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Cluster hiring a ready-made collaboration

One institute has netted a cohort of researchers with a pre-designed project. A member of the hiring committee and a successful candidate explain how it works.

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Business people meeting in a conference room.

By grouping candidates into clusters, the Boyce Thompson Institute has shaken up the interview process.Credit: Hero Images Inc./Alamy

In 2018, scientists and administrators at the Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI) at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, launched an unusual interview process. Instead of hiring scientists individually on the basis of their CVs and academic histories, they invited a group of potential principal investigators to a symposium. Once there, participants were encouraged to put together collaboration proposals, which were used to judge and hire applicants as a group, rather than individually. Nature spoke to one successful candidate, plant biologist Magdalena Julkowska, as well as a member of the hiring committee, geneticist Eric Richards, to ask about the cluster-hire process.

Why did you take this approach to hiring?

Eric: The underlying concept behind this approach was that we wanted to see success through networking and collaboration. We realized that when we hire scientists through a conventional process — finding single candidates, reviewing their CVs and interviewing them alone — we assume that strong individual candidates will be able to make the connections that will sustain them long term.

We want to avoid that assumption and speed things up. We are looking for people who can effectively interact with others and collaborate well; therefore, we decided to recruit candidates as a cohort, not as individuals who must make new connections once they’re hired.

Our clustering method differed from a normal cluster-hire process because we wanted candidates to organically form their own groups. Normally, an institution would assign candidates to clusters before hiring.

Describe the interview process.

Eric: We invited 13 candidates to BTI for a two-day visit in November 2018. On day one, candidates gave 15-minute presentations during a symposium. The second day was reserved for networking and workshop sessions with rotating groups of candidates — resembling speed-dating sessions — in which interviewees brainstormed collaborative research projects. Those ideas were developed into short written proposals that included an explanation of how the collaboration would be split between individual members. We reviewed these and used them to decide which two teams to invite back for a second round of interviews.

We made sure that all 13 candidates had a chance to have social time together during dinner on the first night of the symposium, without any BTI faculty or search-committee members present. We wanted to allow the candidates to interact freely with no concerns that their interactions were being evaluated. At the end of that first visit, the camaraderie among all the candidates was very clear to the search committee — and for us, that seemed like a great sign.

How did you find the experience?

Magdalena: I’d been to other group events that were similar — entrepreneurship events, for instance, at which you meet scientists who are interested in commercializing their work — at my current campus, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia. I really enjoyed interacting with people who I would not have met at conferences with a more specific focus. So I had a bit of experience with this sort of event.

After our proposal was submitted and our group was called back, I felt much more confident than I would have in a normal interview. Everyone can experience impostor syndrome, but mine was softened during the process because I knew I was on my way to meet my ‘cluster buddies’ — the people who had enough confidence to submit a proposal with me. Once you’ve formed relationships with those amazing scientists, it makes everything easier.

Eric: In a typical search, you’re bringing between two and five candidates, and it’s really hard to whittle down that list because the people are so fantastic. We brought in a very large group — 13 people — all at once. We could be open and a little more free in our thinking about the candidates, which was one of our biggest advantages.

Who was hired in the end?

Eric: From those 13 candidates, we hired Magdalena, as well as two other scientists: Andrew Nelson, a bioinformatician at the University of Arizona in Tuscon, and Aleksandra Skirycz, a group leader at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology in Potsdam, Germany. The first new arrival is planned for November, and the other members will arrive in 2020.

Magdalena: We intend to identify genes and changes in RNA that are associated with environmental resilience in wild and cultivated crops. This project would not be possible if I were to attempt it alone.

What did you find challenging?

Magdalena: I found it difficult to meet all of the people I was competing against. Normally for an interview, you’re blissfully ignorant because you don’t know who you’re up against — and that’s less scary.

Also, because of the structure of the interview process, it ended up being a lot of work. The symposium was at the beginning of November, and we were supposed to submit a proposal by early December.

While that’s going on, you also have multiple job applications running, and you’re employed at your current job — so you’re busy. Balancing all that was a challenge.

Eric: It was also a challenge logistically — everybody’s travelling and busy, folks are on the job circuit. The coordination of bringing everyone together at once is a real challenge.

How are you getting on now?

Magdalena: I’m planning to move from Saudi Arabia to the BTI in March 2020. I’ve never been hired as a faculty member before, but I imagine it might be a very lonely process because you often don’t know what you should be doing and asking for. When you’re hired in a cluster, you have people to talk to, whom you go through the process with — so there’s a group in which you can bounce ideas around. That’s been really helpful for me.

Eric: Our focus now is making sure that our new colleagues are successfully integrated into BTI and the local research community. BTI remains excited about the collaborative cluster-hiring approach, and we are very happy with both the process and the outcome of our initial search.

What advice do you have for others considering using this approach, or who might go through this process?

Eric: I’ve sat on many search committees. This one was the most fun. The approach to hiring we’ve used has opened up new doors and made us think in a different way — and we probably have recruited some people that wouldn’t typically be recruited. So from a hiring perspective, I recommend trying it out.

Magdalena: My advice for participants: be fearless, give it your best and be open in sharing your ideas with all of the other candidates.

You don’t have that much to lose, and there’s a lot to gain. Even if you propose a collaboration that isn’t accepted, you can keep those connections and make your idea work elsewhere — especially if you’re in a country in which you can apply for inter-institutional grants, such as the United States.

It’s a great opportunity to meet new people whom you wouldn’t normally meet, and to think about concepts that are really far out of your own box.

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

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