Don’t overthink recruitment conversations: getting a job and starting your lab

In molecular biology I’m a reductionist. I recently heard a colleague give a talk on ‘abstraction’ which I think means simplifying things to basic ideas. There are risks but there are also advantages in not overthinking.

One of the biggest career steps you’ll ever face involves negotiating your first position. When I was about to do this a colleague gave me some advice. It went like this.

Keep things simple – the department recruiting you will want you to succeed. They want two things: productivity and fit. You’ll want two things: resources and to feel valued.

The recruiters and recruited align on your first priorities. Your productivity will reflect the resources you are given. You’ll want to discover things (research), transmit knowledge (teach), and you’ll want to see your achievements piling up via papers, funded ideas (grants), research student completions, students taught etc. You’ll be on the same page as your prospective employers, so feel free to ask for the resources: space, money, equipment, staff, you need to be successful.

They will provide what they can, with the only limitation being the size of what they have available and the number of competing demands. To work out what is reasonable to ask for you really need info from colleagues. In Australia start up packages are small, but researchers can succeed by using shared lab space, shared central facilities, and doctoral students who bring their own stipends and make up much of the workforce in the lab. In the US start up packages are larger, but partly because post-doc salaries are required, as are student stipends.

In securing a job the department will also think about ‘fit’ and here it gets complicated. The applicant naturally thinks about what they can contribute and what they want to achieve. But the hiring team wants ‘fit’, ‘synergy’, ‘coherence’. Fit might involve being a team player, it might involve helping create a ‘critical mass’. Or it might involve ‘plugging a gap’ in departmental expertise.

Most recruiters over-weight ‘fit’. Some believe too much in the magic of ‘if we all work together, we can be more than the sum of our parts’ and will be looking for you to collaborate and network. This is important but there are limits. Department leaders fixate on ‘fit’ partly because they realise that if people fit then decisions that benefit one person (like a big start-up package) will also be applauded by others. They know that cohesive teams also carry weight externally. In contrast, if a Department appoints someone in a new area of no interest to anyone else, then they are planting a tree in a desert, the investment may be resisted, and without critical mass the area may fail, even if the idea of doing something new makes sense.

‘Fit’ is also complicated for the appointee. The more they work in teams the less starkly their leadership and distinctive contribution will stand out. Academic leaders sometimes lament the inability of their staff to ‘work together’ without ackowledging that the academic system the leaders have created is what forces individualistic behaviour on the people they are trying to lead. In the best departments the tension between teamwork and individual leadership is carefully managed.

To go back to what you might ask for. From the appointee’s point of view the things they need, resources and being valued were once listed to me as – all you can ask for is: space, money, prestige. This is reasonable and we’ve discussed space and money (or equipment/salaries etc). It’s worth asking for what you need but you have to be realistic about what slice of the pie may be available. Prestige, feeling valued, feeling special, on the other hand, is much more elastic and it is worth exploring.

Many institutions leverage ‘prestige’ as much as possible. It is less expensive. New titles abound. One institution I’ve heard of lets all Associate Professors refer to themselves as the Professoriate, and be Professors. Some organisations give top recruits special fellowship titles. Some have various partially hidden salary grades and accelerated titles with a mix of honour and salary supplements. The personal salary supplementations are much harder for organisations to offer than investments in shared research infrastructure – because they do not necessarily serve the ‘common good’ and ‘fit’, but supplements do exist in many organisations.

‘Prestige’ is a crazy, old-fashioned word but I think it is useful. It is elastic but ultimately ‘inflation’ degrades its value so new honours are regularly invented. Although it is crazy ‘prestige’ and ‘feeling valued’ is important to people and it can be a great way of doing what universities do best – of ‘harnessing egos for the public good’.

The final thing I was told was that your moment in the sun won’t last for long. You have to ask for what you need up front, but you have to do it in a reasonable way and my main advice is that asking for things that will benefit others as well (and help with ‘fit’), things like equipment, facilities, technical support, is often a win-win approach.


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