Tomorrow's Professor Msg.#187 Search Committees - The Long And Winding Road Of Academic Hiring


The article below offers some keen insights on the workings of academic
hiring search committees. Although written primairly with a science
graduate student and postdoc audience in mind, it sould be quite helpful to
students and faculty in all disciplines. The article is from The
Scientist, Volume #13, November 8, 1999 and reprinted with permission. See
the end of this posting for further information about this excellent
bi-weekly magazine.


Rick Reis
UP NEXT: Campus as Learning Community

Tomorrow's Graduate Students and Postdocs
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Author: Karen Young Kreeger
Date: November 8, 1999

Only in academia does it take a committee and several months to a year or
more to hire someone. In industry, most often a supervisor can hire an
employee. But searches for new faculty are complicated.

The mechanics of a search are fairly simple; it's the nuances at each step
that challenge participants. First a position opens up, then the department
chairperson or dean decides on the disciplinary background of the position
and the level: assistant, associate, or full professor. Usually a
chairperson appoints a search committee of three or more faculty members
who make sure ads get placed in prominent publications. Phone calls are
made, and letters soliciting applications are written to colleagues.

The committee reviews typically 200 to 500 applications and whittles the
mountain of packages to a short list of three to six researchers who will
be invited for a two-day round of interviews and a formal seminar. After
that, the committee recommends the top candidate to the department
chairperson, and the offer usually comes from the dean.

"If scientific meetings are timely, there can also be some interviewing or
previewing there," says David Burgess, a professor of biology at Boston
College. "That's a perfect time to hear the talks and view the posters of
people who might be on a semishort list."

Committees typically assess such candidate attributes as scientific
lineage--where they did their Ph.D.s and postdocs, the quality of their
publications, and the strength of their letters of recommendation--as well
as teaching and communication skills, says Burgess.

"Search committees, in my experience, develop a group dynamic that varies
quite a bit with the constitution of the committee," says Jon Dantzig, a
professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Illinois at
Urbana-Champaign. "I think we do a pretty good job of dealing with the real
issues as opposed to the politics of who likes whom." From his experiences
on several searches, Dantzig wrote a Web site handbook entitled Finding an
Academic Job: The Process and the Pitfalls
( He adds that the
issues are less political if you're searching for a departmental faculty
person than, for example, a department head, where politics is actually
part of the job.

Hired Guns

Because of the added subtleties of administrative positions, hiring
department chairs, deans, and center and institute heads can require extra
help. "In recent times, for some of the searches with which I've been
involved, committee members haven't been able to come up with a list of
people that our dean, who ultimately makes the final decision, was happy
with," recalls David Goodman, a professor of pathology and laboratory
medicine at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. "So on a
couple of occasions we have employed search firms to gather names for the
committee, which has been successful."

Why is a search firm more effective than those who are intimately involved
in a certain field? "The search firm is effective because [the staff] can
really be more anonymous and probing with candidates," asserts Goodman.
Researchers agree that a potential candidate is more likely to speak
honestly with an outside, independent body such as a search firm. Goodman
doesn't think that using private companies is "a first-line approach" at
many institutions, but surmises that they're used more frequently and have
become more acceptable--at least in life and medical sciences--in the past
10 years.

To many researchers, the whittling process is the most onerous. But,
counters John Alderete, a professor of microbiology at the University of
Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, "Narrowing isn't so hard if the
chairperson has precise ideas as to what part of the program he wants to
strengthen and how much he can offer in the start-up package."

To Burgess, the difficult task is to not clone himself. "I think it's a
challenge to give equal weight to a candidate who went to a lesser
undergraduate school, but attended a decent Ph.D. program and was very
productive, and then went on to an outstanding postdoc versus someone who
is less productive but has a better lineage."

