Academic Job Search — Tales from the Other Side

We often read about the trials and tribulations of academic job seekers.

But it’s not until you are on the other side and a few years into a professorship that you start seeing how a faculty search looks from the standpoint of your future colleagues.

The first aspect is what goes on in the department. There may be a more-or-less formal mechanism by which the department decides when new hires are needed. How this is done depends on the department culture and size. In mid-size (20-40) and large (40+) departments, there are probably multiple people in several subareas, and it’s sometimes a tug of war to decide which subarea gets a new candidate or has the highest priority for hiring. It helps if the department administration in functional and keeps a record of who hired last and how successful recent searches in different subareas went. Also, some areas have the potential to bring in more money than others — it should not matter, but it does. Some areas are considered to be the department’s great strength, and some places like to be the best place to do A and B, rather than just another place to do A through F reasonably well. As a result, they will hire more in the subareas where they are already strong. The larger the department, the more large subareas as well as strong personalities there are. Things can get gory…

Assuming the department can get its act together and decide on what it needs, a case has to be made with the higher administration, which generally means the college dean. The department may or may not get to hire, depending largely on the college budget, but also on the college strategic plan (I shudder at the sound of this bit of bullshit jargon, but there are such documents and people do rely on them), how recently the department last hired, if they had retirements or faculty leaving for other institutions, and the general standing of the department in the college pecking order or the dean’s list of favorites. 

If things go well, the department will get an OK to hire in early fall and will be able to advertise in October-December and generally interview as early as late January, but more typically February through April. Getting an interview is the hard part, yet it never ceases to amaze me how poorly many candidates actually perform during the onsite interviews (we don’t do Skype or phone), but I would say that’s fortunate as it helps the search committee decide.

I am on the search committee second year in a row and it is a lot of work. People are really looking hard for the best candidate but also one who is likely to want to come here. This is an interesting twist, especially at places that are not MIT, Stanford, or the like — the über-tippity-top-5-school-ultimate-pedigreed candidates who don’t botch interviews tend to want to stay within their creme-de-la-creme echelon. Every year there are one or two such hot commodities on the job market, whom everyone interviews and everyone gives an offer to, which I think is silly — each  is only one person and each of them having 20 offers is good for their ego, but schools should really think whether such candidates are realistic hiring prospects.

I know, that means the department admitting that they don’t consider themselves to be tippity-top, so the collective self-consciousness of the department comes to play. Do we pretend we are more awesome than we are and go for the fanciest candidate, but then get turned down? Or do we potentially sell ourselves short and not go for the fancy, but rather for one who is both very good and likely to accept?

I suppose there’s a dating metaphor here: do you ask out the hot girl you really, really like, but so does everyone else, or do you ask the the not-quite-so-hot girl you like as well, but who’s not on everyone’s radar so your chances of her going out with you may be higher? I would say, in dating, definitely go for the girl you really like, because the heart wants what the heart wants, and she may like you more than you know. My Spouse would say to go with maximizing your chances. In academic hiring, things are a little more straightforward; after all, you will not be longingly looking on as the hot girl walks into the sunset with another dude and curse yourself for not having had the guts to ask her out. In fact, if you are lucky enough to have two candidates the department likes, they are both generally pretty awesome and either one would make a great colleague. Eliminating one based on super-hot-commoditiness (I really should lay off of making up silly words) is as good a reason as any.

New faculty searches are quite draining for existing faculty. A lot of emotional energy goes in it — we all want to hire someone good, we get excited about promising candidates, we get irritated by those who have failed to prepare or look downright disinterested. Candidates (understandably) don’t realize how many meetings each of us faculty have in regards to each search, even without the time needed to talk to the candidate. When you are on the search committee, you also have the higher-than-average obligation to take candidates to lunch or dinner, on top of having to attend every talk, meet individually with each candidate, and partake in debriefing meetings after each visit. After the 3rd or 4th candidate, the time commitment alone does get fairly tedious.

After the interviews are over, there is the potential lack of consensus as to who the best candidate was. In my experience, in very strong, high-performing subareas, people tend to reach a consensus as to who performed best pretty quickly. In others, you have more of a strong-personality interference, territoriality (someone senior but inactive people blocking the hiring of someone junior who is perceived as a threat), and other considerations that may result in the most promising candidate not getting the offer.

I am in a large enough department that I have seen all sorts of scenarios play out. We are lucky to have a smart chair who has the best interest of the department at heart, as well as considerable political savvy to pull it off and forward our agenda while not irritating the college administration. Thank god for those soft skills, heh?

As for advice to faculty candidates: apply anywhere you appear to be a reasonably good fit, with “reasonably good” and “fit” interpreted very liberally. If the call is vague, that often means the department is open to seeing who’s out there before deciding on a subarea to prioritize. If you get an interview, congratulations! But even if you think you did great, you as a candidate have no idea about what is going on in terms of the internal politics, so it’s best not to obsess about it as there is nothing you can do. There may be some who liked you when you interviewed, but if the department priorities or loudest mouths are elsewhere, you are toast. I know this hardly sounds as a consolation, but it is what it is. All you can do is try to do your best. You’ll get better at interviewing with more practice, and you’ll get better at realizing what it is that you want in a potential home department. 

Good luck!

3 comments

  1. I love your account of the job search from the other side! A few years ago, when I was applying for jobs, I asked one of my mentors what he looked for in a faculty candidate. My mentor said is that all he hoped for was that the candidate he wanted to hire did nothing to embarrass him during the interview! 🙂

    I remember I found it very eye-opening at the time, and tried my best not to botch up any interview.

  2. This was a great post. I had a particularly tribulating interview today, and your words help me reiterate in my mind that there’s nothing I can do after the fact, but realize what went poorly and how to fix it!

  3. I’m also now on the other side and what I find fascinating is how some candidates can look perfect on paper, but then completely mess up in real life. I’ve been on 5-6 searches in the last couple of years and not in one single case did the order of the candidates after shortlisting (and so based on the CV+materials) correspond to the order after interviewing. Very interesting.

    And what I also find very interesting is how the interview materials completely depend on the culture and where the candidates are from. We get a wide range of international candidates and just by looking at the structure of materials, you can tell where they are from. For example, American applications are heavy on teaching information, including copies of student evaluations and even copies of student emails saying that you are the best professor ever. But there is no personal information whatsoever. European applications are much more research-focused and only give very little info on teaching (usually there is just a list of courses that one taught). But you will find out everything about the applicant’s family status, hobbies, etc. and in many applications there will be a photo included (a complete no-no in American applications). Asian applications will be extremelly bulky with university-stamped transcripts from the entire educational career, down to undergrad or even high school. Personally I find this diversity very interesting, but it does not make the job of the search committee any easier…

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