Part I: Data that address the five myths
The approach and cohort. There is no database that we know of that lists all of the individuals hired into neuroscience-focused tenure-track or equivalent positions. Therefore, we examined a defined cohort of research scientists hired into assistant professor positions during the “K99 era” (between 2009 and the present) and asked, “what were their accomplishments prior to being hired?”
The cohort for this study included 344 individuals who occupied assistant professor or equivalent academic faculty positions. The cohort was defined by the following requirements: First, we identified all individuals who applied as principal investigator (PI) for an NINDS R01 and were designated as an ESI, between fiscal years 2015 and 2017 (inclusive; thus, three fiscal years or nine R01 due dates). There were 592 unique ESIs who applied for an NINDS R01 at one of these nine due dates. Because clinician-scientists are subject to very different hiring considerations than individuals with PhD degrees only, we confined the cohort to those with a research doctorate (e.g., PhD) who did not have a clinical degree (i.e., we eliminated all individuals from the cohort who had, for example, an MD or a PhD in a field that includes a license to practice clinically). Last, because this study originated to address the myth regarding the need for a K99/R00 to obtain a faculty position, we limited the cohort to those individuals who were hired between 1 January 2009 and the present (the K99 was initiated in late 2007, with the first transitions to an R00 at NINDS occurring after 1 January 2009).
Characteristics of the cohort. The 344 members of this cohort were hired into their tenure-track positions at 133 different institutions, with 22 of these 133 institutions hiring five or more of these individuals. The mean time to completion of their PhD training was 5.0 ± 1.0 years (SD; median = 4.8 years), with 91% of the cohort completing the PhD training within 6 years. All members of the cohort transitioned into postdoctoral positions. The mean and median duration of postdoctoral training were 4.5 ± 1.7 (SD) and 4.6 years, respectively, with 79% of the cohort completing postdoctoral training within 6 years and 93% finishing their postdoctoral training in 7 years or less. The average time from completion of the PhD to start of tenure-track position for the entire cohort was 5.9 ± 2.1 years (SD; median = 6.1 years), with 73% obtaining their position within 7 years of degree and 98% within 10 years of degree. Before beginning their faculty positions, members of the cohort published, on average, 13 ± 8 papers (SD) and were listed as first author on 6 ± 3 (SD) of those papers.
Important note: Our cohort consists of individuals who successfully began a tenure-track, academic faculty position. We did not obtain information on a comparison cohort of individuals who did not begin a tenure-track position. Thus, we have not addressed, and are not describing in this paper, what makes the difference between success and failure in obtaining an academic position. The data below specifically address the myths described above, in the form of the question, “do you need [something] to obtain a tenure-track or equivalent position?”
Myth 1: One needs a K99/R00 to obtain an academic faculty position
Perhaps the number one myth that we hear at NINDS is that you need a K99/R00 to get an academic faculty position. We hear this not only from postdocs but also from experienced faculty and even occasionally from NIH staff. To address this myth, we determined how many individuals in our cohort were successfully awarded NIH K99/R00 grants. Of the 344 individuals in the cohort, only 14% (48 of 344) had a K99 award (Fig. 1).
We have subsequently completed the same analysis for an identically defined cohort from the years 2018 to 2019 (i.e., the two fiscal years subsequent to those from which the main cohort was drawn). There were 258 unique individuals in this cohort. Of these 258 individuals, 35 (13.5%) had a K99. Together, over the 5-year period from 2015 to 2019, 14% of the 602 individuals who were hired into assistant professor positions since 2009 and applied for an NIH R01 as an ESI had a K99 award.
These analyses put an upper limit on the number of individuals being hired who had a K99/R00 award at 14%. However, this is an overestimate. Our cohort does not include the many individuals hired into tenure-track positions who do not apply for R01 funding within the first few years of starting their faculty position. For example, over the 5-year period from 2015 to 2019, there were 351 unique individuals designated as “new investigator” (NI; defined as somebody who never obtained an NIH R01 and is >10 years from obtaining their doctorate) who met all other criteria of our cohort with no overlap of individuals. Only 19 (5%) of these NIs had a K99/R00 award. If we then combine both ESI and NI populations, then only 11% of these 953 (602 plus 351) individuals had a K99 award before obtaining their faculty position.
Even this figure of 11% must be an overestimate of the number of K99 awardees among those hired. Most K99 awardees apply for an R01 during or shortly after completion of their R00 award (96% of individuals with an NINDS R00 have applied for an R01 by the end of the R00 period; such individuals populate the numerator) and will thus be accounted for. However, there will be a large number of individuals hired into tenure-track faculty positions that have not applied for an NINDS R01 early in their faculty careers (e.g., those who applied for other NIH grant mechanisms, such as an R21 or R15, or those who receive funding from other agencies, such as the National Science Foundation, or from private foundations). For example, we identified all of the individuals who applied for an NIH R15 between 2015 and 2019 and were hired in the K99 era. None (more than 200 individuals) had a K99/R00 award. These individuals would add to the denominator (total number hired into faculty positions) and thus make the percentage of those hired who had a K99 even smaller. Similarly, there are the many individuals hired into tenure-track positions that have not applied to NIH for funding. It is highly likely that very few or none of these would have had a K99 award; all of these individuals would add to the denominator and further reduce the percentage of K99 awardees among those hired into tenure-track positions.
