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« The Secret Lives of Search Committees - Part 8: teaching experience | Main | New contributor: Valdi Ingthorsson »



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Some search committees are now going straight to flyouts, which I think is a good move. At the least, I think interviewing 16 candidates (as some places do) is a waste of everyone's time. Those at the bottom of the 16 person pool have little chance, but have to go through all the time and emotional toil of an interview.

Just a Runner

It is also worth reminding people that clear front runners may also be clear front runners for other jobs, and accept another one, leaving this one for C, D, E, or even F or G.

anon for obvious reasons

I've sat in as a grad student on three different search committees in three different institutions and I want to emphasize how much horse trading is true. Often the least hated candidate is chosen rather than the best one.

Here's an actual scenario I once witnessed. We'll call the 4 candidates 1-4 as a rank of what I, as a student outsider, considered the candidates based on their CVs.
Everyone agreed on candidate 1, a faction hated candidate 2 because they didn't find their work at all rigorous, and too continental. A faction hated candidate 3 because their work was too boring. Candidate 4 impressed no one, but offended no one either. They were just a little continental and were doing only slightly interesting work. Candidate 1, who was obviously number 1, took a job at a better school. And in order for there not to be an all out civil war and resentment between the faculty (but also between the aggrieved faction and the person who eventually got the job, we all want these candidates to eventually get tenure!) but also so we wouldn't lose the tenure line, Candidate number 4 got the job.
I genuinely don't think that this is an outlier case either.

Jonathan Ichikawa

I won't challenge other people's reports of their own experiences but I can say that this kind of thing does not seem to me at all representative of my experiences on search committees.

In my experience, there's a lot more discussion and coming to consensus than is suggested here, and a lot less zero-sum reasoning.

Marcus Arvan

Jonathan: Thanks for weighing in. I can't help but wonder whether there might be differences between research jobs and teaching jobs here. Research departments are (it seems) looking primarily for one thing: the best researchers. Teaching departments may (it seems) have much more diverse concerns (teaching, service, etc) and competing interests at stake (courses they need taught, growing majors, etc.).

Perhaps that might explain (some) of the differences between our experiences?


I teach in an R1 dept in which I have been on two search committees. I don't think there is horse trading like that being discussed here in my department. But it is a large and very philosophically diverse place, and people have very different ideas about what it is to be "the best" researchers (and also about whether we should take other things into consideration in hiring, like teaching and the potential for actually making a good service contribution to the department). There is extreme disagreement about a lot of things. And yet my experience is much more like Jonathan describes: we still work towards coming to a consensus, and there is very little bargaining or game-theoretic reasoning about one's favored candidate and much more simple open discussion that eventually usually allows us to settle on a particular ranking of candidates.

My sense is that the divide is not between research and teaching departments but simply between healthy and unhealthy ones; if you have a department with a faculty who generally know how to work together and at least professionally can get along, the kind of thing described in this post will likely be pretty foreign to you.

Marcus Arvan

Anonymous: thanks for chiming in. You write, “My sense is that the divide is not between research and teaching departments but simply between healthy and unhealthy ones.” For what it is worth, that is not my experience at all. I have hired three times at a teaching school and have friends who have hired at others, and my sense is that horsetrading happens in them despite them being very healthy places. The problem is that a small department may need very many things, and different members of the search committee very different priorities—and that deals are struck not out of any kind of unhealthiness, but in large part to negotiate different priorities in a healthy manner.


Just to add a few data points:

I've been on two searches at an R1 and four at an R3/regional state university. My experience is like Jonathan's and anonymous'. I have not seen the sort of horse trading described here.

This said, I'm not surprised to learn that it happens elsewhere. I'm just not sure how common it is.


A quick remark about horse trading. I think it is more likely to happen in small departments of 4 or so people. The needs are so great in such departments - someone who can teach ancient, and philosophy of mind, oh, and an aesthetics course, and there is always need for another business ethics course - that people can have very different visions about what the priorities of the department should be. In research departments, they are looking to hire a person with narrow expertise - perhaps as narrow as philosophy of biology. The people in the department who work in areas closest to this area will tend to have the greater say in the hiring.

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