25

I am currently interviewing for tenure-track faculty positions at a number of top departments in my field. Despite getting some very positive feedback about my interviews, I have not yet received any offers. So far I have tried to avoid any "game playing," being very explicit with each department about where and when I am interviewing. Likewise, in follow-up discussions with hosts, I have been careful not to state any strong preferences for one school or another, mentioning that I still have additional places to visit (seems only fair!). I am starting to wonder, however, whether this approach was a mistake, especially given that others in my field are already receiving offers.

The question is, how should I proceed from here? Part of the issue is that I do not fully understand how and when offers are made, which leads to several questions:

Question 1: How often are offers made before the end of the interview period (i.e., before all candidates have been interviewed)?

I know it happens, of course, but how frequently? (E.g., as a percentage of all offers made by the department over a 10-year period.) A related question is

Question 2: If a candidate expresses that a school is her top choice, does it make any difference to the hiring committee?

In fact, can expressing this kind of preference actually hurt a candidate's chances? E.g., perhaps it makes this candidate look like a "sure thing," which frees the department to first make an offer to another, "higher-risk" candidate. In general, when is a good time to express such a preference? Finally,

Question 3: To what extent do different departments talk to each-other?

For instance, is there any mechanism in place to prevent candidates from "falling through the cracks?" E.g., one can easily imagine a situation in which lower-ranked schools don't make a candidate an offer because they expect she will get an offer from a higher-ranked school; subsequently, the higher-ranked schools make her no offer and she is left without a job. Likewise, if I express a preference for school X before visiting school Y, do I risk pissing off my hosts at Y?

Question 4: Do I just need to relax?

I am almost tempted to write an email CC'ing all the department chairs, providing a complete ordering of my preferences... they can duke it out from there. (Or simply tell me that none of them want to hire me!) In general, the whole game-theoretic aspect of this thing makes me a bit queasy. Wish some brilliant economist would design a mechanism that is fair for both departments and candidates alike. Right now, it definitely feels like a buyer's market.

  • 5
    These are good questions, but you might get better answers if you post them separately. – Mangara Apr 6 '14 at 1:00
  • 1
    To follow up on what Mangara has written: asking just one question at once is how this site works. What if one person writes a great answer to questions 1-2, and terrible answers to 3-4: how should people vote - up or down? Should you accept, or not? What if question 2 is objectively answerable, but question 3 doesn't have a single right answer - should this question be answered, or closed & deleted? As it stands, this 4-question question is too broad. – EnergyNumbers Apr 6 '14 at 5:40
  • 12
    I think that in this case, the 4 questions are part of a coherent theme, and are fine as a single unit. – Suresh Apr 6 '14 at 5:42
  • 2
    You have good answers to most of your questions, however I have one more thing to add: I am almost tempted to write an email CC'ing all the department chairs, providing a complete ordering of my preferences... they can duke it out from there. Sweet jeebus, don't do this! Don't even joke about doing this! You'll look like a lunatic. – Ben Webster Apr 7 '14 at 14:22
28

I've served several years on the faculty recruiting committee for my (US, top 10) computer science department, including three years as the chair. Protocols vary significantly between different departments, different searches, and especially different fields, so take my experience as a sample, not as a definitive answer.

Faculty hiring is best thought of as a complex multi-player game of three-dimensional chess, using invisible pieces that occasionally explode, where nobody knows who the other players are or what rules they play by, and nobody wants to reveal too much information.

Question 1: How often are offers made before the end of the interview period (i.e., before all candidates have been interviewed)?

It happens, but normally only when one of the early candidates emerges as an overwhelming favorite, and that candidate has another offer with an inflexible (or already extended) deadline. But nobody wants to be forced into this situation. It's really bad form to interview someone for a position that doesn't exist.

