Chairing a search committee, in hindsight


Last year, I had the dubious honor of chairing a search committee for two positions in my department. The speciality 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 speciality in biology. You name it. And on our end on the search committee, we had no a priori priorities for any speciality.

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 speciality 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 speciality. 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 speciality, 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 UCLA 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 CSU Dominguez Hills. And they would have known, or guessed, that we have a base teaching load of 4 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 deprioritized.

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 PhDs produced in the sciences is getting smaller, indeed.

What’s funny is that if you go through the Chronicle of Higher Education and other 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.

20 thoughts on “Chairing a search committee, in hindsight

  1. My institution also did a job search this year which did not end successfully. We had a very deep pool of qualified people applying for a position in ecology at a small college (good balance of teaching and research expectations). When we began interviewing, we were surprised to find that many of the people we brought to campus had jobs offers in hand. We were competing with unknown counter offers. Clearly we were caught off guard about the nature of the job market this year and perhaps were behind this particular year’s job offer cycle. Our institution could not support any additional interviews and we had to end the search after no one accepted our offer. They seem to be going to similar undergraduate-only institutions. It was the strangest job search I had ever participated in.

    • That’s a bummer. Gikes. It is interesting that it’s so hard to get a job (so many report), but then there are also multiple offers out there, too. This does suggest that it’s not as random as some suggest. Good luck next year, I sure hope you get to readvertise?

      I was terrified of this happening, because we were told that we probably won’t be able to readvertise a failed search or bring in extra candidates. I was a beast about keeping it on a very short timeframe. There were only three weeks for apps to come in (which also limited people from applying, I bet). But we wanted to have interviews done and offers out before the holidays, to try to get the jump on everyone else. We wanted to be the bird in the hand before people had concrete choices. It worked for us, but I won’t necessarily say claim that correlation=causation.

      • Well….you have given me an important clue. Our administration delayed approving the search and our acceptance of applicants ended in Jan and we were interviewing in Feb/March. This explains the offers in our interviewee’s hands.
        If we get the chance again (same worries), we have to do the interviews in the Fall as you did.
        Great Thread and helpful posts from everyone!

        • Generally, interviewing in March is a bad idea as this means an offer in April/May that may fail and stretch into the summer. Most jobs are posted on or about labor day, close in October-November and interviews start Nov through February. I have been on numerous searches (as grad student and post-doc reps as well as faculty) an nearly all of them work very hard to get an offer out the door in February, if not before Christmas.

          This last year, I was on a search that interviewed candidates (4) in December. We had an offer in a candidate’s hand before Christmas with a 2 week response deadline and a signed contract early in Janaury after a second visit and negotiations. This person was then contacted for interviews elsewhere over the next several months. Of those that contacted this person, I know that two of the searches failed because all their candidates had signed contracts before the search finished.

        • This can work if your school can compete with the other offers in hand. The year I ran a search, I was determined to get offers in hand before the holiday break. We got top candidates and had offers in hand by the first week in December. It didn’t matter. Because they were our top choice, they were the top choice of other schools as well, and up here in the northeast there are many higher profile schools then ours. Ultimately all our choices decided to go elsewhere (or stay where they were).

          This is the other dirty secret of these searches: candidates aren’t just competing against other newly minted Ph.D.’s; there’s a good chance a number of applicants already have positions at a small school and are looking for a change. Granted, they have the red flag of “why do they want to leave?” But this can be balanced in the mind of the committee because we know they have the experience and know what they are getting into.

  2. Thanks for sharing these thoughts. I’m a biologist and this was my first year on the job market. I’ve read your posts on applying and working at a regional comprehensive university with interest over the past year or so. I grew up in SoCal and am a CSU alum, so when I saw your advertisement at Dominguez Hills, I seriously considered applying. Ultimately, I didn’t apply and now I’m reflecting on why. I ended up submitting nearly 30 applications across the country at a wide range of university types (from SLAC to comprehensive regional and public/private elite research universities). I applied to four other CSU campuses, but not D-Hills. October was a busy time for applications, but that’s a lame excuse. At that point in my personal application process, I may not have fully warmed up to the idea of moving back home (I also passed on early jobs at UCLA, CalStateLA, and CalTech), but I got over it a few weeks later. Early on I wasn’t confident that I’d stand out in a broad search. That changed when the BIG paper from my research was accepted in November, but that’s another lame excuse for not applying. Ultimately, I think it came down to the relative emphasis on teaching vs research in the advertisement. I understand that good teaching is a critically important qualification and requirement for the position. At the same time, research is important to me and I view research and teaching as integrally connected. This advert stated that an active research program was expected but it seemed to be included only as a formality. It did not convey a genuine sense that research activity and mentoring by faculty would be valued and supported, only that the department strives to provide opportunities to students (which is similar, but not quite the same). In the end, I enthusiastically accepted a position at CSU Fullerton (starting January) and I’ll be just down the road from you.

