Suppose that a top-N department at a big research university (for very small N) has the choice between two candidates for a tenure-track position:

  1. Candidate A: a bright young researcher just done writing her dissertation, and
  2. Candidate B: a more seasoned veteran with several years of successful teaching, advising, and grant writing under her belt (though not already tenured).

In other words, suppose Candidate B has already demonstrated that, in addition to doing great research, she can successfully navigate other important aspects of the job. Candidate A seems like a bigger gamble: perhaps she will succeed in these other roles... and perhaps not! Assume that the department in question can essentially hire whomever it wants, with very little competition from other institutions.

Question: What incentive would such a department have for hiring A instead of B?

I ask this question, of course, because I am a young candidate about to interview for a job at a top department, and I know that I am competing with more seasoned candidates. How do I make a compelling case, despite my relative lack of experience? What are some potential pitfalls to look out for during an interview? (E.g., questions that might expose my relative naiveté?!) Do top departments really hire freshly-minted PhDs for tenure-track positions? Or are they just panning for gold?


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    +1 for the question "Or are they just panning for gold?" - I often wonder the same thing.
    – ff524
    Mar 28, 2014 at 19:31
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    Do top departments really hire freshly-minted PhDs for tenure-track positions? Depends on your discipline. If they are interviewing them, then probably they do hire them from time to time. In mathematics, the answer is "No, of course not," but in mathematics, such candidates don't get interviews. Mar 29, 2014 at 8:13
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    This just happened in my department. (mechanical engineering). The less experienced researcher, in this case, is yet to defend his PhD but was offered a tenure track job starting in Sep 2014 because he is working on a topic that is the in thing now. This is at a US university.
    – dearN
    Mar 29, 2014 at 16:53
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    they are often cheaper and they may have budget issues. Dec 5, 2016 at 16:49

3 Answers 3

  • Candidate A might have a research agenda (either based on her dissertation, or on her formulated research plan) that fits better with the research agendas of other people in the hiring department, or with strategic priorities of the department or even other departments at the university.
  • Candidate A might already have collaborated with members of the hiring department, maybe in writing grant proposals.
  • Candidate A might be cheaper, in terms of salary, lab space, funding or anything else the hiring department may need to cough up.
  • The hiring department may be afraid that the "superstar" candidate B has so many more attractive offers that she would not accept an offer at this department at all, so they would rather not expend the time to go through the entire process with her.
  • Candidate A might just have better contacts, because her Ph.D. advisor is big friends with the dean of the hiring department, or (less sinister) the dean has met candidate A at a conference and been very impressed with her presentation.

My advice: do a little research on the people and the priorities at your target department, and emphasize unobtrusively in your cover letter and research plan how you could collaborate and find synergies. And tap your network. Good luck!

  • 1
    Candidate A might already have collaborated with members of the hiring department - I have heard this makes it more difficult for them to hire Candidate A.
    – ff524
    Mar 28, 2014 at 21:28
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    @ff524 care to elaborate?
    – o0'.
    Mar 28, 2014 at 23:49
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    @Lohoris Sometimes departments don't like to hire too many close collaborators. At least many departments prefer breadth over having a deep group in a single area. They feel that hiring someone with very similar expertise to someone in the department doesn't add as much as someone with different interests. Mar 29, 2014 at 8:10
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    I understand why a department wouldn't necessarily hire multiple people with very similar expertise. What would be more relevant would be the possibility to collaborate, possibly even across departments. My beautiful wife is a clinical psychologist and collaborates with the local medical school as well as with biologists, geneticists etc. all over the place. This improves the research profile of the entire department. So: don't look for similarities - look for synergies. Mar 29, 2014 at 8:17
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    @Lohoris What I meant is, I have heard that hiring someone who has been a close collaborator with the department can give the appearance of impropriety (i.e., that it was not a fair search) and so some departments will avoid hiring close collaborators.
    – ff524
    Mar 30, 2014 at 0:51

If anything, people are probably a bit prejudiced against Candidate B; people tend to be much more strongly influenced by any negative information than a lack of information. They can imagine whatever they want about the future career of Candidate A, but Candidate B probably isn't getting much better than what they've already seen.

This is the key point where you are going wrong is this:

Assume that the department in question can essentially hire whomever it wants, with very little competition from other institutions.

Every institution faces at least potentially serious competition for the candidates they want to hire (this is almost tautological; if you don't think there's a good chance a competitive institution will make a serious offer, then probably you don't think the candidate is good enough to hire). In particular, no department can afford to say "Well, we can just pass on Candidate A now. We can just hire her later if she turns out to be a star." because, well, maybe they can't. Maybe Candidate A takes a job somewhere else, and makes friends or starts a family and in 3 or 4 years doesn't want to move. (Also, there's a little voice in the back of their head saying "Maybe Candidate B doesn't really want to move now." Making an offer that's turned down is expensive in terms of time and losing other candidates.) If nothing else, you're probably going to have to make a much more attractive offer, in terms of salary, etc. in order to get them. Getting a younger person is "cheaper."

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    I think you have switched the roles of A and B here (A is the fresh graduate in the question). Mar 29, 2014 at 11:03
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    Uh, yes. Fixed now (I hope). Mar 29, 2014 at 11:13

Obviously there was a bribe involved with a dash of nepotism. The green researcher paid handsomely in cash to his 2nd cousin to get the gig.


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