Jeff Milbrandt talks about the hiring process behind a faculty position that recently went at Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis.
As head of the genetics department at Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis (WUSTL), what do you look for in new faculty members?
As a genetics department we’re very interested in computational approaches and new technologies because I think they’ve driven the genomic revolution. So we’re interested in finding people that are either utilising or developing new technologies to study fundamental disease pathways, with the hope that they will collaborate with more clinical people at Washington University to translate some of their discoveries into something that would benefit human kind.
What was the position you were trying to fill?
Essentially, we were looking for young, energetic, creative and accomplished scientists that are going to fulfil the dream of being able to study basic disease mechanisms using genomic technologies across two departments: genetics and developmental biology.
The fundamental role of the new faculty member is to do world-class research. There is not a huge teaching burden and there is a minimal administrative burden. The position was designed for someone to develop their laboratory, to obtain external grant funding, attract students and postdocs to the lab to help with the exciting work described by the candidates.
What did candidates have to do during their interviews?
The candidates have to do many things across two days. One is a chalk talk, which is about what you’re planning to do, why, and how you’re planning to do it. It’s a back-and-forth discussion with a group of 15-20 faculty members, asking things like why are you going to do your work this way? Are these the best experiments for you to prove your theory? That’s really an opportunity for us to find out how much the candidate knows about their topic, how much they’ve thought about the relevance of what they’re doing and the pitfalls they might run into as they pursue their work. We also get a feel for how they handle themselves, questions and adversity, and maybe someone that doesn’t believe what they’re doing. Can they think on their feet?
During the seminar, candidates need to communicate to a diverse audience what they’ve done, why it’s important and how it fits into the grander scheme of what’s going on in their field. What we really care a lot about is whether or not their research was clever and creative: does it have legs?
They also sit through a series of one-on-one talks with members of the department. As the head of department, I lay out the vision of the department, talk to them about their experiences, how they think they might fit and try to get a feel about them as a person. A key point is that these talks are with a wider community of faculty that come from a variety of departments that they would end up working with. They might have as many as 12-14 of those 30-40min discussions. We take them to an informal dinner, and that’s usually with 4-5 people. They also have a lunch with the grad students and postdocs, and talk to them about their feelings about trainees and their projects and that sort of thing. The candidate gets a feel for the quality of the trainees here, and the trainees often provide valuable feedback on the candidate.
The two day event is an opportunity for us to see how they connect with people. I personally won’t hire anyone that I don’t have good personal rapport with. You spend too much time with them and it’s too much of a tight-knit group, that even if they’re brilliant, if they can’t communicate and don’t get on with other members of the department, then it’s probably not a good fit.
What made Samantha Morris stand out for this role?
She fulfilled almost every criteria. She has a very good track record as a scientist and communicates well. Some people just have a knack for that, and people wanted to be around her. She had a lot of great ideas of where she wanted to go, knows where she needs to collaborate and what expertise she needs from others. She laid out a very good research plan, one that is accomplishable. Not that there won’t be problems, but there will be gold at the end of the rainbow. It was a unanimous decision.
How did you decide on who to interview?
We had about 250 applications and interviewed eight candidates. What you have in front of you at that point is a paper trail: you have a CV, a two-page research interest paper that would describe what they’ve done, how they’re leveraging and catapulting that into their research vision when starting their own labs. We also have letters of recommendation and we make phone calls to get it down to the final group.
The first cut is to say: does their field of interest fit with what we’re doing? We had very clear cut areas of interest and yet still people sent things that are, quite frankly, completely missing the mark. Secondly we look at their publication records and the prominence of the work. You go through a lot of applications so you think about the importance of the work, not just what journal it was published in or how many there are. But that’s difficult when scanning 250 applications in a couple of weeks.
Then you debate in the search committees about the research vision statement: Does it seem reasonable? We try to be as objective as possible.
What advice do you have for anyone looking to find their first faculty position?
You’re research statement has to be very tailored and focussed, and you really have to crystalize a vision that is exciting, interesting and relevant. You have to be able to explain your ideas to a diverse audience and essentially transmit the excitement that you feel for your own work to others. Q:
We are really happy to have Samantha join us and we’re looking forward to working with her!
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