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Initiative Targets Faculty Recruiting

ACS's Academic Employment Initiative aims to broaden chemistry's traditional hiring practices

April 19, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 16

McAlpine (from left), Casey, Viesulas, and moderators F. Fleming Crim of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and Jeanne E. Pemberton of the University of Arizona.
McAlpine (from left), Casey, Viesulas, and moderators F. Fleming Crim of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and Jeanne E. Pemberton of the University of Arizona.

Last month's American Chemical Society national meeting in Anaheim saw the kickoff of the society's new Academic Employment Initiative (AEI). Championed by ACS President Charles P. Casey and funded by the National Science Foundation, the experimental project aims to broaden the process by which faculty members in the chemical sciences are hired.

The packed room that greeted AEI's inaugural event--a panel discussion entitled "Recruiting Faculty: How Is It Done? Who Gets the Job and Why?"--evidenced the depth of interest in the topic among both young people and established professionals. But the program itself drew mixed reactions, reflecting the challenges underlying the effort to change entrenched patterns and practices and the depth of feeling surrounding the charged issue of diversity.

"The success of higher education in the U.S. depends critically on the quality and the variety of the faculty," Casey told the Anaheim audience of more than 100 people. "Right now, approximately 700 chemists are hunting for jobs in academia. Ensuring their success is the goal of AEI and this symposium."

In the current hiring process, Casey pointed out, chemistry departments rely heavily on the paper portfolios of applicants. "Realistically, departments never have time or resources to invite more than a few candidates to campus--usually five or less," he noted.

UNDER THESE CIRCUMSTANCES, an aspiring faculty member's "pedigree" and informal word-of-mouth recommendations carry tremendous weight. As recent studies by Valerie J. Kuck and coworkers at Seton Hall University, South Orange, N.J., have documented, Ph.D. graduates from the top-ranked research universities are much more likely to be hired than other candidates [C&EN, Sept. 29, 2003, page 42; J. Chem. Educ., 81, 356 (2004)]. The process has proven discouraging to many young women, minorities, and candidates from less prestigious universities.

In an effort to broaden the recruitment process and make it more inclusive, AEI is looking to the model used by the Modern Language Association and other professional groups in the humanities and social sciences. At those organizations' annual meetings, prospective faculty members meet face-to-face with representatives from departments looking to hire new staff.

For jobs in industry, ACS itself has long facilitated such interchanges through NECH, the on-site employment center run at national meetings by the society's Department of Career Services. But the academic chemistry community traditionally doesn't take part, noted Jura N. Viesulas, the department's manager of employment services. "With the Academic Employment Initiative, we're trying to change that picture and create more opportunity for you to interview right at the meeting," she said in Anaheim.

Accordingly, Casey is sponsoring an AEI poster session at the August national meeting in Philadelphia. The timing is set to coincide with the start of the academic recruitment season in the fall. While candidates present their research in the informal setting of Sci-Mix, the popular interdisciplinary evening session, they can talk one-on-one with chemistry department representatives.

At last month's AEI session on recruiting faculty in Anaheim, four senior faculty members and four more recently hired chemistry professors described how the hiring process currently works.

The panel members on the hiring side of the equation--Isiah M. Warner of Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge; George McLendon of Princeton University; Frank A. Gomez of California State University, Los Angeles; and Michelle M. Bushey of Trinity University, San Antonio--all had similar stories to tell. They stressed that their institutions look for evidence of an excellent teaching and research record, conference presentations, journal publications, the ability to solicit external funds, and the potential for a candidate's research to attract students.

Warner advised that grad students not wait until near the end of their Ph.D. research to get their work published. "Submit early," he said. "You'll be at a serious disadvantage if you interview with no publications."

The personal interview will make or break a candidate, Warner added--an insight reinforced by Bushey. "Most important is the research seminar," Bushey said. "We'll take it as evidence as to how you will do in a classroom."

Networking is also extremely important, all the senior faculty emphasized. Presentations at scientific meetings give young scientists a chance to meet established faculty as well as to get important feedback on their work.

"Princeton gets 250 applications for every job we advertise in Chemical & Engineering News," McLendon pointed out. McLendon, who soon will be moving to Duke University to become Duke's dean of arts and sciences, acknowledged that a candidate's pedigree is a significant factor in making the first cut. "All institutions are slightly prejudiced toward taking candidates from more prestigious schools."

