Adventures in Faculty Searching

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.


  1. #1 Jonathan Vos Post
    January 10, 2007

    I’ve previously explained why, from my point of view, the process is not just imperfect, but profoundly broken.

    That it takes a long time before handing almost every applicant a rejection is a little like that joke about the restaurant. Not only is the food terrible, but the servings are too small.

    While waiting for my current round of faculty applications to be processed, I contacted the local public school district, and claimed availability for High School courses in Math and Science.

    Still too long, but not as bad as colleges and universities.

    I have friends who have demoted themselves (by conventional beliefs) to teaching in high schools. But the need is extreme, for students. There are, for instance, fewer high school Physics teachers than there are high schools, in the USA. By the Pigeonhole Principle, that means there must be high schools with no physics teachers.

    Leave No Child Behind? Nonsense. The current system leaves most children and teenagers behind. Thinking that it can all be fixed for those who limp through to college is at best a self-serving misleading cover-up by underperforming primary and secondary school systems. At worst, the American public school system is a massive fraud.

    The paradoix is, of course, that the BEST education in America is as good or better than anyplace in the world. But the AVERAGE education in America is Third World.

  2. #3 coturnix
    January 10, 2007

    If you include fights over the job description and the exact wording of the job ad, the process is actually two years long!

  3. #4 Jonathan Vos Post
    January 10, 2007

    “job description and the exact wording of the job ad…”

    One example of many: sometimes a job description fails to include the crucial phrase “or equivalent.” Then the Geochemist who applies, and is perfect for the job, has to be rejected because his/her PhD (or multiple M.S. degrees and oodles of publications) is not in Geology, or Chemistry, as in said description.

    Once the magical mantra “or equivalent” is in the spell, then an Equivalence Committee can decide whether the Computer Science is really Math, or the Biophysics is really Biochemistry, or the Planetary Science is actually Astronomy, for purposes of moving on to interview and/or job offer.

    I’ve had a professorship offered, gratefully accepted, met with deans, been handed the keys to my office, been issued a faculty parking pass, been handed my textbooks, gone home with my professor wife, drunk the champaigne, and THEN gotten the call that “or equivalent” is inadvertently missing, and the university doesn’t want to lose its accreditation.

    See why I even apply to High Schools, while waiting for the next Real Job?

  4. #5 Chad Orzel
    January 10, 2007

    If you include fights over the job description and the exact wording of the job ad, the process is actually two years long!

    I deliebrately left those out, because those delays aren’t visible to the candidate. People applying for a job have no idea how many meetings were required to get approval for the position, and the time required to get approval has no effect on the amount of time a candidate has to wait to hear.

    I should also say that, in my limited experience, I have not seen a search held up because of quibbling over the wording of an ad. It’s mostly boilerplate at this point, and even when there are questions, we’re a small college, and don’t have as many layers of bureaucracy as a big state university.

    As for the duration of the search process, if you can point out some step in the above process that can be skipped or shortened without making unreasonable demands on the resources of the hiring department (either financial or personal), please do so. I’d be really happy to make the job application process suck less for all involved.

  5. #6 Ponderer of Things
    January 10, 2007

    There’s no reason not to let people who didn’t make the cut for short list know as soon as short list is finalized. Some places do this, and I doubt there’s any “legal” reason not to do so.

    Rumor mills and internet makes this process a bit more transparent, but they are often just that – rumors and somewhat open to manipulation.

    I don’t think waiting is much of a problem though, by the way. The only problem I could see with a long wait is that one essentially has to wrap up and publish all of the papers by the fall, a year before staring a faculty job. In many fields (especially experimental) it takes a while for a postdoc to develop some new technique, get exciting results, write them up and publish.

    But I’d rather see a faculty search committee agonize over selection of best candidate for an extra month than reduce it to beaner-counting approach of HR people, or whatever.

    I also don’t like (some) departments trying to start the search real early so they can interview in November/Dec and make an early offer. Seems like they are trying to pressure people into accepting offers before they get a fair chance elsewhere. Ideally, all departments should be on the same schedule.

  6. #7 Larry Moran
    January 10, 2007

    We don’t pay much attention to dates at the University of Toronto. In the past five years, our application deadlines have been in Spring, Winter, and Fall. It doesn’t seem to make much difference.

    We always end up in a bidding war with other universities. We win some and we lose some.

  7. #8 Rob Knop
    January 11, 2007

    Heh… not just rumor wikis. When somebody is at a place to which you applied, and you read on their blog that their short list is made, then you can draw conclusions…. :)

    I know the arguments in favor of not informing people too soon. However, a lot of this is based on conventions and assumptions that I really think ought to be changed. A lot more openness in this area would help — just as a lot more openness in the tenure/promotion process would help.

