Remaking Academia: Improve the Hiring Process

The latest entry in a continuing series here at The Education Optimists

Have you ever sought a job as a professor? Depending on your field and where you’ve applied, it goes something like this:

(1) You send in a letter of interest, a CV, and some publications. Maybe some letters of reference too, or perhaps just contact information for those people. If it’s a teaching institution or a school of education, maybe you’ll also send in a statement of teaching philosophy and some student evaluations.

(2) If the search committee likes what they see in the file, they get in touch. This typically means you’ve published a fair bit, demonstrated that you have some interesting ideas, come from a good graduate program, have very solid letters that say you’re among the very best, can attract grant funding, etc.

(3) Then you either meet with the committee via phone or Skype, or at a conference, or more commonly go to campus. (Sometimes it’s a two-step or three-step sequence, sometimes you just go right to campus.) During the visits, you’ll do a talk about your research (to show how you approach questions, theory and evidence), talk with lots of academics who will ask you about your future research plans and what you like to read and discuss (mainly to see if they think you’re smart and they like you), meet with an administrator or two, talk to students, and maybe give a demonstration of your teaching (e.g. a pedagogical talk).

(4) At the end of the evaluation period, a search committee, or even the entire department, together with the dean, has a set of information about you. It includes a written record of what you’ve done, thoughts about what they’ve heard, some student evaluations on a set of metrics, etc. Then they make their decisions.

Often this results in the offer of a job at a pretty good salary with decent benefits, with a three-year contract, and the possibility of tenure. Or, if you’re lucky, it’s a tenured position—in which case they’ve committed (after a tenure committee does their own review) to hire you “for life.”

This process has long puzzled me for what it omits. And as I listen to heated discussions of ineffective professors and teachers, and watch the advent of a strong debate from k -20 over using metrics to decide who to fire, I have to wonder: why can’t we start instead by using data and standard human resources practices to improve our effectiveness at hiring?

Before I list some suggestions for improvement, let me admit that I have held one academic job for my entire career (which admittedly is just 8 years long). And this area—hiring and evaluation—isn’t the topic of my own research. So I don’t know about every practice used in every college or school, and it’s quite possible some of what I think should be done IS being done—in which case we should get a good census of practices and start evaluating their effectiveness. This is a blog I really hope to get constructive feedback on (yes, more so than usual).

(1) Rethink who does the hiring. Right now prospective colleagues primarily do it. This is good, since they are whom you’ll end up working with and spending time with. They should and must have a role. But those peers were hired because they are talented researchers and teachers, not because they know how to evaluate large numbers of prospective applicants and make terrific judgment calls. Professionalization of this hiring practice is needed, and it must include very experienced people who’ve done hiring in academia for decades. Ideally, they’d be systematically trained in identifying expertise in the competencies academics need to do their jobs very well (see next point).

(2) Bring some additional competencies into the mix. Being a good professor or teacher requires strong time management skills, grit, resilience, ability to respond under pressure, communication skills, drive, ability to implement feedback, performance orientation, inquisitiveness, and cultural competencies as well. Where/how are these being assessed now? Primarily in terms of how much you’ve managed to publish in X time (which doesn’t necessarily tell you how well time was managed since other activities are often sacrificed). There are instruments for measuring such things, and we’re often ignoring them. That’s not good enough. What other competencies predict success in academia? We need to know, and we need to integrate them into hiring.

(3) Lengthen the process. My colleagues will hate me for saying this, but spending only a total of maybe 2-5 days evaluating whether a person should be allowed to teach large numbers of students, enjoy limited campus resources, etc, is far too quick. You need more data and more time to analyze it.

(4) Systematize the evaluation process. We use very superficial forms and often don’t consider the data that result in any sophisticated way. The process of reference and background checks is too personal, political, and idiosyncratic, mainly because people who were never trained to do these checks are in charge!

There’s got to be even more we can do. Sure it has to be a flexible process that can be adapted to public flagships or private liberal arts colleges, as well as community colleges, etc. It also can’t be so expensive as to prevent scaling. And it will need revision and improvement. When’s the last time your department changed how it recruited and evaluated applicants?

The current process skips key steps and fails to assess competencies that when not present, lead to failure and turnover in academia (and k12 teaching). Instead of researching who we should fire, why not focus our attention on improving the hiring process? It seems far more efficient, not to mention equitable and ethical.