Six tips for recruiting excellent scientists

A cartoon of a hand with a magnet attracting a diverse group of scientists

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A well thought-out recruitment process can make it easier to attract the best scientists

Every year, academic institutions gear up to hire outstanding scientists and teachers. But finding the most qualified person for a position is challenging, often involving months of scanning applications and screening candidates. ‘It’s a lot of work across all levels,’ says Erin Chambers, a professor in the department of computer science at Saint Louis University in the US. ‘There’s a lot to evaluate.’

Irrespective of your institution’s recruitment policies, some best practices can help you and your colleagues find stellar professionals.

To hire faculty from different backgrounds, start by ensuring diversity in your search committee. When a woman helms such a panel, the number of applications by women increases 23% – and if the chair is a member of an underrepresented minority, twice as many applicants from underrepresented groups apply, a 2021 study in the Journal of Applied Psychology showed.

Some institutes require search committee members to take diversity, inclusion, and equity (DEI) workshops. ‘The training makes sure that all faculty members on the search committee recognise the value of having a diverse faculty. They also learn to make sure that the search is fair, so every applicant gets equal opportunity,’ says Scott Auerbach, a professor of chemistry at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, US, referring to the training at his institution. People in hiring positions may also bring their unconscious biases into the process, for example by inadvertently favouring a candidate who attended the same college as them. DEI training modules generally cover this topic, and you can also encourage your colleagues to take online tests that help them identify their biases.

Get the details right…

Job seekers appreciate detailed job descriptions, but you have to be careful not to specify the sub-field of chemistry too tightly in the ad. That’s because ‘you can miss out on high-quality candidates because they are self-selecting out of applying to your institution because they can’t see themselves in the job opportunity as it’s written,’ says Rick Page, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Miami University, US.

…and the basics

Elissa Jessup, HR Knowledge Advisor at the Society for Human Resources Management, says that institutions need to be respectful to all candidates. For example, if you’re not moving forward with someone, let them know your decision instead of ghosting them. For others, promptly inform them about the next steps. Clearly state your expectations around workload in interviews. Many highly qualified candidates will also have other job offers, so make them aware of any benefits, such as vacation time, flexible working hours or free Friday lunches. ‘It may be just the thing that gets that top candidate to accept a job offer,’ says Jessup.

Cast a wide net

The internet and social media have made it easier to advertise job vacancies, but you need to go the extra mile to attract a diverse range of candidates. Tim Murphy, senior associate dean for clinical and translational research in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University at Buffalo in the US, says his university tries to advertise its open positions in Historically Black Colleges and Universities and other organisations advocating for underrepresented groups. Reaching out to colleagues to identify potential candidates and inviting them to apply is still one of the most effective recruitment methods, says Murphy, ‘because relationships are so important’.

Page suggests lining up a broad slate of 15–20 candidates for the virtual interview round if you have one. ‘That first interview, whether by phone or Zoom, is an excellent chance for not only the department to learn about the candidate, but also the candidate to learn about the department, and can save a lot of heartache down the road.’

Define excellence

Carefully consider how you will score potential candidates. Chambers says her department separately evaluates demonstrated excellence and potential in research, teaching, service and DEI efforts. ‘So, research, both demonstrated and potential, can come from published papers, but it can also come from the research plan that the person brings where they address how deeply they have thought about funding their research and how that would be used once they get it,’ says Chambers. Similarly, you’d want to know if they plan to conceptualise new courses or bring innovative teaching strategies.

Prepare and take stock

You will inevitably run into hurdles, such as conflicts of interest, as you navigate the screening process: work out a plan in advance to tackle them. That’s better than rushing to a half-baked solution simply because you weren’t prepared, says Joyce Yen, director of the Advance Center for Institutional Change at the University of Washington, US. Set aside time during and toward the end of the hunt to evaluate the process. ‘So that the next time you hire – whether it’s next year or five years from now – you have collective memory about what worked, what didn’t, and what needs to change,’ says Yen.