Some universities allow limited gambling with slots. A department might offer a position to candidate A, and then later make a second offer to candidate B for the same slot, under the assumption that at least one of them is likely to say no. If A and B both say yes, then both A and B get jobs. (I've seen this strategy go very "badly", with four low-probability offers made on the same slot, all of which were accepted. Gambling was outlawed for the next n years.)

Question 2: If a candidate expresses that a school is her top choice, does it make any difference to the hiring committee?

Especially at universities that (a) forbid gambling and (b) do not let departments roll unused slots from one year to the next, departments do balance the desirability of various candidates against the estimated probability that they will accept an offer, to minimize the risk of not hiring anyone at all. (This scenario also tends to generate offers with very short and inflexible fuses, sometimes while interviews are still ongoing.)

But just telling us that we are your first choice probably won't help much. We want to believe you, and we appreciate your effort in making that overture, but we don't really believe you, because lots of candidates have said that and then left us at the altar. And even if it's true, you really don't want the rumor that that you prefer us to reach someone else. Best to keep mum until you have actual offers.

On the other hand, evidence that we are your first choice is taken very seriously. For example, if you receive an offer from somewhere else, especially from another top department, telling us in time to make a good-faith counter-offer is certainly better than not telling us until it's too late.

In fact, can expressing this kind of preference actually hurt a candidate's chances?

No.

Question 3: To what extent do different departments talk to each-other?

Not at all. Different departments are competitors; sharing information is counterproductive.

We do, however, gather as much back-channel information as we can, for example by scouring our competitors' web pages to see who they are interviewing and when. Sometimes I do hear rumors of the form "So-and-so is about to get an offer from X", but those rumors almost always trace back to the candidates themselves.

one can easily imagine a situation in which lower-ranked schools don't make a candidate an offer because they expect she will get an offer from a higher-ranked school

Unfortunately, yes, this does happen, although I suspect more often at the interview stage than the offer stage. See "minimize the risk of not hiring anyone at all". Nothing you can do about it. Let it go.

Question 4: Do I just need to relax?

Yes, always. I recommend building up an immunity to iocaine powder.

13

Question 1: How often are offers made before the end of the interview period (i.e., before all candidates have been interviewed)?

I would say "early offers" only occur in exceptional circumstances. Universities have hiring policies and those policies require dotting i's and crossing t's -- paperwork and process -- particularly for tenured or tenure-track positions.

Question 2: If a candidate expresses that a school is her top choice, does it make any difference to the hiring committee?

Let me put it this way: you do not want to express that the school is not your top choice. The hiring committee are looking for a monogamous relationship. Talking about all the other schools you're going on first dates with isn't a great idea.

In fact, can expressing this kind of preference actually hurt a candidate's chances? E.g., perhaps it makes this candidate look like a "sure thing," which frees the department to first make an offer to another, "higher-risk" candidate. In general, when is a good time to express such a preference?

This makes absolutely no sense.

Question 3: To what extent do different departments talk to each-other?

I guess you refer to the US? If so, I don't know but I would imagine there's very little communication on an inter-department level (though people in different departments may informally communicate).

For instance, is there any mechanism in place to prevent candidates from "falling through the cracks?" E.g., one can easily imagine a situation in which lower-ranked schools don't make a candidate an offer because they expect she will get an offer from a higher-ranked school; subsequently, the higher-ranked schools make her no offer and she is left without a job. Likewise, if I express a preference for school X before visiting school Y, do I risk pissing off my hosts at Y?

This again makes no sense. A university is unlikely to avoid offering you a position because you might be "too good for them" or that you might get other offers (in the worst case, it only costs a university a couple of weeks to make an offer for a position that will last many years).

A university may avoid offering you a position if you seem disinterested or if it seemed likely that you were using this position as a short-term stepping-stone to elsewhere.

Different departments are not going to compare notes. They are competing with each other.

Question 4: Do I just need to relax?

Yep. Maybe ease up on the coffee and take up croquet or smoking or something else instead.