To others, the bureaucracy in academic hiring that's developed in the past,
20 years is bothersome, particularly dealing with affirmative action
offices. It's their responsibility to review each step in the hiring
process. "Affirmative action offices on a lot of campuses have done a lot
of good, particularly when there might have been more overt efforts to
avoid following laws against discrimination," says James Richardson,
president of the Washington, D.C.-based American Association of University
Professors and a professor of sociology and judicial studies at the
University of Nevada at Reno. "Now a lot of people view it as a

Richardson says the affirmative action process can affect a department's
competitiveness: "If you're trying to hire a minority and three other
places are too, getting an offer to them quickly and getting them off the
job market is the best thing you can do. So sitting around waiting for the
affirmative action form to come back in three to four days may actually
cost you the hire you want to make."

Plug-Ups in the Pipeline

Richardson cites another sticky area in the hiring process; he calls it the
pipeline problem. "We're supposed to search out and hire people who
represent our society in terms of gender and race, but they don't exist in
the pipeline in the numbers that make that possible."

One effort to correct this is the six-year-old Compact for Faculty
Diversity--a partnership of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher
Education (WICHE), the New England Board of Higher Education, and the
Southern Regional Education Board. The Compact addresses the long-standing
issue of the underrepresentation of minorities in faculty positions,
explains Ken Pepion, senior project director for the WICHE Doctoral
Scholars Program. The Compact provides financial and mentoring assistance
to help increase the number of minorities entering doctoral programs and
completing degrees.

"I think it's important to understand that one of the primary motivating
factors guiding the behavior of search committees is prestige," says
Pepion. "They're more likely to look at institutions that are at least the
equivalent to the institution in which they now work."

This is especially true in the sciences. These institutions are looking for
highly specialized people, which narrows the pool even further. "If you
look at the entire pipeline, it's most likely that minority students will
go to community colleges, then on to four-year institutions, but not likely
research institutions," says Pepion.

Advice to Job Seekers

Dantzig's handbook covers his observations and opinions about the faculty
hiring process, including words of wisdom for dealing with search
committees. "The reason I wrote the handbook was because I encountered some
people that I thought were pretty smart who didn't make it through the
process because they just didn't understand what was expected of them,"
says Dantzig.

Both search-committee members and scientists who've recently completed a
search stress that candidates should do their homework to learn as much as
they can about the department and its faculty. Then they can have a
scientific conversation with the people on their interview schedule, which
includes the committee members.

"I received an itinerary of my meetings from most places ahead of time, so
I could do a literature search and pull a paper from this person or that
person," says JoAnn Trejo, now an assistant research professor at the
Cardiovascular Research Institute at the University of California, San
Francisco. Trejo, who started her search a year ago, interviewed at nine
universities and was offered a job at all nine. This winter she starts as
an assistant professor of pharmacology at the University of North Carolina,
Chapel Hill. She adds that although daily schedules make it impossible to
read many papers, "What's important is that you should be able to converse
about their work. Also, they need to feel like you're communicative and
open to new ideas."

Linda Castillo, an assistant professor of counseling in the department of
psychology at Tarleton State University in Stephanville, Texas, who
received her Ph.D. from the University of Utah and did her psychology
internship at the University of Texas at Austin, concurs with Trejo. She
adds that candidates should not only know about the interviewers' research,
but also try to ascertain what the people of the department are like
interpersonally. For example, Goodman advises candidates to carefully
evaluate whom they'll be working with most closely--for example, heads of
departments, centers, and programs. "Ask yourself: 'Can I trust these
people?'" he suggests. "It has to be a visceral feeling."

Castillo interviewed at teaching universities, so many of the questions
asked of her centered on her shift from a research to a smaller teaching
university. "Have answers to questions like this prepared: 'What would you
have to offer an institution like ours?'" she advises.

Trejo also mentions that another common question that came up in her search
was: "What are you going to write for your first grant?' You have to have a
response to that, some knowledge as to what direction you want to head in."
Others also asked, 'What do you think you will be doing in five to ten
years?' "It's also good to have a long-term perspective on your career,"
she advises. "The wrong answer is 'I don't know.'"

Above all, says Burgess, "Faculty are looking for colleagues, not only
exceptional scientists. Don't come in cold and cocky."