The long haul: Why do academics take so long to hire?

I got in a little bit of a friendly dust up yesterday on Twitter when I asked, “As I watch colleagues embark on the 2011 #jobmarket I have to wonder, why on earth does it take humanities departments 6+ months to hire?”

Needless to say, I received a lot of answers. I won’t list all of them but I think the following distillation does them justice:

  1. Because the pool of applicants is large;
  2. Because the hiring process follows the academic calendar;
  3. Because faculty members are busy people and search committee activities must be scheduled around other commitments;
  4. Because we take time to read candidates’ scholarship as well as their resumes;
  5. Because tenure track decisions have long term consequences;
  6. Because hiring depends on building consensus across a department.

All of these reasons make sense to me. I’m just not sure they answer my question. They seem more like answers to the question of “how” it takes so long to hire rather than “why” it takes so long to hire.

(At this point, I should disclose that I have never formally participated in a tenure-track search process either as a candidate or a search committee member, so some of what follows may be totally naive and off base. If so, I apologize. But I have watched the process for years from a short distance as a friend of both candidates and committee members. I’m also a research faculty member and manager who does a fair bit of hiring himself, so if nothing else, I may have a valuable near outsider’s perspective to contribute. I hope so.)

Why, for example, does the hiring process have to follow the academic calendar? Couldn’t we shorten it to six weeks in December and January or schedule it around spring break or do it in the summer (paid, of course)? The answer comes back that we can’t shorten the process because the pool of applicants is so large. But there is a circularity to this line of thinking. If departments didn’t all hire on the same schedule, if there were multiple (necessarily shorter) hiring seasons, then some people would already know in September that they had a job and wouldn’t enter the November round at all. Still others could skip both the summer and winter seasons and wait until spring. Interview scheduling and campus visits would be made much easier as well. It seems obvious that if there wasn’t just *one* hiring season, there wouldn’t be so many candidates in any given season. This in turn would put paid—to some extent at least—to reasons and three and four. If the season was shorter and there weren’t so many candidates, it wouldn’t take up so much committee member time and energy either in meetings or in reading.

There are other questions one might ask; each of these reasons has problems when you dig a little deeper. For example, there are lots of busy people in lots of important jobs who juggle serving on hiring committees with normal work commitments. All small and medium sized businesses do their own hiring, and even at big companies with professional human resources departments, executives are heavily involved in making important hiring decisions. How do they manage the process so it doesn’t overwhelm their other work? Likewise, lots of hiring decisions in lots of fields have major, long term consequences—civil engineering comes to mind—but I’m guessing those fields usually manage to hire people in less than six months. At the very least they don’t stack the deck against a quick hire in advance, setting things up so that it can never take less than five or six months. What are they doing to insure they’re making safe, yet speedier hiring decisions?

Mainly, if we are going to accept any of these practices—including reading everyone’s scholarship and building consensus across departments—as valid answers to the “why” question rather than the “how” question, we first need to know whether they actually lead to better hiring decisions. I’m not sure we know with any certainty that they do. How many applicants’ scholarship do we really have to read to narrow it down to two or three? Is trying to get the bulk of the department membership on board an exercise in futility that causes more bad blood than it avoids?

Finding answers to these questions may lead us right back to where we started, but they’re worth asking on the chance that they could help us do a better job of placing the right people in the right jobs at lower cost and with fewer headaches. When every year I hear the same complaints from all sides about the academic hiring process, “the way we’ve always done it” just doesn’t satisfy as an answer.

7 Replies to “The long haul: Why do academics take so long to hire?”

  1. I’ll add here what I twittered yesterday, which was a version of “They do those things so well in France” — or rather, the UK. Take a ramble through and see. The job for a lecturer in English (1740-1880) at Oxford listed at has a deadline of 1/5 and schedules its 3 or so on-campus interviews a mere two months later, on 3/1 and 3/2. In the U.S. that takes more like four or five months, with, for instance, a November deadline and campus interviews in March or April.

    From what I can tell, in the UK they have an all-year hiring process, and apparently they skip the intermediate in-person “long list” interviews that in English happen at MLA. That seems more like the way I’ve seen it done for administrative positions, where you make an initial cut, then some phone calls, and only then invite 3 or so people to come visit. Much quicker, and surely just as safe.

  2. Thanks, Amanda. Very useful examples. And it occurs to me that the other thing the UK system admits is that there isn’t one best candidate out there in a given year for a given job. At any time there are several of people who can do a given job more or less equally well (though obviously everyone brings particular strengths to the table), and you’re always picking from the current crop, whenever you decide to harvest.

  3. I certainly agree that there are inefficiencies in the system, but fear that it may be nearly impossible for an individual search to buck the system without paying a price unless it’s a highly desirable job. The timetable is determined by many factors, and the holiday break is quite problematic for the standard schedule (collect apps in mid-fall, phone/conference interviews in Dec, interviews in winter).