Yet for chemistry departments to succeed, McLendon noted, they need to make sure their faculty reflect the demographics of their students. "Half of undergraduates in chemistry are now women, as are a third of the graduate students," he pointed out. "You could make the same argument for underrepresented minorities. Places that don't pay attention to that will do so at their own peril."

Speaking in his new role as a Duke dean, McLendon said the next three hires Duke will make will all be female--and they will all be blondes. Although he later explained that he meant his statement literally, given that he had met the women in question, the remark struck many people at the session as insensitive.

"The blonde comment made me feel uncomfortable," said Malika Jeffries-El, a postdoc at Carnegie Mellon University and a Younger Chemists Committee associate who was in the audience. "For someone to say something like that in public makes me wonder what goes on behind the scenes."

The recently hired faculty members on the panel--Eric L. Hegg of the University of Utah, Salt Lake City; Anna K. Mapp of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; Shelli R. McAlpine of San Diego State University; and Linda H. Doerrer of Barnard College, New York City--each had a dual perspective to share: They had been through the hiring process recently enough that the experience was still fresh, yet each had also served on search committees for their current departments. They underscored the need for candidates to begin early in their careers to identify their own goals and to meet as many members of the chemical community as possible.

"Preparation and personal contact are important not just for the job search, but for succeeding in your career," Mapp said. Among the ways to network she suggested was for grad students and postdocs to get involved in their institutions' seminar programs. "Have lunch or meet with the seminar speakers," she said.

McAlpine stressed the need for candidates to differentiate themselves from their advisers and colleagues. And she reiterated the importance of pedigree. "You can overcome not coming from a top grad school through a second postdoc or by staying on at your first to build your publication record," she advised.

WHILE THE AUDIENCE welcomed the panel members' description of the status quo, a number expressed disappointment that the program had not attempted to address the troublesome issue of race or how to change the existing culture within chemistry.

"Diversity issues didn't come up explicitly, nor did the barriers to hiring and advancement if you are Latino or African American," said Robert L. Lichter of Merrimack Consultants, in Atlanta, who is a member of the Committee on Minority Affairs.

For Jeffries-El, the pattern she perceived in the backgrounds of the recently hired faculty members--all of whom had spent time at prestigious universities--overwhelmed the practical message they presented. "For people looking in from the outside, it was discouraging because the panel didn't show any exceptions to the rule. The take-home message I'd have gotten if I were an undergrad would be not to even bother going to graduate school if you couldn't get into one of the top 10."

Robert C. Wingfield Jr., associate professor of chemistry at Fisk University, Nashville, expressed a similar opinion. "As an adviser to young people who plan to pursue academic careers, mostly minorities, I found the session informative but not encouraging. There wasn't enough discussion about how to level the playing field. It's good to learn how the game is played, but some of the students ended up feeling 'How can I win at this?' "

Nevertheless, Wingfield said, he thinks the intent of AEI is great, and he's looking forward to seeing how the Philadelphia experiment turns out. "It's wonderful ACS is addressing these issues. The world is changing, and we're going to have to be open to diversity in our students and faculty."


Give A Poster! Get An Interview!

At Modern Language Association meetings, it's known as the "meet market": an opportunity for aspiring faculty and hiring institutions to connect one-on-one. But in the chemistry community, there's been no such tradition of a central exchange at which both parties can assess each other without the stress and expense of formal on-campus interviews.

To give colleges and universities an opportunity to cast a broader net than has been the norm in the search for new chemistry faculty members, the American Chemical Society's president, Charles P. Casey, is sponsoring an Academic Employment Initiative (AEI) poster session at the fall national meeting in Philadelphia. Candidates can present their research and teaching philosophies, while department representatives will be able to meet face-to-face with many more applicants than they could afford to bring to their campuses for interviews.

The posters will be featured at the popular evening Sci-Mix session, which draws contributions from all the ACS divisions. Casey is inviting chemistry departments to participate both by spreading the word to their grad students and postdocs who are searching for academic jobs and, for those departments with openings, by taking advantage of the opportunity to meet candidates personally.

Aspiring faculty members who would like to take part in the Philadelphia AEI mixer should submit an abstract by April 30 at If they want, contributors will also be able to present their posters in divisional sessions as well as at Sci-Mix.


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