What matters for the short list?

As I start to plan seriously for the job market in the fall, I am coldly assessing my chances and not liking them. I have spoken to a few of people who have been on search committees and asked how they come up with the short list. They all say a bunch of crap that convinces me that they have no idea what criteria they themselves or others are using. For example, someone was like: “Nothing matters but a good publication or two, then if you’re shortlisted its based on your talks and 1-1 meetings.” Things that don’t matter include your letters of reference, research plan, or what is actually written in your papers (as opposed to publication venue).

However, I happen to know that the shortlist being referred to included multiple people with NO publications yet from their postdoc. What ALL had in common was coming from “pedigree” labs and prestigious PhD and postdoc institutions, and in fact this is the only commonality I can see shared across the shortlist. If this is what matters, I am probably screwed.

So, does anyone who has been on search committees want to assess my chances? I am looking for a tenure-track PI job at a research institution where I will have some hope of getting grants.

Note: when I divide things into positives and negatives below, this doesn’t reflect what I think matters for being a scientist, just what I cynically suspect matters most to search committees (overtly or subconsciously, e.g. I think most people would deny that they weigh it much if someone has a reference from a friend/mentor/subfield hegemon, but they would be demonstrably full of shit.).

Potentially negative:

  • No pedigree lab (both PhD and postdoc PIs were Asst. Profs.). (“What the fuck were you thinking?”, you ask, and I have no answer except that I moronically thought I should choose based on the research I was most interested in doing.)
  • No fellowship (this was structural for the PhD, but straight-up strategic mistakes from me and my PI and wackaloon NIH nonsense for the postdoc)
  • PhD from institution outside the US (regionally prestigious but off-radar for most in US)
  • No letter of reference from any pudgy gray-haired keynote speaker types
  • No teaching experience
  • I will only live in large-ish metropolitan areas (not just snobbish — dual-career considerations)
  • A little older than most due to some missing years between undergrad and grad school

Potentially positive:

  • Prestigious postdoc institution
  • Prestigious (liberal arts) undergrad institution (doubtful this matters)
  • Good publication record

My publications (I apologize for using IF/venue as a metric here; while it says nothing about me, it indicates something likely relevant to committees)
H-index = 6 (based on 6-years of publishing, includes 2nd authorship)

Postdoc:

  • First-author in glamour mag
  • Second author in high-end specialty journal (IF ~14)
  • Soon submitting a co-first author collaboration that will be good but not glamour

PhD:

  • First author in good specialty journal  (IF ~7)
  • 3 first author in normal journals (IF 3-4)
  • Second author in good specialty journal (IF ~7)
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4 Comments on “What matters for the short list?”

  1. Susan says:

    I am very close to your stats, honestly. I got an interview and offer from a non-R1 but very good U, and took it (it’s genuinely a good fit, and I’m happy about it). What surprised me was that even with a C/N/S paper and a funded grant, I made no short lists anywhere else. I did keep track of what was made public about the searches in other places I had applied: it seems that Pedigree >> papers, in short.

  2. miko says:

    Thanks for the info, Susan. Yeah, so my worst fears confirmed. I’ll be honest: I’ve been fishing for counter-evidence and not finding much. I’m not ambitious in the sense of wanting to be at a “prestige” place, and my limited experience at one has only strengthened that feeling. But I really thought until recently that a “mostly research” PI job was in theory within reach.

    What’s been most startling is the discrepancy between what people who are on search committees tell you matters and the actually short lists made by those search committees. I don’t think they are lying, but they are all themselves from “prestige labs” and seem to assume that a system that has rewarded them must be meritocratic, and they would have had the same opportunities coming from the labs of “lesser” PIs.

    I’ve got a talk/interview at a company coming up in a couple of weeks, which was intended for fun/experience before the job market starts this fall…maybe I should take it more seriously.

  3. […] May: As I start to plan seriously for the job market in the fall, I am coldly assessing my chances and not liking them. […]

  4. Peter says:

    There is a certain amount of six-degrees of separation: although I was not on the committee, I was regularly asked about postdocs who were from the same institution where I was a postdoc. Even though my TT position was at a non-top-tier university, faculty were half from high profile departments and half were not, so my experience is different than Susan’s. From my discussions with search committee members, there were two common themes: a) what would the candidate’s RO-1 look like and would it be renewable, and b) could these search committee members envision collaborating with the candidate. On the first point, there were several people from top-notch labs who were not shortlisted because what they were proposing to do was not distinct enough from their mentors. On the second point, some cover letters from people who had good pedigrees and publications were not shortlisted because it was clear that the candidate would not play nicely with others.

    Rewinding to my own search, when I followed up on my status post-interview (at higher profile universities), it was clear that I could have done a lot better if I had not waited a couple of months to follow up. I also found out after the fact that a collaborator knew three members of one search committee personally. The competition is tough, and in my opinion the candidate who uses their network wisely has a huge advantage, regardless of pedigree or publication. How good is your network? I think many postdocs realize too late, that their first day as a postdoc was the time to start building it…


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