    In my field of media studies, conference interviews are rare, with phone/Skype interviews as a faster, cheaper & more flexible alternative. I ran a search last year (and blogged about it in anybody’s interested) that had an app deadline of Nov 2 and we had secured the hire by the end of January, which felt pretty fast. Of course with 275 applicants, it required a huge time investment for the search committee, and we were reading apps throughout October.

    But I felt confident that we had a desirable job and were unlikely to need to drag out negotiations for people with multiple offers & options on the table. For jobs that might be less desirable, the real challenge is to synch up your search so that you’re considering the right type of candidate who fits your position & will likely take an offer early or still be available late. A lot of lower-tier schools try to move early to snatch up good candidates with the bird in the hand, but I’ve noticed those faculty often move on in 2-3 years – is that a “successful” hire? Or in the timetable for the Oxford job Amanda linked to, by the time apps are even reviewed for that job, a number of candidates will have already accepted the job – that does a disservice to candidates who might stand a chance for a job but cannot risk waiting (thus privileging faculty already with stable jobs).

    Anyway, it’s great to open up the conversation, as these issues tend to be treated as state secrets rather than shared dilemmas.

  4. Having been an academic in the UK and on both sides of the hiring process, I can say that Tom is right that there is very little sense that there is “one best candidate” though there is some concern about whether there will be a good field.

    Also, the shortlist will be 5 people or fewer. They will all come to campus on the same day. They will each give presentations in the morning and have formal interviews in the afternoon. There may be “trial by lunch” or they may be free to find their own lunch somewhere (which will be reimbursed).

    Yes, that means all candidates meet each other. I’ve met some good colleagues when we were both interviewed for the same position and kept in touch later. Obviously we had academic interests in common.

    Of course, in the UK there is also more mobility during a career and more jobs advertised at all levels. You aren’t hiring someone that’s going to be there for 30 years (though they might).

    But I think the point about the belief that there is “one best candidate” and that everyone is competing for this person, has considerable explanatory value in the North American case (though it would need to be tested).

    BTW, other sectors have longer processes. I had an interesting experience with a job I applied for once with the Gov’t of Canada. It was about 6 months from applying to hearing I was invited to the first selection event (a test). There were several other steps after that. I have no idea how long the process too. I found something else.

  5. It’s worth noting that some departments are bucking the seasonal, cyclical trend—and not because the candidate pool is so large, but for precisely the opposite reason. The candidate pool is too small. The field of composition and rhetoric is a good example of this. Unlike most fields associated with English Departments, there are more comp/rhet positions available than there are top-notch candidates. For example, a few years back my department consciously decided to conduct its Writing/Rhetoric search well before the traditional November-January schedule, in order to scoop up the best candidate.

    Of course, other schools are catching on, and they’re beginning to conduct their own pre-season searches. All of which goes against the will of professional organizations, which have a vested, institutional interest in keeping job searches confined to a lock-step schedule, focused around an annual conference.

  6. I will certainly agree with Jason that unilateral change is difficult. Likewise, changing any one variable (say the timing of interviews) without changing all the others is hard. These are structural problems, behind which, as Mark notes, is institutional inertia, especially on the part of the big professional organizations. I won’t name names, but I have actually spoken with representatives of a couple different, let’s call them “second-tier,” professional organizations about shaking up the hiring process by offering online interview and “off-cycle” search services timed to coincide with their, rather than the big associations’, annual meetings. This could make these smaller associations more relevant to their members and could, again as Mark notes, give new visibility and focus to searches for which there are fewer good candidates. Change among these institutions is slow, but there is some tentative interest.

    I also take Jo’s point that mixing up the hiring process would imply broader changes in the landscape of scholarly employment—a UK style hiring process implies UK style jobs. Not the least of these changes would probably be additional mobility (call it job insecurity if you want to give it a negative spin) in academic careers. I think if searches were scattered across the calendar randomly, people would change choose to change jobs more. The flip side is departments would be able to replace faculty more quickly and I’m sure many would take that opportunity.

  7. I have served on college faculty search committees, and I have gone on a few interviews. In fact, I am awaiting a response from an interview. In any case, what I can tell you is that many times an institution already knows who they are going to hire. They do the search to “CYA.” In fact, if you sometimes notice an apathetic air from a search committee, it may be because they know that the Administration already has someone in mind for the position. It is not you. It is them. Committees are just that: committees. They offer a recommendation to the Chair or the Dean. In fact, the Chair or Dean may ask the committee to just provide a list of candidate’s strengths and weaknesses. The chair then sends her or his choice up the chain and like everywhere else, the final decision is made at the top. It can go as far as a chair saying: “OK. We (the committee and I) want this person.” Admin can say: “Nope. I want this person.” Last, it all depends on the college and its needs. I once had a college give me a phone interview on a Wednesday. That Friday, they called and offered me a job. The job was at a college in Louisiana, and it only payed 35K a year, but it was a standard 165 day contract. They needed someone right away.

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