Lure high-flyers before they peak

November 18, 2005

If you want to recruit star researchers, rather than the 'extinct volcano'

variety, you need to catch them on their way up, and lure them with a great team and abundant resources, says Harriet Swain

Amazing what a bit of cost-cutting can do. By shaving the equipment budget, you've finally found the cash to appoint some research stars. Trouble is, you don't know who they are or how to get them to work for you.

Bob Bushaway, chairman of the Association for University Research and Industrial Links, says recruiting good researchers depends on establishing a reputation for supporting research over a number of years. This means investing in equipment and making your commitment explicit in university policy. It also means making sure that you have good researchers already.

"There is a degree of clustering that goes on," he says. "There is a peer process by which a network knows where research is hot and you must tap into that. If you tryto do it in an artificial way, you won't succeed."

Malcolm Coe, head of the School of Physics and Astronomy at Southampton University, which received a top rating in the last research assessment exercise, says: "Success breeds success. If you have a major international figure already in your institute, then this stamps the seal of approval on you. Other people want to come and join you, so you can pick the best."

On the other hand, you also have to make the best of yourself, advises Helen Scott, executive officer of the Universities Personnel Association.

You have to make sure job advertisements are catchy and are displayed in all the right places, including the web.

When it comes to the interview, you need to appear interesting. "If you come across as dull no one is going to want to work for you," she says. You also need to have interesting things to offer - good career-development plans, enticing seminars, the chanceto attend conferences, mentoring schemes for young researchers - as well as decent salaries. Freedom from administrative burdens, decent lab space, sabbaticals, conference grants and recognition can be just as important as pay, Scott adds.

Coe says all these things need to be negotiated and tailored to meet the requirements and expectations of individual researchers.

The aim should be to recruit shooting stars and export extinct volcanoes, according to Bushaway. To do this, you need to have an understanding of where the subject area is going internationally and nationally. "That will show you something about their vitality," he says. "No one can succeed as a shooting star if their area of research interest is in decline."

Scott says it is often possible to spot future stars among undergraduates, by identifying those who choose interesting projects, who show commitment, deliver on time and display originality, as well as do well in exams or produce a good thesis. Postdocs who come up with their own angles on research and talk to other people in their research area rather than sticking to the lab are also the ones to watch. A period spent abroad or time spent at a number of different UK institutions is often an indicator that they will have a wider perspective on how research can be conducted, she says.

Tim Dunne, head of Exeter University's politics department, which scored a 5 in the last RAE, says the key word should be quality rather than quantity when recruiting young researchers. "If you are faced with appointing two people, one with four or five OK research outputs and the other with one extremely good one, I would be more inclined to go with the extremely good one," he says.

He is also interested in where they studied for their PhD, because it will indicate whether or not they received top doctoral training in their subject.

To identify good researchers further into their careers you have to talk to other experts in the field, asking them who they would recruit if money were no object, says Scott, although she warns of the danger that people tend to promote copies of themselves.

Imogen Wilde, head of education practice at headhunters Norman Broadbent, says she looks at publication and talk records, how successful candidates are at winning external grants and the research rating of their present department. She also always asks to see their planned programme of research. But the only way to establish whether they still have more to offer is by talking to them, she says.

This is also the best way to find out whether they are good team players.

It is useful to look at how much management experience they have had, whether they have been responsible for managing large teams and the completion rates of their PhD students.

But Wilde says the interview will still be key. It is also important to think about whether they will bring a team with them and the financial implications of that for the recruiting university, she says. If they don't bring their team, will they be able to carry on with their research?

Bushaway warns institutions that they can't be good at everything. "The important thing is to identify in which research areas you want to succeed and to set your stall out in those areas," he says. And he stresses that the leadership and vision of the vice-chancellor in recruiting top researchers is crucial. "You are looking for a strike rate of at least 80 per cent from the vice-chancellor. If you start getting below that, it is going to bring problems for the institution."

Even when you think you've found your top researcher, the story may not be over, warns Wilde. Stand by for the counter offer from a rival university.

Further information

Universities Personnel Association, www.upa.ac.uk

Norman Broadbent recruitment firm, www.normanbroadbent.com

TOP TIPS

Establish a reputation for supporting research

Concentrate on a few research areas

Tap into existing networks

Look for quality rather than quantity of research output

Offer excitement and enticements

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