    • Wow, thanks so much for this amazing and useful comment. And, welcome back to the neighborhood! Glad to have you just down the road!

      This is really a useful and helpful remark that will help us fix up our job ad for next year. I wrote this one pretty much myself, with lots of agonizing, and had a few tweaks from the department/college that made it better.

      The way it expressed teaching and research expectations at the department/college/university level is pretty much accurate. But research is far far more than window dressing, and if there isn’t a clear research agenda with real product and student mentorship, then tenure won’t happen. Compared to Fullerton, we do have less infrastructure and expectations for research. You’ll have the benefit of a one-course-per-semester reassignment to research as long as you work there. I think everybody there starts out at 3/3 and not 4/4, and I imagine in your first years, you’ll have even more reassigned time for you to get on your feet.

      What the job ad couldn’t say, but is quite true, is that the balance of teaching/research/service is very flexible. It is quite possible to emphasize research and do more research than teaching on our campus. (And, this last year… shhh… I have taught only 1.5 courses, but I’ve had some more service/admin, and more time for research.) As long as you get some research done with students and get a paper out once in a while, you’re fine. But if you wish to emphasize research, you can and that’s totally fine. As long as you can secure some $$ for reassigned time (and we have some internally and obviously there are lots of external possibilities) then your teaching could drop down to something quite low and you can seriously focus on research. However, we can’t really express that in the ad because that much research is not (yet) in the culture of the institution and also since we don’t have a huge amount of support for research on campus, it wouldn’t be right or fair to express an expectation of a huge amount of research. That said, every candidate that we interviewed was clearly excited about both research and teaching, and I imagine that nearly all of them would have been seriously productive in research on campus while teaching their course load.

      What I really would have like to have said in the job ad is something along the lines of: “The base teaching load is a 4/4, but if you play your cards right and are serious about research, then you’ll be teaching less than that, and maybe much less. We have startup funds that are competitive with what a selective liberal arts school provides, and our hearts are set on helping you be productive in research and provide opportunities to students as you’re doing it.”

      But I think you read between the lines mostly right. We can’t promise a research-rich environment, or expect major research from all people who end up in the job, though it’s entirely welcome, encouraged, and hoped-for. So, we want a candidate that emphasizes research, but also will like and excel at teaching, but it wouldn’t be kosher to say that research is the more important of the job considering circumstances.

      But, if you took at job at CSUFullerton, and they want you, then you would have fit what we want, and also hopefully what we could support as well. So, this should be something we think of when we write our ads for next year (theoretically two new slots, but we will see). Oh, and, hey CSUF and CSUDH swapped presidents, we have your old interim, and you have our former prez. That’s a bargain that we totally won. Good luck with that :)

      • Well, I’m glad my comment was helpful. I understand that research matters and is expected for tenure; I wasn’t suggesting otherwise. At the same time, the job market is a two-way street and institutions need to sell themselves just as candidates are intensely competing for openings. I care passionately about both teaching and research and want to know that the culture at an institution will value my efforts in both areas and will provide me with resources to help me succeed as a scientist-educator. I saw that at CSUF, both in the job ad and during my interview. You’re pretty much right on with respect to what I expect for the teaching load and the opportunities for release time.

        There are a lot of things you can’t (or shouldn’t) say in an ad, but I think you could have pumped up the research component by suggesting some major sub-fields of biology that would complement your department while not limiting the search to those areas. You can also talk about the research resources you can provide (lab space, startup, facilities) and the preferred qualities you would love to see in candidates (innovative teaching/research, grad and undergrad research mentoring, etc.), while still making it clear that teaching is really important and a significant part of the job.

  3. Another anecdote…I was going to apply but the “open” aspect of the position dissuaded me. I have never been successful in getting interviews for these open positions. I also felt that my research interests overlapped with a few of the faculty members. Also, the LA area is far from my family so it wasn’t an ideal location but that was secondary. The prestige of CSU-Dominguez Hills wasn’t a factor at all in my decision. I realize this isn’t the optimal strategy to land a position but at the time, I felt it was not the best use of my time to apply.

    I am always eager to here more from inside the search so please post anything you are comfortable posting.

