Why does it take so long to choose a short list for an assistant professor position?

Jason Scott, Kimberley Sukhum, and Boahemaa Adu-Oppong, my wonderful TAs will be on the job market in 5 or 6 years!

Jason Scott, Kimberley Sukhum, and Boahemaa Adu-Oppong, my wonderful TAs, will be on the job market in 5 or 6 years!

We received your application and letters of reference close to our target of 15 October. We made all the files immediately available to the faculty on the committee. We have been spending hours and hours reading the files. But why on earth should it take more than six weeks to come up with a short list? How hard can it be?

Choosing a new colleague is one of the most important and hardest things we do. We want someone who will shine, bringing intellectual excitement to our program. We want someone who will attract the best graduate students and push hard on the elusive frontiers of evolutionary biology. We want someone who will synergize well with the people already here, probably in unexpected ways. We know that groups can think of things no one person could and we want a new faculty member to find this kind of excitement. We want to recognize diversity of all kinds and be careful with our choices. We want someone who teaches and mentors with skill and enthusiasm. We want it all.

With this amazing pool of applicants, we should get it all. After all, there are more than 200 wonderful evolutionary biologists who have taken the time to apply for our position and they vary only from great to incredible. No metric will help us decide. We will read the applications, the papers, the letters of reference. We have a very hard set of decisions to make. The reading takes time.  On a first pass, I would say each person gets between ten minutes and half an hour for an initial sorting. That is by me and I’m a very fast reader. The ten minute person is not necessarily weaker, just clearer. She (or he) may go straight to the top pile where the time for reading later will be an hour or two. Or she (or he) may go to the pile where we don’t see a good fit.

What do I mean about good fit? If we wanted something specific, shouldn’t we have saved everyone time and effort and advertized just for that? Fit is an elusive concept, worthy of an entry all on its own. For this position there are lots of ways of fitting well, some which were unpredictable so we could not limit the search.

But this is a piece about why this process takes so long. So far I’ve indicated the first read takes a long time. I haven’t finished reading the files allocated to me, or the rest, for I plan to look at all of them on a first pass because I am chairing the committee. I’ve already spent about 30 hours at it. The next step is really important. It is where we pool the opinions of the six committee members. We then look at a subset of the files all together and discuss them. This process is extremely important because we bring different perspectives to the process. In this discussion we can point out things that others might have missed. We have a collegial group and will work hard to learn, not to compete for specific subdisciplines.

By the time we do a reading, a categorization, a second reading, have at least two committee meetings, bring opinions to the department overall, and finally decide on an interview list, six weeks can easily be essential. (The topic of why I prefer categories than specific ranking is the topic for another entry.) Throw in the travel, teaching, and grant deadlines of six busy faculty members along with my favorite holiday and Halloween and you should be able to see why even getting a decision out in early December will be amazing!

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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One Response to Why does it take so long to choose a short list for an assistant professor position?

  1. Pingback: Useful links related to tenure track job searches in ecology | Dynamic Ecology

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