Few takes from the other side of a search committee

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So many colors…which one to choose?

A while ago I had the service chore of being part of a couple of search committees. After many years of being on the applicant side of the equation and reading about the process from experts, I would like to share some of the insights I gained about the first round. This is about science positions at a primarily teaching institution with a majority of non-traditional students.

  1. Please follow instructions. If we are asking for X documents and they are not provided, that application is immediately discarded (with rare exceptions, see points 5&6).
  2. in teaching institutions, “proof of teaching effectiveness” means student evaluations and/or peer observations. Being chosen for a “best instructor” or similar award, or getting a grant for innovative teaching practices is obviously great.
  3. Yes, we read your teaching philosophy carefully . What most of us are looking for is thoughtfulness (are you REALLY thinking about your teaching) and how knowledgeable you are about innovative teaching practices.
  4. Having experience with online teaching is a bonus.
  5. Doing your homework about the institution you apply to is a huge bonus. One applicant was brought back from the discard pile (due to not providing student evaluations) because of a sentence in the cover letter that clearly indicated the person had read more than just the start page on our website. The Mission statement of the institution is a great place for clues.
  6. Yes, we read your cover letter. Very carefully, in fact. This is the place where we look for the “why” of your application, especially if you have an established position. If for some reason you were unable to provide something we asked for, this is the place to explain why.
  7. Be authentic but try not to sound naive. This is particularly important for younger applicants, for whom “being too green” is a real possibility, and you do not want to compound it by sounding silly.
  8. Sometimes you are absolutely wonderful, but not what we are looking for. Nothing personal: it may be that your expertise already exists in the department, or does not fit to our specific needs.
  9. Sometimes you are really wonderful, but too new and unexperienced. For those from a research background, consider teaching a course or two on your own at a community college or similar. Being a TA and supervising other grad students is nice, but may not be enough. Especially when competing with folks who have been teaching for quite a while.
  10. Related to #9, can you handle diversity? Are you aware that your students may be older than you? Or that you will have war veterans in class? In many teaching institutions, the norm is having a huge variety of students, both academically, culturally, demographically, etc. If you have not had that experience, at least we want to know that you are aware of it.
  11. Different aspects will appeal to different members of the committee. Nothing to do about it. That’s why it is a committee.
  12. Because of #11, the more we learn about you the better. At the beginning stage, the committee is looking for ways to narrow down the field for phone interviews. One piece of information may move your application to the next step. It may have to do with a side project that connects with a new budding initiative. Or some skill or expertise we really need. It is better to err on the side of too much information.
  13. Putting your name on the upper right corner of each page of your application or having it in big bold letters at the front of your package makes life easier.

As a final thought- after being on the other side, I felt much better for the many unsuccessful applications in my past. Really, the only times we got personal were with applicants who were not paying attention to instructions or clearly did not qualify. Not being chosen for a phone interview simply means that one was not considered to be the right fit for the particular institution. And probably that is a good thing for both parties.

Update: I just realized that I did not say anything about research. And indeed, research was not a critical aspect in this phase. We noticed when applicants wrote something really weak or something completely unrealistic in a teaching institution. However, if the teaching qualities are good, research expectations and possibilities can be still discussed over the phone.

Number crunching is exhausting but oh so good

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The power of numbers

As I am plowing ahead with the analysis of a course design change in a general biology course, things changed for the best when a colleague who loves numbers agreed to help me out with the statistics.

Statistics is a beast I know slightly, but not enough to be confident in my analysis. To have somebody with the knowledge work the numbers is priceless.

Over the past few days I learned two things:

  • Have a biostatistician buddy. They will make all the difference between despondence and hopefulness. Not to mention saving time. If I get a not significant result, there is always the little voice in the back of my head that thinks I might have just done the wrong analysis.
  • Get numbers and use them. The data table gathered (all IRB approved and anonymized) of the time period studied has 1738 students! Meaning, grades and demographics of 1738 human beings that took that course.
    • For one, it is staggering to see the reality behind the numbers. For example, the age range went from 19 to 69! This is a GE course. I feel immensely proud of the 69 old female who took this course. These are the famous “non-traditional” students we hear so much about.
    • Numbers have powers. Right now I am in the middle of writing an application to a competitive residency program. Do not know what to expect, but am applying because a) it would be great, and b) the application process itself is a learning experience.  In one of the essays where I have to describe my projects and plans I am using those numbers, including demographic data to show the potential.

The bottom line is, if you are faculty who is interested in education research and wants to apply for grants, collaborations, etc., you will be asked for numbers (enrollment,demographics). Have them collected ahead and use them to your favor. Right now, showing that your teaching serve non-traditional students, minorities, females, and veterans will be in your favor.