  • Not sure why there's a downvote. Seems like a reasonable set of answers. – Suresh Apr 6 '14 at 5:43
  • 2
    @Suresh: It seems reasonable to me, too. But I have two guesses why someone may have downvoted: 1) 'A university is unlikely to avoid offering you a position because you might be "too good for them" or that you might get other offers.' This has come up before, and there apparently are cases where it happens (though I agree with badroit's use of "unlikely" here). 2) The joke about smoking. – Mark Meckes Apr 6 '14 at 6:18
  • 3
    @badroit while you are right that there's little formal communication between departments, the informal communications are quite useful and are often used to "glean intent". I will also regularly spy on other departments' colloquium pages to make guesses about who they're interviewing :) – Suresh Apr 6 '14 at 6:22
  • 5
    @Suresh "I will also regularly spy on other departments' colloquium" Not only faculty does that - candidates also regularly do that to figure out their competition :) – xLeitix Apr 6 '14 at 8:06
  • 2
    @BenjaminMakoHill: It appears to me that we agree. badroit and I only suggested that it is unlikely that a department will decide after an interview that a candidate is "too good for them" and therefore not pursue them. – Mark Meckes Apr 8 '14 at 7:22
4

Congratulations for getting as far as you have!

I think badroit's answer is very reasonable. I had two follow ups and elaborations.

Question 2: If a candidate expresses that a school is her top choice, does it make any difference to the hiring committee?

It seems inappropriate, and slightly weird, to tell any school you are interviewing with where in your ranked list of preferences they currently fall. That's true for your top choice, your final backup, and everybody in between. Even if you are sure of your ranking, your preferences might change as you learn more about the programs and the particular offers.

That said, if you are legitimately excited about the possibility of joining a school's faculty, you should express that interest. If you feel like the faculty at the department would be great potential colleagues, say it! If you think they have great resources, say it! If you love the graduate students or the city, say it!

The comparison to dating with the goal of a monogamous relationship is a good one. Cultivating an air of disinterest seems unlikely to help and it's possible to show legitimate interest without being dishonest or leading people on. Everybody understands that you can be excited about one potential match, also excited about other potential matches, and that eventually you will have to make a decision.

Question 4: Do I just need to relax?

Sounds like it. It also sounds like at this point, you've done most of what you can and the next steps are basically out of your control.

  • 2
    Since you brought up the dating comparison, maybe you should had taken it one step further... Telling the school where they rank is like telling a potential date something along the lines "I will go out with you, but only if four other girls refuse me first".... – Nick S Apr 6 '14 at 20:12
  • @NickS the question was about whether the OP should tell the top choice her/his favorite. Although I mentioned it, I should hope its common sense that one would not tell the later choices about where they sit in the ranking. – Benjamin Mako Hill Apr 7 '14 at 0:02
  • 2
    Yes, but later in the post he also mentions: "I am almost tempted to write an email CC'ing all the department chairs, providing a complete ordering of my preferences..." – Nick S Apr 7 '14 at 0:30
  • @NickS You're right. I hope that was an exaggeration! – Benjamin Mako Hill Apr 7 '14 at 0:34
3

There's a saying in writing: "show, don't tell." I think it's a bad idea to make any comparative statements between schools (exception: if you have an offer from one school, immediately contact the others to withdraw your application or say you would prefer an offer from them). It's much better to show how excited you are about a school, by praising them and showing them in the interview that you've done your research.

If the interview's over, then I think it's good to say generic things in your communications with search committees and chairs, like "I'm really excited about the possibility of joining your department," but I wouldn't get more specific than that. Always be honest, but often it's better to not say too much until things work themselves out.

Incidentally, some brilliant mathematicians (with follow-up by economists) did design such a mechanism that is fair for both departments and candidates alike, and won a Nobel Prize for it (or at least the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, whose status as a true Nobel is somewhat debatable). If you would like to know why it will never be implemented in this context, read this comment thread.

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.