    I realize that telling somebody that they weren’t on the short list, then going back later and saying that they are on the short list after all, is complicated… but why not do it? Similarly, why not tell somebody who interviewed that the job has been offered to somebody else? In fact, why not tell them exactly where they are on the short list? The only “real” downside is that they may take a job somewhere else if they don’t think that they’re still waiting for the offer… but I favor openness over tactics. The other “downside” is that you don’t want people to feel like sloppy seconds.

    The truth is, though, we all know that there are a lot of excellent people out there. We want the job offer, and aren’t going to be insulted if we aren’t first. We’d rather know where we stand than stay in the dark, and will all be perfectly happy to get an offer after somebody else turns it down– because we still got an offer! And, yes, I also know that Deans frequently won’t let you go for a second-choice candidate, because Deans (and even departments) convince themselves that doing so is “settling for less than the best,” even though most of the time that is BS. Even still, the candidate can figure out that, yeah, the institution decided that not everybody who interviewed was above the minimum cut. This happened to me a few years ago; somebody else got the job offer, he didn’t take it, so nobody was hired. And, yeah, that hurts, but it didn’t hurt nearly so much as simply not getting the job offer… AND it didn’t hurt nearly so much as finding out all of a sudden from another candidate on the short list that I didn’t get the offer, instead of finding it out from the college I’d applied to.

    Openness is better. We’re realistic. We know that not getting the job offer or even on the short list is not an indictment of us necessarily — there are a lot of good people, and searches are incredibly competetive. But we also lose sleep over these things, for the very same reason. Not knowing is painful, especially once you realize that the long necessary process has past and you COULD know.

    And, no, I don’t think the people who weren’t on the short list of our job at Vanderbilt have been directly informed. I haven’t done it, and it would be extremely foolish for me to unilaterally do it. Since this “isn’t done” in general, I suspect that nobody has even thought to do it, although it’s possible that the chair of the search committee or the department has done it.


  8. #9 Aaron Cass
    January 11, 2007

    I’ve seen some departments at some schools attempt to be a little more open, without a lot of extra effort, by simply posting an update on their department web page. If you review the web site, one day you might see “We have narrowed the list to 12 candidates and have begun phone interviews.” Another day you might see “We have made our short list and have begun on-campus interviews.” And then later: “We have made an offer, and expect to hear back next week from our selected candidate.”

    I think these messages are posted for benefit of the current students, who might not otherwise know the details of the search (that they might have been marginally involved with), but the postings also serve to keep the candidates informed.

    Why don’t more places do this?

    Other schools go an extra step and send mail to those that don’t make the phone interview list. Since these candidates are not going to get an on-campus interview and will not be offered the job, I see no harm in sending such letters (I got a nice one a few years ago myself).

    p.s. Rob wishes schools/departments would let people know their place on the short-list. Because the final decision is made by the department as a whole (and maybe even deans/provosts), I’m not sure this is possible (at least not all the time). The department might agree on 1st place, and therefore make the offer, without coming to agreement on who is second, third, etc… In such cases, the department hopes the 1st offer is accepted because if it is rejected, they have to meet again to decide (argue about) what to do with the others. While the 1st offer is out, the department might not be able to tell anyone else where they are on the list because the department *doesn’t know* where anyone else is on the list.

  9. #10 Chad Orzel
    January 11, 2007

    I realize that telling somebody that they weren’t on the short list, then going back later and saying that they are on the short list after all, is complicated… but why not do it? Similarly, why not tell somebody who interviewed that the job has been offered to somebody else? In fact, why not tell them exactly where they are on the short list? The only “real” downside is that they may take a job somewhere else if they don’t think that they’re still waiting for the offer… but I favor openness over tactics. The other “downside” is that you don’t want people to feel like sloppy seconds.

    I would say that the primary reason is to avoid having people take other jobs because they think they’re out of the running. It’s not just that it’s awkward to have to call back and say “Ooops, you’re on the list after all,” it’s that it dramatically increases the likelihood of a failed search if people who were almost-but-not-quite on the shortlist all go take other jobs.

    As for the detailed standings, as Aaron notes, it’s not always possible to give a complete ranking. That’s part of the reason why these meetings last so damn long– we ended up spending an hour trying to determine who was the next in line if one of our shortlist candidates was unavailable, and we couldn’t agree. We wound up just calling the people we could agree on, and saying that we’d have another meeting if we needed to go past that list.

