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The Black Hole

Leveling the playing field: a career-readiness assessment tool for academics

A recent academic article breaks down the hiring practices of different types of academic institutions, dispensing valuable career advice to those looking to get hired.


A friend of mine (thanks Alfonso!) drew my attention to something that recently reared its head on bioRxiv (the website that hosts preprints of academic papers for biologists) that is an absolutely incredible tool for young scientists looking for faculty jobs. Laurence Clement (@LaurenceEdu) and her colleagues at University of California, San Francisco have constructed an academic career readiness assessment rubric that breaks down the hiring practices of the different types of academic institutions [research intensive (R), teaching/research focused (TR), and teaching only (T)]. While it appears to be exclusively U.S.-based and almost certainly can be improved with more data, I still think this is an essential read for any academic job hunter out there. Moreover, in addition to its practical value for job hunters, it uncovers a set of trends that are worrying for the future of scientific research and teaching, and needs addressing.

First, the practical stuff – while this paper is a long read, it need not be a time consuming read to be useful. My first skim of the article took no more than 10 minutes and already identified items that I have been told during my own preparation for job interviews several years ago. Things like mapping out your place in the prospective department, understanding how you are different from your mentors, and identifying the big questions in your field while having a practical and executable plan for how to start your group in the area, etc. If nothing else, this article collates a series of opinions from people who actually do the hiring in U.S. institutions and puts them out there for the world to see. A lengthier read of the article gives a full rubric for assessing your own readiness and unmasks differences between R, RT, and T institutions, in particular the different visions of nebulous terms like “fit” which they breakdown in four categories (institutional, professional, discipline/field, and potential synergies). If you are looking for a job (or involved in hiring new faculty)  – read this article.

Secondly, the article identifies some worrying trends that we have alluded to in a previous post “The death of biomedical teaching” where I lamented that the rise of research intensive (often hospital-based) institutions meant that “the further I go in research, the less I’m meant to teach the next generation.” Not only does this article by Dr. Clement et al. quantify this phenomenon, but it also points out the potential causes and consequences of some of the most troubling things in science today with respect to achieving a top-tier diverse workforce.

The importance of mentorship in research

While it is probably obvious that a scientific mentor provides field specific knowledge and resources required for success, the importance of the softer side of the mentor/mentee relationship sometimes flies under the radar. Things like knowing which skills/opportunities to prioritize and the power of reference letters during the job hunt are difficult to quantify yet nearly essential for success at a research intensive institution. Every single faculty member of a research intensive institution that was part of this study listed “recommendations” as a top criterion for selecting prospective faculty. In addition to gender-bias in reference letters, this article actually suggests that “letters from scientists who are well-known by at least some members of the hiring committee” are essential, given the currently already-biased system of hiring a particular scientist archetype, yet another route to self-selection.

Teaching experience/ability have virtually no role in research jobs

It may not surprise those entrenched in biomedical research to read that teaching does not have much of a role in the faculty hiring process. One of the most telling lines in the article was “[Research] faculty explicitly said that the candidates’ mentoring and teaching skills, as well as their commitment to diversity, did not have any importance in the final hiring decision in their department.” Basically, hiring in research intensive institutions came down to your past research achievements and your future research vision (and how much you fit in with the current system). This does not mean that people hired in this way have no ability or enthusiasm to teach and train, but it also does not mean that they do – and the latter is perhaps one of the reasons why so many graduate students and postdoctoral fellows end up being disgusted by their academic training experience.

Moving beyond research intense environments

In this column, we’ve typically highlighted a general inability of research intensive academic group leaders to aid in the non-academic career search. What Dr. Clement et al., do in this article is immensely more useful from a practical sense. While our mentors in biomedical research may well prepare us for the research intensive job interview, how many do you think would be any use at all when it comes to teaching philosophy, pedagogical expertise, or understanding the importance of being able to serve a diverse student population? Knowing that guest lectures and teaching assistant roles are often insufficient to get past triage at teaching intensive universities is essential to young scientists looking to make the jump, especially when you consider that this is typically the only teaching exposure that is on offer during their training.

Overall, this article, even in its “pre-reviewed” format provides a bevy of excellent information and perspective for those on the hunt for an academic job. I would strongly encourage a read and would love to see more activity in this area of research – only through gathering information and understanding the scale of these sorts of institutional issues can we work toward addressing them. It is obvious to me from reading this that research-focused institutions have a long way to go when it comes to balancing the workforce and considering the long-term success of their potential hires and their future trainees.

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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