Myth 2: One needs to have research funding to be competitive for an academic faculty position
In our experience, this myth is the broader issue for those who believe you must have a K99 to obtain a tenure-track faculty position. The K99/R00 has a lot of visibility with respect to its value in helping postdocs obtain faculty positions, but there are many other opportunities for postdocs to obtain funding, both from private foundations and from NIH. We hear repeatedly not only from postdocs (and often their mentors) but also even from students that trainees must obtain competitive funding to obtain a faculty position.
To examine this myth, we determined how many individuals in our cohort had research funding as PI before obtaining their tenure-track position. We envisioned this myth as being related to an individual having an active grant to take to the position. However, for this analysis, we did not consider whether the grant was active at the transition point of taking the position. We simply determined whether the individual had obtained funding at any time before obtaining the faculty position.
In addition to the 14% of our cohort who obtained a K99/R00 award, another 3% of the cohort obtained non-K99, K-series funding, 8% obtained R-series funding, and 15% obtained non-NIH funding before the start of their faculty position (Fig. 1, left of dashed line). Thus, 40% of the cohort obtained competitive funding before being hired. Twenty-three individuals obtained two grants before their tenure-track position (Fig. 1, right of dashed line). Most critical to addressing the myth, however, is that 60% of individuals in this cohort who obtained a tenure-track faculty position had no funding before obtaining that position.
To examine this another way, we asked how many of the institutions represented in this study hired an individual into their tenure-track position when that individual had not received competitive funding. Eighty-two percent (109 of 133) of the institutions represented in this study hired individuals into tenure-track positions who had not obtained competitive funding before being hired.
Myth 3: One needs an NIH F32 to be competitive for an academic faculty position
Another myth that we encounter from trainees and many mentors is that an F32 is a necessary stepping-stone for a successful career in academic research. Applying for, and even getting, an F32 has many scientific and training benefits. However, the data (Fig. 2) indicate that the vast majority of those hired into a tenure-track position did not have an F32 as a postdoc. Only 17% (58 of 344) of our cohort that held tenure-track positions were supported by an F32 during their postdoctoral research period (Fig. 2). Twenty of these fifty-eight individuals secured more substantial individual funding (e.g., K99/R00 or R-series grants) before their faculty appointments. Consequently, only 11% (38 of 344) of our cohort were awarded an F32 and no other funding before obtaining their faculty position. Perhaps more directly to the point, if one subtracts out all of the individuals from the cohort who had funding other than an F32 (to determine the prevalence of F32 funding among the 60% of the tenure-track faculty who were hired without a K99/R00, R-series grant or foundation funding), then only 19% of those hired had an F32.
Although it is reasonable to assume that obtaining competitive funding would increase the competitiveness of an applicant for a faculty position, the data above clearly demonstrate that it is not needed for success. Our information derived from interviews with individuals who hire faculty (part II below) was remarkably consistent with this conclusion. As described below, two of six institutions we talked to considered funding to be essentially irrelevant to their hiring decisions, and only one institution used funding as a screening tool.
Myth 4: One needs to publish a CSN paper to obtain an academic faculty position
The CSN family of journals (i.e., includes Nature Neuroscience, Neuron, etc.; collectively termed CSN below) are often held as the gold standard of scientific journals. Consequently, many trainees, often encouraged by their supervising faculty, strive to publish in these journals and often believe that their success hinges on publications in these journals.
To address this myth, we examined the cohort’s publication record before beginning their tenure-track position. We identified all peer-reviewed research articles (i.e., we did not include reviews, book chapters, abstracts, etc.) published in each career stage (predoc, postdoc, and intermediate position) by members of the cohort and whether the individual appeared as first (including co-first) author or middle author.
Figure 3 illustrates how many first-author CSN papers were published by the individuals in the cohort. Fifty-nine percent of those hired into tenure-track positions did not have a first-author publication in a CSN journal before obtaining their position. In addition to the 41% of the cohort that had published a first-author paper in a CSN journal, an additional 11% held a middle author position on a CSN journal article. Thus, approximately half of the population in this cohort did not have a CSN paper on their curriculum vitae (CV).
