I look for new colleagues who will keep the job

This entry is a bit slice-of-academic-life and a bit perspective for doctoral students who want to be faculty at research universities. As a division director (and department chair at my last university), I have never directly hired tenure-track faculty but have always had significant advice for the deans I’ve reported to, and my experience leads me to sometimes-different perspectives from colleagues. In an era of adjunctification, it is all the more important to make hiring decisions as transparent as possible. And with the limitation that I am just one faculty member with administrative experience at only two institutions in one type of college, here goes:

Arizona State University falls in the old/new Carnegie R1 designation, which means that for tenure-track positions we look to hire faculty who will be research-active and succeed in the tenure process six-ish years after they start. Our associate dean for academics explains to assistant professors what that means in terms of scholarship: focus, impact, and trajectory (FIT if you like acronyms).

Back that up six years, and when I look at candidates we interview, I look for signs that a candidate would be likely to succeed. That doesn’t mean that I expect new faculty to be perfect, far from it: I vividly remember all the holes I felt in my own preparation as a new faculty member.1 But I do look for certain demonstrations from doctoral candidates and recent degree recipients for all tenure-track positions:

  • Competence in scholarship of whatever field or discipline the candidate claims
  • A research agenda and plan beyond the dissertation (and beyond the candidate’s advisor!)
  • Enough teaching experience that what’s necessary for success is complementing existing skills rather than building up a teacher from scratch
  • Being a human being who can work with others and not look like a case study in one of Bob Sutton’s books2

It’s harder to demonstrate these qualities than one might think. When you’re still analyzing your data, how do you not only demonstrate you’re competent but also talk about what you might do in your next job, in a different region of the country? That’s one of the advantages of presenting and publishing while in a doctoral program: it’s evidence of competence separate from the dissertation process. Whether or not you’re the sole/lead author or a contributor, you can talk about what you contributed to a piece and whether or how it fits into your broader agenda.3

The need to show that you’re likely to be a successful faculty member is also behind my advice for job talks: you are presenting your research agenda, which includes but is never limited to your dissertation. You need your audience to end your talk confident that you meet at least the first two bullet points above.4

That seems like a lot of pressure, and here is a non-comprehensive list of things that I do not and never have considered in evaluating applicants for tenure-track jobs:

  • Doctoral program GPA. Really, who cares whether you had a B or A in that second-year seminar? And in most cases, institutions never ask for the official transcript for anything other than documenting that a new hire has received a doctorate from an accredited university.
  • Comprehensive exams. I wish I could drill this into faculty heads around the world: no one hires your graduates based on their comps performance!
  • Whether a candidate has written a publishable narrative literature review.5
  • Whether a candidate has edited a newsletter.
  • Whether a candidate has written a book review, a policy brief, a blog entry, op-eds, etc.

Lots of these things (and more) are valuable in the work of faculty and communities of scholarship and in becoming a member of an intellectual community. That is always an important part of doctoral programs; professional socialization beyond the instrumental tasks, and the time for doctoral students to explore some of their tangential interests. The key is balance and understanding that for jobs at research universities, there are some essential experiences required even while we want our doctoral students to care for themselves.

Those essentials do not require a particular format for scholarship or a dissertation because fields vary (and change); I use the word experience deliberately. For both students and faculty, there needs to be some an appropriate balance of attention and time demands during doctoral programs that aim to graduate new researchers. Doctoral students do not have to be working 60 hours a week on research to meet the expectations I and many administrators hold for successful job candidates. But they need both consistency and persistence in learning and conducting scholarship.

This type of balance between instrumental focus on scholarship and a well-rounded doctoral education requires intentional crafting. My friend and former colleague Deirdre Cobb-Roberts wrote about the mentoring she received from her advisor, Illinois historian (and current UIUC education dean) James Anderson in the sixth chapter of her and Talia Esnard’s Black Women in Academia (behind a firewall, but you can also borrow the whole book from a library near you). I know from his talks at conferences that his advice to junior scholars always sounds so clear, obvious… and is just smooth and practiced enough that the listener might forget he’s taken decades crafting this type of mentoring environment. That mentoring ensures that students start presenting at (friendly) conferences early on and that by the time they graduate, they understand that their mastery of relevant scholarship is an essential foundation for advocacy within higher education.

If you are a doctoral advisor, you may not be as experienced as Jim Anderson, but you can keep the eye on the ball as he does and be supportive of students who want research careers. If you are a doctoral student, you may not have Jim Anderson as an advisor, but you can be clear-eyed about what is necessary within a doctoral program to be competitive for the types of jobs currently available at research universities.

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Notes

  1. My advisor was wonderful in many ways, and no advisor focuses on everything that new faculty need. []
  2. This is about as far from vague “fit” as possible — I’ll stand behind the tenure-track hires in my division over the past few years as evidence that we don’t look for people just like those who are already here. []
  3. One aspect of this is the apparent ratcheting up of expectations in a competitive academic job market: “back in my day we never had to publish in a doc program.” I understand the concern; on the other hand, this is one of the parts of job searching my advisor never discussed with me, and I know is often missed by advisors. []
  4. If you are an MLFTC student, please feel free to ask me how to build slide decks that are flexible for different types of institutions. []
  5. Meta-analyses and systematic reviews in general are a special topic beyond the scope of this entry. I’m speaking more of [and to] the “you must write a lit review to earn your doctorate” advisor. Okay, but if it’s so essential to a scholarly career, please show me the number of full professors in your field who earned full based on lit reviews. []