In recent weeks, the Cocoon and new APA blog have published posts by search committee members from different types of institutions on what they look for in job-candidates. The Cocoon published a post by a search committee member at a Midsized Liberal Arts College (MLAC). More recently, the APA blog published a post by Allen Wood, who has served on search committees at high-ranking research institutions, as well as a post by Robert Muhlnickel about what search committees look for at community colleges. These series' of posts are beginning to provide, I think, a much clearer picture of just how different the hiring priorities can be at different types of institutions. However, I would like to draw into clearer focus something that in my experience (talking to fellow job-candidates, surveying various blogs, etc.) appears to be underappreciated: the subtle role that institutional motivators plausibly play in influencing who is interviewed, and especially, who is ultimately hired. Allow me to explain.
One important phenomenon that happens all too often in life is that "what people say, and what they do" can be quite at odds with one another. For example, in the dating world it is not uncommon for someone to say they are "attracted" to a certain type of person ("I like kind, funny people"), but then actually date a very different type of person who is not at all in line with their own ideals (viz. "Okay, but why do you always date jerks?"). Similarly, consider a case from philosophy. As I mentioned the other day, a recent Leiter poll indicated that professional philosophers who voted in the poll think that "Hyper-specialization and/or increasing irrelevance of philosophy to public/culture at large" is the 3rd most important important issue in the profession. In response to this finding, one of my facebook friends asked the following rhetorical question, "Why, then, do people keep publishing hyperspecialized stuff that seems to play into philosophy's irrelevance to the world at large?" My answer was that the answer is probably this: that whatever people may value themselves ("I don't like hyperspecialized work"), there are structural motivators in place that incentivize hyperspecialized work: people want to publish in "top journals" to advance their careers, and "top journals" tend to publish hyperspecialized work -- thus, whatever people might say they value, they have incentives to keep churning out hyperspecialized work!
Here is why I think this is important when it comes to the academic job-market: whatever people might say they look for in candidates to interview ("I look for the best researcher", "I look for the best teacher", etc.), search committees are committees. And, as we all know, committees often don't just (or even primarily) represent the preferences of the the individuals on them: they are political animals -- that is, groups of human beings that may, for political reasons, say or advance values at the group level that they might not even prefer as an individual (all on their lonesome). How might this occur? Well, let us reflect on the kinds of institutional motivators that search committees plausibly find themselves facing at different kinds of universities.
Consider, to begin with, search committee members at a research institution. Research institutions, generally speaking, are plausibly institutionally structured to prioritize two related things: (1) prestige, and (2) funding. And, of course, funding tends to be related to prestige (the more prestigious an institution is/its faculty are, the more donations, grants, etc., it is likely to secure). Given these institutional pressures, if you were on a search committee at a research institution, what would your group's priorities be? The answer seems straightforward: you would be looking to add the best/most prestigious researcher you possibly could. Which, of course, is just the conventional job-market wisdom one tends to hear on philosophy blogs (viz. "You have publish in as many top-ranked journals as you possibly can to be competitive!).
Now, however, turn to the institutional realities are small, liberal arts colleges today. As we all know, SLACs as a class are struggling mightily these days. A number of them have closed down entirely, and others have closed down and consolidated academic programs (e.g. eliminated humanities majors, whole departments, etc.). In general, SLACS tend to be struggling financially. Here's the other thing about SLACs: they tend to be tuition-driven. That is, their financial health is determined less by donors and more by students and their parents: by tuition and student fees. And many SLACs are struggling with enrollment. Here, then, is a main institutional motivator at many SLACs: enrollment. SLACs are not only fighting to attract students; the viability of their academic departments depends on their departments' abilities to attract students (e.g. majors, minors, etc.). Indeed, if you look at the relative size of different departments at SLACs, they appear to generally be determined by how "in demand" the department is. Consequently, smaller, less in-demand departments may face near-constant pressure to "justify their existence" to university administrators. Similarly, in order to justify a new tenure-track hire, such departments must show that the hire is likely to be financially advantageous to the school--that is, that the hire will attract more students to the major, etc.
Here's are some other potentially relevant institutional factors in play at SLACs. First, many SLACs are in the middle of nowhere. Second, SLACs tend to have comparatively high teaching loads. Third, for all intents and purposes, the following two results of a tenure-track search may be disasters of the highest order for a hiring department at a SLAC: (1) all of the people they extend offers to accept offers at other, more desirable institutions; (2) the person they hire "jumps ship" in a few years for a job at a more desirable institution. Here is why these are both disasters of a high order at a SLAC: when a department gets authorized to do a tenure-track search, there is no guarantee they will get to do it again if either of the two above eventualities occurs. Yes, that's right: if a department in a SLAC hires someone who leaves the university in a few years for greener pastures elsewhere (e.g. a job at a research institution), that department may lose the tenure-track position (a position that they may have been working to get in the first place for years!).
With these institutional factors in mind, I'd like you all to run the following thought-experiment in your head. As a member of a search committee at an SLAC, there might be all kinds of things you would like in a candidate: you might love research, and want the best researcher you can get; and you might love teaching, and want the best teacher you can get. Still, given the institutional pressures your committee faces, are these preferences likely to be the whole story of whom the committee ultimately selects? Plausibly not. Suppose your committee liked a candidate from a "Leiterific" program with a lot of publications in top-20 journals, and who also has a great teaching dossier. Although your committee might like this candidate, they are also plausibly present a significant institutional risk. They have the air of a "research superstar" around them--as someone who might plausibly jump ship in a few years for a research school. If your department faced the institutional realities above, would their qualifications and accomplishments be all that matter to your committee? Plausibly not. Your committee has a responsibility to your department and institution to aim to make a "successful hire"--someone who will both (A) accept your offer, and (B) not be likely to leave in a few years. Might these pressures lead your committee to select instead someone from a non-Leiterific department, someone who has a peer-reviewed publication record but few, if any, publications in "top journals"? Again, plausibly so.
Here is why I raise these issues for reflection. On my final two years on the market, I interviewed at a good number of SLACs (and had several on-campus visits). Although I did not have any top-ranked journal publications, search committee members at those schools often remarked on how "good" my publishing record--something that flies in the face of conventional wisdom in our discipline for what counts as a "good" record. Not only that: at several schools I was either explicitly or implicitly asked if I would stay at the school if I were offered the job. Not only that: many of the schools that interviewed me ended up hiring people from non-Leiterific programs with few, if any, "top ranked" journal publications. Consequently, the longer I've been in this game (i.e. academic philosophy), the more it seems to me that there is not one job market; there are several different ones. Research schools are looking to hire a certain kind of candidate. SLACs seem to be looking for a different kind of candidate. Community colleges seem to be looking for a third kind of candidate. And so on. Unfortunately, this puts candidates in something of a trilemma. Things that make one a more attractive candidate for one type of job plausibly might make them less attractive for another type of job.
I do not have any good answers to this trilemma, nor do I believe it is the way "the job-market should be." In an ideal world, the most qualified, most skilled candidate would always be hired. But we do not live in an ideal world. We live in a world with economic and institutional pressures--and it is important to be aware of what they are, and what effects they might have.