Myth 5: If one takes an intermediate position (a position between postdoctoral fellowship and tenure-track faculty), then subsequent transition to a tenure-track faculty position requires funding or publication of a CSN paper during that intermediate position
Historically, the vast majority of individuals in tenure-track or equivalent positions transitioned directly from postdoctoral positions. It was rare for an individual to transition to a non–tenure-track faculty position, such as one that might have a title of research assistant professor, and subsequently transition to a tenure-track position. In recent years, however, the number and kind of positions intermediate between postdoctoral fellow and tenure-track faculty has proliferated and the number of individuals taking them has similarly grown.
It was instructive to us how common and complex the transition to an intermediate position had become. The nature of these positions varies not only by title but also even within title across institutions. For example, a research assistant professor in one institution might have independent space and be expected to bring in major research funding, whereas an individual in an identically titled position in another institution might be working in a senior faculty member’s laboratory and conducting research funded by that faculty member’s grant. The most common titles were “instructor,” research assistant professor, and “research associate,” which in some institutions were positions to which postdocs were promoted after a period of time (while maintaining the essential component of being in a mentored training position) but in other institutions appeared to be a junior faculty position. These positions carried privileges such as the ability to apply for an NIH R01 and, importantly, provided fringe benefits not available to postdoctoral fellows. However, in the former cases, individuals were not independent and were still functioning as advanced postdoctoral fellows (i.e., working in a mentor’s space, working on a mentor’s project, and funded by the mentor), whereas in the latter they were functionally independent. In our analysis, we considered all “intermediate positions” identically; when parsed out into different position titles, the results we will present below were qualitatively identical.
The different pathways to a tenure-track position represented in our cohort
Upon completion of a period of postdoctoral training, roughly half of our cohort transitioned directly into a tenure-track position and roughly half transitioned into an intermediate position before obtaining a tenure-track faculty position (Fig. 4A). As expected, the time between obtaining one’s doctorate and starting in a tenure-track position was quite different for the two groups, with those spending time in an intermediate position taking approximately 2 years longer post-degree to obtain their tenure-track position (Fig. 4B).
Transitions directly from postdoc to tenure-track faculty position
Publications. Figure 5 presents histograms of the number of first-author predoctoral and postdoctoral research articles for individuals who transitioned directly from postdoctoral to tenure-track faculty positions. The mean and median number of pre- and postdoctoral first-author papers for this group was 3 and 2, respectively. Twenty-three individuals did not have a first-author postdoctoral publication before starting their faculty position and approximately half had either 0 or 1. Figure 5C illustrates the total number of first-author papers for those who transitioned straight from postdoctoral to faculty position. Whereas the mean and median number of publications were both approximately 5 before obtaining their tenure-track position, 24% had three or fewer first-author publications when they were hired onto the faculty. Although we have not attempted to evaluate papers for significance or quality, these data indicate that one can obtain a faculty position with a small number of first-author publications.
Funding. Figure 6 illustrates the funding and CSN publication status of the group of individuals who transitioned directly from a postdoctoral position into a tenure-track position. Only 15% of the individuals in this group had an NIH career development (K-series) award before obtaining their faculty position. Another 11% had competitive funding from a non-NIH source (e.g., foundation). Of the 120 individuals (74% of the group) who did not have funding, 50 (31% of the group) had a first-author CSN paper. Thirty-three individuals in this group had both funding and a first-author CSN paper before obtaining their faculty position, with 23 individuals having NIH funding and 10 individuals having non-NIH funding. Together, 57% of the individuals who transitioned directly from their postdoctoral fellow position to a tenure-track position had either some sort of competitive funding or a first-author CSN paper. Critically, 43% transitioned to a tenure-track position without having obtained research funding or a first-author CSN paper.
Transitions to an intermediate position before obtaining a tenure-track faculty position
Publications. For those who took an intermediate position before moving into a tenure-track position, the outcome was similar. Figure 7 shows histograms that illustrate the number of first-author papers from their predoctoral work (Fig. 7A), postdoctoral fellowship period (Fig. 7B), intermediate period (Fig. 7C), and total before obtaining tenure-track position (Fig. 7D). The total publication record of this group was only marginally different (~1 more first-author paper) than that of the individuals who transitioned straight from a postdoc to faculty position. Moreover, 33% of these individuals published no additional first-author papers from the intermediate position before obtaining a tenure-track position and approximately half of these individuals added either 0 or 1 first-author papers during this period. Thus, adding any publication during this period, not to mention a high-profile publication, was not a requirement for obtaining a tenure-track position.
Funding. Figure 8 illustrates the funding and CSN publication status of the group of individuals who transitioned from an intermediate position to a tenure-track faculty position. Fifty-three percent of this group had competitive funding of some sort before obtaining their faculty position, and thus, critical to addressing the myth, approximately half of this group obtained a tenure-track position having obtained no competitive funding. Of the 85 individuals who did not have funding, 34 had a first-author CSN paper. Of the 25 individuals that had both funding and a first-author CSN paper before obtaining their faculty position (right side of Fig. 8), 18 had NIH funding and 7 had non-NIH funding. Together, 72% of the individuals who transitioned from their intermediate position to a tenure-track position had either some sort of competitive funding or a first-author CSN paper. Twenty-eight percent of these individuals, who had been in training for over 11 years on average, had neither research funding nor a first-author CSN paper before their transition to a tenure-track position.
