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Getting There, Part I: Top Traits

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You'd be hard-pressed these days to find anyone who says landing a faculty position in academia is easy. In tough economic times, many schools have instituted indefinite hiring freezes, and postings for assistant professor positions continue to diminish across all disciplines. Still, according to academicians who spoke during a panel discussion at a science and technology career symposium hosted by New York University's Langone Medical Center and a variety of New York City sponsors this month, there are a few key traits search committees seek that applicants should be aware of to increase their odds of being called for an interview.

Prior funding, a clear path

New York University School of Medicine's James Borowiec said faculty search committees tend to look favorably on candidates who have a prior history of funding, be it through a postdoctoral training grant, a graduate fellowship, or some related award mechanism. "Those kinds of things help," Borowiec said. "They're not required, but when you see those, you think, 'OK, the person at least has had some success in getting some grants and awards before.'"

Overall, he added, search committees seek candidates with clear direction in their career paths. "We're looking for a good arc — a good career trajectory," Borowiec said. "We like to see a relatively quick progression — two postdocs is OK, but three postdocs is kind of a worrisome sign, because we're looking at risk [versus] opportunity for success. So we want someone who it looks like they're going to have a good chance that they're going to be successful." Hiring one new faculty member at a major research institution represents an approximately $1 million-dollar investment, he said, so search committees are conscious of potential risks.

An interesting problem

In addition, "we're looking for an interesting biological problem — this is key," said Borowiec, whose lab at NYU investigates the regulation of eukaryotic DNA repair pathways using, among other things, single-molecule real-time techniques. "It's a field that's been a bit over-explored for a long time, there's not a whole lot new there. We're looking for something new … new ways of looking at things, new interesting problems."

A collaborative spirit

Personality, Borowiec added, also counts. "When we hire somebody, that person's going to be a colleague, and could be for 20 to 30 years. You want someone who's not going to be a pain to go to dinner with," he said. "We've had some hires where the person kind of locks themselves in their room and it's not doing anyone any good." During an interview, he added, "it helps if you're outgoing, but everyone has different personalities. At the very least, you have to be interactive."

NYU's Michael Long chimed in on the importance of interactivity among colleagues, saying that although he and his peers differ personality-wise, they share a collaborative spirit. "I know when I write a grant, I can go to all of my junior colleagues and let them read it, and I really appreciate their comments," he said. "It's almost understood; when any of us write a big award, we can give it to each other, we all stick together, and that's great. You want someone who you really want down the hall."

Stay tuned for Getting There, Part II, on successfully navigating the interview process.

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