Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Early Thirsty from Hiram.

Q: How do departments seek out better candidates? Are we always just stuck with the slush pile and the hit and miss quality of a typical academic search? Are there institutions that proactively recruit hires that better fit specific needs and openings?


  1. It's a good question. I've been hired twice (out of, like, 10 times) through initial contact from a Dean or chair. In both cases I was told about an upcoming opening and encouraged to apply. Each time I actually got the job, but was told at the first that I was simply among about 10 people who had been "invited" to consider the position.

    In my own work on committees, though, we've always just sifted what came in. I mentioned to a president one time that it might be nice to approach a nearby professor who I only vaguely knew, someone who was perfectly suited for a new program. The president was alarmed at this: "We're not going to poach someone."

    We hired someone extremely lousy instead.

  2. For several years in the department I was with, the only qualification for being hired to fill an open position was to be a buddy of the assistant department head.

    How did we find out about the new instructor? It was quite simple, really. All of a sudden, there would be a new face (sometimes on loan from another department)--no formal announcement of a search, no indication of who was being considered, nothing.

    Some worked out, some didn't.

  3. Hire me. I promise to do an excellent job. I will even bring bourbon.

    Not sure how to attract better candidates. I was on one search as a grad student and we had some good ones and some bad ones. I far as I know our top two choices are doing well. One went to another University and the other was hired and seems "rock star-like." But being a lowly grad student, I have no clue if these folks were invited to apply?

  4. We sift the piles. Lots of high-quality people there who we shouldn't even have a hope of actually hiring, but that's life right now.

    No time or energy, or much in the way of connections, for hard-nosed recruitment.

  5. It's easy in the physics department. All we need to do is take a candidate out to lunch and dinner. Everyone in physics is so socially maladjusted, if they can get through lunch and dinner and act like a normal person the entire time, the one with the most external grant support wins.

    We've had no shortage of candidates who’ve failed this test. One was so nervous, I thought he was going to wet himself, and as the day progressed, he got worse, not better. Can you imagine someone like this in front of a class of 80 ravening pre-meds? What might ensue could be considered a form of bio warfare, and get us in trouble with the Geneva Convention.

    Furthermore, here at Fresno State, we have a special test. In addition to all the above, the candidate who doesn't laugh gets the job. Seriously, I am not kidding: that is exactly how I got my job, word of honor. The trouble with this is that our student’s recent escapade with a sheep has made this test decidedly more difficult.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. We haven't been having any trouble attracting applicants who can put on their "socially functioning adult" hat for the duration of the campus visit. We've just had a lot of trouble getting them to accept the offer after we make it.

      In one recent case we hired our fourth choice candidate—considered by the committee to be "promising, but in need of a mentor"—after the first three all turned us down (one for another year of postdoctoral work when we were offering tenure track).

    3. You wouldn't be in the physics department at San Diego State, would you? This happened there, because each of the first three candidates looked at the insane cost of San Diego real estate, and realized they couldn't afford to buy a house in San Diego, on what the physics department was offering.

      Come of think of it, didn't I hear that the fourth candidate turned them down too, for the same reason?

    4. No. I'm in a small Midwestern city. It would only be a town, really, except about four times as many farm and ranch people shop here as there are actual residents of the place so we have access to retail and dining that the census size of the city simple wouldn't justify.

  6. Seriously, Hiram: When they wanted better candidates to apply for open faculty positions at an R1 at which I did a postdoc, they would write to them and encourage them to apply.

  7. I'm hardly on the inside of the process, but, based on who comes to campus, we seem to be getting at least 3 good candidates in most searches. In at least one case, I'm pretty sure (based on the fact that he had a very strong recommendation from a retired member of the department) that our first-choice candidate had been encouraged to apply (though whether that resulted from the candidate contacting the referee or vice versa, I'm not sure, and, as I noted, the referee is a retired member of the department -- one who is still very active professionally).

    I gather this is less true in the relatively few subfields of English (broadly defined) for which their is a strong market outside the academy. For instance, it's hard to hire an experienced technical writer with a Ph.D. (or even a MFA) to a tenure-track position.

    Where we fall down is in getting our first-choice candidates to accept the position. If they do even a modicum of homework (and of course the good ones do), they realize that our salaries, while they rank high nationally, are very low in relationship to our high local cost of living. So they take jobs at equally-good universities in nice college towns in less-expensive areas (and probably live quite happily ever after; seriously, the cost of housing in this area is getting just ridiculous. Basically, any lot capable of holding a single-family house -- and a few that really aren't -- goes for at least $400,00-$500,000, never mind what is or isn't sitting on it, and a buyer who actually wants a modest house and can afford that much is sure to be outbid by a developer who will put up a million-plus McMansion covering every allowable inch of the lot, to the applause of the tax assessors).


    I don't see any problem with inviting candidates to apply (though, since some candidates will be naive/overly hopeful, I think it's a good idea to include the sort of caveat Cal mentions -- "you're one of a select group we're inviting to apply"). It used to be the sort of thing that only happened with named chairs, but there's no reason not to do it lower down the chain.

    The main question that comes to my mind, however, is why in the world, given the reported, and very real, oversupply of Ph.D.s vs. TT jobs, is anybody having trouble getting good candidates. It's possible that it has to do with stagnant pay, and the decreasing supply of jobs that look even slightly attractive to candidates (perhaps both reasonably so, and less so), and the complexities of candidates' lives (the longer it takes to get a degree, and a job, the more considerations, in the form of spouses/partners and children and aging parents and such, are going to play a role in employment decisions).

    But I also wonder about the definition of "good" candidates, and possible blindness to the strengths of those already close by (e.g. your own or other local institution's adjuncts). That can get tricky (e.g. which of many adjuncts do you hire?), but it seems to me that part of the problem is that most departments these days would prefer to hire someone who's already been on the tenure track (or at least in a contingent position with significant non-teaching/service or light-administrative-type responsibility), *and* has significant publications/a book coming out, *and* is still willing to move halfway across the country. Like other employers, universities no longer want to train on the job (and to some extent, can't afford to, since so much service is shared among so few TT positions). That means that departments *do* want someone who has already demonstrated an ability to "fit specific needs and openings," even though they're offering fewer and fewer positions themselves that provide the opportunity to demonstrate such qualities, and are (understandably) upset when someone "poaches" *their* experienced faculty.

  8. While going through the applications for a FT/TT job last year (my first time!) I kept thinking "how the f did I get hired???"

    1. This was me, too.

      I kept seeing CVs that just made me wilt.


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