Dynamics of taking an intermediate position
As described earlier, we found that the meaning of intermediate position titles varied considerably, not only across institutions but also occasionally within institutions. As a result of this ambiguity, we treated all “intermediate” positions identically in our analysis. This was less than satisfying, as we were grouping individuals into one category who ranged from advanced postdoctoral fellows to junior faculty. However, when we removed certain groups from our analysis on the basis of a particular intermediate position title, the results were qualitatively identical.
Taking an intermediate position outside of the postdoctoral institution
Figure 9A summarizes the various paths taken by those who transitioned to an intermediate position. Only 27 individuals (8%) in the entire cohort obtained a tenure-track or equivalent position after transitioning to an intermediate position outside of their postdoctoral fellowship institution. Most telling was that only 7 individuals (2% of our entire cohort) transitioned to an intermediate position at an institution outside of their postdoc institution and subsequently obtained a tenure-track position at a different institution than that of their intermediate position. Thus, inasmuch as the lack of control group prevents us from evaluating the wisdom of pursuing this pathway, our data suggest that this is a rare pathway to a tenure-track position.
Despite the small number of individuals, it was still of interest to know whether individuals who followed this pathway had to obtain funding or publish a CSN paper to obtain a tenure-track position. Of the 27 individuals who obtained a tenure-track position after taking an intermediate position outside of their postdoctoral institution, 15 (56%) obtained funding or published a first-author CSN paper while in their intermediate position (Fig. 9B, top two rows combined). Thus, nearly half obtained tenure-track positions without them. Unexpectedly to us, only one of the seven individuals who transitioned to a faculty position in a new institution after a prior transition to a new institution for an intermediate position obtained one of these major accomplishments before obtaining the faculty position.
Taking an intermediate position within the postdoctoral institution
Of the 182 individuals who transitioned to an intermediate position, 85% did so within their postdoctoral institution (Fig. 9A). Of the 155 individuals in this group, approximately half (55%) were promoted to tenure-track positions within their postdoctoral institution and nearly half (45%) were hired at an institution different from their postdoctoral institution (Fig. 9A). Overall, approximately half (55%) of those in an intermediate position obtained funding or a first-author CSN paper while in the intermediate position (Fig. 9B, rows 3 and 4 combined). Conversely, approximately half transitioned to a tenure-track position without having obtained funding or publishing a first-author CSN paper in the intermediate position. Although the numbers are small, it is of interest that obtaining funding or publishing a CSN paper appeared to be less important for being hired into a new institution (Fig. 9B, row 3) than to be hired by the current institution (Fig. 9B, row 4).
The apparent importance of being a “known quantity”
The data in Fig. 9 were notable in another regard. Of the 182 individuals who transitioned to an intermediate position, 105 (58%) were hired into a tenure-track position at the institution where they were currently working. When one considers both those who transitioned to an intermediate position and those who transitioned to a faculty position directly from a postdoctoral position, 41% of the 344 individuals in the entire cohort were hired into a tenure-track position at an institution in which they trained or were previously employed (i.e., where they were “known”).
We next examined how common this practice was across institutions. Table 1 lists all of the institutions that hired five or more individuals in this cohort. Eighty-two percent of these institutions hired at least one individual with whom they had previous experience, either as a trainee or employee. At 10 of the 22 institutions on this list, 50% or more of the hires were known to the institution as a previous trainee or employee. Across the entire cohort of 133 hiring institutions, 55% hired one or more individuals that were known to it by previous training or employment. Thus, it is clear that many institutions show a preference for hiring individuals that they “know.”
Summary of part I
The first four myths pertain to the belief that one needs funding or a CSN paper to be competitive for a tenure-track faculty position. We examined three categories of funding: the K99/R00 award, which, in our experience, is the award that many postdocs feel is the key to obtaining a faculty position, other types of NIH or non-NIH funding, and the F32.
Without a doubt, a K99/R00 award has many benefits both from the K99 phase of funding and the R00 phase of funding. Discussions of these benefits are beyond the scope of this paper and will be addressed elsewhere. Our data clearly demonstrate, however, that a very small percentage of individuals hired into tenure-track positions had a K99/R00. For individuals conducting research in the NINDS mission who were hired into a tenure-track academic position at an institution that has an expectation of R01 submission, our data indicate that 11% or fewer had a K99 award; and for those hired by the many institutions that do not have an expectation of R01 funding but who were running a research program as evidenced by seeking NIH funding for their research, none had a K99 award.