    {Re: web updates on the process}
    Why don’t more places do this?

    Speaking only for myself, I’m happy if I get around to updating the department web page once a term. Daily or weekly updates on the status of the job search are pretty unlikely…

    Think about how many departmental pages are two or three years out of date, and I think you’ve got the answer. It’s a good idea, though.

    I’ll also say again that one of the last times we did this, the EEO officer for the college specifically told us not to send anything to failed candidates until the position had been filled. I don’t know if that was a legally binding statement, or just friendly advice, but that’s a big part of the reason we don’t do more updates.

  10. #11 JC
    January 11, 2007

    Jonathan Vos Post,

    How high is the “burnout” rate for high school physics + math teachers these days? Of my friends who went into teaching high school (whether at public or private schools), many burned out after 4 or 5 years in that profession. Even in a subject like math and/or science, they all mentioned that knowledge of the subject was at most 10 to 20% of the job. The other 80 to 90% of the job was classroom management and dealing with discipline issues, along with “personality”. They all mentioned that the more effective teachers usually also had the “street smarts” of a police officer. (This was the case even in suburban high schools, in richer parts of town).

    Many high school kids don’t really want to be in class in the first place, and find numerous inventive ways to show their displeasure. I was a “hellraiser” myself from when I was a teenager in high school. ;) Most of my old high school teachers thought I was a “problem child”.

    Could “burnout” be a partial reason as to why there’s been consistently a shortage of high school physics teachers?

    When I was in high school, my old physics teacher majored in chemistry. My math teachers didn’t major in anything like math, a hard science, nor engineering for that matter. Most just happened to have taken a few calculus and linear algebra courses when they were in college. Many went into teaching either because they were “education” majors in college (ie. one of the easiest majors at most universities), or they came across teaching by random circumstances and encounters.

  11. #12 Jonathan Vos Post
    January 11, 2007

    “How high is the “burnout” rate for high school physics + math teachers these days?”

    (1) Good question.

    (2) I don’t know [it took my wife, a Physics professor, years to teach me to say that].

    (3) Teaching is a high-burnout high-stress profession. Others are: police officer (boredom punctuated by deadly risk), and dentist (less respect than doctor, patients always afraid or in pain).

    (4) My mother, when she went back to school, after divorce, got her M.S., got her teaching credentials, in New York City, was under terrible stress teaching 3rd grade in an inner city school, so underclass that one of her 3rd grade girls was arrested for prostitution. But she hung in there until the cancer killed her, age only 46. It takes heroism, as well as a vow of poverty, to teach in some schools.

    (5) Not that this is scientific evidence, but the brilliant TV series “The Wire” is based, this season, on a cop who becomes a middle school teacher in a Baltimore slum school, while the new generation of drug dealers have abandoned the previous code of the streets and escalated to beating up little kids and mass murder. Of the two writers of this series, one was in fact a cop-turned teacher.

    (6) In Robert Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers” — both the brilliant novel and the misunderstood film — one can only be acitizen by first serving. Most readers/viewers assumed that meant serving in the military, and accused Heinlein of Fascism. But he, in interviews, clarified that he also meant service in, for instance, public schools.

    (7) Even if real scientists taught High School for only a couple of years, it would have a tremendous effect. Might be a good alternative to a year as Postdoc or grad student. Would help students. Do the blind teach painting? Do the deaf teach music? So why should the innumerate teach Math and the scientifically clueless teach science?

  12. #13 Larry Moran
    January 11, 2007

    Rob Knop says,

    I know the arguments in favor of not informing people too soon. However, a lot of this is based on conventions and assumptions that I really think ought to be changed.

    Our policy is to inform candidates as soon as possible. We usually send out an email message within 24 hours of determining that a candidate is no longer on our list. For short-listed candidates who are visiting the department, we can sometimes tell them when they are still here! In that case, we provide feedback but in most cases the candidates just get a polite rejection letter.

  13. #14 JC
    January 11, 2007

    Jonathan Vos Post,

    It seems like many professions have all kinds of tradeoffs.

    A number of my old friends who were in hi-tech and/or defense went into teaching after they were canned a number of years ago (ie. after the dotcom collapse, or further back when the cold war ended). A few adjusted ok to the high school teaching environment, while many burned out and found out the hard way that teaching high school is quite different than teaching college/university or doing hi-tech/defense/corporate type of work. Some of the burned out folks ended up teaching at a community college afterwards, and found it a bit easier than teaching high school.

    I suppose there are jobs a lot worse than teaching high school, such being cannon fodder in Iraq or Afghanistan these days.

