Tuesday, March 27, 2007


Position Descriptions and Wish Lists

A few departments are currently in the process of crafting position descriptions for full-time hires they are hoping to make in the near future. (Yes, it's very late in the season, but that can happen at colleges with tight budgets. The Board wants to make sure the money will be there to make doing a search worthwhile before they'll approve either the line or the search. The bright side is that we don't run searches only to pull them at the last minute, and tell everybody involved “only kidding!” The downside is that we miss the season when the most candidates are paying attention.)

Position descriptions are a genre unto themselves (itself?). They're a funny blend of screening and sales, with conflicting imperatives for specificity and flexibility. They usually go into the ads pretty much verbatim, so they have to be written in ways that won't cause legal issues, but will still appeal to the candidates we most want to appeal to.

I've taken to sitting down with each department's search committee before it even drafts the description, just to let them know some of the technicalities, and to give me a sense of what they want. (I try to keep them open enough that they won't read like a cartoon I once saw: “must work on the second floor, and be named Eric.”)

It's a revealing exercise.

One of the departments takes a very traditional approach to its discipline. It does what it does quite well, but it's very traditional. I asked what they thought about finding somebody with strength in (huge new area).

You'd think I had suggested a lab course in clubbing baby seals.

(Apparently, I violated the spirit of “open lines of communication” by actually communicating something. My bad.)

Another department is hiring in preparation for starting a new program that we all hope will be a hit. The catch is that the program doesn't exist yet. The chair and I had to negotiate some very careful wording to ensure that we indicated that we want someone who can go beyond the current curriculum, but we couldn't actually name the program, since it doesn't exist yet. This is harder than it sounds, since a premature assumption of a program could lead to all manner of legal issues.

It also involves finding somebody willing to go beyond teaching-well-and-going-home. It's hard to advertise for that without it seeming merely formulaic, or, alternately, being so horribly unattractive that nobody would apply. So there's a coyness by necessity.

Coyness is tricky. From a legal perspective, as I understand it, hiring in contrast to the ad is a recipe for a lawsuit. So you have to craft language that will leave you the flexibility to hire the best candidate from the pool that actually applies, even if that means going in a slightly different direction than originally hoped. I'm consistently surprised by the composition of candidate pools. Sometimes they're better than I expect, sometimes leaner, but they're never quite what I think they'll be. From asking around, this isn't just a function of my own myopia; there's apparently a great deal of randomness in determining what kind of pool you get at any given moment. If you hit a fallow period, too specific a position description can lock you into a weak hire, simply by default. Since opportunities to hire are few and far between, weak hires represent real waste. From the outside, it's easy to assume that words like 'judgment' are simply cover for racism or sexism, and that certainly can be the case, but when you have a pile of 50 applications, of which 20-30 fit every published criterion, you have to use either judgment or a lottery. I vote for judgment, imperfect as it is.

(The same is true of 'collegiality.' Yes, it has been used to cover any number of sins. But there's also the reality of not wanting to hire a highly-qualified jackass. “Plays well with others” is a real strength, even if it's harder to capture on paper than, say, the number of articles published.)

Assembling search committees is a strange mix of art and science. The composition of a committee can affect the choice it ultimately makes, so it's more than just “who's willing to serve.” (Exception: tiny departments, in which there's a committee of the whole, by default.) I like to have committees that cross cliques whenever possible, just to prevent groupthink and/or asexual reproduction. In my experience, the most effective committees are usually those composed of people who don't often work together. Once a group gets into a rut, it loses its usefulness as a group.

Finally, there's the iffy question of who decides. Although the paper trail is clear – ultimately, only the Board of Trustees can actually approve a hire – there are varying levels of expectation of deference to the initial committee. If everybody higher on the food chain is reduced to rubber-stamp status, there's nothing to stop inbreeding, or the hiring of close friends, or flagrantly illegal questions. On the other hand, if the committee's recommendation is brushed aside too lightly, good luck getting people to serve on committees. I try to take the approach of deferring when the search has been handled reasonably, even if the final choice wouldn't be mine, but 'reasonably' is one of those words that different people define differently. This is one of those cases where it's impossible to remove 'judgment,' even if it makes people uncomfortable with its inevitable squishiness around the edges.

Have you seen something in a position announcement that made you howl or cringe?

