From December 2020 to March 2021, we served as trainee members of a faculty search committee for two positions in our biology department at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. The committee created this opportunity because it wanted more varied perspectives when it came to hiring faculty members. As well as being early-career researchers, we both identify as under-represented minorities in academia.
In the first step towards filling the two roles, our six faculty colleagues did the initial review of applicants. We were brought in during the next stage, to sift through the 19 applications that passed that first review. During this process, we reviewed candidates’ statements about their research, teaching and approach to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). We then participated in a set of virtual interviews with the candidates and identified nine to continue with the recruitment process.
With these nine candidates, we attended seminars, had one-on-one meetings and attended ‘chalk talks’, in which they pitched their future research and plans for starting their laboratory. At each stage, we provided feedback and our rankings to the search committee. Our final rankings and opinions were presented to all 40 faculty members in the department, who then voted on which candidates should receive an offer. We heard from numerous faculty members that our opinions swayed their vote on which candidates could effectively teach and mentor trainees.
We developed a rubric to assess candidates’ DEI statements. Departments and universities are increasingly requiring candidates to include a statement in their applications about how they plan to mentor and train a diversifying STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) workforce, yet these statements are often judged subjectively and without strong criteria for being classed as ‘good’. Our rubric scored each candidate on four criteria: how they valued and understood DEI; their track record in advancing DEI; their track record in mentoring trainees from under-represented groups; and their plans for advancing DEI at Emory University. Having these distinct categories allowed us and our faculty colleagues to have a more objective evaluation of candidates’ statements. The department is now in the process of incorporating our rubric into future faculty searches.
Why it matters
In most searches, trainees have, at best, short, limited meetings with candidates, which do not allow for a full assessment or an opportunity to provide informed feedback to faculty members. Our greater involvement meant we could ask more targeted questions about candidates’ training and mentorship approaches during our one-on-one meetings. We gained a better sense of how a candidate would treat trainees and shared these perspectives during search-committee meetings. Our discussions and opportunities for disagreement with the rest of the committee gave us a crucial voice that is not often represented in this process. After all, who better to assess a candidate’s potential to mentor and teach than trainees themselves?
Some faculty members outside the search committee questioned whether trainees should be allowed to have input into the faculty hiring process. However, in an anonymous poll conducted after the search, more than 60% of the 26 faculty members who responded indicated that they were extremely enthusiastic about including trainees in future searches. One person stated, “Every time we met as a faculty group, the comments of the trainees were always mentioned. Their feedback seemed very thorough and thoughtful, in all respects. I believe it was not only a plus for the department but an excellent opportunity for them as well in their developmental process.”
We also feel that taking part in the full process has helped us to grow professionally. K.T. learnt how to evaluate the potential impact of research outside his area of expertise and how to pitch his work to a broad audience. K.N. gained valuable insight into the academic hiring process, including how to tailor statements about research, teaching and service for different institutions, and how to assess departmental culture and collaborations during the interview process. These are all skills that will make us better educators, researchers and academic colleagues.
We encourage other departments and institutions to include trainees in the faculty-search process. It demystifies the process, helps trainees to prepare for the job market and contributes to more equitable searches. Trainees are an important part of the academic community, and we should all strive to cultivate an environment in which trainee perspectives are invited, valued and heard.
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The authors declare no competing interests.