Thursday, March 08, 2012

Plenty of fish

As this hiring season draws to a close, I'm still thinking about what the courtship process looks like from the departmental rather than the candidate side. The dating metaphors that are so often used to describe the job market are apt, not least because each party is usually pretty much in the dark about the other's motives, intentions, and ultimately their true character.

In saying that I don't for a minute mean to imply that there's any functional equivalence between the positions of candidate and hiring department; close to 100% of the power lies with those doing the hiring, and although I guess a candidate can still break a department's heart, heartbreak is a lot easier to get over when you've got eligible ladies and gents throwing themselves at your feet. (And when you're in no danger of being evicted, having the lights turned off, or moving back in with the 'rents.) So don't flame me: I'm not suggesting that hiring departments are ever in need of pity, especially when compared with job candidates themselves.

But since I've thought about the job market almost exclusively from the perspective of the candidate (even as my own department has been hiring rather steadily), it's startling to notice how we on this end use much the same language as those on the other--language that is reminiscent of the alternately boastful and abasing language of single guys and gals looking for love: I deserve so much more! I'm not going to settle! But. . . do I really have anything that anyone whom I would want, would want? I should set my sights lower. Oh God, please love me!

Departments like my own, which are stronger in fact than they seem on paper--like the men and women who are better catches than the photos on their profiles would suggest--are probably especially prone to these kinds of mood swings. (Look at the CVs of our faculty! What, you think we're not good enough for you? But, we do have a 3/3 load. Whadda we expect? Maybe we should be content with a nice person who will be a solid citizen and never leave us.) Still, every hiring department gets emotionally over-invested in at least some of their candidates, going through periods of anxiety and self-doubt and the hope that the object of their desire feels the same way about them.

But although there may be more status anxiety lurking beneath the surface of our hiring process than we'd willingly cop to, one of the nice things about being in a strong but not immediately eye-catching department is that we tend not to overestimate our own judgment and we don't buy into the fiction that there's some absolute and objective way to rank our applicants--that Candidate A somehow is the best person on the market this year in his field, and that therefore we must get him at all costs. We have plenty of experience hiring our second (or third or fourth) choice and having her turn out to be amazing. So although we make a careful and a thoughtful assessment of everyone's merits, and we vote down some candidates as unacceptable, our collective attitude seems to be that it doesn't necessarily matter if we get our first choice or our third--or even if we have to go back to the general applicant pool and start over.

Because you never know. You don't know whether your list of MLA interviewees really comprises "the best" candidates from among the applicants, and you don't know that the people selected for fly-backs are truly the best of the semi-finalists. You don't know what you're missing if you've already missed it, and you don't know how someone will perform until they perform; some people deliver on early promise and some don't, while others have late growth spurts. Not always getting your first choice reminds you that assessing merit isn't as clear-cut as many pretend--as does finding out that someone you ranked sixth or tenth got offered a far better job than the one you had on offer.

And that kind of perspective is the real advantage that those doing the hiring have over those seeking jobs. It's often said that hiring committees in the era of the jobs crisis can afford to be picky, but the truth is that they can afford to be careless: they can wait and see, they can be modest about their own achievements, and they can keep an open mind--they can even change their mind--about what matters most. Because there are plenty of fish in the sea.


moria said...

Which reminds me that I need to write that post on Academe As Abusive Relationship that I've been planning...

Bardiac said...

Interesting post. But, here in Walkerstan, things feel a bit different, especially in less phd abundant fields. My department has had candidates interview, and even accept our job offer, and then withdraw when they get a better sense of just how bad things are in this state.

On the other hand, our offer makes that other offer look way better, so that's helpful for other departments.

(Feeling a bit down about the hiring thing right now, I guess.)

Flavia said...


Yes, this certainly varies by institution: tippy-top-tier institutions are more likely to buy into the fiction that they can actually pinpoint, and hire, THE BEST candidate available in a given year, while institutions that are struggling financially or otherwise, or that appear less desirable to candidates for some other reason, have to cultivate a different attitude or look for different strengths (a connection to the region, a desire to teach as a generalist, or whatever it might be).

But I stand by my larger point, which is that hiring institutions participate in the same discourse as job candidates themselves, seeing the hiring process as a kind of courtship where disappointment and rejection feel like very real threats--EVEN THOUGH the hiring institutions hold most of the real power.

What interests me is the way that the nature of the process always makes it feel like it's the other party who has the power to break your heart.

(I'm not denying that, at some institutions, it's a much more common experience to get one's heart broken than it is at others; but the discourse is the same whether you're at an R1 or a 4/4. And that's something I think I never imagined when I was a job candidate myself.)

Anonymous said...

Good points, F, and to extend them a bit: not only should a department not worry about hiring its second or third choice, but it shouldn't worry when some of its new hires don't pan out. Every department should mentor and support each asst. prof. as well as it can, but you don't want a 100% tenure rate. If you're hiring talented, ambitious people, some of them over time will take jobs elsewhere; if you have a rigorous tenure standards, some people will fail to meet them. Clearly it's a bad sign if your junior people bail in droves, but some attrition indicates that the system is working as it should be. And then you go back to the sea, fish again, and somebody else gets a chance.


Anonymous said...

Are candidates honestly DISAPPOINTED that you have a 3/3 load? That is just funny.

Bardiac said...

You're right, Flavia. Departments really do have much more power in these realationships. I guess I think there's some slight power shift, which may be more pronounced in some places, when the department starts making offers. And the extent of that shift is highly field dependent, too. We don't worry about finding someone who's good for a lit position, but for Education, Rhetoric, etc, we have difficulty and do worry.

Flavia said...


That's exactly right, and it's something I've often talked about with my colleagues: we'd all be reluctant to lose any of the great people we've hired, but it's actually the sign of a healthy department to have faculty talented enough and attractive enough to the outside world to leave. If I were department chair, I'd consider a hire a success if she stayed for five or six years, helped build the major, served the department well, and then went on to a fancier institution. Being the first job of someone who eventually goes on to something better--but who feels warmly about her time with us--is good not only while she's here, but also because it builds our reputation when she leaves.

To continue the analogy, it's like a long-term relationship that ends amicably and where the parties remain friends and continue to promote and advocate for each other.


Well, we aim pretty high. And usually when we have our offers rejected it's because the candidate has another offer from a place with a lower teaching load and/or a national profile. I don't think any of our candidates are surprised or anything--it's in the job ad, after all!--but to many people "3/3" reads as "not a place where the faculty do serious research." And as a department we're probably simultaneously a little touchy about that misperception and too ready to assume that that's the cause of any rejection.