Lessons from a Faculty Search

9. January 2013

David McGloin

This post is reproduced from the blog Dundee Physics with the kind permission of the author.

When my department was hiring for a life sciences-related position this past fall, I was on a search and selection committee for the first time. It’s an interesting and tough process, so I thought I’d share some thoughts on how we went about assessing our applicants in the hope that other job seekers can benefit from my insight. We cast a wide net and ended up with a large number of very high quality candidates. It was a tough choice–so how did we decide?

Fit to specification: My first piece of advice is to make sure that your cover letter, CV and research statement clearly communicate how you fit the specific position advertised. While our call wasn’t restricted to those working in a certain topic area, applicants still needed to state how their work aligned itself to the life sciences. Writing that you were “really interested in biology” wasn’t going to cut it, and for some really strong physical sciences applicants, this is where they fell down. We wanted to see at least some evidence of how the applicant’s work had been applied to biophysics research or how it might be applied in our department (and not just generically).

Experience: Your experience to date matters a lot – it shows the trajectory that you are on, what kind of thinker you are and what you might be capable of. The areas you have worked on, your general productivity and the papers you have produced make a big difference. However, the reality is that this is only part of the package. You might have been unlucky in where you have worked, or the projects you were assigned may not have gone according to plan. We recognize this. When your papers and background are a little lacking, then your research statement becomes even more important.

Research Statement: So you want to come and work with us, but what exactly are you planning to do? Your research statement should outline a coherent program of work and describe an interesting project in an innovative way. Incremental changes are not as persuasive as plans on a larger scale. However, you also have to be realistic, and this is where the challenge lies: to outline something of grand ambition in such a way that we can believe you will be able to deliver. In my mind this is perhaps the most important section: It gives you the opportunity to showcase your talent regardless of what you have achieved.

Metrics:  Does your h-index matter? Your publication count? Number of citations? Where you publish? In modern academia, these things are very significant, probably much more than they should be. The wide variety of postdoc positions that people have means you can’t always compare such factors in any meaningful way. One of my colleagues thought that postdocs should produce at least one decent paper per year. We used this as a general standard, but not a hard-and-fast rule. We did consider numbers of citations, but only as one factor to help us get a sense of the value of the papers published. Ultimately, I think the panel paid more attention to where papers were published over other numbers, but we really tried to look at the whole picture rather than just one metric. We put more emphasis on the applicant’s research ideas and his or her potential to deliver than pure numbers.

Interview: You might make a good impression on paper, but you also have to talk the talk. We decided on a full day visit for each interviewee, so the candidates got to speak to a range of people across the university. We asked them to think specifically about which faculty members they might like to converse with, in order to push them to think about why exactly they wanted to work with us. They were also asked to give a talk. All this information gave the interview panel a rounder picture of each applicant.

Ultimately, we hired someone with great potential, who we believe will take on big challenges. We were looking for—and found—a person who is a good colleague, who fits in with the department and who interacts well with undergraduates. I hope you find a similar good fit in whatever position you seek!

David McGloin (d.mcgloin@dundee.ac.uk) is head of the division of physics and a senior lecturer at the University of Dundee, Scotland.

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Learning to Teach

16. November 2012

Arti Agarwal

As a young academic focused predominantly on research, I felt conflicted when I was asked to lecture at my university. I was nervous about teaching for the first time and concerned about the amount of time and work required but also excited about the opportunity to impact students.

When I actually got into the classroom, I found that it was every bit as difficult as I had expected.

For those of us who are not natural teachers, the idea of facing a few hundred students, waiting like hungry lions to devour our fearful attempts at introducing discrete Fourier transform, is not an enticing prospect. However, in spite of its challenges, teaching is an integral part of an academic career. Every academic could benefit from learning how to do it well.

Fortunately, there is help out there. Here are a few ways that you can learn how to be a better, more effective teacher:

Take courses. Many universities offer classes on various aspects of teaching: theories of learning and teaching in higher education, curriculum development, assessment, teaching techniques, etc.  These courses can be very helpful for new teachers, so take advantage of them.

Find relevant workshops. I participated in a two-day teaching workshop focused on designing classes, including preparing slides, hand outs, and assignments. We practiced giving lectures that were video recorded and played back to us. Watching ourselves on tape allowed us to see how we appeared to students. Did we talk too quickly or too quietly? Was our writing legible on the blackboard? Did we fidget or appear nervous? Seeing these kinds of errors helps you to correct them.

Look to professional societies. Many professional groups and technical societies also have teaching resources for educators. Usually they will be subject-specific, and thus can be a great place to find material, teaching tips and activities for your particular area.

Seek advice from teaching experts. You can also find support from people who specialize in the study of teaching and learning. Input from these sources can be very helpful in engaging students For example, I recently had a group of students who were not solving tutorial problems. No amount of exhortation on my part could convince them to do the assignments. I was getting increasingly frustrated, so I went to the Learning Development Centre at my university and asked for their advice. They suggested that I divide the class into groups, and assign a question to each one. They would have to solve their problem on the board in front of the rest of the class, and then prepare a new question for the other groups to tackle. The most challenging question won. Peer pressure and healthy competition provided the motivation necessary to get my students excited about their work.

Even if you don’t feel that teaching comes naturally to you, you can learn techniques to help you be a more competent and comfortable teacher. It takes a lot of hard work and practice, but the rewards are worth it in the end. There is no better feeling than when a class goes well and you know that your students are truly learning and benefitting from your efforts.

Arti Agrawal (arti_agrawal@hotmail.com) is a lecturer at City University London in the Department of Electrical, Electronic and Information Engineering, School of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences. To follow her personal blog, visit http://artiagrawal.wordpress.com.

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