Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Are You a Job Market "Star"?

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Recently, over at the Chronicle of Higher Education forums (see thread: http://chronicle.com/forums/index.php/topic,72036.0.html), academics employed on the tenure track at mid-tier universities have been discussing whether or not search committees should automatically eliminate "star" candidates from the applicant pool. Who are these so-called stars? Why exactly are members of search committees concerned about them?

The query began like this:
"So, those of you who've been on search committees: do you eliminate the star candidates if you deem them unlikely to accept or stay? There's a stellar candidate in our pool, for example, and I would be shocked if this person had less than five top offers. . . . My hunch is not to bother interviewing such candidates and risk failed searches in a time of such scarcity with [tenure-track faculty] lines. I don't even see why she'd stay at our school if she somehow took the job. . ." 

For those of us currently on the 2010-11 academic job market such questions seem both premature and absurd. Have they seen the job advertisements this year? Don't they know what were working with here? Of course, there will always be academic "stars" who really will receive numerous offers even during periods of bleak market prospects. These are the folks with elite pedigrees and hot research; powerful, well-connected, and active advisors; a large and supportive academic network of supporters and referees; numerous fellowships and peer-reviewed publications (even at the ABD stage); solo teaching experience; and either a book contract in hand with a top press or a book already forthcoming (or even just released).

Are you one of these lucky people, by chance? I can assure you that I am not. My pedigree, though easily recognizable, is not "elite"; my research is far from searing hot right now (there are only a couple of jobs in my subfield in any case); my advisor is active but not a powerhouse; my international network of connections is limited; I have won numerous fellowships, presented at tons of conferences, and published, but I have yet to publish a string of articles or secure a book contract. I am, in other words, a strong candidate but not an excellent one, not a star by any stretch of the imagination. During flush times someone like me would no doubt have already received a tenure-track offer. Now, however, with limited tenure-track faculty openings and all these "stars" darting about the academic stratosphere, I and others like me apparently don't stand much of a chance, even at mid-tier unis with heavier teaching loads or those in blatantly undesirable locations.

Or do we? Forum debates such as the one linked to above indicate that there are quite a few prejudiced tenured and tenure-track academics out there on search committees. They are deeply wary of stars, preferring to hire someone good but not amazing, someone who will stick around so the hiring department won't lose the line down the road. But how do search committees separate the shining stars from the meteorites? How can they  tell who is truly serious and committed and who is merely treading water until something better comes along? What to do?

One respondent suggested the following compromise: "We have this conversation in my department every year (and its variant, the should-we-list-this-person-who-already-has-a-great-job conversation). Our solution is to aim for a range of types on the short list: the rising star (if we don't list this person, the dean will say we're seeking mediocrity...), the star with the good job, BUT ALSO the excellent candidate who might be more likely to fly under other people's radar. And every now and then, someone from one of the first two categories will in fact accept our offer-- you can never tell what motivates people. Still, we've had more than one failed search lately."

Or, as another respondent noted, "My guess is that you don't have 3 candidates that are huge stars, so, why not just interview the one star as a long shot, and then you'll probably really get one of the two other "normal" people."

So, it seems, we "normal" earthlings do stand a chance, if and only if the applicant pool is not full of rising and already-employed stars; if these same people end up with multiple offers; AND if the hiring department aims for a range of types on the short list. But, honestly, even though I know I'm not a mediocre candidate, I'm still not holding my breath. As one anonymous search committee member noted, "I think we are now experiencing what some humanities folks have been experiencing for a long-time -- a glut of really great candidates. So, someone mediocre is just not in the cards."


Anonymous said...

My pedigree is much like yours, and I'm looking woefully at the handful of jobs posted so far in my field--nearly all at R1 institutions or elite LAC--and thinking that I don't stand a chance because they can have whoever they want. But last year a friend of mine, much starrier than I but not someone I would classify as an absolute superstar, didn't get a job, post-campus visit, and was given the "someone with your credentials surely has plenty of other offers" line. This was at a Midwestern, R1 state U: not top tier but still a very good school. My friend, however, had no other offers, despite some star-power, and has now effectively left academia. In short, I don't see how this kind of thinking, at least in a market like this one, is particularly good for anyone.

WorstProfEver said...

Yup, I've never been a "star" but they sure do well on the market. And no matter what anyone says they're going to do, committees do fall madly in love with them...I have, however, seen some cases where the most mediocre candidate got the offer because the stars inspired too much bickering among jealous/starstuck/fearful members of the dept.

In my own former discipline, I've only seen two depts. with effective "no-star" policies -- and to their credit, they do end up hiring normal, collegial people who are happy to be there.

Eliza Woolf said...

I agree with you: this kind of thinking helps no one, least of all job candidates. The assumption that certain people will surely have multiple offers is unrealistic, especially now. And for many of us the choice really is between landing a tenure-track job in the near future or leaving academe for good. The chips will fall where they may but let's hope that search committee prejudice doesn't ruin the chances of an excellent candidate who is in fact dangerously close to leaving the profession due primarily to poverty and lack of prospects.