Last year, I had the dubious honor of chairing a search committee for two positions in my department. The specialty was open. I learned about my department and my university by seeing it through the eyes of applicants and would-be applicants. There’s a lot I’d like to say about the process that I can’t, or shouldn’t, say. But I do have some observations to share.
I’ve been on a number of search committees in the past. One had a predetermined outcome (yes, it was rigged but we had to pretend that it wasn’t), but the others were wide open. This was the first time I was chair. This didn’t give me any greater control over the outcome, but it did give me a bigger window into the process (and a lot of work, too).
Over social media, I was able to read the reviews of rejection letters from a variety of friends and colleagues who were on the market. Apparently, the genre is known for stinkers and veiled insults. I spent a long time crafting the few sentences to avoid unintended slights, while attempting to remain informative, frank, and compassionate. That sounds like an impossible task. I’m not sure how well I did, but here it is:
As you applied for a position in the CSU Dominguez Hills Biology Department, I am writing to inform you that we have completed this year’s search, which started in October 2013. Given the time that has passed, I recognize that this is no surprise.
For context, here is some information. We considered about 150 applications, and nearly all applicants were well qualified for the positions. Until this moment, I have not been able to officially inform you about the progress of the search, because university policy prevented me from notifying any of the applicants about changes in the search status until the search has been formally concluded with signed contracts. It was my personal preference to contact applicants much earlier in the process, but I was not authorized to do so.
Thank you for your interest in our department.
Terry McGlynn, Chair of Biology Search Committee
Associate Professor of Biology
I personally knew several people who applied for the position. I think that’s normal considering the nature of the academic job market. It’s not pleasant to be the bearer of bad news, though of course that’s nothing like being on the receiving end of bad news.
I knew many more people who were seriously on the faculty job market, well qualified, and knew about this position, but did not apply. As I wrote in our rejection letter, we had about 150 applicants for two positions. For any specialty in biology. You name it. And on our end on the search committee, we had no a priori priorities for any specialty.
When I heard about rejection letters making the rounds — and those that I received myself — I realize that 150 is in fact a small number -- 75 applicants per position. Many other jobs, in a small specialty of biology, attract far more applicants. Fortunately, this relatively small pool did not leave us hurting and we would have loved to have hired far, far more than two people. (Several years ago, my department advertised a job in a specialty. There was nothing wrong with the ad, it was in all the right places and there was a long time frame. I’m ashamed to admit how few applicants we had, but let me tell you, it was really really low.)
This means that for every person who applied, there were dozens of people who are desperately in search of a tenure-track position in biology but didn’t apply for this one. Why did we get so few (in relative terms) applications? Some people swear they could never live in Los Angeles for personal, family or financial reasons. Others might have thought that the odds of getting the job were so small, because of the open specialty, that they shouldn’t invest the time in applying. I have a feeling that most people who aren’t applying with us would be glad to work at the University of California at Los Angeles and UC Irvine, which are just up the road and down the road from us.
But why did most people not apply? Well, they probably have never heard of California State University Dominguez Hills. And they would have known, or guessed, that we have a base teaching load of four courses per semester. We may be offering too much of good things (teaching, motivated biology majors, sunlight), or too little of other good things (high publication and grant expectations, doctoral students, prestige, snow). The bottom line is that applying takes effort, and nobody can invest limitless effort into job applications, and based on these factors my university gets de-prioritized.
It’s kind of hard to avoid the inference that a bunch of my colleagues out there think, “That’s a great job for him and other people, but that’s not the job I want.” Which I think is really silly, because this era, like others in the past, is full of people complaining about the paucity of faculty jobs. As I’ve written before, some complaints are less valid than others. The proportion of faculty jobs to Ph.D.s produced in the sciences is getting smaller, indeed.
What’s funny is that if you go through the job sites, there are a bunch of universities similar to mine (in terms of base teaching load and research expectations) that are hiring tenure-track faculty positions. And I would bet that many are getting a smaller number of applications than we got this year.
Nonetheless, it’s still very difficult to get a faculty job at my university, and the competition for our positions was very keen. Even if most people looking for faculty jobs don’t want the ones that we are offering.