The Quantum Pontiff

Searching For Feynman

Blue Monday, which was January 21, of this year, is supposedly (and I say supposedly when I might have better said, erroneously) the most depressing day of the year. Now there are plenty of reasons given for this: you finally realized your New Year’s resolutions aren’t going to happen, you’ve just gotten your credit card bill for all that rampant consumerism you participated in over the holidays, etc. But, if you’re in academia, you know the real reason to be depressed during this time of the year. That’s right: it faculty search season. Since everyone else is talking about it and bringing me down, I thought I’d do my duty and continue the painful depressing discussion.

There are many things about faculty searches that I don’t pretend to understand. But one in particular has always fascinated me: open searches versus directed searches. In a directed search, a department asks for a particular candidate from a particular sub-discipline. Something like: “Candidate must have experience balancing balls on his or her nose while whistling the Imperial March.” Okay, maybe not exactly that description. But you get the idea. In an open search, a department makes no such demands, simply asking for applications for those who might reasonably fit in the department.

So the thing I don’t understand is why closed searches are performed at all. Oh, I mean I understand why they are performed (politics, politics, and more politics) but I don’t understand how some fairly rational people would end up with a system which supports closed searches. Why do I say this? Well suppose that during a year, there is a candidate who just won a MacArthur award, is totally hot shit, etc, but that candidate isn’t in the field for which you’ve “slotted” a search. To bad! You would deny Richard Feynman because you were looking for an astrophysicist. Don’t get me wrong. I understand strategic considerations for departments and how a candidate will fit in with existing faculty are important considerations. But why put the strategy at the door and not in the room? What good reason is there for denying yourself the best candidates?

Many will respond that there are problems with open searches. For example there are issues like (1) the department gets more applications and (2) the department might get applications from people who do something outside of the departments comfort zone. But really, these are silly excuses. If having too many applications is seriously a problem, I might question whether your department really has the dedication to hiring the best people. And if you have to actually broaden your notion of who might fit into a department, well this certainly seems to me to be a way to get on board the bus of what is truly new and exciting in research.

It would be interesting to take a look at top departments in a particular discipline and see whether their searches are open or directed. Anyone have any anecdotal evidence for or against?


  1. #1 Moshe
    January 29, 2008

    Funny, I have a prepared rant going in completely the opposite direction. It is painful to participate in open searches from both sides, I have. From the candidate side, if the department has not decided on its direction before inviting you over, you are going to get a quick introduction to the ugliest side of the dpt. politics. Better decide on priorities before going through the search, not during.

    As for your concern, almost all dpt. have the so-called Einstein clause, if a truly remarkable candidate comes which does not fit in the plan, it is certainly good idea to be flexible. Not a good enough reason not to have a plan at all.

  2. #2 Dave Bacon
    January 29, 2008

    Moshe, interesting. I think the problem is in the balkanization, though. Thinking about your department as a collection of different subdisciplines is about the most distructive force in academia, as far as I can tell.

  3. #3 Ian Durham
    January 29, 2008

    I would have to agree with Dave (except for his spelling of ‘destructive’). Just look at how interdisciplinary the field of quantum information is.

    My own experience with directed searches was good for me in the end, but they still bother me. I had been teaching at Simmons College in Boston for several years as a full-time instructor (I was ABD at the time), but in order to justify to some administrator somewhere that they needed to make my position permanent, they had to perform a directed hire focused on materials science since that was where the big grant money in the department was. As such (even though my PhD was just about to be completed), I wasn’t hired for what amounted to my own position. It worked out in the end since I’m now at a true liberal arts college where I really enjoy the interdisciplinary nature, but it was frustrating at the time.

    As a final point, my current department is one of the few at our college that does *not* do directed hires. All the other departments essentially do directed hires (e.g. Chemistry needs a physical chemist, an analytical chemist, a biochemist, etc. in order to get ACS accreditation). We don’t and as a result we’re a smaller department in terms of faculty. So some departments do directed hires as a means of boosting their numbers (and thereby reducing their student-teacher ratio). This makes sense at large universities, but at liberal arts colleges where the focus is on undergraduate education, a faculty member ought to be able to teach the core courses in his or her discipline.

  4. #4 Moshe
    January 29, 2008

    Agreed Dave on the “balkanization”, but even in departments where there is not much of that destructive force, people have opinions on which directions are worth pursuing, and legitimate reasons for those opinions. It is not necessarily always pushing their subfield, in my experience often it is not the case. Trying to sort out that worthwhile discussion while interviewing is in my opinion unfair to the candidate (no doubt because I’ve been that candidate once).

