Monday, May 13, 2013

Two Thoughts on the Academic Job Market

As some of you know, I'm on the academic job market this year. The whole process for me isn't over yet (so I can't divulge any details regarding my situation), but I wanted to talk about two issues about the academic job search that have been bothering me.

Head Count Capped By Enrollment

At almost every university, the tenure-track faculty head count is more-or-less capped by undergraduate enrollment (or a professional school enrollment if you're looking for a job in, say, a business school). Yet, the dean of EVERY university I interviewed at told me that the primary responsibility of (new) tenure-track faculty is to engage in basic research.

I'm sure that, if one thought hard enough about the issue (and maybe perused some history books), then one could reverse engineer how this whole situation came to be. Here are how things look from where I stand:
  • Tenure-track positions have historically been prestigious because of the job-security, and this continues to be the case.
  • The budget for tenure-track salaries have historically been computed based on student enrollment. For most schools, this means primarily undergraduate enrollment. It's unclear to what extent tenure-track salaries are currently paid for out of student tuition revenues, but I can imagine that was the case in the past.
  • Ever since the end of World War II, the US federal government has invested in basic research (through funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation).
  • Intellectual scholarship is the first-order bit that dictates prestige in academia. These days, most of that is based on scientific research.

    Not only are tenure-track positions few in number, but most other research positions are significantly lacking (by comparison) in the way of salaries and benefits. My sense is that it's difficult to find comfortable non-tenured (i.e., "soft money") research positions. This situation strikes me as rather odd (and wrong), and I definitely think that the number of comfortable positions available for basic research is too low.

    The End Game

    Part 1: Short Fuse Offers
    Candidates spend months preparing their application. Job search committees also spend a long time reviewing applications and interviewing short-listed candidates. Yet the final few weeks of the academic job market are filled with rapid-fire offers that have short fuses (i.e., quick expiration dates). For example, someone I know received an offer with a one-week deadline well before he'd finished all his interviews.

    From the schools' perspective, an early-deadline offer puts pressure on candidates to make a decision. Part of the rationale behind this strategy is because schools typically have a list of candidates they'd like to make offers to (and they often aren't allowed to make many offers in parallel). Of course, the problem with this strategy is that most candidates (including myself) don't like feeling pressured into making a decision that has such a large impact on our lives.

    Part 2: Deadlock
    In the end, many candidates push back on (or at least they should) the few schools they're serious about, claiming that they need more time to make a decision about each school. There might be several plausible reasons why candidates need more time, including:
  • Managing added complexities to one's personal life
  • Wanting to be absolutely sure given the life-changing nature of the decision
  • Waiting for other schools to get back to them before making a final decision

    Schools will typically allow deadlines to be extended if they realize that the candidate is serious about them. Of course, knowing this fact didn't change the squirmy feeling I got when I asked for deadlines to be pushed back.

    Many candidates will get wait-listed by schools that they'd rather hear back from before making a final decision. This situation arises since virtually all departments can only make a small number of outstanding offers even if they'd ideally like to make more (typically, the dean limits headcount based on enrollment or other factors). Should one of the department's outstanding offers get declined, then the department is free to make a second offer (hence the short-fuse deadlines from Part 1).

    In most cases, everyone is just waiting on a few candidates to make up their minds, after which everything cascades and falls into place. However, a deadlock arises when a cycle is created:
  • Candidate 1 gets an offer from School A but prefers School B
  • Candidate 2 gets an offer from School B but prefers School A
  • School A intends to give a second-round offer to Candidate 2
  • School B intends to give a second-round offer to Candidate 1

    In essence, both candidates get offers from their second choice, which causes them to push back their deadlines indefinitely (well, not actually indefinitely, but you get the idea). Given the limited amount of information sharing and cooperation between schools and candidates, this type of situation can easily drag on for weeks. This process is, in my opinion, severely flawed. However, it's unclear if there's a good solution out there that doesn't require schools (and candidates) to more openly share information and cooperate in some fashion.

    Anonymous said...

    ""My sense is that it's difficult to find comfortable non-tenured (i.e., "soft money") research positions.""

    What are the pros and cons of "soft-money" research positions when compared to tenure-track faculty positions? Between (A) a soft-money position at a highly ranked university in CS and (B) a tenure-track faculty position at a middle-tier university, which one is preferable? Also, is there really a huge difference in salaries and benefits?

    Yisong Yue said...

    You can find some numbers
    here. I should mention that at some schools, like CMU, there's almost no difference. But my understanding is that there is a noticeable difference at most schools. Beyond just the salary, there are other effects like how soft-money faculty might not be full voting faculty members. I'm not a definitive expert on the pros and cons of soft-money positions, but I was advised to prioritize tenure-track positions over them.

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