Equally clear from our data is that major funding of any sort is not needed to obtain a tenure-track faculty position. When one combines all sources of competitive research and non-“fellowship” career development funding, 60% of individuals hired into tenure-track faculty positions had no funding before obtaining their tenure-track position. Moreover, the willingness to hire an individual who had not received prior competitive funding was widespread. Of the 133 institutions in this study who hired an individual into a tenure-track position, 82% hired an individual who had not received prior competitive funding.
The data also clearly demonstrate that the F32 is not a critical factor in one’s ability to obtain a faculty position. A total of 464 postdoctoral neuroscientists received F32 awards from NINDS between 2007 and 2016 (individuals funded during these years would have had time to transition to faculty positions in the time relevant for this study), yet only 58 individuals in our cohort had obtained an F32. One would certainly imagine that some individuals who are hired into faculty positions would have had an F32 as a postdoc. Consequently, our data that only 11% of our faculty cohort had an F32 and no other funding, and only 17% of the cohort overall had an F32, suggest that having an F32 has a relatively unimportant role (and perhaps even no impact) in enhancing one’s ability to obtain a faculty position.
Our data also demonstrate that CSN papers are not necessary to obtain an academic faculty position; approximately half of the population in the cohort did not have a CSN paper on their CV. This leaves the possibility that one must have either funding or a CSN paper to obtain a faculty position. Within the entire cohort of the 344 individuals who obtained tenure-track or equivalent positions, 35% had neither postfellowship funding nor a first-author CSN paper. Certainly, one can look at this from two perspectives. On the one hand, 65% of those hired had obtained either a competitive grant or published a first-author CSN paper before being hired. Conversely, over one-third of the cohort had neither funding nor a CSN paper before obtaining a tenure-track faculty position. Although undoubtedly beneficial, these data argue that neither one of these two accomplishments are necessary for one to transition to a tenure-track position. Moreover, as we demonstrate below in the qualitative section of this paper, many research-intensive institutions consider other factors to be much more important than these metrics of accomplishment.
Any reasoning that is applied to these results is a bit circular. It is students and postdocs who do the experiments that generate most or all CSN papers, and there is a substantial amount of NIH and non-NIH funding that is targeted specifically to those in pretenure-track (training) career stages. Consequently, one would expect that individuals who have the training and research excellence to obtain competitive funding or publish in a CSN journal to be the same as those who have the training and research excellence to be competitive for an academic faculty position; and in a circular fashion, it would be expected that many of the individuals who have the research and training excellence to obtain a faculty position would be the same as those who have the research and training excellence to publish in a CSN journal or obtain competitive funding. Our conclusion is not that these funding or publication accomplishments are unrelated to obtaining an academic faculty position nor that these accomplishments are not looked upon favorably in the hiring process. What the data above clearly demonstrate, however, is that neither funding nor a CSN paper are necessary to obtain a tenure-track faculty position. In part II below, we provide insight gained from interviews with six individuals at a diverse set of institutions as to what is the most important for obtaining a tenure-track faculty position.
The fifth myth pertains to the belief that one needs to obtain funding or a CSN paper to transition out of an intermediate position into a tenure-track faculty position. Of the 182 individuals in this group, 55% obtained funding and/or published a first-author CSN paper during their intermediate position (i.e., after completing their postdoctoral fellowship period). Conversely, 45% did not. Thus, inasmuch as 72% of individuals who transitioned from an intermediate position had funding or a CSN paper before obtaining a faculty position, almost half got their position without obtaining one of these major accomplishments during the intermediate position and more than a quarter of this population transitioned to a faculty position without having obtained competitive funding or a first-author CSN paper at any time. These data demonstrate that one need not obtain one of these accomplishments during the intermediate period, or indeed, at all, to obtain a tenure-track position.
Although not in direct response to addressing the myths, additional interesting information emerged from the data. We found it remarkable how many institutions represented by our cohort hired individuals into tenure-track positions that had previously been trained or employed at that institution. Across the entire cohort of 133 hiring institutions, 55% hired one or more individuals that were known to it by previous training or employment. Among the individuals hired, however, this behavior was markedly more apparent for those who transitioned to an intermediate position between their postdoctoral fellowship and tenure-track position. Whereas 58% of those hired out of intermediate positions were hired by an institution where they had previously trained or worked, only 23% of those who transitioned to a faculty position directly from their postdoctoral position were hired by an institution where they had previously trained or worked.
Another interesting finding was that, of the 344 members of the entire cohort, only 27 individuals were hired into tenure-track positions after transitioning to a non–tenure-track position outside of their postdoctoral institution. With the usual caveat that we do not have a control group to evaluate the success of individuals who pursue this pathway, these data indicate that taking an intermediate position outside of the postdoctoral institution is not a common route to a tenure-track position.
