Early Decision -- for Faculty Jobs

August 1, 2008

The blog PhD in History, which devotes attention to the history job market, recently noted a shift in the job postings for history faculty that have turned up this summer. In the past, summer postings tended to be last minute attempts to locate help for a semester or year. The coveted tenure-track positions wouldn't appear until the fall, setting a pace for interviews at the American Historical Association's January meeting, and for offers in the spring.

This summer, the blog noted, many of the positions being announced are tenure-track jobs that start in the fall of 2009. The deadlines for many of these positions suggest that interviews will take place well before the AHA meeting, in some cases early enough so offers might be made before the meeting, too. Sterling Fluharty, the blog author and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Oklahoma, asked: "Does it seem to you that more and more search committees are trying to jump the gun and hire new history faculty before their job candidates have a chance to interview at the AHA convention?"

The question Fluharty posed is sensitive. It turns out that many departments in history -- and apparently in some other humanities fields -- do appear to be moving up their timetables for searches. The October issue of the Modern Language Association's Job Information List (actually available in September) historically was the MLA kickoff for announcing tenure-track positions for the following fall. This year, the spring-summer issue of the list -- in years past just the place for last-minute visiting positions -- features a number of jobs for tenure track posts starting the fall of 2009. (Likewise, there are a number of such positions in Inside Higher Ed's job listings.) The MLA has tried to discourage making decisions too early in the academic year with guidelines stating that no candidate for a non-tenured position should be required to accept or reject an offer prior to January 22 -- but it's evident that some departments ignore that recommendation.

To be clear, plenty of other departments aren't making any change -- and visitors to the AHA and MLA meetings after the fall semester will see no shortage of anxious job candidates waiting for their interviews. But the reasons a number of departments are switching their schedules aren't things that they want to boast about. And while the earlier search schedules will clearly benefit some individuals and institutions, not everyone is convinced that these are good moves for academe.

Most search committee chairs who acknowledged moving up their schedules cited reasons that explain in part why they didn't want their names or institutions identified. For instance, a major motivating factor for several search chairs was that the trend appears to have started with the more elite departments. In recent years, search panels at slightly less elite institutions report that they were having candidates who agreed to do interviews at the AHA or MLA meeting back out at the last minute, saying that they had already accepted a job elsewhere.

Having been rejected in this way, some departments hope to beat out their competitors this time around. Still, one search chair at a liberal arts college with an earlier deadline this year than ever before acknowledged the risk in this approach. Because his institution might not be at the very top of the wish list of candidates, he's worried that his committee may come up with the perfect candidate, make the offer, and be told that the person wants to delay a decision until hearing from an institution further up the prestige ladder. Others are worried about a candidate accepting early, and then later simply opting out for a more prestigious post.

Trends within disciplines also appear to be a factor. In fields like history and literature, some of the fields with the greatest proportional job growth are specialties outside the United States or Europe. While it was once presumed that hiring would take place at the big annual meetings, several chairs said that they saw an advantage to recruiting and interviewing at specialized meetings now.

Economics is also a factor. Several search chairs said it is less expensive to fly four or five candidates to campus (that would happen eventually anyway) than to do that after sending an entire search committee to an annual meeting.

Then there is economic strategy: One search committee chair at a public university said he is fairly sure that his institution will institute a hiring freeze at some point during the next academic year. The traditional schedule would have offers being made in the spring -- and that leaves a lot of time for a freeze to be declared. Move up the interviews, and this chair hopes to have an offer made and accepted before the freeze -- and to hold on to his slot.

There are no definitive data on the shift to date. While the MLA and AHA produce annual reports on the numbers of new hires and new Ph.D.'s, departments aren't required to report on their search timetables.

Robert B. Townsend, assistant director of the AHA for research and publications, said that he has noticed this trend of early hiring emerging over the past few years. The most positive part of the trend, he said, is that it reflects the improving job market for some candidates. "If the departments are developing new strategies to beat each other to the best applicants, it has to mean things are getting more competitive out there," he said.

Largely, however, Townsend noted concerns about the trend, which he sees as "a classic case of the rich making sure they get richer in talent." And since this approach may involve fewer initial interviews than a search committee might conduct at a large scholarly meeting, Townsend predicted "more conservative" decisions. Short lists in this approach are more likely to be created with a "focus on applicants from schools with the biggest names, and students with the most prestigious advisors."

Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, said she has also seen more departments engage in "preemptive hiring," but she questioned whether it really results in the best people getting hired.

Having participated in many a search committee using the traditional approach of doing many interviews at the MLA meeting, Feal said that most committee members arrive at those sessions with an informal ranking in their mind of the candidates. The striking fact, Feal said, is that those ranked near the top -- those who would get interviews early in the accelerated calender for hiring -- are rarely at the top after interviewing a large number of candidates.

Going right to a relatively short list, Feal said, "disadvantages candidates who don't come from first tier schools or whose qualifications aren't standard or the candidate who is a little quirky." And that could backfire on the search, she said, because so many times "they are the ones who end up being the really interesting candidates."

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