A little-known wiki on the current state (up to the minute) of the academic job market came to my attention last year and has since blossomed
from a listing of gigs in various stages of completion to a though-provoking anonymous discussion on issues pertaining to those in the front lines of the college/university job market in theory & composition. An example from the discussion (author, of course, unknown):

Having worked for several departments on a non-tenure-track basis over a number of years, and having spoken with a number of colleagues working as both TT and NTT faculty at several different institutions, my impression is that the search process is too uneven to generalize. To be fair, the hiring process in any industry is ultimately a crapshoot, both for those doing the hiring as well as for the hiree: one never knows how good the hiree will be until that person has been on the job for a while; conversely, the hiree won’t truly know the nature of the professional environment until he/she has been there for a while. With that said, here are a few impressions:

  1. Most faculties tend to be, on the whole, pretty good, staffed by competent professionals committed to their work. A few faculties are excellent across the board. A few are mediocre. Many span the range, with pockets of both excellence and mediocrity. (This is perhaps more likely at larger departments.) The same can largely be said of search committees: most are good, a few excellent, and a few mediocre; this range can sometimes be found within different search committees on the same faculty.
  2. Some search committees go into a search already having identified the person they want to hire. This may be an internal or external candidate. The deck may be stacked in favor of that candidate, making the interviewing of external candidates an expensive formality. (This strategy can backfire.)
  3. Some search committees go into a search already having identified their ideal hire, but create a fair and level playing field. This sometimes leads to the hire of the ideal candidate, sometimes not.
  4. Some search committees are beset with political infighting and/or conflicting agendas. This can lead to poor hiring decisions, or to failed searches. It can also lead to excellent hiring decisions.
  5. Some search committees lack the “relevant expertise” but still make excellent hiring decisions. Some have an abundance of expertise, and still make poor decisions.
  6. Some search committees conduct themselves with the utmost of professionalism. Some can be highly unprofessional.
  7. Search committee recommendations can be shot down in a faculty meeting (plenary or otherwise). This can be due to concerns of the faculty, political intrigue, etc.
  8. For some departments, the hiring decision is ultimately made by the department chair. This individual can veto a search committee’s recommendations.
  9. A search committee’s recommendation can be struck down at higher levels of the univeristy administration. This could include the dean and go as high as the provost, or even the board of trustees, if there are larger (i.e. budgetary) issues.

So, as I said, it’s impossible to generalize. I once worked for a department that didn’t care what their students thought about potential hires, and hired a fine scholar that the student feedback would have prevented. (One student said to me, personally, about the candidate, “I don’t like that guy, he’s a smart ass.”) The end result was, for the students, fairly disastrous. I also know of departments that do care about student feedback, but don’t consistently follow through, even when their interviewing protocol requires it. I have also seen one search go south due to an incompetent dean that decided to check unlisted references without asking the candidate first. None of this should be surprising: if one looks at tertiary education as an industry, one should expect to find similar ranges (e.g. size of institution, levels of excellence/incompetence, etc.) as one would in other large industries. That these variables should affect some of us in getting hired (or not) should not be unexpected. I think, however, many of us view the university as something “special”, when it is in reality just an institution with a specific agenda, and often a large and cumbersome bureaucratic structure. That structure is inhabited by normal human beings who are just as fallible as the next person.

Not only is the discussion of interest, but the results from the job searches as well – most are named along with their alma maters so you can get a very sharp picture of who’s getting hired and where did they graduate from. What’s your reaction?

4 Responses to “Job Market Wiki chatter”
  1. Discussion about competitions later on to boot. Wow, all I can say is that anonymity can bring out some people that would never post here, and it really reads a lot like an S21 forum topic.

  2. Rob Deemer says:

    That’s what I thought too, Jeff…it’s a little clunky to figure out who’s saying what, but the anonymous dialogues seem to underscore the “unspoken” concerns of many in the job market race this year.

  3. The follow-up comments of the poster you’ve quoted here are also very good. I would add this:

    1. Search committee members are mostly altruistic, wanting to do what’s best for the institution. Still, it’s difficult not to take personal interests into account. For example, suppose you are a cellist who enjoys playing new music. You will probably look favorably on applicants who have written well for the cello, or who have written music you feel would be enjoyable to perform, as opposed to candidates whose cello parts are poorly conceived, difficult to read or boring to play – regardless of how good or bad the music may be in other ways.
    2. Who you know matters a lot. Most search committees I’ve been on have 4-6 members. Those 4-6 people are well-connected in the music world, meaning they know, among them, thousands of musicians. They are likely to ask around about candidates, and if nobody they know has any dealings with you, that won’t help your cause. Sounds like cronyism, and at it’s worst, that’s exactly what it is. But more often it makes perfect sense. Look at it this way: in every applicant pool there is a given percentage of bad apples – applicants whose resumes and cover letters and compositions all look good, but for one reason or another shouldn’t be hired…maybe they are viciously competitive with their students, or they badmouth their colleagues, or their drinking/drug-taking habits interfere with their performance. Suppose there are 100 applicants for a composition job, and twenty of them are really good composers. Out of those twenty, ten fall into the bad apple category. How will you know? By asking people who know the applicants personally. I was once on a search committee for an instrumentalist, and one of the applicants played in one of our nation’s most revered orchestras. He had listed the concertmaster of that orchestra – someone several of us on the committee knew personally — as a reference. When we called that concertmaster, he said, “Believe me, you really don’t want to hire this person,” and gave a long list of personal issues – things that would make this person into a cancer in our institution. Not the kind of stuff you find on a resume. Turned out all of this person’s references had unkind things to say about him. And he was shocked – given his amazing credentials – that we didn’t interview him. Bottom line: it’s important to demonstrate to everyone you meet that you are dependable, diligent, intelligent and collegial in addition to being supremely talented. And it’s important to meet a lot of people.
    3. On a certain level, it is assumed that you are a good composer. The problem the search committee has is in finding the right fit for the institution – and that can mean a whole lot of things that are way beyond the capacity of any applicant to foresee. For example, maybe the institution is very proud of its composition program, and wants someone who will continue its tradition – preferably an alum. Or maybe the institution has had issues with its composition program and wants someone who will come in and shake things up. Again, who you know matters – if you can get some inside information on what the school is looking for, you will be able to tailor your self-presentation accordingly.

    Sorry for the long post, but I hope this information is helpful.

  4. Robert Jordahl says:

    I never understand the hiring process. I once was canned at a college because they
    thought I wasn’t building the department. Keep in mind that that this was a one man
    department and that I had never been told I was never expected to “build” a department.
    The fact that this was a church college makes it all the more hypocrital.