Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Academic Hiring Process

Folks complain all the time about hiring in academia-- the job rumor site is so venomous is not just because there are too many applicants chasing too few jobs, but also because the process seems pretty damned random.

For an amusing yet too truthful take, see this piece.  What does Jacques Berlinerblau suggest as the bugs in the process?
  1. "Because half the committee does not read the damn CV's"  I don't think that is quite the problem, but not reading what the candidates write probably is.  That is, reading CVs for a couple hundred candidates is not that hard since more than half come no where near fitting the job or being competitive.  It has been a couple of years since I have been on a search, but the first run through the files was pretty quick.  The problem comes when you need to sort among twenty-five or thirty files, and having to read hunks of chapters/articles while still doing all of that pesky teaching and writing.
  2. "Because your department is completely dysfunctional."  The good news is that my current dept, hiring is not very problematic, even when my preferred candidate loses (which happens surprisingly or not so surprisingly often).  We tend to make good decisions as evidenced by the records of the folks who are now approaching or getting past the tenure process.  The sure sign of a dysfunctional department is when they hire people consistently that: a) do not get develop the record to be tenure-able; b) develop the record that is tenurable but are denied anyway; c) flee long before tenure.  My prior job had the last problem--we did a great job of hiring junior faculty when I was at Texas Tech, but they all fled pretty quickly.  The record was one year in my time and the average was probably around three years.  Again, a fundamental principle is that if you hire someone to do something and they do that thing well, you cannot deny them tenure for not being some other kind of scholar.  
  3. "Because someone on the committee once did summer stock theater with the eventual first choice."  I know this to happen once in a place where I served as a visiting instructor.  Folks outside of the field for which the job was designed collaborated to poach the position, despite not really caring much about the development of their field.  One of the poachers had ties to one of the candidates.  However, the joke was on the them because they brought in a very, very good scholar despite their best efforts, making them look pretty inadequate.
  4. "Because you overlooked the adjunct in your gate [meaning department]."  That is, if you have hired a someone to fill out your course catalog on a temporary basis, that person may be discounted. Familiarity breeds contempt.  It can work the other way, that an inside candidate can gain an edge over strangers.  It happens both ways.  I certainly messed up being an inside candidate at my first job--and I am forever thankful that I did.  The road to my current position has not been smooth or logical, but it has worked out for the best, even with current gripes considered.
  5. "Because letters of recommendation are not always elucidating."  Indeed.  One bigtime scholar tends to write a very short letter that barely covers half a page.  That really indicates nothing as he does this for many folks, but folks elsewhere might read too much into this.  Other folks become famous for saying each of their students is the best one ever.  I try to avoid that trap in writing letters, but it can be hard.  Folks tend to read into letters what they want to see.  That is why I sometimes do see the length of the letter to be a key variable--it shows that the letter writer cares about the student.  Still, letters are not always useful.
  6. "Because selecting junior faculty is a total crap shoot anyway." Berlinerblau then uses the example of drafts in sports--that football teams go to great lengths, for instance, to assess the players that they might draft, with lots more information, effort and money, and often fail.  We, who spend far less time, and the aspirants, whose skills are far less obvious than speed and strength and size, are much harder to assess.
 In the end, at my current department and even in ye olde dysfunctional TTU, we did pretty darned well given how hard this is.  But it is easy to see how aspirants could view the process as random or dysfunctional.  Certainly, when I have lost out to others, I have sometimes wondered what they were thinking.  Of course, other times, I knew that I blew it or that the other candidates had better records. 

To enter this process, one has to be ready for rejection.  Indeed, after getting a job, the rejection continues--from journals, presses, grant-giving agencies, etc.  Spending too much time trying to understand the process is likely to cause headaches.  Which is why I discourage my students from entering the market too soon.  It causes a great deal of stress even when nothing is going on.  The good news is that two of my students found good tenure track positions this year.  I hope to do as well next year.

1 comment:

Steve Greene said...

Re: #6. Back at TTU, Brian Collins and I would often discuss using the NBA draft analogy. I like it better as you also throw in the HS players versus those with lots of college experience.