Dear Abby: Why can't we hire computational biologists?

I received this letter in the mail the other day. Can anyone help?


Dear Dr. Abby,

I am at a top-50 R1 research institution, and we are currently conducting faculty hiring searches for a number of professors in biology. The applicant pool has been stunningly good this year, and we have invited many fantastic future researchers. However, I've noticed that even though we get some excellent and strong computational applicants, they are rarely invited to interview, even for positions that are explicitly computational. Those that are invited tend to be stronger on the biology side than on the computational side, which would mean that, even if we hired them, we would not really be increasing our computational or data analysis capacity here. Yet everyone in biology, here and elsewhere, is ostensibly looking for good computational collaborators and teachers, because they enable a wide range of research and build substantial granting and training capacity. Why can't we seem to interview them?

-- Perplexed in Punxsutawney


My response so far:

Dear Perplexed,

I've seen the same thing countless times. If I had to guess, it's one or more of the following.

First, computational research is considered adjunct to the main discipline, for historical reasons, and so discipline-specific hiring may go for the best-looking straight-discipline researchers -- biologists, in this case -- arguing that, after all, they are hiring for that department.

Second, it is often hard for non-computational researchers to evaluate computational scientists. There's a lot of computational snake oil out there, and not all that is called "computation" is good science. Biologists, in particular, have been bitten by this in the past, and may be leary of hiring someone they can't personally evaluate.

Third, computational people are almost always interdisciplinary, and interdisciplinary hiring is notoriously difficult, because often no one department can evaluate them properly. In fact, I would argue that the whole interdisciplinary hiring, promotion, and tenure system is completed effed up. This is exacerbated in a tough job climate where excellent straight-discipline people are available.

Fourth, often the best computational research is done in a group that's focused on a discipline-specific problem, which means it's not credited with first or senior authorship. So, mature computational researchers may simply not be competitive in the traditional single-PI mindset that universities still have.

Fifth, good computational researchers are often hired at a more junior level than others, and often through "friend of a friend" connections, so the available pool may be more junior; thus they do not compete well with more senior discipline-specific researchers who have fewer job opportunities and must go out into open competition.

I fear your quest for more computational biology colleagues might be hopeless; I wish I had better news. Best of luck!

Sincerely yours,

Dr. Abby.

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