minor puzzle about academic hiring

A small puzzle about academic jobs: If getting “the best” is the true purpose of doing a job search, then why do academic programs stop interviewing after the 3rd person? Why it’s a puzzle: There seems to be an over-supply of PhD with good to excellent qualifications. Many never get called out for interviews.

Example: Let’s say you are a top 10 program about to hire an assistant professor. Then what do you look for? You want a graduate of a top 5 (or top 10, maybe) program with one or more hits in AJS/ASR/SF. Perhaps you want someone with a book contract at a fancy press.

You fly out three people. They all turn you down or they suck. The search stops – but this is odd!! These top 5 programs usually produce more than 3 people with these qualifications. Also, add in the fact that every year the market overlooks some really solid people in previous years. My point is simple – departments fly out 2 or 3 people per year but there are usually more than 2 or 3 qualified people!

The puzzle is even more pronounced for low status programs. Why do they stop at 3 candidates when there might be dozens of people with decent publication records who are unclaimed on the market or seriously under-placed? While a top program can wait for the next batch of job market stars, low status programs routinely pass up good people every year.

I have a few explanations, none of which are great. The first is cost – maybe deans and chairs don’t want to pay out more money per year. This makes no sense for top programs which can easily find an extra $1k or $2k for interview costs. For low budget programs, it’s a risk worth taking – that overlooked person could bring in big grant money later. Another explanation is laziness. Good hiring is classic free rider problem. Finding and screening for good people is a cost paid by a few people but the benefits are wide spread. So people do the minimum – fly a few out and move on. Tenure may also contribute to the problem – if you might hire someone for life, you become hyper-selective and only focus on one or two people that survived an intense screening process.

Finally, there may be academic caste. Top programs want an ASR on the CV… but only from people from the “right” schools. This explanation makes sense for top schools, but not for other schools. Why? There are usually quite a few people from good but not elite schools who look great on paper but yet, they don’t get called even though they’d pull up the dept. average.

Am I missing the point? Tell me in the comments! Why is academic hiring so odd?

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Written by fabiorojas

March 29, 2018 at 4:11 am

9 Responses

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  1. It may be that sociologists are unusual! In economics, interviewing 25 or so is pretty normal, and often on a search where field was chosen beforehand. In the sciences, hiring generally occurs after long postdocs and so is the equivalent of a lateral senior AP hire. Sociology and a few others are the only fields that have the hiring pattern Fabio discusses here.

    (Beyond this, there are many mechanisms the economists use which would be useful: the centralized job application site, the complete and utter absence of paper applications, the “ping” system where you can notify exactly two schools of a unique interest with the limit of two making the ping something other than cheap talk, and so on.)

    Liked by 1 person


    March 29, 2018 at 3:17 pm

  2. A few years back, the economists in my interdisciplinary school decided to countervene the norm and bring in a rolling slate of candidates. Everyone in the faculty invested time to attend the job talks and discuss the candidates afterwards. We made many offers, and candidates used them as bargaining chips to get even better counteroffers at their institutions or higher ranked universities. It worked great for them, and made me respect the suboptimal restraint of “interview 3 candidates and you are done”.

    Liked by 2 people

    Model this

    March 29, 2018 at 3:35 pm

  3. For my department, there are a couple of factors. While top-ten programs usually have open searches, we (and most similar departments, I think) do searches in a subfield. We are also not typically competing for the top 5-10 people on the entire job market. So if you do a search in, say, immigration, and rank your candidates, there is likely to be a pretty clear quality difference between candidate #1 and #10. And you are going to have this person for a long time. So you might have reservations about the tradeoff between going further down the pool and waiting another year. Sometimes we do fly out 4, though.

    Also, the budget constraints are real. And I think since searches are usually successful with 3 (or 4) fly-outs, the administration is not generally supportive of authorizing more. If you can’t hire someone based on that, that reflects badly on your department (from the administration’s perspective) and maybe you don’t deserve the line.

    And second afinetheorem that economics has a better system, although the hotel room gauntlet seems like it would be pretty awful to go through. But the “ping” option would be great.