  14. #15 Jonathan Vos Post
    January 11, 2007

    Your friends inform you accurately. My wife and I both had great high-tech positions, mine on the Space Shuttle paying (adjusted for inflation) over $120,000 per year plus benefits worth another $90,000. Now, the good news is, the Cold War has ended. The bad news is, the Cold War has ended.

    So I went into the internet industry, including as a manager at EarthLink (most dysfunctional big company I ever worked for), and VP of R&D, and Board Secretary, of a dot com. It was acquired by LNUX for $7,500,000 which meant (on paper) I’d earned $800,000 per year for the quarter I’d been there. Unfortunately, that was 10% cash and 90% LNUX stock, which was at a strike price of about $53/share. It plunged to less than 60 cents/share, and has now rebounded to somewhere north of $5 a share, which means that I lost only 90% of my retirement fund. Oh yeah, my 11 years more-than-fulltime in Aerospace nets me ZERO retirement benefits.

    My wife was a PI in an electrooptical company which had about 200 employees. She was (says the US government) the #3 best at thin film gallium arsenide in the world (#1 and #2 being T. J. Wtason Lab of IBM, and Bell Labs). But Dick Cheney PERSONALLY forced that company into bankruptcy. My wife was offered a technical position at JPL, but the manager smuggled a less-qualified person in before her first day of work, and the job vanished after we bought the house within bicyling distance of JPL.

    So we both drifted into teaching, which we love.

    Yes, community colleges are in some sense in between High School and University. But we both loved teaching at community colleges as well as at Universities. One CC she was at 5 years was the biggest in the USA (about 120,000 students, and it’s own “air force” — a fleet of 3 planes).

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but only 1 community college prof in the USA has ever won a Nobel Prize.

    Today’s snailmail brought me two different copies in 2 different envelopes of the same Math Prof job announcement from the same community college, which has yet to grant me an interview in 4 rounds of applications over the years.

    Yeah, I’m glad I’m not being “surged” in what some soldiers call the tactics of “JEL” — Just Enough to Lose.

  15. #16 JC
    January 11, 2007

    Jonathan Vos Post

    “So why should the innumerate teach Math and the scientifically clueless teach science?”

    This I never quite understood.

    Years ago I found out the teacher I had for science in jr. high was some guy who majored in physical education (ie. gym) in college, where the only science course he took was a general ed “physics for poet” class in his freshman year. Almost everything he said in class was straight verbatim from the textbook. Whenever we asked him questions that were not straight verbatim from the textbook, he would be totally lost and got angry at us over it. Many times he would tell us to “shut the fuck up” whenever we asked too many hard questions in class.

    I suppose teaching math and/or science at the high school level technically doesn’t require a “genius”. They’re not doing anything like quantum mechanics or general relativity here. Even in high school physics, they hardly use any calculus unless it’s some AP level course. I suppose one could even argue that freshman level college/university physics doesn’t really use calculus extensively until one encounters electricity + magnetism (ie. charge distributions, Biot-Savart’s law + current distributions, LRC circuits, etc …).

    It seems to require a certain temperment and personality to be an effective teacher, where these traits appear to be independent of the traits that makes one a good scientist. I can certainly understand why there’s a huge turnover rate in the teaching profession, considering teaching high school kids has very little to do with intelligence and/or intellectual endeavors.

  16. #17 kstrna
    January 12, 2007

    It should be noted just because you know a subject doesn’t mean you can teach it either. Teaching is a highly crafted art. Some are naturally inclined to it than others but regardless all you teach have to work on developing their skills. You combine that skill level, with knowledge of a subject matter traditionally viewed as difficult, the pay, the conditions inside many of the schools in the US, etc and you have a mix that is going to lead to few qualified physics teachers in this country. The good thing is all of those factors can be improved in our society if we so desire and are given the opportunity.

  17. #18 Ponderer of Things
    January 12, 2007

    Quote:”…Speaking only for myself, I’m happy if I get around to updating the department web page once a term. Daily or weekly updates on the status of the job search are pretty unlikely…”

    Really? I find it strange coming from a guy who updates his blog 3-4 times a day.

    But email would be sufficient. So it comes down to the small probability of making an uncomfortable phone call (what are the chances that you run through all 5 or 6 or whatever short-list candidates and they all turn it down and the search is still not cancelled) against keeping people (hundreds of them too) in the dark about their career? And the faculty folks favor the second scenario? This is not nice.

    On another note, I noticed a sentiment (maybe on some other blog) coming from a current faculty, along the lines of “I know it sucks to be on the applicant’s side, but it sucks to be on the committee’s side as well”. That was a little funny too.