5

I competed for an Assist. Prof. in Greece with someone with 12+ years experience since PhD. Suffice it to say that it did not turn out well for me (4 years of experience) or other interviewees for that matter, even though many of us had the better* research output in terms of quality, ranked venues, and achievements (3rd party grants and so on), but clearly not as many citations as we do not exist long enough in the field.

It also did not help that the committee favorite had their BSc, MSc, and PhD in that same university, and 12+ of postdoc in a partner lab in the vicinity.

But, anyway, I asked the committee the following question, which I also pose here: At which point (if there is such a point) is someone considered too old (in terms of experience) for an Assist. Prof. position?

They told me that the favorite had a higher citation count, so even if they were 60 years in the field they would still rank them first because of that. In my opinion, even though that might well be legal, it does not seem very ethical to me.

I am under the impression that an Assist. Prof. position is an entry level position where you are supposed to form your own lab, attract early-career grants to help you with that (which have experience-age restrictions), and work towards becoming a professor.

*As an example, I will simply say that the position was on AI with a focus on Knowledge Representation and Reasoning, and the committee favorite had 0 articles in IJCAI, AAAI, KR, AIJ, or JAIR, whereas I had 6.

8
  • 9
    Are you suggesting that there should be a bias toward younger people and against older ones? – Buffy Nov 21 '20 at 12:58
  • 8
    @Buffy no, I suggest there should be a preference to people with less years of experience, regardless of their physical age, because the position is entry-level. As an example, Assist. Prof. positions in Finland and Germany are typically limited to up to 6 years of experience since PhD. If you want to apply, you can do so for an Assoc. or Full Prof. position, assuming that there is such an opening; likewise, they will not consider anyone with less than x years of experience for the latter positions. – Chim3ra Nov 21 '20 at 13:20
  • 1
    This exchange generated considerable discussion, which has been moved to chat. We can only move comments to chat once, so future off-topic comments may be deleted; please review this FAQ before posting another comment. – cag51 Nov 22 '20 at 2:47
  • 1
    Did the call for application mention any age-limits? – henning -- reinstate Monica Nov 22 '20 at 8:52
  • 3
    This was clearly an internal candidate and your relative qualifications were irrelevant. You were brought in to fulfill some requirement that they interview X people. Treat it like a practice interview and move on. – user131969 Nov 23 '20 at 8:13
13

No sane committee is ever going to turn down a candidate solely for being 'too experienced', and it is rarely meaningful to reduce someone's CV and accumulated experience to just a few numbers. However, this comes with some qualifications:

  • If someone is reaching career milestones (e.g. first Asst. Prof. job) much later than the norm, a committee might question why, and whether this is a sign that future development will be slow.
  • If someone is applying for a job that is 'too junior' for them, committees might be concerned that either (i) they're not really a serious applicant, or (ii) that they'll quit as soon as something better comes along.
  • By definition, if someone has more experience, then the committee has more information on which to base a decision. Junior candidates often have to be assessed in terms of 'potential for success' rather than 'evidence of success'. This can count for or against the more experienced applicant: some committees may prefer to gamble on a rising star, others may prefer the security of an established candidate.
  • Hiring decisions (just as everything else) are influenced by many external factors. Everything from financial considerations (experienced candidate may cost more) through to government policy (how candidate's metrics would influence the university's ranking and hence income) may help sway a decision for or against a particular candidate.
2
  • 6
    No sane committee is ever going to admit to turning down a candidate solely for being too experienced. – emory Nov 22 '20 at 1:52
  • 9
    "No sane committee is ever going to turn down a candidate solely for being 'too experienced'" well, ETH Zurich has in their official recruiting guidelines that Assistant Professors should be under an "academic" age of 35 ... ethz.ch/en/the-eth-zurich/working-teaching-and-research/… – xLeitix Nov 22 '20 at 8:30
6

When an employer hires someone to do a job, in academia or anywhere else, their goal is to hire the best person to do that job, according to some notion that the people in charge of hiring have of what “best” means.

Now, you can reasonably disagree with someone else’s idea of what “best” means and think that they’d be making a mistake to hire person X over person Y. You may well even turn out to be right about that. But if they are operating in good faith and their definition of “best” is free of biases related to characteristics of the job candidate that have no effect on the candidate’s ability to do the job, you cannot claim that the action of hiring X over Y is unethical.

By this logic, your view expressed in the comments that “there should be a preference for people with less years of experience [...] because the position is entry-level” makes no sense. The only type of preference an employer should legitimately have is to hire better people. And it may be that “academic age” (time since PhD) can factor into the evaluation of who is “better” in such a way that the person with a smaller academic age comes out on top — for example some employers might quite reasonably prefer a candidate with academic age N and M published papers to a candidate with academic age 2N and M+1 papers, since while the latter has more papers, the former has a higher rate of publication. But the idea that a candidate should be automatically given preference just because of having a smaller academic age does not make any sense as a notion of “betterness”.

The bottom line is: it’s possible that there was some corruption or bad faith involved in this hiring decision; we cannot rule that out (or in) based on the information you provided. But the mere fact that a person with 12 years of post-PhD experience was hired for an assistant professor position is not by itself evidence of any wrongdoing or unethical behavior.

In other words, the answer to your question is “never”.