  5. #5 Cosma
    January 29, 2008

    “What good reason is there for denying yourself the best candidates?” Well, for starters, there’s the difficulty of figuring out who is the better candidate, when they are doing completely different things. If quantum information theory and experimental molecular biophysics and string theory are all supposed to fit into the same department, how do you, in fact, decide between the person who can make DNA assemble itself into gearboxes and the one who can reduce the landscape from 10500 vacua to only 10400?

    I should add that my department only does open searches.

  6. #6 Dave Bacon
    January 29, 2008

    “Trying to sort out that worthwhile discussion while interviewing is in my opinion unfair to the candidate”

    Definitely. I guess this just puts a stronger impetus on “pre-processing.” Since everything gets done electronically these days, why can’t there be simple systems for getting entire faculty feedback on these issues before they arise? (Yeah I’m an idealist.)

    Cosma: Yeah, but I’m an arrogant bastard who thinks that even a string theorist can understand DNA gearboxes (and vice versa) :)

  7. #7 Eric Lund
    January 29, 2008

    While there are good arguments for truly open searches, I would prefer an explicitly directed search to one that is officially but not really open. It’s not fair to candidates who apply without having any way of knowing that they don’t meet the hidden criteria for the job. (This scenario is similar but not identical to Moshe’s complaint about departments narrowing the parameters of an “open” search while they are interviewing candidates.) Of course, the extreme form is the pro forma search, where the department has already decided who they want to hire but are legally required to go through the motions. I don’t know whether this happens at the faculty level, but it’s a routine occurrence at the postdoc/research scientist level.

    I’ve only seen one open search from the inside; that one worked out well, but I don’t have statistics to say whether this is generally true or not. I have seen many directed searches, some from the inside (the directed search seems to dominate at large research universities), and the success rate there is decidedly mixed. While the directed search often has a happy ending, I have seen too many cases where the hired faculty person and the university part ways within a few years. Only a minority of these cases that I am aware of are due to tenure denial; in at least one case the (already tenured) professor simply up and quit.

    So on balance I would say that barring special circumstances (like the ACS accreditation rules Ian referred to, or cases where the wealthy donor compels a directed search for the endowed chair) and assuming that departmental politics permits truly open searches, most departments are better off conducting open searches.

  8. #8 Moshe
    January 29, 2008

    Sorry, I was not being clear, I did not intend to focus specifically on the interview phase. I have not been involved in an open search from the hiring side, but I am all for it in principle, provided that the department discussed things and settled them to everyone’s satisfaction before the search starts. What I think is good to avoid is those cases where search is open just to delay the inevitable discussion on different directions – makes the dpt. look really dysfunctional even if disagreements are honest and to the point. I also agree with Cosma that it is generally meaningless to compare candidates from different fields, but that`s a different issue…

  9. #9 Flavin
    January 29, 2008

    All I know is that closed searches mean I have to sit through week after week of boring (to me) dark matter colloquia.

  10. #10 Dave Bacon
    January 29, 2008

    So what I’m hearing is that I should have added (3) open searches done with non-open minds lead to departments looking bad and hurt the interviewee though this and the fact that you may apply but not even stand a chance.

  11. #11 Moshe
    January 29, 2008

    Yeah, that`s about right. I still have some minor quibbles with the distinction between open minds and balkanization, most of us live somewhere in between, and some background-dependence in decision-making is (good) part of life, but that`s for another day…

  12. #12 Dave Bacon
    January 30, 2008

    A dean once told me that “everyone thinks they need just one more person in their field to make it excellent.” I always think about this when people talk about faculty hires.

  13. #13 Jonathan Vos Post
    January 30, 2008

    Dave Bacon,

    If I may repost a scienceblog comment of mine from 14 months ago that addresses exactly this issue (a few typos corrected this time) and which goes a long way to explain why I’ve stopped even appplying for tenure-track faculty positions and, instead, took a deep pay cut to teach Physics, Math, Computer Science, and English to inner city high school students in Pasadena (which necessitates my going back to grad school again after 34 years, at night, to be “fully credentialed” as a public school teacher, thank you very much brain-dead “No Child Left behind” which idiot Emperor Bush II boasted about in his Vacuum State of the Union speech):

    JVP posted on “Reducing the Application Pile” thread of the Uncertain Principles science blog

    The problem is with the methodology of search, not with the mechanics.

