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This question is for those of you who have been on the hiring committee.

I am wondering if the following scenario could happen.

Applicant X applies to University Y; University Y looks at applicant X's profile, and says "applicant X has very strong records. There is no way University Y is the best applicant X can do; hence we will not offer Applicant X a position (postdoctoral, or TT)"

This seems worrying, because:

  • perhaps applicant X is just so mediocre, that he falls through the crack; University Y turns him down, but universities slightly better than University Y might think that applicant X is not up to their standards.
  • what if applicant X actually really wanted to go to University Y for personal reasons? Of course, maybe applicant X was hoping for something slightly better than University Y, so maybe he did not contact the department (in case he decides not to go to University Y).
  • even from the university's perspective, this is fairly complicated: University Y could take a chance and hope that applicant X will accept their offer, but perhaps it is more advantageous to extend the offer to the applicant next on the list instead of applicant X. There is no way of knowing which is the better choice, though.

In particular, if such scenario happens, and if I want to prevent the first point, what do I need to do? I am wary of contacting the departments, because should the department be excited about me, and should someone push for my being hired in the hiring committee meeting, then I would feel obligated (to some degree) to accept that offer (even if a better offer comes along), since that someone has advocated on my behalf, on my request.

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    Not on a hiring committee personally, but it seems you are maybe overthinking it a bit. Those things may happen on occassion, but they are out of your control anyway, so no need to worry about it. – xLeitix Dec 30 '13 at 10:29
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    Yes, this absolutely happens, both for faculty hiring and for PhD admission. Departments can also suffer from Impostor Syndrome. But as @xLeitix says, this is largely out of your control, so worrying is pointless. – JeffE Dec 30 '13 at 14:13
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    To be honest, in my surroundings, departments are usually more struck by delusions of grandeur than impostor syndrome. Hence, my impression is that faculties are more likely to assume that a reasonable candidate for them is 'too weak' than that a good candidate is 'too strong'. – xLeitix Dec 30 '13 at 14:53
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    The American Economics Association has a centralized signaling mechanism to solve the problem of applicants telling every university x that they have special reasons to want a job at x. You can only signal through the mechanism, and it limits you to sending signals to 2 universities. Of course, this is only helpful if you are on the economics job market. It might be useful to try and replicate in other fields though! aeaweb.org/joe/signal – Aaron Dec 30 '13 at 20:09
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This happens all the time and everywhere. Strategic decisions about who to interview or make offers to are based not just on perceived quality or market value, but also broader considerations of fit. It's an unavoidable part of the job market, and I'm not convinced it's even a bad thing overall, since it makes the job market work much more smoothly and efficiently.

This is a tough issue to resolve as an applicant. There are several reasons why it can be ineffective just to tell the department that you really want to go there:

  1. They may not believe you. They may suspect you of deliberately exaggerating your likelihood of accepting just in order to get an offer, perhaps so you can use it to help negotiate a better offer elsewhere. (The academic job market is exactly the sort of high stress, high stakes environment that brings out some people's worst sides.) Even if they're convinced you're completely honest, they may feel you'll change your mind once you learn more about your other options, or that if you come you'll end up feeling like you made a mistake and they'll have a bitter, resentful colleague who wants to leave. An applicant who suffers from imposter syndrome may say "Wow, I'd be thrilled to get an offer from University X, which is the best job I can imagine getting" but might not remain as thrilled after getting offers from A, B, and C as well.

  2. Many reasons you could give may be viewed as kind of insulting. If you explain that you really like the city or want to live near relatives, then it can come across like you are saying "Sure, your department would otherwise be beneath me, but I'm willing to put up with you for non-academic reasons." The department might be willing to hire you even if they think you feel superior, but they won't be happy about it. In order for this to work, you have to be very careful about tone. Two-body problems are widely accepted as an understandable reason, and of course academic reasons can be highly effective, but anything else has the potential for giving a bad impression if you aren't careful.

So announcing your preferences may not always work. Still, it's really your only option, so it's not worth worrying too much about how it might fail. To put things more positively:

  1. Try to emphasize aspects of the department that excite you, and not just side benefits such as location.

  2. It's often more effective if you or a mentor convey this information through personal contacts, rather than just talking with the search committee chair. In particular, hearing from someone senior can add credibility: there have been a number of times I've reassured a department that a student genuinely wanted to work there (and wasn't just confused or suffering from imposter syndrome).

  3. If you already have an ostensibly more impressive offer and can say "I would very likely turn down my offer from University A in favor of a compelling offer from you," it carries a lot of weight. At the very least, it eliminates the fear that you don't understand your options. (But say this only if you are quite sure! If there's even a small chance you would choose A after all, then you should make it clear that you have not made a final decision and might change your mind. It's unethical to try to manipulate anyone.)