With all of the anguish of adjuncts isn't it pretty easy to find candidates? I thought there was a huge oversupply of would be college professors?
Being a good adjunct doesn't make one a good prospect for full-time hire, just as a person you date isn't necessarily someone you'd marry. Adjunts (in most cases) teach. Full-timers teach, and write, and develop curriculum and give reasoned input on other departments' curricula, and sit on tenure and promotion committees and the eleventy-zillion other committees that spring up annually. They do academic advisement. They contribute in many more areas than teaching, and you need to look for people who are strong in more than one area.

That said, there is a huge oversupply of would-be college professors, especially in the humanities. But being an adjunct isn't necessarily an indication of being a good fit for the full-time position.
Vicki -- you're dead-on.

There's also the issue of distribution. Some disciplines or teaching areas have a huge surplus of adjuncts, but some don't. A surplus of composition adjuncts doesn't help me staff a speech class, for example.

Paradoxically, a surplus of adjuncts in a given area actually makes full-time hiring in that area less likely. Supply dampens demand. It's a matter of triage: given only enough money to hire for two out of five needs, it makes sense to hire in the areas in which adjuncts are least available.
Just to go off on a personal rant: what vicki says is, really, the crux of the problem: "there is a huge oversupply of would-be college professors, especially in the humanities. But being an adjunct isn't necessarily an indication of being a good fit for the full-time position."

Not just an adjunct problem, those who work a lower end position will not be considered for "management" (tenure=management) because they work only a lower end position.

You see, adjuncts only teach. They don't develop curriculum (which is wildly overstated and misguided), give "reasoned" input, sit on committee or any of those other worthy things. You see, they only teach--and who would want that as a prof?!
Quoth Dean Dad: "The same is true of 'collegiality.' Yes, it has been used to cover any number of sins."

I've read such remarks before, and not just from you -- is there a well-known (but not to me) history about the abuse of the word "collegiality" to conceal prejudices and whatnot?
Have you recently seen any advertisements for academic jobs that you suspect did not actually exist? Back in the early 1970s, the academic job market was probably even tighter than it is now, with a massive surplus of fresh PhDs being dumped out of the grad schools and a shortage of available jobs. At that time, I saw lots of suspicious advertisements for academic jobs that lots of people including myself thought might not exist—a sure clue that the job was probably a phantasm was the requirement that you apply to the Affirmative Action officer. University administrators were apparently going through a resume-collecting exercise to show that they were in compliance with Federal AA guidelines.

Another thing that I frequently encountered was the occasional ad for a job that had already been filled. I was working in a government lab in yet another temporary position and I happened to see an ad posted for a research job that I might be suited for. I immediately dashed over to the office to apply for the job and found that the job had been filled months earlier. Apparently Federal requirements require that all job openings be advertised, but don’t require that the ad be issued before the job is filled.

I am also beginning to see job ads that have a long list of impossibly-high requirements. I used to work as a software engineer for Large Telecommunication Company, and after the dot-com bust there were a whole bunch of engineers thrown out of work. Shortly thereafter, I started seeing job advertisements that listed requirements and qualifications that were impossible for any single person to meet—the job required years and years of expert experience in several different operating systems, a dozen different programming languages, and several different databases. There is no human being alive that could possibly meet even a tenth of these requirements. I suspect that such ads are part of a sham search in order to justify outsourcing the job overseas—“You see that there are no qualified Americans and that we have no choice but to outsource this job to Bangalore..”

Not so much something in a position announcement, but something strange about some of the responses we've received. We advertised for a director of a research/outreach center, specifying an earned doctorate in a relevant discipline (the position comes with faculty rank and tenure). We included, by institutional directive, Career Builder as a place to post the position. Of nearly 40 responses from the Career Builder listing, about 4 had doctorates. About half had only associate's degrees. Talk about a waste of time and money.
this is hilarious, clubbing seals and especially hiring for a program that doesn't actually exist. it seems quite difficult so you're understatement made me roar.

about the adjunct thing: of course being a good adjunct doesn't make one a good full-time hire--just as being a good intellectual, teacher, colleague, hire, writer often does not translate into said happy tenure post. the monolithic "adjunct" is a bit disconcerting, to say the least. many of us lepers write our asses off, participate in curriculum development and committees (without pay)...but more importantly, the fact that most don't does *not* in anyway indicate that they can't *nor* that they don't want to. exploitation has apparently become so naturalized that one can say most adjuncts teach. i would urge pausing before claiming such.
re/ "howl or cringe":