    • We weren’t in a position to hire clones of ourselves, so if an applicant’s research interests were the same of any one of us, that wouldn’t be ideal (as we were looking to cover what we are missing, which was almost everything considering how few faculty we had). But combined with the lack of appeal of the area, then I can understand not investing on what you think is a long-shot job. If you happen to be a plant person sensu lato or a micro person sensu lato, keep your eyes peeled in the fall, if you’re lucky we might have an ad in those categories.

      (For what it’s worth, LA is a lot more awesome than you would imagine from its reputation.)

      If you have any other questions about the search, feel free to ask. I explain why I don’t think I should answer certain kinds of questions. (I wonder if my VP of faculty affairs is reading this, how she’d feel about this post and the questions.) I’m keeping it all above board and I know the rules and institutional priorities, and hopefully by being a little more open I’m helping people feel positive (or at least less negative) about the whole search process.

  4. That’s a pretty decent rejection letter. I remember one rejection letter I got that almost made me feel positive. It was pretty similar.

    • Thanks, hearing that I didn’t botch it is appreciated. I hadn’t written one of these before and doing it right was important to me.

  5. How do the searches differ for more senior personnel? Up here in our small private university (with a 3/3 load), we have had two unsuccessful searches in a row looking for a chair. The number of applications has been very underwhelming. I think we had less than 20 serious applications.

    • I don’t have any experience with searches for tenured/senior faculty. Anybody else? What kind of pool did you get?

      • I can’t speak from any personal experience. But in general, to get senior people to move you’ve got to offer them a clearly better deal than whatever it is they have now. And for many senior people (at least those with sizable research programs), that means not just “more money/facilities/other resources for my own lab”, but things like “more close colleagues” (i.e. you need to hire some junior people in my area), “reduced/no teaching”, “control over significant resources that aren’t actually part of my own lab” (e.g., they may want to run an institute or field station), etc. After all, anybody who’s any good probably already has a good situation at their current institution, not to mention tenure, so has the luxury of being very choosy. And anybody who’s any good probably is going to use any offer they get as leverage to see if they can get additional perks from their current institution.

        I’m not sure if this is directly relevant to Profdean’s particular situation, since Profdean is at a small private university with a 3/3 teaching load and so probably isn’t looking to try to hire away a superstar researcher from a big research university. But I think the general principle still holds: if you’re not attracting the sort of senior applicants you want to attract, I think that’s a sign that you’re not offering a good enough deal, relative to what potential candidates already have at their current institutions.

        Senior hires also are also just difficult because you’re drawing from a much smaller pool of people. You probably need more good luck to make them work. Like, maybe it turns out that some good senior person has family in the area and so is attracted to the position for that reason.

        But as I say, I have no direct experience to draw on here, so perhaps others can comment.

  6. There’s a huge component of timing and chance. I once advertised a postdoc and got no good candidates, hired a bad one, had to get rid of them and then had all awesome candidates for the readvertised position of half the length. But I do wonder if part of the problem is that academia has so many issues now relative to what’s available for knowledge workers in industry. Work/life balance, salary, other sorts of stress. There will always be people who want to be academics, but they may not be the same people who wanted to be academics before, and that may affect our hiring prospects.

  7. I teach at a small landbased UK HE institution, and I’m not 100% familiar with the US teaching loads stuff. How does 3-4 courses as a base load translate into hours per week (silly UK measure, I know). My base load is 550h/yr, which is roughly 18h/wk, or 50% of my working week…

    • At my 4 year college, a course is counted by the number of hours in the classroom. So a 3 credit course with a lab would have 3 hours of lecture a week and a 3 hour lab (and the 3 hours could become 6 if you are teaching two lab sections). A 4 credit course would have 3 hours a lecture a week and either one or two 4 hour labs a week. We are expected to teach 24 hrs an academic year but we can apply for and get research release time of 6 hours a year. We are lucky at our institution that an hour of lab activity is equal to an hour of lecture. Not all colleges or universities count labs that way (probably because of the availability of teaching assistants, which we don’t have). We are not required to teach in the summer so that time is for research.

    • In the California State University, our workload is 30 weighted teaching units (WTU) per year. Six of those, tenure line faculty, go to service/advising. The remaining 12 per semester can go to teaching. In lecture courses, an hour of contact time is 1 WTU. Labs scale differently, so a lab section counts for 2 WTU, even if it is longer (avid students earn 1 unit). Discussion sections scale weirdly in a way I don’t recall.

      The bottom line is that 12 WTU per semester is about 12 contact hours in the classroom.

      WTU can also be assigned to a variety of research or admin obligations, but this takes the politics to get access to the $ and in my experience reassigned time takes more work than the teaching. This isn’t necessarily a widely held view.

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