The Central Problem of Academic Hiring

A bunch of people in my social-media feeds are sharing this post by Alana Cattapan titled Time-sucking academic job applications don't know enormity of what they ask. It describes an ad asking for two sample course syllabi "not merely syllabi for courses previously taught -- but rather syllabi for specific courses in the hiring department," and expresses outrage at the imposition on the time of people applying for the job. She argues that the burden falls particularly heavily on groups that are already disadvantaged, such as people currently in contingent faculty positions.

It's a good argument, as far as it goes, and as someone who has been on the hiring side of more faculty searches than I care to think about, the thought of having to review sample syllabi for every applicant in a pool is... not exactly an appealing prospect. At the same time, though, I can see how a hiring committee would end up implementing this for the best of reasons.

Many of the standard materials used in academic hiring are famously rife with biases-- letters of reference being the most obviously problematic, but even the use of CV's can create issues, as it lends itself to paper-counting and lazy credentialism ("They're from Bigname University, they must be good..."). Given these well-known problems, I can see a chain of reasoning leading to the sample-syllabus request as a measure to help avoid biases in the hiring process. A sample syllabus is much more concrete than the usual "teaching philosophy" (which tends to be met with boilerplate piffle), particularly if it's for a specific course familiar to the members of the hiring committee. It offers a relatively objective way to sort out who really understands what's involved in teaching, that doesn't rely on name recognition or personal networking. I can even imagine some faculty earnestly arguing that this would give an advantage to people in contingent-faculty jobs, who have lots of teaching experience and would thus be better able to craft a good syllabus than some wet-behind-the-ears grad student from a prestigious university.

And yet, Cattapan's "too much burden on the applicant" argument is a good one. Which is just another reminder that academic hiring is a lot like Churchill's famous quip about democracy: whatever system you're using is the worst possible one, except for all the others.

And, like most discussions of academic hiring, this is frustrating because it dances around what's really the central problem with academic hiring, namely that the job market for faculty positions absolutely sucks, and has for decades. A single tenure-track opening will generally draw triple-digit numbers of applications, and maybe 40% of those will be obviously unqualified. Which leaves the people doing the hiring with literally dozens of applications that they have to cut down somehow. It's a process that will necessarily leave large numbers of perfectly well qualified people shut out of jobs through no particular fault of their own, just because there aren't nearly enough jobs to go around.

Given that market situation, most arguments about why this or that method of winnowing the field of candidates is Bad feel frustratingly pointless. We can drop some measures as too burdensome for applicants, and others as too riddled with bias, but none of that changes the fact that somehow, 149 of 150 applicants need to be disappointed at the end of the process. And it's never really clear what should replace those problematic methods that would do a substantially better job of weeding out 99.3% of the applicants without introducing new problems.

At some level the fairest thing to do would be to make the easy cut of removing the obviously unqualified and then using a random number generator to pick who gets invited to campus for interviews. I doubt that would make anybody any happier, though.

Don't get me wrong, this isn't a throw-up-your-hands anti-measurement argument. I'd love it if somebody could find a relatively objective and reasonably efficient means of picking job candidates out of a large pool, and I certainly think it's worth exploring new and different ways of measuring academic "quality," like the sort of thing Bee at Backreaction talks about. (I'd settle for more essays and blog posts saying "This is what you should do," rather than "This is what you shouldn't do"...) But it's also important to note that all of these things are small perturbations to the real central problem of academic hiring, namely that there are too few jobs for too many applicants.


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Apart from the stakes, it's the same kind of problem highly selective universities face in undergraduate admissions. Some fraction of the pool is clearly unqualified, and you can eliminate them right away. But you have to have some way of distinguishing among the qualified applicants, where differences are often small. You have letters of recommendation, which can turn on whether the teacher actually likes the student. You have transcripts, but grades can be and often are gamed. You have essays supposedly written by the applicants themselves, but some of those applicants will have been coached. You have standardized tests, but those can be coached, too. For some, including my undergraduate alma mater, you will have a field interview. How do you choose a freshman class from among the people who make the initial cut? Typically it's something in the application that catches a reader's eye. I will stipulate that this is not necessarily fair, but I cannot easily come up with a fairer system than that.

I have never been on the other side of the table in a faculty search, so I am not privy to details, but I suspect it comes down to something similar: something in the application catches the eye of someone on the search committee. At R1 universities, it is likely one or more candidates will be known to people on the search committee (I know that helped me get shortlisted), a factor which certainly favors the better connected candidates. It's probably less of an issue at SLACs, but I'm sure it happens once in a while. Or there's a GlamourMag publication on the CV. Whatever it is, those are the people who are invited to interviews.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 24 Mar 2017 #permalink

Oh, there are absolutely name-recognition effects at the SLAC level-- that helped me get the interview that got me my job. And the college-admissions analogy is a good one, at least from my limited understanding of how the admissions process works. At least the admissions folks have a larger number of spots to give out, though-- they're still making big cuts, but they do get to admit more than 1% of the applicant pool.

Well said. I agree 100%. I am leaving academic precisely because I cannot find a faculty position. I don't want to leave, but I have to.

You note that a tenure-track opening can attract triple digit applications, but you suggest that only 40% of those applicants will be unqualified. Your job descriptions might be too broad. In my own 35+ years of academic teaching, and more searches than I want to remember, we routinely get close to 200 applicants for each position, but of those all but 10 or 12 are unqualified, or have some kind of disqualifying issue (e.g. we learn that they are looking for an offer simply to get a raise back home...) In our last search we found only 2 candidates for our short list, though we started off with 187 applications. My complaint, as a letter of recommendation writer, is that hiring programs often expect a full application from everyone who applies, rather than from a 'shorter list' of those 10 or 12 really serious candidates, and that bogs down the process for the hiring department as well as the scores of applicants who don't have a snowball's chance anyway. It's possible -- even probable -- that we have missed opportunities in the past to hire some utterly brilliant but unorthodox applicant who didn't meet the position description's requirements, but there are other ways that such candidates can stand out from the 200 other applications.... In any case, sorry for the late comment, and thanks for raising these important issues.

By Barbara Piper (not verified) on 01 Apr 2017 #permalink

The fraction of obviously unqualified applicants varies a lot, from search to search. As to tailoring the requirements to be more narrow, that's a tricky problem, as one of the few things basically everybody agrees is effective at increasing the diversity of the candidate pool is to make the position description as general as possible. The reasoning is that people from underrepresented groups are less likely to feel confident in applying for positions where they only sorta-kinda fit the narrow description of qualifications. Anecdotally, we do seem to draw more "What the hell, I'll give it a shot" applications from white men, but I'm not sure I'd call that data given the demographics of the general Physics Ph.D. pool-- we get more of everything from white men.

My observation is that there are two kinds of "unqualified". We get applicants who lack the appropriate physics degree. (What were they thinking? They don't even qualify to be hired as an adjunct!) That is a small percentage of the total. The other kind are those that don't meet every one of the expectations described in the ad, which might rise to the 40% level mentioned above.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 01 Apr 2017 #permalink