Update: I will be writing a separate post about the importance of IRB approvals for education research, but this is something I learned the hard way- you NEED IRB approval for any human subject research, and that includes student surveys and especially collection of demographic data.

Accelerated learning, living a la Tim Ferriss, and the delight of tea.

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Picture taken at a quaint Victorian tea place my women colleagues go for holiday tea every December. Love the tea, but not the cup- I drink from large ceramic mugs!

Picture taken at a quaint Victorian tea place my women colleagues go for holiday tea every December. Love the tea, but not the cup- I drink from large ceramic mugs!

In a previous post I recounted how I came across Tim Ferriss’ 4-hour approaches, and how it influenced the design of my lectures. For the record, I have not read any of Tim’s books 100%, and I do not think that is his goal anyway. I got “The 4-hour chef” from the library and managed to try out 2 recipes (which worked fine), learned a way to chop onions without chopping my fingers, and again shook my head at his lambasting statements about being able to learn anything in a very short time.

On the other hand, as I mentioned before, the whole issue of accelerated learning is important for me. My university’s approach and niche is accelerated learning, with courses 4 and 8 weeks long. For somebody in the semester system, that sounds crazy. However, our students take only one class at a time, which means all their attention is focused on that class.

And then it comes, of course, the issue of “simpler is harder, less is more” mantra, which has been my leading light for the past years. In 2012 I attended at ASCB 2012 an education symposium, where an integrated science curriculum at Princeton was presented. I order to make it work, the course was streamlined- students spent a lot of time on mathematics and physics principles essential for quantitative analysis, and learned even some coding early on. What was taken out the curriculum? Descriptions of the classic molecular biology experiments of the 1950s. I remember nodding. Why do we teach those historical milestones? Because we were taught that way. Of course they were relevant and elegant, and they teach students about the scientific process, but would not be more relevant to let students figure out how science works while actually doing it?

Currently I am in a phase of thinking a lot about teaching and learning. In “educationese,” I am in a metacognitive phase (chuckle). Reasons are manyfold: such as embarking with a colleague on an ambitious flipped classroom project for a majors biology class, or the need to write a number of reflection essays for different proposals. And as tighten my mental reins and try to be more focused and more productive (while not losing completely the ability to spot attractive unexpected possibilities), I am also more open to suggestions of how to do it.

This posting was inspired by a recent posting by Tim about productivity tricks. I was pleased to see some approaches I already use, and even more about the change from coffee to tea! Yes, me. As long as I remember I have been an inveterate coffee drinker of multiple cups just to get started in the morning. Recently and following doctor’s orders I cut down to one cup in the morning, after which I switch to tea. To make the transition more palatable I decided to go for finer loose-leaf tea, and in the past weeks I have assembled a nice collection (still growing) . What is mind-boggling for me how easy the transition has been, and how much clearer my mind is. In fact, if by habit I pour myself a second cup of coffee it does not feel good at all.

Bottom line of this slightly rambling post? Inspiration can come from many sources, some quite unorthodox. Tools can be adapted from other contexts very effectively. And sometimes small changes (like switching to tea) may have large effects.

How I learned to stop hating the bragging list…


Looking down from a trail close to Idyllwild. Patterns can be seen better in the distance (geographical or time).

Looking down from a trail close to Idyllwild. Patterns can be seen better in the distance (geographical or time).

…and embraced it instead.

Some time last summer a directive came down from the powers to be, that each faculty member should submit every month a list of activities or achievements outside the planned or required activities. A collective groan was the response, and explanations were provided promptly that the lists would be aggregated and the highlights were to become “bragging points” for each school. Lists had to be bullet-pointed and divided into the three academic areas: teaching, research, and service.

After a month or so of last minute scrambling, I started a Google document and every time I did something outside my official plan (sending a letter of support for an initiative, meeting and networking, getting a presentation approved, joining a society, giving extra support for a disabled student, etc) I typed it into the document right away. I put a reminder into my calendar about sending it in time, and soon it faded away to become one more routine action of the month.

February is merit request letter submission time. As I sent this morning the December list, I scrolled up the document all the way back to June and realized that all needed for the letter was there! The list not only reflected specific actions and achievements, but also recorded the process- one month I was applying for something (which meant I spent some time writing in frenzy) and a few months later I had it accepted. Monthly small connections, meetings, and events came together as a sustained outreach effort. By recording every little thing month after month, I was able to have not only all the facts, but also see the pattern of my activity over longer periods in time.

What else to say? Lists are good. Bragging lists are useful. Admins sometimes come with pretty good ideas. Google documents rock.


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