Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Spell. It. Out.

Last night, a twitter fight erupted on where one should encourage trainees to publish. Specifically, whether it was appropriate to encourage trainees to publish in a trendy but untested open access journal, given that publication venues counts in hiring and promotions. Proflikesubstance wrote a thoughtful response (read the comments, for once).
I am very invested in this conversation. I am a postdoc in neurophysiology with two publications. Not two publications from my postdoc. Two publications period. One is in PLoS ONE, one is a decent society journal from my old field, vertebrate palaeontology. Here's the thing, my old field doesn't have high impact journals. I'm trying to get a third paper in what vertebrate palaeontology considers a high impact journal. The IF is less than five. My decent society journal is less than 2. In my new field, that shit don't fly. Compared to the neuroscientist I share a department with, my publication record is a joke.
Now, here's where I get annoyed. There are people in my field who would, and have told me, that I am already at a huge disadvantage compared to my peers. People who would tell me to seriously look at alternative careers. People I respect who've tweeted such advice. I am aware of this. I am not playing games anymore. I need to know what I need to do to restack the deck in my favour. So I am tired of people, well intentioned people whose advice on many things I trust, pussy footing around the issue of where I should publish.
Whenever the topic of open access comes up, proponents argue that they have placed postdocs into faculty positions without glam pubs. Detractors then darkly mutter about the selection committees' expectations and promotions and tenure requirements. Yet when it comes to specifics, nada. No one is willing to say HOW they whittle down those three hundred applications to a shortlist of five. I've yet to see anyone go on the record and say "yup, I chucked everyone who didn't have a CNS paper" or conversely "I looked up the candidates' H index and ranked them that way". Or, "our process is opaque, and I'm not sure how I came up with shortlist, but looking back on it, yes most had a CNS paper". Or "actually, it was the K99/R00 that did it".
Our department has NSF type comparative primatology people as well as neuroscientists in it. Recently, we had a seminar speaker meet the postdocs. He was a neuroscientist. The anthropology postdocs on NSF money talked about how, after two years, they were heading onto the job market. The neuro postdocs, and the speaker, all did a double take, as for them, no one was job market ready with less than five years of postdoc and at least a dozen papers, not even considering journal impact. This is the complex quagmire of tacit expectations a postdoc is supposed to navigate as they gauge where to publish and how much.
I'm currently awkwardly straddling paleontology, physiology and neurology, and I'm competitive for anatomy teaching positions. I know what the standards in many different fields are, and they change a lot. As I mentioned, in my old field, it's almost impossible to reach the kind of impact that neuroscientists get. And NIH money is out of the question. So I know for a fact that paleontologists have very different publication profiles to neuroscientists. As a trainee, I need you, as senior people who have been on hiring committees and tenure and promotion committees to level with me. Tell me what I need, what you expect in terms of publication. Spell it out by field, by university, by department. Tell me how you deal with people from radically different background when you do broad searches (like a ecology and evolutionary biology position, for example). Stop it with the dark hints.


  1. I like to compare departments to families. Then I remind people that every family is dysfunctional at some level. And families stay together for a reason. Sometimes it's a good reason, sometimes it is a bad reason. And sometimes families don't stay together, again, for good or bad reasons, or a combination of both. Yes, departments are like families, up to and including perennial features like creepy uncle bozo, who spends each family gathering quietly muttering to himself in the corner, and may be back on the sauce.

    So asking a department whom they will hire, is somewhat like asking a family where they will take this year's vacation. They'll debate (or they won't), entertain new ideas (or they won't) and finally they'll do something and no matter where they go, it won't be as great as they thought it would be, and they'll all like each other less (at least for a while) when it's over.

    So your question (correct me if I am wrong) is basically, How do departments evaluate a given application? Again, this is equivalent (I'm arguing) to, How do families evaluate a given vacation destination? Answer 1.0 is: Each family does it differently, and answer 1.1 is Each family member does it differently. In my family, I sit there with my arms crossed, looking sullen and refuse to even consider anyplace where it doesn't snow. "I am used to snow," I remind everyone, "and I gave up snow to move here." And then I basically stop listening. I have seen essentially this very strategy used during hiring decisions, and just like with our last Spring Break, it sometimes works.

    A family is going to consider how much each destination costs, how much fun it looks like, how much personal effort on their part is required to make it happen, etc. Some will want to go to a new place, some are adamant that they must frequent the same place they loved as a kid. Sometimes one personality will bulldoze and govern the decision, sometimes no one will have a clue and the final decision will come down to sister Sue accidentally clicks the "checkout" on the Travelocity web page.

    As for me, I’d look at your publications to see if you have an recent first-author publications. I don’t care how many total, I want to see one first-author one there. Then I’m going to read it, not necessarily to see what it says, but to see how well-written it is. I’m going to form my first impression based on that. There, I Spelled It Out, as you requested.

    Why do I do that? I could give you some line about how the only thing that really matters in this business over the long term is how well you express your ideas in writing because that’s what goes into the library and thus around the world (which is true, dammit). But really it has to do with the fact that when I was applying for jobs, I had very little on my resume aside from one very well-written first-author manuscript. Get it? Others would insist that you have at least one publication in X journal, or at least X awards or scholarships, or at least X semesters teaching, or some other specific thing. And guess what, it all goes back to what their own CVs were like when they were your age. Faculties, like families, are all about recovering a happy past that really only lives within their individual nostalgia.

    To have the best chance at the job, look at the earliest part of the CVs of the faculty, what schools, awards, scholarship, papers, etc., and then accentuate those things. Generally the person who has the most points according to that collective tally, will be hired, as many of us old faculty are desperately still trying to validate and reward the elusive memory of our previous selves.

    1. These are great points! I'm not sure I completely agree with the advice to look at the early part of the CV of faculty, though, especially for more senior faculty. Standards have changed greatly over time, and people change over time, so what was once good enough may not be good enough now, especially with the increase competition.

  2. Hope really nailed it in her reply! And within a university or department, each search will be different because the search committee is different. So you assume no one cares about the teaching statement and don't even submit it as requested. But as luck would have it, the professor chairing the search this year cares a lot and tosses your application...

  3. Here's my answer for my own field of ecology: