Monday, July 23, 2007

Finishing first in academic horseraces

By way of the Chronicle's On Hiring Blog, MoneyLaw has learned of Dean Dad's observations on academic hiring. "Dean Dad" works in a community college, but his wisdom applies at all levels of academia. In reply to a correspondent who wondered whether academic employers might be legally required to "hire the job candidate who is most qualified," Dean Dad identified a host of additional factors affecting academic hiring:
  1. Tour de France"[I]t's not at all unusual to have to turn down people who exceed the qualifications for a given position. . . . For one fairly recent hire, we had 120 applications, several of which were far beyond anything we had dreamed of anticipating. As good as they were, we had to turn down all but one. . . . [But] we only had the one position."

  2. When "top candidates [bring] credentials far beyond what the incumbent faculty had when they were first hired," it's impossible to "buy the 'academia is a meritocracy' line": "In a meritocracy, incumbents would have to defend their positions against newcomers. With tenured faculty, that doesn't happen."

  3. Tongue-tied"[S]ome people who seem great on paper just don't get it done 'live,' whether in person or on the telephone. I've seen exceptionally well-credentialed candidates stumble on the simplest questions, simply because their priorities were wildly different from ours. I've seen candidates adopt the attitude that they're doing us a favor by deigning to consider working here: that's always the kiss of death. And there are always those mystifying failures of basic communication skills -- monosyllabic answers to everything, answering questions other than the ones that were asked, or basic incomprehensibility."

  4. "There may be salary constraints such that the topmost candidate is essentially priced out of the job. (That can easily happen in a collective bargaining environment, in which starting salaries are determined by a pretty mechanistic grid. If you score too high on the grid, the college might decide it can't afford you, and if it did a lowball offer, it would lose the grievance.)"

  5. "[A] college might be spooked by 'flight risk.' If a college has lost several rising stars recently to raids, it may decide to lower its sights for a while in hopes of retaining people without raising its pay scale."

  6. "[A]ffirmative action . . . can be a wild card."

  7. "And then there are all the usual human failings.

    1. Some colleges have cultures of 'waiting your turn,' in which longterm adjuncts are kept loyal through implied promises of being 'next.' Some committees won't take seriously anybody who isn't already there.

    2. Some chairs reward personal loyalty over performance, or don't perceive the difference between the two.

    3. Sometimes committees split, and the minimally-acceptable-to-all 'dark horse' candidate wins, despite being nobody's first choice.

    4. Sometimes a formally open job is given to a trailing spouse in order to maintain local comity, or to reduce flight risk."

  8. "And sometimes people just get it wrong. It happens."
Dean Dad's closing observation offers hope to the entire academic market:
The market is brutal enough that any given rejection shouldn't be taken as a reflection on the candidate.
We should all hope that this is true.


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