    Liked by 2 people


    March 29, 2018 at 4:59 pm

  4. My institution approves more searches than the dean can afford to hire: he or she counts on a certain percentage to fail in order to keep the budget balanced. All else equal, this allows each department to search more often than it normally would. The downside, though, is that if a department gets turned down by a slow-deciding first choice or decides to pass on the first interview pool, it could go back to the dean after his or her target number of hires has been met.

    Liked by 1 person


    March 30, 2018 at 1:59 am

  5. @epopp: Why do schools outside the Top Ten tend to not do open searches? It would be my preference that most/all schools just hire the best available person, which unfortunately only seems to be a philosophy held by elite departments.

    Liked by 1 person


    April 1, 2018 at 1:47 pm

  6. @Southsider: I have wondered this too. My working theory is that if you have a totally open search, you are going to end up with a pool of top candidates that you are not really competitive for. Most applicants, even at the top of the market, apply to a pretty wide range of jobs. If schools around #25 or so have a totally open search, they’ll find themselves with a list of top candidates rather like Michigan’s or Berkeley’s. That doesn’t bode well for the success of the search.

    A secondary factor, I think, is that elite institutions are secure in their status as tastemakers, while non-elites are more concerned with respectability (see Paradeise & Thoenig: It’s the difference between assuming that your choice will help define the future of the discipline anyway, and wanting to ensure your department has the markers that demonstrate its legitimacy (we “need” a scholar in subfield X — also see isomorphism).

    Liked by 1 person


    April 1, 2018 at 3:56 pm

  7. Report from the comprehensive college job market: there are several factors important to mention here:

    1) Timing. If you do late searches, bringing in a 4th or 5th candidate may extend the timeline of the search long enough that you are unable to secure any of the candidates. This year was probably the earliest search in our recent history. We had all our candidates visit in January (we cannot typically find a way to schedule more than 1 per week due to our other responsibilities and time pressures) and were given approval to make a verbal offer Feb 7. Had the candidate spent a week or two deliberating, the search would have failed in mid-February, and if we were then to go back and try to make arrangements to bring in more candidates, the earliest they could have come is late February. At that point, you might as well try again next year. Note that we do not even do preliminary screening interviews (telephone or Skype) because the time pressure is too extreme to leave us space for that practice.

    Also, the Dean has to meet with each candidate–at the same time of year as he is reading T&P materials–and his own time is limited. We have been asked not to bring in a 4th candidate even when that person is local, in part for this reason.

    2) Limited pools. Like @epopp, we cannot run open searches–in our case, because we need people to teach specific courses for curricular reasons (we are open about research areas, but not teaching areas). Thus, we get very constricted pools. Sometimes, there are a number of excellent candidates, but there have been searches at my college where there are not even 4 good candidates to invite. This does not explain why, say, the English department does not bring in more candidates from their several-hundred-applicant pool, but for us there often isn’t much reason to dig that much deeper.

    3) Cost. Cost is a major factor for us in limiting the number of people we can bring in, but it goes well beyond that. The Dean’s discretionary budget is tapped to pay for meals, and we have a strict spending limit–this year, I think it was 6 dining hall tickets (including the candidate’s) for one lunch and $150 for one off-camps dinner–due to budget issues. And since we don’t have the resources or support to be truly competitive for the kinds of grants which contribute to the bottom line, there is no way to argue that spending more on a search will pay off economically. It might get us better colleagues, but the ones we have often work out ok, so–from the Dean’s perspective–why not spend his limited budget supporting the people he’s already responsible for?

    Liked by 1 person


    April 2, 2018 at 10:25 pm

  8. Could it be that departments are saving face? Could culling three of the ‘best’ applicants and having none of them pan out for various reasons be seen as an indication that decision-makers are not making the best decisions, which would make dipping back into the pool somewhat embarrassing? Academic hiring is a rather public process (unlike hiring in industry), what with the rumor mills and advertised talks. Departments get scrutinized by both internal and external stakeholders. So perhaps, in addition to costs, departments are also constrained by wanting to preserve their reputation?



    April 3, 2018 at 1:03 pm

  9. This is a thoughtful post and I appreciate it from someone who talks so much about grad school and hiring practices. I worry about this a lot, given how competitive the market has become. I have wondered about the hiring strategy of lower-level schools as well. What do you think mechanism is there? And, thanks for talking about this.



    April 5, 2018 at 2:56 pm

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