Our Faculty Position Ad: Behind the ScenesOctober 13th, 2014
Our department is running its first tenure-track faculty search since I was hired last year, so it is my first chance to get a behind-the-scenes view of the process from the other side. Having experienced the joy and frustration of dealing with the academic job market from the side of an applicant, I figured our search is a good opportunity to pull back the curtain on what would otherwise be an opaque process. At the same time, such a post could be used to broadcast our position to as wide an audience as possible. That’s a win–win, baby.
You may have seen our official announcement, which ran in the August 18th edition of C&EN:
Saint Louis University, a Catholic Jesuit institution dedicated to student learning, research, health care, and service seeks applicants for a Tenure-Track Assistant Professor in Chemistry starting Fall 2015. A Ph.D. is required and post-doctoral experience is preferred. Successful candidates will develop an independent research program and be committed to excellence in undergraduate and graduate teaching in the areas of both organic chemistry and biochemistry. Successful applicants will have an expertise in bioorganic chemistry, chemical biology or organic chemistry. The Department offers BA/BS degrees in chemistry and biochemistry and MS and PhD degrees in chemistry. Review of applications begins October 15th and will continue until the position is filled. All applications must be made online at https://jobs.slu.edu; also send CV, research plans, teaching philosophy, transcripts, and 3 reference letters to: firstname.lastname@example.org. Saint Louis University is an affirmative action, equal opportunity employer, and encourages nominations and applications of women and underrepresented minorities.
These adverts have always struck me as stuffy, vague, and minimally informative, and ours is no exception. There are actually a couple of reasons for the brevity and stuffiness. First, magazines like C&EN charge handsomely per line—over $1 per character, with a $650 minimum—so you generally want these ads to be concise. Second, all of these announcements have to get cleared by the administration, and HR demands that certain information be included in any job posting. After placement of that information, there is little space for elaboration—just the basic facts.
So, allow me to read between the lines by providing some context and background about our posting. Our department began offering a biochemistry degree a few years ago, and it has become very popular. So popular that it is putting strain on the teaching assignments for our department. We need more professors able to teach biochemistry, and just as importantly, able to provide research opportunities for these majors. Bolstering our biological side will also allow us to offer more graduate courses in this area, which now is essentially impossible due to the scheduling demands of the undergraduate curriculum.
At the same time, the departure of one professor and the promotion of another into an administrative position have created a strain on the organic faculty. As far as organic goes, we offer a sophomore sequence for majors (with ~35 students), a sophomore sequence for non-majors (with ~250 students), a single-semester course for nursing students, an advanced course on organic spectroscopy, and usually two graduate organic courses each year (e.g., synthesis, physical organic, and medicinal). As a result, we are hoping that we can find a candidate who can not only teach biochemistry, but who also has the flexibility to teach organic.
So, that is what we mean when we say “committed to excellence in undergraduate and graduate teaching in the areas of both organic chemistry and biochemistry”. You have probably heard that many candidates get rejected from academic searches not because they lack talent, but because they do not fit the department’s current needs. We are undoubtedly going to be doling out some of those rejections, because we mean it when we say we want to hire someone with expertise in both biochemistry and organic chemistry. We are not simply throwing out these terms to try to cast as wide a net as possible. If you are strongly physical-organic (with no focus on a biological problem), it’s probably not going to work out. But if bioorganic chemistry is your bag, please apply! And the rest of you should be pals and tell your bioorganic/chembio friends about our listing.
The terseness of these job advertisements also prevents our providing more information about the school and our department. The advertisement says that we are a Catholic, Jesuit institution, and I imagine this could lead many applicants to develop preconceptions about the way things work at SLU. Having been here a year, I’d say that the Jesuit influence has more of an effect on the model the college uses for education (e.g., a broad core program weighed towards courses in philosophy and theology) rather than any particular influence on our department. When I was applying, I was concerned that my proposed research on origin-of-life chemistry would disqualify me due to conflict with Catholic beliefs. Obviously, it did not—I was hired—and I have encountered absolutely zero resistance with regard to this issue.
The school is governed by a board of trustees with a layperson majority. In fact, the school itself has argued (in public court records) that it is not a religious institution. The Missouri Supreme Court agreed, stating “The university is not a religious institution simply because it is affiliated with the Jesuits or the Roman Catholic Church. A university’s motivation or aspiration to follow certain teachings does not indicate that it is ‘controlled by a religious creed’ such that religion dictates the corporate management of the university.” While the university takes great pride in its Catholic heritage and affiliation, it does not dominate the politics of the school or our department.
As far as our department goes, it reminds me of the chemistry department at NYU when I was an undergraduate. When I was at NYU, the graduate program was small-to-medium-sized and undergrads were given a lot of leeway in research. At SLU, we have 13 research faculty and we matriculate about 10 new graduate students each year. The most active labs have about 3-6 graduate students each—a very manageable size. This is also an exciting time for the department. We are converting the building adjacent to ours into laboratories, and we will expand into that space in March. Furthermore, the school just inaugurated a new president and we are set to have a major capital campaign to mark our bicentennial in 2018.
As far as people go, the faculty here gets along better than at any other department I’ve seen. I believe that most of the votes we’ve had in faculty meeting during my time here have been unanimous decisions. The graduate students get along with each other, and there is a lot of interaction among groups. This completely contradicts my experience in graduate school, where research groups were massive, faculty were absent for long stretches of time, professors talked incredible smack about each other behind their backs, and each lab was essentially its own island. While such a work environment is tolerable as a graduate student for a limited amount of time, I think my general preference is for something a little less caustic. Of course, the tradeoff is that we lack the resources of a powerhouse department. We have one NMR instrument, not nine. We have two administrative assistants for the department, whereas my graduate advisor had four just for himself.
But I like the balance of SLU. Balance in terms of size—we have a Ph.D. program, but not one so big that you lose touch of students or the lab. Balance in terms of effort—both research and teaching are valued. Balance in terms of students—both undergraduate and graduate students make meaningful contributions to research. Balance in terms of location—St. Louis is a medium-sized Metro area with plenty of culture, but not a megalopolis with an overwhelming cost of living.
And, that’s the whole story, more or less. It is not something any applicant would be expected to glean from our advert alone, but that’s how the system works. I am sure there are similar stories for many other departments who are looking to fill a specific need. While the information may trickle out in the form of personal communication and gossip, social media and the Internet allow free publication of the complete story. And, as longtime readers will know, that is one of the big reasons I love blogs: because they democratize information, making it accessible to everyone instead of people in the Old Boys’ Club who are in the know.
If you think you’d be a good fit for our department, please apply! If you think your labmate would be a good fit, tell her about our opening! And if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask.