Few academics would argue that there is any more stressful day than the day of a faculty position interview. In our department, that day often commences with two meetings; first with the chair and then with the dean or vice-dean. Subsequently, the candidate is tasked with delivering two one-hour seminars: one focused on teaching and the other on research. Following a lunch with a few faculty members,. the formal part of the day ensues in the afternoon with an intensive and rigorous one-and-a-half-hour interview. The candidate is then ushered to another room to engage with faculty members who share the candidate’s area of expertise. Finally, the day is crowned with a dinner invitation to which most candidates acquiesce as a display of academic deference.
To reach this stage, a candidate must have spent several grueling years toiling in graduate school earning at least one PhD. Some may have bounced between industry jobs and postdoc positions. Others could be looking into moving from current academic positions for family reasons or to join a more esteemed institution with higher opportunities. The chances though, of landing an academic position are so slim. The number of PhD students is skyrocketing; for example, our faculty alone has around 750 students matriculating in the PhD program. Males have an eight per cent chance of being colour blind, which, oddly enough, is four times higher than landing that elusive academic job – the odds of which are estimated to be two per cent based on an average of 50 applications for each advertised faculty position. (A fun fact, the one former PhD student of mine that landed an academic job in Canada is actually colour blind!)
Given the gravity of the hiring process for both the candidates and the institution, committee members and all other stakeholders should treat the hiring process with the respect and sanctity that it deserves. Here I outline some important questions and salient points pertinent to faculty searches, specifically within STEM, that committees and other stakeholders should pay attention to as we plan, execute and conclude the hiring process.
Perhaps the most important question is: what are the qualities of the person that the committee is trying to hire? The universal objective of all hiring committees is and has always been to hire the “best” candidate, a nebulous and vague concept that can never be practically and objectively assessed. Candidates are expected to conduct innovative research, engage undergraduate and graduate students, and be a good citizen of the institution. “Best”, as described by Henry Rosovsky, a former dean of the faculty of arts and sciences at Harvard University, is a matter of “taste.” I have personally heard the same arguments for hiring candidates identically used against hiring others. In fact, as the opinions of those serving on the committee are a manifestation of their own experiences and beliefs, “best” can lead to “self-perpetuating” excellence or “self-perpetuating” mediocrity. And what about the personal qualities of the candidates? Past practices seemingly did not consider the affability nor the collaborative nature of the candidate. Today, however, every interviewee has, at least, been asked about their plans to work with others within the hiring institution.
Providing a universal answer to these questions can be a fools’ errand. In the hiring committees I have chaired, I often recommend to my fellow committee members to aim to hire “a good person” that can genuinely maintain the culture of collegiality within our institution. It is imperative, too, that the candidate’s ability to engage with undergraduate and graduate students is never overlooked for the sake of any other abilities.
Committees are tasked to choose the candidate with the best research potential in hopes that in a few years, they will be excellent researchers with an established and sustainable research program. In this context, the number of papers should never be the sole measure of research potential. Rather, the potential for research excellence should consider elements of quality, depth of research, versatility and rate rather than quantity. Excellent researchers should have the ability to delve deeper within their area of expertise and explore new areas when opportunities arise. Committees should also consider that both research “divers”-those who prefer to be highly specialized — and “surfers” — those who choose to explore different areas — are beneficial to the institution. Finally, the past research environment including supervisor or lab should absolutely never be used against a candidate.
Opinions will differ on whether a well-established researcher is better than a fresh graduate with obvious potential. Of course, having postdoc or industry experiences are great assets but they are not essential. On multiple occasions, I have heard an opinion that a candidate is definitely excellent but is not “ready”. In my opinion, it is better to hire those excellent candidates before they are snatched by different institutions. In fact, by providing bona fide mentorship within the institution, those candidates are often the best to adopt the institution’s culture. And finally, the lack of knowledge of the Canadian funding sphere should never be an argument against a candidate; the ability to build connections and identify opportunities is far superior.
A common practice which I find to be counterproductive is having advertisements that are generic or nonspecific when it comes to research area. While generality usually leads to a bigger pool of possible candidates, it risks rendering the process rudderless with loud opinions flipflopping the committees’ preferences back and forth between candidates who exhibit strengths in different areas. These situations require a strong committee chair to refocus the discussion while encouraging all committee members to contribute to the process. Alternatively, I recommend that the advertisement be as specific as possible and based on a rigorous strategic vision for the hiring unit that takes into consideration the needs of all stakeholders. As an example, if experimental lab space is oversubscribed within a specific area where growth is sought, it would be counterproductive to allow both experimentalists and analysists to apply to only later discard the experimentalists after a lengthy discussion of all their qualifications.
But being specific might not always be possible, precipitating committees that have to sift through a large pool of candidates with a variety of research areas. A common point of contention that is sometimes used for or against candidates is research area “overlap” between the applying candidates and existing faculty members. Those arguing for inviting “overlapping” candidates see benefit in strengthening the area of commonality and recognize opportunities for collaboration and growth. Conversely, those arguing against the same candidates fear internal competition and division of resources. These situations require an experienced chair who can educate the committee on the pros and cons of the overlap and the needs of the hiring unit while laser-focusing the discussion on the qualifications and adaptability of the candidate under consideration.
One of the biggest challenges to our equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) efforts for search committees is the superficial understanding or inadequate implementation of EDI principles. EDI seeks to invite and encourage candidates from non-traditional backgrounds. At the outset, the language of the advertisement should be inclusive and all efforts should be undertaken to encourage applicants who might see themselves as ostensibly unworthy of applying. Committees should evaluate the applicants based on their accomplishments in light of the availability of resources or lack thereof during their previous training. EDI and merit should never be considered mutually exclusive. Merit, in fact, is elucidated and enforced by EDI. At the same time, committees should be very careful not to mistakenly use EDI to discriminate against well deserving applicants. Finally, all stakeholders should refrain from any attempts at character assassination of candidates based on extraneous unwarranted information.
Those who are serving on the committee should treat the final decision with great respect. Others who did not participate in the process should not provide a behind-the-scenes veto. They, like everyone, are entitled to their opinion which the chair of the committee can bring to the committee during final deliberation.
The selection process is an exciting time for all those involved. For the applicants, it is an opportunity to reflect and compose compelling statements about their past accomplishments and future aspirations. For interviewees, it is a chance to experience a day like no other in which they learn about their potential colleagues and the pros and cons of the hiring institution. And for the interviewers, it is an occasion to meet exciting individuals who share their inner desires, yearnings and commitments to hold our academic environment to its highest standards.
Samer Adeeb is interim chair of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Alberta.