Part II: Statements by six individuals who have overseen much hiring regarding what they and their search committees look for during the hiring process
The data in part I demonstrated that, although undoubtedly a beneficial addition to a CV, one does not need a K99/R00 award, funding of any sort, or a paper published in the CSN journal family to obtain a first tenure-track faculty position. Given that none of these specific prefaculty accomplishments are necessary for obtaining a faculty position, we sought to determine factors that were. To address this, we interviewed six individuals who have a long history of being involved in, and overseeing, the hiring process. We selected these individuals on the basis of their stature at their institutions, their extensive experience in hiring faculty, and their being at six different types of institutions. We posed two general questions to these individuals: (i) “What characteristics are you looking for in order to invite somebody for an interview?” and (ii) “what factors lead you to hire somebody, and what issues lead you to not hire somebody after you’ve interviewed them?” After posing these questions, we did not ask for discrete answers to these specific questions but rather asked those interviewed to talk to us about the factors that are most important in the hiring process. Below, we have used either direct quotations or paraphrased answers to provide a brief, descriptive answer. Before submission of this paper for publication, we sent it to each of these individuals to confirm the accuracy of the statements or thoughts that we attributed to them (bolding was added by us for emphasis, and confirmed by the individual interviewed as appropriately applied).
Diane Lipscombe, Ph.D.
Thomas J. Watson Sr. Professor of Science
Reliance Dhirubhai Ambani Director,
Robert J. and Nancy D. Carney Institute for Brain Science
Department of Neuroscience
We are looking for the potential to succeed in research. We don’t use a K99 as a way to triage anyone. A K99, or any other funding, is of secondary importance. We also don’t look at numbers of papers, but at their quality. We do look at the journal name, but we also look at the paper itself. A short paper in a high-profile journal is often less interesting, and less of a draw to us when hiring, than a solid scientific contribution. We value this much more than many papers that are parts of studies—we are looking for solid research pieces that demonstrate independence and creativity by the candidate.
We like to see consistency in someone’s CV. We’re looking for high quality, consistent, rigorous research. We look closely at letters of recommendation. And we look at the research statement quite deeply, which is a very important factor in choosing who to interview.
We require a statement from applicants on diversity and inclusion. In recent hires, we’ve read that first. This doesn’t mean that the person has to be an underrepresented minority. We’re looking for a sincere, demonstrated interest.
We’re looking for independence and passion, although that can be hard to define. Someone who isn’t passionate about education and mentorship won’t be happy here. This doesn’t mean we require formal teaching experience or a teaching certificate. This teaching experience can show up in a multitude of ways, even as an interest outside of your research—for example, community outreach.
Things that are turn-offs? Lack of a particular interest in Brown. We want the applicant to have thought about how they’ll interact in our community.
To get on the shortlist, the cover letter will tell you a lot about the effort they’ve put in. Do they know the faculty at Brown and how they would fit in? Video pre-screens also give us information about their interest in Brown, their understanding of their own work, how they view the impact of their work, the challenges they see in their research.
Networking does have an influence. A letter from a faculty member we know, whose opinions we value and who we know is completely honest in their assessments, counts.
At the interview, their knowledge of their work can come through in a presentation, but the chalk talk is where we really learn about their understanding of their work and how they see their work intersecting with the faculty here.
Ted Abel, Ph.D.
Director, Iowa Neuroscience Institute
Chair and DEO, Department of Neuroscience and Pharmacology
Roy J. Carver Chair in Neuroscience
Carver College of Medicine
University of Iowa
Iowa City, IA
We are looking for a colleague who is intellectually curious. This comes from an ability to ask insightful questions and to use techniques that are appropriate to answer those significant questions. Having a hot new technique is not sufficient without knowing important and interesting questions that can be addressed with these new approaches.
Funding and journals count but are not the key issue. We’ve known applicants with a K99 and a CSN paper who couldn’t articulate the importance of their research, so we don’t base decisions solely on funding and the journals in which research is published. One aspect that is important is consistent productivity at a high level throughout a candidate’s graduate and postdoctoral work.
We want to know that the candidate is driving their research project, and we seek individuals who understand the importance of their work, the strengths and weaknesses of their technical approaches, and have a sense of where the field is headed.
We’re interested in people who have thought about what big questions they’d like to address and how they might study them in their own lab. What would they pursue that might make it into the textbooks? How would their research make a difference either in our fundamental knowledge of neuroscience or how we might better understand brain disorders.
The research statement is very important, and it should not read like it was copied from an NIH Biosketch or a Specific Aims page. The research statement should clearly and concisely describe the advances that the candidate has made in their research and outline where they are headed. A “graphical abstract” as a part of this statement can make things much clearer. The cover letter and CV can break an application but can’t really make it. The research statement can make it.
Community matters. The best neuroscience is carried out by collaborative communities of faculty, fellows, and students. As faculty candidates look at potential institutions in which to launch their careers, it is important to look closely at the neuroscience community at the institutions you are considering. Are faculty appropriately mentored? Are students and fellows part of a collaborative community that supports their training? Find out about faculty whose research connects with yours and determine if there are appropriate resources to help you grow your research program. Our search committee looks for candidates who have sought answers to these questions.
