Careers Physics World  July 2017
(Dana Maxson)

Top talent wanted, start from scratch

New research institutes and departments encounter unique challenges for attracting and recruiting talent from across the globe, reports Alaina G Levine

When Hitoshi Murayama started his job as the founding director of the Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe (IPMU) at the University of Tokyo in 2007, he found himself in a predicament. “On day one, there was absolutely nobody,” says the particle physicist. The university had been given money from Japan’s federal government to start the institute, but the new research enterprise had neither building nor faculty. Murayama’s job was to recruit the best and the brightest minds to Tokyo and shape the institute into a world-class research engine, but he immediately encountered a challenge that is not uncommon for new institutions: he needed to prove to potential new hires that what could be perceived as a grand experiment would deliver a long-term employment promise.

In the case of the IPMU, its government funding was stipulated for a length of 10 years, which meant “We couldn’t offer tenure to anybody,” says Murayama, “so it was hard to demonstrate that the job was stable.” Eventually, the university kicked in funding, as did an endowment from the Kavli Foundation, and now all senior faculty have been moved to tenured positions. “The university was watching to see if we were successful before they gave us permanent funding,” he adds. “It was a chicken-and-egg-type scenario.”

Murayama was not alone in his dilemma of trying to bring the right brains to campus while building an establishment at the same time. When a new research institution starts from scratch, there are many issues that its leaders must deal with, not the least of which is branding. To recruit the smartest and most creative employees, fledging organizations must distinguish themselves and be able to articulate their brand.

This can be a challenge especially when your scientific direction will be dependent upon the people who join the team, as Rein Ulijn attests. Recruited from the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Ulijn, a physical chemist with expertise in nanotechnology and biomaterials, serves as the founding director of the Nanoscience Initiative at the recently launched Advanced Science Research Center (ASRC) at the City University of New York (CUNY). When he joined the pristine institute in 2014, he knew he was in for a slightly uphill battle. He had to make it clear in his marketing materials what kind of scientist he was interested in and would thrive in this ecosystem. As CUNY endeavoured to become a more entrepreneurial university, “We were looking for people who are brave and adventurous, would want to be part of this new journey, and believe they can create something outstanding from a completely new set up,” says Ulijn. “It’s very different from recruitment in established places that have history behind them. We were trying to create something new.” He relied on both word of mouth and networking to increase the new institution’s visibility and gain access to the right talent. “Advertising is fine, but you are competing with other institutions that are trying to recruit the best scientists,” he notes. “So we had to be very focused on identifying special people and bringing them in.”

As Nalin Patel, a physicist at the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, began recruiting fellows to the Winton Programme for the Physics of Sustainability, he remained attuned to emerging fields from across the globe that might be a good fit from which to draw candidates. He and his team engaged an advisory board and faculty to help guide what kinds of expertise the programme could explore, and yet, “We purposely didn’t advertise for positions in specific research fields,” he says, preferring to keep it open and allow scholarship and collaborations to form and advance organically once the right people were identified.

We were looking for people who come with vision and ambition and are leaders

In-person meetings make a specific difference in recruitment at new institutions, says Ulijn, because the scholars get a real feel for what the institute could blossom into. He strategically structured interviews to reveal the candidates’ risk-taking nature. He asked them where they see themselves in five years, and although “it’s a typical interview question, in our case, it was very, very important, because a lot of [infrastructure and direction] wasn’t in place so there was an opportunity to build it” he says. “We were looking for people who come with vision and ambition and are leaders in their own right.”

Life support

As Murayama realized immediately, when it comes to recruiting scientists from around the world to a country with which they may not be familiar, it is not enough to simply offer them a job. An institution must provide other kinds of support to ensure the recruits integrate into a new culture and community. For scholars who did not speak Japanese or who had not lived in Japan before, Murayama made it his mission to create a support system to enable their success. He hired bilingual staff in the Kavli IPMU who could orient the new employees; assist them with paperwork including grant proposals to the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (the cover letters for which needed to be in Japanese); and even accompany them to set up bank accounts or purchase mobile phones. He also ensured that English was mainly spoken at the institute, and altered the hiring cycling to mirror that from the US and Europe, both of which are departures from the typical Japanese university system. “All of these things have to be systemized so recruits feel comfortable when they arrive so they can kickstart their research,” he says. Now about half the scientists at Kavli IPMU are international.

ASRC on the other hand is smack dab in the middle of New York City, so Ulijn knew that housing would be an issue. His solution was to “offer temporary accommodations in the building next door, so you can start to explore the area and find a place to live” he says. “It’s worked well.” He also makes his staff available for new recruits to help them with the process of settling in. “Having friendly and engaging support staff can play a big role” in recruitment, he adds.

Uncertain times

Given the current global political climate, it is an especially perplexing time when it comes to recruitment issues across the world stage, especially due to Brexit, recent shifts in immigration policy in the US, and active situations in other nations’ economies as well. “There is no question that these developments pose new challenges for hiring of quality staff,” says Ulijn. “It is difficult to predict what the full impact will be, but it is important not to give in to pressures that are unhelpful for progress of science.” Murayama posits that there might be a bright side for new institutions such as his that are outside these troubled zones, noting that the policy dynamics “may give us an advantage in recruiting scientists who would require a visa to work” in the UK or the US.

No matter the external influences, in the end it’s up to the leaders of new institutions who jockey for top talent across the globe to clarify the scholarship potential that an entrepreneurial organization affords their team. But that potential is often the linchpin for recruitment, because “There is no name recognition with a new institution, so you can’t hide behind a well-established name,” says Ulijn. “You have to be able to establish that name yourself. You have to like the thrill of the journey.”