Just the general tendency, at least in the fine arts, to supply a "qualifications" list that reads like a profile for a combination of Francis Bacon, Howard Zinn, and John the Baptist--e.g., only an impossibly long, diverse, and multi-talented resume would seem to fit such a list:

"Ability to teach all areas of music history survey, with specialization in ethnomusicology and feminist theory also preferred. Ability to teach one section-per-semester of music theory a plus. Record of publications, service, program-building, and concertizing also expected. Ability to cover, on an as-needed basis, studio teaching in bassoon and drum set."

I try to explain to my students who are going onto the job market that one mustn't get thrown by such an unrealistic list. No search committee actually anticipates that there will be such a Baconian/Zinnian/Baptist paragon; rather, in composing the description, they begin from a baseline and build to a wish-list.

The baseline is "what tasks currently addressed by the departing person do we need covered?" The wish-list is "what are all the things which (a) we'd like to offer, (b) we're required to show evidence of offering, and/or (c) no-one else wants to teach?"

I explain to my folks that this latter wish-list is advertised on the "might as well shoot for the stars, and maybe we'll hit the moon" mindset: to request every last qualification anyone involved can think of, in hopes of filling as many of the items as one human candidate can.

This is a different phenomenon than that description which is very particularly written to be fill-able only by that adjunct, leave-replacement, or department's-favored-child who is currently in place. Such a posting, typically very specific but with a much more realistic range of expected skills, is a sop to open-hiring requirements and is usually tweezed so that only the person currently in place can possibly fill it.
Adjunct Whore has it. Vicki and, not surprisingly, Dead Dad, do not. (and I am not mis-reading)
Circa 1970, there were a few (meaning 1 to 3) t-t jobs in physics per thousand PhDs. That was a tight market.

In physics, there were some legendary Asst. Prof t-t positions that were glorified post docs (at Famous Private University). No one ever got tenure, but it looked good on a resume.

Narrow job descriptions are written so that only one person qualifies, although that cannot work in a system like ours where the President is free to hire anyone on the final short list.

Extremely narrow descriptions have, reportedly, been used to justify a visa for a temporary (cheap) worker in industry.

Distribution is a real issue. We get good applicant pools in some areas but not in others. Even though we will pay people to travel for an interview, we don't get many "distant" applicants at our CC. In addition, the BIG oversupply is in wannabe professors at R1 State University. Those are the applicants who stress their research interests when applying to a CC and have no clue what it means to teach 3*50 undergrads per semester, or teach a sample class.
When I was on the job market in English in the late 90s, it was not uncommon to see ads asking for a candidate who specialized in, say, Anglo-Saxon literature and African American literature, or some other equally odd pairing that involved ethnic literature. These were so obviously schools that hoped to add racial diversity to their department and thought this was the way to go about it, on the theory that identity politics must drive academic interest.
More and more job hunting is done online, from sites such as Monster.com or Career Builder. I think that one reason why employers get so many unqualified applicants for each job opening is that it is much too easy to apply for a job online. All it takes is one mouse click and your CV is on its way.

I am sure that HR people have to go through a veritable blizzard of e-mails every time that an application is e-mailed in from these job boards. Very often, a human doesn’t actually see your CV or your cover letter when you apply online. The HR people have automatic search engines that prescreen all these applications. These search engines look for certain keywords and phrases in your CV, and if they don’t find them there your CV goes directly into the electronic trashbin. Only if the search engine finds all the right buzzwords in your CV does a human actually look at it.

A lot of the jobs posted on these online boards probably don’t actually exist. They are put there by headhunters or by the job boards themselves to build up their prestige and perhaps to collect a whole fistful of CVs.

I remember back in the good old days at Large Telecommunications Company, when the market was so hot that we were hiring a hundred new people a week. One day a large Monster.com blimp hovered over our facility, trying to seduce us away. I remember getting at least a dozen cold calls from headhunters every week, and I quickly blew them all off. Oh, but for such a situation today!

Another possibility is that a potential applicant looks at those job ads that have a long list of specific and detailed requirements and thinks “Hey, I don’t have all the requirements that are listed there, and perhaps nobody does, but I do have some of them. Maybe I’ll go ahead and apply anyway, and maybe my CV will attract some interest.” Perhaps an employer who is looking for a god is willing to settle for a mere mortal.