We all focus too much on metrics. Just because we can measure things does not mean that they are important or significant. We seek to focus on the unique strengths of individuals to identify their potential to make discoveries in their lab in the future that will make a difference in how we understand how the brain works.
Joseph LoTurco, Ph.D.
Department Head and Professor
Physiology and Neurobiology
University of Connecticut
Out of 150-200 applications, we usually whittle down to 20-25 for a remote interview by grants and publications. We are mainly interested in 1) someone who wants to be in our department, wants to work with our people, in our kind of environment, and 2) someone who will be successful in getting tenure here. But we don’t typically get to these issues until we get down to the 20-25.
We don’t care too much about what graduate school or postdoctoral institutions people come from.
For the first cut, we look at where they’ve published as an indication of quality of work. We do not require CSN publications. We are looking for top-field journals. We are also looking for a CV that is not filled with short papers. Once the first cut is made, we will go back and read some of the papers. We have hired plenty of people who don’t have CSN publications. In fact, we may actually be a bit suspicious about a CSN publication vs. a 2-3 author paper in a really good field journal. We look for balance. Almost all of the applicants we look at have 8-10 papers minimum. Probably 3 of those will be first-author or communicating author papers. We are looking for at least 2 to be in really good field journals and at least one to be during their postdoc (recent).
The vision for their research is really critical. They need to prove that they have a real idea of what they want to do and that it is going to excite a group of 4-5 people, including people who aren’t experts in their area.
There is typically a noticeable difference between a candidate who has at least written a research grant and those who have not. This becomes particularly evident in the chalk talk portion of the interview. You can also tell which applicants have written grants because their research statements are much more polished.
At the Skype interview, we get a general sense of whether the applicant knows what they are going to do. That probably whittles the pool down to about 10 people. They have to demonstrate that they own their research and have thought about it. People still answer questions factually wrong at this level—that will sink them. The other critical thing we ask is, “why do you want to come to our institution and our department?” Some people can’t answer this; eliminates 2-3 people every round. A lot rides on this initial Skype interview.
Once we narrow applicants down to an interview list of 10 people, grants and publications become less important; we actually don’t find that having a K99 is a huge predictor of success when they get here.
We are looking at how well they communicated in their talk—it’s a diverse audience—undergrads, grad students, lots of people that aren’t in their field. They have to be able to communicate well. The buzz in the hallway after a job talk takes on a life of its own. Then, we do a chalk talk. We also want to make sure that the applicant is conscientious about teaching.
Leslie C. Griffith, M.D., Ph.D.
Nancy Lurie Marks Professor of Neuroscience and
Director of the Volen National Center for Complex Systems
Department of Biology
The people who have been successful here are people we chose because they fit us. This will be very different than a very large department, which looks for a different kind of fit. We are high quality but small. We look for someone highly collaborative, who extends boundaries but isn’t separate from the core group. People that are scientifically diverse end up having really good interactions, because they’re imaginative. Candidates need to do their homework, figure out what people work on, be interested, and collaborative. We want to see that they will be able to get along with the department.
We look really carefully at publication record as well. We value someone who shows judgment in their publications as a postdoc. An 8-year postdoc with 1 Cell paper with 10 authors—that is a red flag to us … it shows terrible judgment. There are 4-5 papers worth of data in that Cell paper. We look for someone who published in a distributed manner with some high-profile papers (i.e., in “good” journals) but with also some solid work in what some people may consider “lesser” journals—but still good science.
My process is to look at the CV, papers, where they are publishing, what the topics are. Then, I look at the research statement. They have to convince me in a 4-page research statement that what they did was important, sound, interesting. The research statement makes a really big difference and the letters of reference do, too. If I’m really interested, I’ll go back to the papers. I have confidence that if a paper is published in a reputable journal, it was adequately reviewed. It’s the person’s plans, ideas, and way of expressing themselves that make a difference.
They should have a strong letter from postdoc mentor, graduate mentor, and maybe a collaborator letter. You can tell when someone writes a letter and they don’t really know the person. It’s bad when somebody has a letter from someone who doesn’t really know them. That rings false.
Communication matters. The 5-minute pitch, the ability to respond to questions without panicking is important. They have to be able to give a good talk that will not only engage neuroscientists but biologists, psychologists, biochemists, physicists, etc. I would say, though, that the chalk talk is the major separator. Some people give beautiful presentations but go down in flames during the chalk talk.
Marc Freeman, Ph.D.
