Saturday, July 22, 2006

Most Qualified

Recent discussions in my department and comments on these pages bring to mind issues related to the academic hiring process. In theory, every department wants to hire the most qualified person, but what does "most qualified" mean? In every search I've seen in 20+ years, there have been quite a few candidates in each search who are very qualified, do interesting work, and seem to have what it takes to succeed in both research and teaching. Sometimes the final selection of one of these "most qualified" candidates is based on which research specialty seems most promising, fits best with existing strengths of a department, or takes the department's research profile in a new and interesting direction. In other searches I've seen (from both sides of the process), departments pick someone they think they will be most "comfortable" with. It's that situation where problems may arise.

One of the worst interviews I ever had as a candidate for a faculty position involved a series of meetings with faculty who were clearly uncomfortable with me. I got the interview because I was a postdoc with lots of publications and some teaching experience and (I assume) good letters etc., but it was immediately made clear to me that there was no way this department was going to hire me. According to the university's affirmative action policy, the department woud have had to come up with a good reason not to interview me if they were going to interview male candidate with fewer qualifications. As my research specialty was a perfect fit for the advertised position, the department pretty much had to interview me. So they brought me in for an interview, but everyone was just going through the motions, and not very gracefully. For example, one eminent scientist seemed very uncomfortable during our one-on-one discussion in his office, and finally he said "I really don't know what we're supposed to talk about. I can tell you that my wife likes living in this city." I tried to remember if I'd met his wife or knew anything about her -- There were no women faculty, but maybe she was a research scientist? Should I know who his wife was? It soon became clear that his wife was not a scientist or in any way associated with the department or university. She and I were both female, and that was what we had in common. He even told me that there was something about the climate or water that his wife liked because of what it did to her hair, but I just couldn't bring myself to talk to him about his wife's (or my) hair. I tried to discuss research topics with him, but he simply could not have a conversation about science with a female. And so it went, and I did not get the job. Years later, I felt only a brief moment of immature satisfaction when I heard that the person they did hire did not get tenure (whereas my career was going quite well, thank you!).

I think that type of experience is becoming rare as most departments in my field now have at least one woman faculty member. So what's the deciding factor when it isn't gender? As a faculty member and participant in search committees, I've seen candidates crash and burn in an interview because they gave boring talks and had no vision for future creative research, but more commonly it's a really hard decision to choose one or two candidates from among a group of very talented people. I've had unsuccessful candidates call me and ask "What did I do wrong?", but usually no one did anything "wrong" -- it's a semi-random choice based on research specialty or intangible positive feelings about one candidate over the others.

I have not yet mentioned the issue of the so-called "two body problem", when both members of a couple have Ph.D.s and are looking for faculty positions. That's another story.. but fortunately in my case a happy one, though it meant leaving my first tenure-track position at a university that did not hire my husband for another university that hired us both. More on that another time -


DrOtter said...

I'm contemplating returning to the UK and applying for a faculty position at a university with no female faculty in my department. It scares me quite a bit. I'm also part of a 'two body problem' so I would be very interested in hearing about your experiences in this area if you ever have the time.
Thanks for a great blog.

Zeno said...

One of my grad school classmates completed her Ph.D., secured a job at a state university, and attained tenure. She then married a grad student (same academic field). When her husband completed his own Ph.D., everyone told him (and mentioned to her, of course) that he needed to grab a post-doc or research assistant position at the school from which he was graduating so that he could work up some publications and establish a stronger research record before going out on the job market. He was unwilling to listen to that advice, saying he wanted a "real" job right away, so the husband-wife Ph.D. couple papered the country with their C.V.'s in search of a dual appointment. The response was "love her, hate him." She got offers galore, but only one university offered joint appointments, and it was in a locale that she abhorred. Nevertheless, she resigned her tenured position and moved with her husband to the new location. A few years later, she decided she was very unhappy and applied back to the university where she had held her tenured appointment. She's back there now, while ex-husband remains at the one school that had been willing to hire him.

Happy ending? Mostly.

Anonymous said...

Please do tell about your two-academic-career search! I am in the same position you were in; TT job at great univ (almost 4 yrs), spouse eyeing TT job next year on the other side of the continent.

Anonymous said...

I just started reading your blog today. Nice! I'm enjoying it. My background is the physical sciences, and all of my educational and research experiences have included more women that is statistically jusifiable. So, I'm surprised to hear that these gender problems are still so rampant. That being said, I just completed interviews for TT jobs, and was shocked at what an old, white, male club the physical sciences still are. I had one research institution all but offer me a position on the spot saying something to the effect that the rest of their candidates were selected to fill affirmative action requirements. I was very interested in the school, department, and location, but that scared the living hell out of me.