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?