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Entries from February 1, 2010 - February 28, 2010


Negotiating a start-up package

After my previous posts on science careers I was asked about negotiating a start-up package. Unfortunately here I have little input - for a new faculty member there is very little negotiation that can take place. The faculty will have a budget set aside for recruitment and this is not going to change in any substantial way. There are a few minor points to consider:

1. The edges can be flexible.
The net value of the start-up package is unlikely to change, but a one-size-fits-all package may be adopted to your circumstance. Will it be possible to have no teaching commitments in the first year? A discount on departmental services? Perhaps make your start-up fund open-ended rather than time-limited. Look carefully at the package being offered and find any conditions that could be an issue to you - and only ask about changes that will make a real difference to your research. Often the hardest part is working out what would be important to you, since you will not be familiar with the inner workings of the department in advance.

2. Negotiate for the research, not for yourself. If you talk about changes in terms of things you would like, the faculty will weigh this up against how much they want you. Instead phrase the changes in terms of how they can add to your research. Why will this change make your research output substantially better? The faculty will be much more willing to make changes if they can see the value to your research output - after all they want you to succeed.

3. Don't grandstand. These are your colleagues and your requests will typically come at a cost to them, either in terms of faculty subsidies or extra workload. Do not make a little issue into a big issue. Also, don't bluff. In my negotiations with one faculty I did have one "make or break" issue. There were a few things that would have been nice but I could live without - these I let go when they were turned down. But when I discussed one particular clause I explained exactly why this would make my particular research program untenable, and when they couldn't change that one clause I walked away. Don't make an issue "make or break" unless it is literally a deal-breaker.

4. Get it in writing. Okay, this is not exactly in line with #3 about being considerate in negotiations, but a contract should be in writing. If a faculty is happy to agree to a condition there is absolutely no reason why it shouldn't be written down in your contract. Things change over five years. Departmental heads leave and get replaced by new heads. Memories on exactly what was agreed become hazy over time.


Applying for faculty positions

I've had some occasion recently to contemplate the strategies for applying for faculty positions. In 2008 I interviewed at eight different universities for a faculty position, and two of those experiences in particular were very illuminating - the IRIC (Institute for Research in Immunology and Cancer) and VIB (Flemish Institute of Biotechnology) held open applications where all the applicants were interviewed together. This gave me a fascinating insight into the faux pas made and the important criteria for being offered a faculty position.

These are the three criteria I recommend post-docs to consider:

3. Publications. Yes, telling people they need Nature papers is useless advice - everyone knows the importance of publications. Actually, I have put publications at #3 because I think it is much less important than the other two criteria. I interviewed back-to-back against post-docs with outstanding publication records that I couldn't match, multiple major Cell papers that redefined a field and opened up new technologies. Yet I've seen these same people fail at criteria #1 and #2 and miss out to people with less outstanding publication lists. I see publications almost as a threshold effect. For a post-doc to be competitive at a high-level institute they will need to have multiple papers at JEM or higher journals. But in a way it is more important to have a diverse portfolio of publications. Primary papers in multiple laboratories demonstrate an ability to research in different environments. Middle author publications demonstrate willingness to collaborate. Review papers show a grasp over the field. The risk for an applicant with a few good first author Nature papers is that the credit will go to the last author. Having a broader repertoire with senior authorships and multiple laboratories tells the selection panel that you have carved out your own research niche and that you were more than a PhD student put on a lucky project.

2. Experience outside benchwork. The enormous importance that is placed on publications tends to drive post-docs to make a fundamental mistake - you cannot learn to be a PI from the bench. Once you have a faculty position the amount of research time you have available will drop precipitously. Skills are needed in setting up a lab, writing grants, working on a budget, mentoring students, teaching undergrads, faculty business, etc etc. The selection panel is well aware of this, they are not looking for a post-doc to work in their lab, but someone who can run a successful operation, someone who can translate their previous first-author success into future last-author success. One applicant I interviewed with had an outstanding publication record but didn't get a job offer because it was clear that they were an outstanding post-doc but would be a terrible PI. When asked about supervision experience this candidate said "Oh, my PI gave me a technician, and I've trained her to sit behind me and pass me solutions and pipettes reset to the right volumes. It is great, I can now do research twice as fast as before". Perhaps - but how would he fair when he was tied to a computer writing grants and relying on his technician to produce data? It is important for post-docs to show that they have the skill set to run a lab - a different skill set to being a post-doc. Mentor students, write fellowships or grants, train technicians, teach classes - show the selection panel that you have already been running a sub-lab within a larger lab, and you are now ready to expand your operation.

1. Emotional intelligence. We work in science, the bar is pretty low - but still I have seen the stunned look on faces as applicants show zero emotional intelligence. I'm going to put this one at number 1, because an applicant who is above average but not genius on publications and management experience can shoot to the top of a list if they have emotional intelligence. This stuff should be simple but it obviously isn't. I remember standing around at a coffee break during the interview day and listening to a selection panel member ask an applicant how they were finding the experience. The reply? "Actually, to be honest it is terrifying, there are so many good people here that I feel like a fraud". Okay, this is not uncommon, a study by the American Astronomical Association found that more than 50% of graduate students admit to being afraid their peers will find out how little they know. Only 5% strongly disagreed. But don't confide in the selection panel. Every interaction with the selection panel or any faculty member, regardless of how informal, is part of your assessment. An applicant needs to work out what each person is after, and show them that you can deliver - both in body language and your response. Be calm, authoritative and deliberative without being aggressive, flighty or nervous. Consider that every panel member is looking for something different. A good selection panel wants the best person for the department and also the best person for their laboratory in particular. They are picking a long-term colleague, show them that you have skills they can use, knowledge they can draw on, that you are willing to collaborate, that you have an ability to "value-add" to the department. The right applicant in the right place will not only bring in their own research value, but will also increase the research value of other laboratories in the faculty. An applicant should research the faculty and the faculty members, think about collaborative potential and engage each individual they interview with on their own terms.

Now the corollary to this advice - don't fake it too much. If writing grants and mentoring students feels like an annoying distraction from benchwork, think again about whether you want to be a PI. If you are not genuinely excited about the collaborative prospects in a department, don't send in an application there. The interview is not just about the selection panel interviewing you, it is about you subtly working out whether the department will be good for you, so if you have to make promises you don't want to keep you are looking in the wrong place.