    Executive Officer of Mathematics at Caltech, Gary Lorden, an expert in Statistics, has a theory. He thinks that most faculty and postdoc searches start with a well-intentioned job description. Applications arrive, and the search committee collectively measures the distance between each application and their imaginary ideal candidate.

    Rather than pick the person best for the job, based on the statistical distribution of the ensemble applicants, they are merely picking the closest to their imperfect job description. Outliers in all dimensions, including those who are overqualified, and those better for the actual job but not for the job description, get thrown out.

    This process is broken, and can’t be patched together by making the mechanics more efficient.

    I’ve had a temporary position through such a process. Before making it permanent, a committee of bureaucrats with no subject expertise (in this case, for an Astronomy position) argued my case, with my Chairman as my advocate.

    They questioned the fact that I had more publications in the field than all other applicants combined. One bureaucrat suggested that I was lying on my CV.

    Another said that they made a random check, and I had published what I claimed. “Well then,” said a third, “he must be spread too thin with all that writing, and would have no time to teach.”

    One of my letters of recommendation was from the Vice President and Provost of Caltech. His analysis of my transcripts, publications, international lectures, national TV broadcats, and awards from 4 successive NASA Chief made me better qualified than anyone in the world with my particular degrees.

    “Oh,” said a 4th bureaucrat. “That’s just one man’s opinion.” They refused to entertain the formal appeal process in their own bylaws.

    And don’t get me started with “equivalency committees” which exist because of the “or equivalent” phrase in job descriptions. Is a PhD in Biochemistry equivalent to one in Biology or Chemistry? Is one in Geology and Planetary Science equivalent to one in Geology? Is Geophysics equivalent to Geology? Can Computer Science (with 54 credits in Math beyond an M.S. in Math) equivalent to an M.S. in Math or more? There is no logic to the process.

    Does someone with over 2,000 publications, presentations, and broadcasts [now over 2,500] perhaps know something that someone with a degree in Creative Writing does not?

    Does someone who has coauthored with a Nobel Laureate [Feynman] trump someone who was the 200th coauthor on a Particle
    Physics experiment, and has no other publications?

    Does everyone here remember the classical article on the trend towards the LPU: Least Publishable Unit?

    If your website gets 15,000,000 hits per year, is that a plus or a minus compared to someone with no internet presence?

    If one is internationally famous through popularizations, should one be blackballed from the NAS by sour grapes members (i.e. Carl Sagan)?

    Broken. Anyone out there agree?

    Posted by: Jonathan Vos Post | December 13, 2006 01:27 AM

  14. #14 Moshe
    January 30, 2008

    That`s funny Dave, and there is some degree of truth in that, but also in my experience promoting your own field is considered to be extremely bad form. Not to say that some people are not shamelessly doing just that…

    But what I meant to say is really obvious I think – even with the best intentions (and those are really common!), nobody is truly open minded in the sense of being able to judge everyone equally. For example, with my background I know I am prone to be more impressed with cool theoretical insights or even nice tricks in mathematical physics, whereas experimental technique will by and large leave me cold. So I`ll recognize Feynman even if he does something very far from my field, but not so sure about the experimental equivalent. I think a good system of collective decision-making should take human flaws into consideration instead of pretending they don`t exist.

    And again, your original point is very well taken, and good departments will be opportunistic if they spot Feynman on their radar screen.

  15. #15 Michael Bacon
    January 30, 2008

    Reminds me of the Bill Walsh (late SF 49er coach) approach to the football draft. There were specific holes in the line-up that he wanted to plug. However, if there was someone available who was one of the best overall “athletes” in the draft, he would take that person regardless of the position. Worked for the 49ers.

  16. #16 milkshake
    January 31, 2008

    When the main aspect of hiring is to get someone to teach three rather technical classes, then it is best to make it clear in the requirements and hire someone qualified for the job.

    Open system is in theory better for getting the maximum academic quality. Except that in reality the chair or another influential guy within the department has some agenda and plan whom to bring in – not a bad thing necessarily. (Feynman of course went to work with Bethe but he was getting lots of invitations already in 1945; favorable teaching arrangements/salaries were offered to him that would not be given to a lesser candidate.)

  17. #17 Dave Bacon
    January 31, 2008

    Michael: as a dedicated 49er fan I should have thought of that analogy! Oh how I miss Joe, Jerry, Lott, and the rest.