Doctor Pion, I was indeed one of those fresh young PhD physicists on the job market back in the early 1970s, looking for some sort of academic job. In those days, PhDs migrated like gypsies from one postdoc position to another, hoping to rack up enough publications so that they might land a tenure-track position somewhere. Of the 20 or so of the people I know who got their degrees at the same time I did, only a couple of them actually succeeded in academics by managing to get tenure. The rest got flushed out of the system at various stages along the way, either by being denied tenure or by deciding to get out of the rat race altogether and try other careers.

Have watched a baby seal die of the mange while the seagulls decided to jump the gun, I wouldn't mind knowing how to kill one quickly and cleanly. Clubbing, done right, does that.
Doctor Pion -- GREAT point about a surplus of folks who really want to work at R1's. It's not unusual for candidates to turn up their noses at the teaching load (once they realize what it is) or the travel funding (once they realize what it isn't) at a cc. That's not to deny that there are plenty of good people in certain fields, but just to say that 'surplus of candidates' doesn't tell the whole story.

The danger in including a wish list in a posting is that you might wind up with someone who matches, say, 5 out of the 12 categories, but who really isn't as good as someone else who only matches 4. If the one who matches 5 is in a protected class and doesn't get the job, welcome to a mother of a lawsuit. I say, better to keep the ad relatively simple, so you can make judgments based on quality, rather than checklists.
I must say as one of those good adjuncts that's been passed over I'm not thrilled with what Vicki has to say, but with the Dean agreeing maybe I should look at is as advise and not an insult.

So how do you sell yourself, not only as a great teacher, but as a candidate with great committee potential too?

As far as the surplus-- why pay full price, right?
After a couple days I've still got no advise? Maybe because we all know the truth. No one is looking for good committee members.

I actually shopped this question around at the CC's where I teach. Several full-timers assured me that they had every confidence that I could snore through committee meetings with the best of them.

At a research school about 75% of what faculty do is research so candidates at these schools are evaluated on their research. At a teaching school about 90% of what faculty do is teaching, or directly related to teaching, so candidates at these schools are evaluated on their teaching ability. If it's more that that... people don't want to admit it, but it boils down to a popularity contest. A lot of people can fake that for an afternoon.

Great I got a PhD just to end up back in middle school.
I read this post and the comments and I have to say, it made me stop and think about the things our committee look for. Our University is interested in filling teaching positions, but only about, let's say, 15-20% of our faculty are required to teach during any given semester. So, we do look for teaching ability, but it's not a huge factor. One thing I've noticed about the hiring committee is that they seem to have bought into the 'I'm happy when you're happy' concept, which means we like to provide our faculty with perks and a low-stress situation with which to engage in their own research. The board of regents genuinely cares about the research of our faculty--the type of research, the quantity, quality, etc. The regents are very supportive in that regard, and so is a great place for research-oriented professors. They're also very open minded and laid back. They know that the best and brightest don't fit ANY mold. They get it. You'd probably be surprised if you visited our campus. Faculty and staff wear casual clothing and talk out of turn in meetings. They even burp and fart and play jokes on the students. One time I even saw some faculty engage in a food fight in the cafeteria. The board chairman himself happened to walk by and got a shepherd's (sp?) pie in the face. For a moment you could hear a pin drop, but then the chairman wiped the bits off his face and started licking his lips. And he picked up the pie that was thrown at him from the ground and started eating it. "Wow, this is really good pie. I didn't know the cafeteria (sp?) makes such good food." And he took the pie and found a table and finished it. Then he went into the cafeteria (sp?) and waited in line for another one. Everyone started laughing, here was the chairman himself, looking like a clown and he was telling them he liked the pie! Seriously, the board is cool. They're way chill. Reaching tenure...well, that takes a sit down, or two, with the professor. They don't really care about the professor's background--how many Universities they've already taught/done research at. That's a fact of life. They get it. Some professors seek tenure because it offers a stable job, others because of the higher salary. Again, this is a fact of life. Ideally they're looking for a candidate who genuinely (sp?) likes working at our university and living in our town and could see themselves living/working here for the rest of their lives. That's what we look for most--genuine long-term interest by the professor in us.
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