Vollum Institute, OHSU
Creativity is an invaluable commodity that can serve a person in science their whole life. I personally gravitate toward applicants where I read their package and learn something new and interesting, and I get convinced that there’s room for a lot of exciting and important questions to be explored. With the assumption that the science will be high quality, novelty is a big deal. Even before looking at the papers, we want to know whether an applicant is looking at a really interesting biological question. The good science always wins out. Usually that means the funding follows.
One doesn’t need a paper in a so-called “high-profile” journal to be competitive, but having papers only in lower tier journals probably won’t cut it. Very interesting, well-done science that appears in highly respected journals will do it. It is important to see that the candidate has been successful at each career stage—history will repeat itself when they are PIs.
Grants and papers are nice, but certainly don’t guarantee anything. One gets the interview based on what they’ve done and how they’ve presented it to us in their application. Did we get excited enough to offer them one of a limited number of slots to visit? Having funding is unimportant. If somebody is doing novel, interesting, important research, we can then help them get funding. It’s our job to mentor them to help them get funding. I don’t see a lack of current grant funding as a problem at all. In fact, many people that get funding like K awards do so because their PI basically writes it with them. It’s not necessarily a reflection of the candidate’s ability to get funding.
We want to be convinced that the person is excited to join us. Would they look forward to being here and why? Does their reasoning make sense? Not all people are a great fit for us, nor our environment a great fit for them. The match is key.
One ultimately gets hired by convincing us that they’ll do something interesting and that the ideas are the applicant’s (not just fed to them by their boss). The chalk talk is the most important part of the visit. Anybody can give a polished presentation given enough practice. The chalk talk is where we see their understanding of their work, creativity, and ability to make a compelling argument.
We’re looking for the kind of person who has the disposition to run a lab; some don’t, so we’re also looking at management potential. You want someone who’s going to be comfortable working with a whole lot of people and personality types and can inspire them to work hard. If someone comes into an interview and has bad interactions with faculty or doesn’t interact well with trainees, that’s a red flag.
Networking is important. An applicant will be helped if someone on our faculty knew them, heard them give a talk, or met them somewhere. It can really help. It will help get them through the door. It’s important to be known in your field even before you are a PI. You can get a lot of credit in your application if people who are outside your immediate orbit and who have no vested interest in your success are vouching for you in recommendation letters. I encourage my postdocs to get to know PIs at other places and build relationships. These types of references indicate that you have started to gain the respect of your field.
Matthew N. Rasband, Ph.D.
Professor and Vivian L. Smith Endowed Chair in Neuroscience
Baylor College of Medicine
We do not use funding as a litmus test for any applicant that we’re interested in, it’s simply not one of the major criteria. If a person has a K99, great—we view it as a bonus—but it is not considered as a requirement.
I am interested in applicants who can demonstrate continued and sustained high productivity, regular publishing of papers. In the neuroscience field—if I saw one applicant with 1 CSN paper and another applicant who had 3 papers in a top tier journal, I would go for the one with three papers in a heartbeat. I am far more interested in people who show and demonstrate that they know how to “walk the walk” and “talk the talk” again and again. That is the most important criterion—continuous, sustained productivity. I want to see that they’ve climbed the mountain, gotten to the top, and started to climb another mountain, over and over. Some mountains will be higher, and some lower. But I want to see that hungry to climb mountains.
In fact, it is a bit of red flag if I see only CSN papers—because I wonder whether their perception is that early on in their faculty position they have to publish in big name journals. That may be their personality or possibly their experience in their prior labs. My impression is that, as faculty, they often waste time spinning their wheels going through reviews only to be rejected by the vanity journal and then they go to their perceived lower journal. They could have spent that time starting another project (“climbing up another mountain”).
During the hiring process, we ask the committee to come up with their top 6-10 applicants and then we look at their research statement. What is their vision for what they want to do? How would they fit in the department? We are interested in looking for the very best scientists and people who have the best vision and ideas, who can clearly articulate what they want to do, and why they want to do it. It is a subjective evaluation, but if somebody can write a really compelling vision in their research statement, that puts them way ahead.
There should be at least a couple of labs that a candidate can work synergistically with and collaborate with. I want someone who I could talk with to bounce ideas off of each other.
Frequently, many of the top candidates we get are from colleagues who we know through previous interactions. The best cases are where there are outstanding people, who are reaching out, and their mentors are reaching out—mentors reaching out is very important, maybe more important—it does matter who the letters are from. If the letter is from someone who we know and trust, the letter carries more weight.
Applicants can cold-call, but a more effective strategy is if you have a mentor that has relationships with chairs and deans that can reach out. The mentor can have much more of an impact that the applicant cold calling themselves.
The most important component of the interview for me is the chalk talk—it is the thing that always sells it. Candidates have spent years thinking about their particular projects, so if they can’t knock their presentation out of the park, that is an obvious problem. But can they stand up at a chalkboard, respond to faculty questions and defend their ideas? We want to know what it is that they cannot wait to get into the lab to do: we want to know their vision. The chalk talk is the deciding factor.