Disclaimer: I don’t know anything about hiring for academic jobs in Greece specifically. But I believe that the reasoning above will apply to most Western countries with healthy employment laws and practices comparable to places like the United States, UK, Canada etc.

4
  • I admit that my expressed view of giving preference to people will less quantity (not quality) of experience might seem odd, but one must take into account that Assist. Prof. positions are either temporary or with a tenure track of X years (X=3 in Greece). So someone has 12+ years of postdoc: either he/she simply does not cut it, so giving him/her an extra 3 years to qualify for sth he has not qualified for in the last 12 years (tenure) is simply a bad choice, OR he/she is qualified but for his/her own reasons did not apply for sth similiar earlier, and now can be invited for (Assoc.) Prof. – Chim3ra Nov 22 '20 at 10:11
  • 1
    Actually, in the UK the strict requirements for "removing bias from the selection criteria" often plays out badly for academically-younger candidates in all but the very top-tier universities. As Lecturer (entry post) and Senior Lect. (slightly-above-entry) posts are usually advertised together, any candidate with some grant writing experience and teaching experience will nearly always beat any candidate fresh-out-of-postdoc. I've noticed academics in the UK often enter their "tenure" at low-to-mid-tier Unis in the UK, and move up the Uni rank (rather than up academic titles at their Uni). – penelope Nov 22 '20 at 13:21
  • 1
    @Chim3ra if the person “does not cut it” then they should not be offered the job, regardless of the number of years since their PhD. You are trying to use academic/postdoc age as a proxy for (lack of) ability, and while as I said the academic age contains some useful information and may be a factor in assessing ability, it is one of many factors and does not say very much taken by itself. So yes, your position is odd and illogical. Anyway, I’m sorry you didn’t get the position. I have experienced such things and know it’s not fun. Better luck next time. – Dan Romik Nov 22 '20 at 21:00
  • @DanRomik Thank you :) Actually, I do find it fun, I have been short-listed a couple of times and even was successful on one occasion in a Top 50 uni recently, I would say that it mostly has been an educative and fun process. Obviously, I know how things work in Greece and I had zero expectations, but interviewing still allows one to network with some people, practice, and gain some insight. I just never had to compete before with people that had stayed for so long in academia. – Chim3ra Nov 23 '20 at 10:45
4

At which point (if there is such a point) is someone considered too old (in terms of experience) for an Assist. Prof. position?

I don't think there's a common answer to this question. All else being equal, the only real downside in hiring someone older for a Asst. Prof position is that they have a shorter time before retirement at that institution. Practically speaking, most individuals with years of experience are either near the Associate Prof. level already, or have other reasons (e.g. lack of research) that have made them un-hireable thus far and would continue to affect their hireability.

It also did not help that the committee favorite had their BSc, MSc, and PhD in that same university, and 12+ of postdoc in a partner lab in the vicinity.

For your situation, I doubt having too much experience is relevant. It sounds like they were very familiar with the person they hired already. Many departments are required to conduct faculty searches, with an official job posting and multiple interviews, even if they already know who they want to hire.

They told me that the favorite had a higher citation count, so even if they were 60 years in the field they would still rank them first because of that.

This sounds more like them trying to rationalize their preferred candidate rather than being official department policy. Alternatively, there are some countries where quantifiable metrics such as citation counts or number of publications are prioritized over quality.

1

Many years ago a friend of mine went back to school after a bit of a detour and wrapped up his PhD at the ripe old age of 31, then started applying to academic positions. One response, from a highly-regarded east coast school, was a rejection stating "we're looking for younger candidates, thank you for your interest." No doubt an outlier, but it tells you that sort of thing is out there, or at least was. This was back when one would send a letter and CV to the selection committee through the mail. Last time I visited him he still had that rejection letter hanging framed on his study wall.

0

Let's suppose that we grant you your premise that a person with less experience in the requisite job skills should be preferred for an "entry level" position. You do not give any justification for this in your question, but let's surmise that you take the view that it is desirable to give people with less experience a chance at entry, specifically due to the fact that they have a less competitive application than someone with more experience.

In view of that premise, why stop with hiring the PhD graduate who has a low number of years of service? Surely someone without a PhD at all has even less experience in the field, and so is in even more need of assistance in gaining entry. Come to think of it, an adolescent who has not yet graduated high-school has even less experience again (lacking experience even as a tertiary student learning the field), so surely they require even more assistance to gain entry. Young children who have not yet learned to count have even less experience in any preliminary skill in the field than a high-schooler, a fortiori for newborn babies who have not yet learned to hold their own heads up unaided. One observes here a reductio ad absurdum --- if less experience is preferrable, notwithstanding that it reduces the ability to do the job better, then what is the logical stopping point for this principle?

2
  • The counterpoint to this is that the most experienced people are all geriatric and then dead. This knife cuts both ways - if more experience is preferable, then what is the logical stopping point. You used a lot of latin words to come up with an argument that ends up boiling down to "there must be other factors at play", an insight that is not so insightful. – user133933 Mar 12 at 21:29
  • Your aversion to latin terms notwithstanding, the point is that the OP is treating a positive quality (experience) as if it were a negative. Whilst there are certainly several factors at play in a hiring decision, if you reverse one of them to treat a positive quality as a negative (and indeed, as a disqualifying factor) then that leads to irrational decisions. – Ben Mar 13 at 2:01

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.