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  • This is extremely helpful. One more question: suppose that you communicate to someone that you know that you would like to go to a particular school early on in the application process, and receive a bunch of competing offers afterwards (some schools better than the original school I was considering). If that person has advocated on my behalf, how much of an obligation do I owe to that person in accepting the first university's offer? – user10269 Dec 30 '13 at 16:38
  • The above question is worded a bit strangely, before anyone points it out. To clarify, I do not have a bunch of competing offers, and I also have not communicated such things to anyone, but I am trying to decide if it is worth contacting people. – user10269 Dec 30 '13 at 16:39
  • It depends on the situation. If you tell them you would very likely accept an offer, and they stake their own credibility on this during the committee meetings, then you owe them an apology if you don't accept it. (Don't make such statements lightly.) On the other hand, as long as you are honest and are careful not to make commitments, you don't need to worry much about this. For example, if you say University X is "among your top choices" (and if it genuinely is), then nobody can legitimately object if you end up choosing another of your top choices. So I wouldn't worry too much. – Anonymous Mathematician Dec 30 '13 at 16:55
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    then you owe them an apology if you don't accept it — ...as well as the next several people who legitimately want to work and that department but appear "too good". The biggest reason departments make these strategic decisions is being burned by trusting applicants who said they wanted an offer and then turned the offer down for some place better. – JeffE Dec 30 '13 at 18:01
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    @BenWebster: You're right, it's not intrinsically insulting, and I think most people wouldn't be insulted, but some are touchy and insecure. I've seen a few cases in which what seemed to me to be no-brainer hires were disrupted by someone getting worked up over very minor things they viewed as evidence of condescension. I'm not sure whether they honestly interpreted them that way or were motivated by larger fears about what the hire might mean for them. Either way, I'd be inclined to phrase these things pretty carefully, to minimize the chances of an uncharitable or unfair interpretation. – Anonymous Mathematician Dec 31 '13 at 20:07
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In particular, if such scenario happens, and if I want to prevent the first point, what do I need to do?

Don't be mediocre.

I am wary of contacting the departments, because should the department be excited about me, and should someone push for my being hired in the hiring committee meeting, then I would feel obligated (to some degree) to accept that offer (even if a better offer comes along), since that someone has advocated on my behalf, on my request.

Good! You should feel obligated.

The most important thing to maintain in this situation is honesty. It's perfectly fine to keep your precise preferences confidential, but DO. NOT. LIE. Do not approach faculty to say that you are interested in their department unless you are genuinely interested in their department. Do not ask them to believe you would accept their offer over an offer from MIT or Harvard unless you would actually accept their offer over an offer from MIT or Harvard. Do not tell thirty different departments that you would consider their offer first. Expect that the faculty you contact will also contact your advisor and/or other references and ask for a frank assessment of your priorities. Expect faculty to be distrustful, because they have been burned many times in the past.

Job applications are supposedly confidential, but stories of dishonest behavior do get around, and they follow their perpetrators for years.

On the other hand, being interested in a job is not the same as committing to accepting an offer. If you are genuinely interested, then it is definitely a good idea to communicate your interest to your colleagues in the target department. (Note: not "contact the department", but "contact your colleagues".) Corner your colleagues at conferences and ask intelligent questions about their department, just as you would in an interview. If you can do so on your own (or your advisor's) dime, offer to visit and give a talk at a research seminar. Don't just say you're interested; act interested.

But do not lie.

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  • Ha! "Do not be mediocre" -- ouch! I suppose the fact that you feel so strongly about this topic is a very helpful flag not to commit without meaning it. In the course of searching for my grad school admissions and also for some postdoc positions, I have gotten responses to the effect of "thank you for being honest". Now it makes sense why they would say such things! – user10269 Dec 31 '13 at 0:22
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I think the scenario, as you described it, is unlikely to occur.

If a hiring committee felt a candidate could get a job at a more prestigious institution, then I think the candidate would simply be asked up front: "It seems like you could get hired at a more prestigious institution – why are you applying here?" Then, the candidate would have a chance to provide an explanation.

If the explanation seemed satisfactory (such as, "I've always wanted to live in this city," or, "My brother and my nephews live in a nearby town, and I was tired of getting on an airplane every time I wanted to visit," for example) then the committee would probably be glad for a chance to hire someone with strong qualifications.

The one time where this may count against the candidate, though, is if the committee suspects this job is being used as a mere "stepping stone," and the committee is hoping to hire someone who will stay for more than a few years. So, if the answer to the question is, "I eventually want to apply to an Ivy League school, but I felt like a few years here might bolster my chances," then I could imagine a committee choosing another qualified candidate with plans to remain on faculty for a longer time.

So, I'd be careful of what you said, and how you worded it, but I'd also advise you to be honest and up front about your motives and intentions.

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    On the other hand, professors are apes. We do apey things. – JeffE Dec 30 '13 at 14:09
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    @JeffE - Yes, faculty can be very petty at times. As much as I idealized this answer, it's not hard for me to imagine a few folks trying to "tank" an applicant simply because they feel threatened by that person's accomplishments. But getting unfair treatment at a place like that is probably a blessing in disguise. – J.R. Jan 2 '14 at 11:32
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Hiring committees often try and make an offer to a candidates they think will not only accept the job, but stay long term. You also need to remember that for tenure track academic positions, the undergraduate ranking of a university really has little to do with the desirability of the position. It has some affect on the quality of students, but desirability is really about the start up package, teaching load, and benefits (both financial and personal). Ideally your teaching and research statements and cover letter would explain what it is about the department that makes you interested in them.

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  • voted down for the following reasons: - I never mentioned undergraduate ranking - what kind of desirability are you talking about? - Actually, many people use "universal" teaching and research statements, and cover letters rarely ever get read. – user10269 Dec 31 '13 at 14:45

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