the other applications.

In summary, a successful candidate describes an exciting research project, has a sufficient number of publications (with an emphasis on first-author papers), and strong recommendation letters from well-established scientists who are familiar with the applicant (two are usually your PhD and postdoc advisor). Clearly, there is no space for sloppiness in the application and all material has to be clearly presented.

Dr. Oliver Steinbock is a professor of physical chemistry at Florida State University

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