The last time I talked about our job search, I got a lot of comments of the form “Why does the process take so damn long?” As the first of our short list candidates shows up today for a campus visit/ interview, I thought I’d go through a sketch of what we do, and why it takes so long. I’m going to be vague about some details, because it wouldn’t be appropriate to disclose too much of the process, but I’ll try to give you an idea of what goes on and why.
I should note that, for all my bitching about the current search (mostly to Kate, but a little bit here), this has actually been about the most efficient search of any that I’ve been through here. It hasn’t necessarily been pleasant, but it’s been relatively smooth.
So, why does it take so long? Well, to start with, you need to post the job and set the deadline so as to obtain a reasonable pool of applicants. Academic job-hunting season traditionally begins in September or thereabouts, so jobs tend to be advertised on major academic sites during September, October, and November. If you post the ad and set the deadline too early, you won’t get many good applicants, because people don’t really start looking before the fall, but if you do things too late, you end up picking from the people who are left over after everybody else has made their offers. We went with December 1 as our deadline, which is maybe a little on the early side, but not ridiculously so.
During the months in which the job is posted, application folders accumulate in large numbers. We don’t usually start reading folders until after the deadline passes, because we have classes to teach, labs to run, papers to write, and all the rest. Also, you don’t usually know how many applications you’ll need to read until the pool is complete.
When the deadline arrives, you divvy up the folders (I read 94 on the first pass), and make sure that each folder is read by at least two people, to keep personal quirks from having too big an effect on the outcome. This requires at least a week– I probably spent the better part of two days doing the first pass, and another afternoon re-reading the best of the lot. Then you need to schedule a meeting with half a dozen academics, who have classes to teach, labs to run, papers to write, and all the rest. If you’ve never tried it, believe me when I say this is non-trivial.
At the first meeting, you typically generate a “long list” of candidates, whose folders are then read by the entire committee. The “long list” for the current search came to 25, which is fairly typical– something on the order of 10% of the applicant pool. This requires another week at least, because you’re trying to make finer distinctions– all of the candidates who make it to this stage are good, but you need to sort out the ones who are excellent. Some departments do phone interviews at this stage, but we opted not to (and I’m happy with that, having always hated those things). Then there’s another meeting to schedule, with half a dozen academics, etc. Scheduling difficulties probably slowed our process down by 3-4 days, and we had the luxury of doing the whole thing during our winter break. When classes are in session, just getting everyone together in the same room becomes a gigantic nightmare.
At the second meeting, you cut things down to a short list– three is pretty typical, though we can usually get four if one of them is in the area already, and we don’t have to buy another plane ticket. The way we usually do this is to each rank our top 5-6 candidates, and look for the overlap between those lists. There’s generally a broad consensus on the top couple of people (at least for the searches I’ve been involved in), and then a lot of wrangling over the last spot or two. The second meeting this time around took three hours (I brought donut holes to stave off a sugar crash), and would’ve completely wrecked my day, had I not returned to a phone message calling me into the Dean’s office to get my tenure decision.
Once you have the short list, you need to arrange campus visits by each of the candidates. This takes at least two weeks– we’re doing two-day visits this year, but even with one-day visits, you can’t really fit more than two into a week. This is another logistical nightmare, involving the booking of multiple airline tickets, and working around the schedules of people who are probably interviewing for other jobs at the same time, as well as working as postdocs or visitors at other institutions. The campus visits always involve a colloquium and individual meetings with the members of the search committee and the relevant Deans, as well as some social events (lunch and dinner), tours of the department, meetings with students, etc. Some departments will have the visiting candidates teach a class, but we generally don’t, for scheduling reasons as much as anything else.
Once everybody has their visit, you have one more meeting of the search committee, to rank-order the candidates. Once a consensus is reached as to who to make an offer to, and the offer is approved by the Dean, the top candidate is called, and offered the job. They’re usually also given some time to decide/ negotiate/ leverage other offers, generally one or two weeks. Some candidates reach a decision almost immediately, others take a few days, others go all the way to the end of the allotted time, and ask for more. If the first candidate declines the job, it gets offered to the second, with the same decision period, and then the third, and then the fourth (if there is a fourth). If all the short-list candidates turn the job down, then one of two things happens: in the unlikely event that the Dean approves more money, you can go back into the long-list for more candidates; or, more likely, the search is declared a failure, and the members of the committee take cyanide pills rather than face the prospect of doing the whole thing over.
So, what’s the time scale here? Starting at the deadline, we’re looking at an absolute minimum of two weeks to reach the short list, two weeks for campus visits, and up to eight weeks to go through four candidates who all take the full time allowed to make a decision. Realistically, you can probably add at least a week to each of the first two steps, so you’re looking at 12-14 weeks for a search that goes smoothly but unsuccessfully. In the current search, we started reading folders December 1, and hope to make an offer by the end of January, which isn’t bad when you figure we lost two weeks to Christmas and New Year’s.
Would it be possible to speed this up? Sure, if we left the hiring decisions to a dedicated Human Resources department. Then you could probably cut those first two steps down a bit. As it is, with the decisions being made by academics who have other jobs to do, there’s not a lot of slack in there. You can’t reasonably ask people to move much faster than this, and anyway, the biggest chunk of time goes to the candidates making the decision.
What about notifying people sooner? This is a little less clear. We’ve been told by the campus Equal Opportunity officer that we shouldn’t tell candidates anything before the final decision is made, but I’m not sure whether that’s the force of law or the voice of experience. It could go either way– there are some very tight legal constraints on what we can and cannot do during the process, but I’ve also seen at least one search go back into the pool after drawing up a list of candidates to invite to campus, and discovering that they all had other offers already.
It’s also not clear when it would be appropriate to start doing notifications. It’s almost always true that somebody who didn’t make the cut for the initial long list won’t be invited, but for searches that start late in the process, that’s not always the case– sometimes, people on that list drop out for one reason or another. And the same is true of the move to the short list– some candidates will get better offers and take themselves out of the running before they get to campus, which means the short list may need to be revised. The day after I accepted my current job, I got two calls inviting me for campus visits, one of them from a school that had told me I wasn’t on their short list not two weeks earlier (I called them, because I hadn’t heard from them). That’s more than a little awkward.
So, yeah, it’s a slow process, and it sucks to be sitting around in January waiting to hear about a job you applied for in September. Believe me, I remember how much job hunting sucked. It sucks from this end, too, but I don’t know that there’s much we can do.