In the last six years I have chaired over 25 selection committee meetings for selecting faculty for our Institute, IIIT-Delhi. I have also participated as expert in many selection committees in different IITs. It is clear that there are a few key factors that research-focused institutions like IITs, IISc, some IIITs like IIIT-Delhi emphasize during their deliberations. I am sharing some these here in an attempt to share with potential faculty candidates about what is important for their career. Clearly this note is not a comprehensive list of factors that are considered; nor is it some kind of formula for doing well in selections. The aim is primarily to help candidates realize what is important for academic career, and hopefully they will take suitable actions during their PhD to strengthen these, if they want to pursue academic careers.
First, let us understand some broad ideas governing selection (and promotion) of faculty members in research-focused institutes. First, as the main roles of a faculty member are to do high quality research and high quality teaching, the focus of assessment is on these parameters. (Service, the third important role of a faculty member, is often not assessed during selections.) For assessing these, the quality of the past record, and the future potential of the candidate are both considered. The importance of these two differ at different levels – for Assistant Professor the quality of past record is important, but an assessment of future potential plays a very important role. For selection/promotion to Associate Professor, record becomes more important, and by the time promotion for Full Professor comes, record is the main factor.
This note is primarily about selection at the entry level (Assistant Professor). Main inputs during the selection process are: (i) research record as demonstrated by publications, (ii) pedigree, education record, and projects (iii) reference letters (which gives views about the record and potential of the candidate from senior academics and researchers), (iv) clarity, depth, understanding, and vision displayed during the technical seminar and interaction with faculty and selection committee (and in research statements required by some Institutes like IIIT-Delhi.)
The research record is mostly assessed by the quality of venues where the papers have been published, as it is expected that the impact, as measured by citation etc, may not yet be known. Here, a candidate with a few publications in top quality journals and conferences (and others in decent places) is likely to be strongly preferred over one who has a larger number of publications but all in average venues. In fact many average venue publications with no top venue publication can be a source of serious concern. I am aware of cases where candidate with very few publications have been selected unanimously, while those with large number of publications has been rejected unanimously. Research statement, where asked, is an additional input – a crisp statement which indicates some good understanding of the context, and the types of problems the person wants to work on in the coming few years is likely to be viewed positively.
Pedigree and education record is assessed by the quality of course work, including the projects one may have done. Projects are important to demonstrate that the person is able to apply theory to engineer and build systems – a capability that is very useful when one is teaching courses. Teaching statement is another input – it is important to clearly specify the type of courses one would like to teach – both at core level as well as advanced level, along with the approach. A teaching statement saying that the person can teach a whole range of diverse topics is not a good statement.
Reference letters provide support for the above as well as the last factor. Here I can provide useful input more as a letter writer. A graduating student is likely to get strong letter from professors if he/she has, of course, done good research work. But the letter is likely to be stronger if the scholar has displayed rigor, responsibility, innovation, and initiative during the years he/she has worked with the professor.
The last factor is extremely important and heavily relied upon and is very important for PhD students and those aspiring for academic careers to understand. While publications are clearly important and necessary to show your research capability, a good understanding of the area and problems, what is important and what is not, how the area is evolving and where is it going, etc is very important. This capability comes from deep scholarship, critical evaluation of the works in the field, and clarity of thought and communication. It is given importance as only with it can a person do impactful work or insightful teaching. In other words this capability reflects the potential for doing good research and teaching. Hence, besides building a good publication record, a PhD student aspiring for an academic career, should also focus on deep scholarship and understanding, clarity of thought and communication, vision, etc. It should be added that the area of expertise is also an important factor in assessment, but its importance depends on the needs of the institution.
Finally, let me mention a small point that can help candidates in their own decision making as well as during selections. When a candidate visits an Institute, it will help to have done some homework about the Institution prior to visiting – this understanding can even be reflected in small ways by suitably enhancing the research plan and the teaching plan. This not only will create a better impression during interactions in the visit and selection committee, it can also help the candidate better understand the Institute and his/her fitment in it.
Though the note focused on selections for academic positions, all these factors will clearly play an important role during recruitment by research labs (other sought after career by PhDs) also, though they are more likely to give a higher weight to the nature of the research area and its applicability.