When a committee is evaluating applicants for a permanent academic position (such as a Lecturer or Assistant Prof. position), do they select the best candidate in the absolute, or do they relativize with the corresponding experience?

Consider for instance two applicants, one who just graduated from her PhD, and the other with 10 years of postdoc experience (for the sake of the example, let's assume that both are "regular" applicants, i.e., none of them is a exceptionally good or bad). Clearly, in general, the second applicant will have many more publications, grants, etc, than the first one. In that case, will the committee judge them by relativizing the CV of the second one by stating like only the number of publications per year counts, not the total one, or say that the second one has a better CV in the absolute, and therefore is better?

  • none of them is exceptionally good: Then why would we hire either of them?
    – JeffE
    Jul 23, 2012 at 17:58
  • @JeffE Do you mean that if you're "only" good, but not exceptionally good, like you haven't a Turing Award, you have no chance of getting a job? :)
    – user102
    Jul 23, 2012 at 18:10
  • There is a wide spectrum between "exceptionally good" and "Turing award".
    – JeffE
    Jul 23, 2012 at 18:11
  • Well, that's why I meant by exceptionally good: the kind of applicants with whom you don't even need to look at the other applications, you already know they can't be better.
    – user102
    Jul 23, 2012 at 18:13
  • 3
    Another way to formulate my question could be: how you determine that a candidate is exceptionally good? Relatively or absolutely speaking?
    – user102
    Jul 23, 2012 at 18:20

3 Answers 3


I don't think there's a single answer to this question. Ultimately, departments look for the candidate who will be the best fit for a given position, and for the department as a whole. If you also subscribe to the view that the department would rather choose a candidate who is more likely to accept a given position, then that also changes the decision calculus.

For the most part, however, I don't think hiring committees are doing "hard" comparisons of citations; that would just be foolish. Grant-winning experience also does matter, obviously, but that's also something that can be learned and developed over time.

So, ultimately, hiring tends to be a subjective process—you can view the data in whatever "objective" light helps you get to the conclusion you want.

  • Thanks, it's true that there a many factors in the recruitment process that are not only a factor of the number of years of experience. I guess I'm mostly wondering if the fact that you've demonstrated that you can write papers, apply for grants, etc, has an important weight against having the potential to do so, but not having it demonstrated, because you're too "junior".
    – user102
    Jul 23, 2012 at 13:11

I can speak for France.

We do relativize the application with the corresponding experience. In fact this is sometimes easier for the "younger" applicant to have a junior position since after a while, the committee expect someone with a lot of experience to have shown more than the ability to conduct research. To tell the truth, if you apply for a junior position with 6 years of postdoc, I will find suspicious that you was not hired before, and ask about that issue. Similarly, if you have 6 years of experience and if you never led a team or had a grant, I will find that highly suspicious (and so will be the rest of the committee).

  • Thanks, someone told me the same thing once about getting a job in France, that it's not well seen to have too many postdocs. It seems that the French system is based on "you only get a postdoc while waiting to for permanent positions".
    – user102
    Jul 23, 2012 at 18:58
  • 1
    Don't be afraid to apply, I personally came back to Paris-Sud after being assistant professor in a private school. It is mainly a matter of connections when you are "older". Jul 23, 2012 at 19:01
  • Thanks for the advice :) There are actually many reasons that refrain me from applying to positions in France, but yes, I can imagine that after a while, if I wanted to come back, I should try to apply in a different way than a young, fresh PhD student.
    – user102
    Jul 23, 2012 at 19:13
  • I have had the same experience in a few math hiring committees in France, but beware that this is very field-dependent. For example the habits in biology are very different. One is expected to finish one's PhD around age 27 (the European LMD system makes the PhD length formated at 3 years, but 4 years are common an some fields have much longer theses disregarding European and French policy), but the average recruitment age for junior (~ tenured assistant professor) is around 32. In some field it is quite higher than that, so it is not universally true that 6 years after PhD is suspicious. Dec 29, 2015 at 9:57

In the U.S., currently, the usual "tenure guidelines" as well as surrounding department policies in math departments, mostly create pretty narrow windows for competition. For example, "post-doc" positions are only open to those within 1-2 years of Ph.D., tenure-track assistant prof spots for people less than 6-or-so years out. Already-tenured hires are a much smaller fraction of all hires, I think.

Yes, there is the point that someone 10 years out is considered perhaps-essentially-ineligible for merely tenure-track, not tenured, positions. This arose originally as a device to protect junior people from being strung along indefinitely without tenure. But, through the obvious process, now it is essentially against HR rules to hire anyone "too far post-PhD" without tenure.

Thus, the relevant "competitions" are between not-too-disparate populations: people 3 years post-PhD and those perhaps 6 or 7 years post-PhD. Certainly these are looked at in relative terms. If anything, the more-years-out people are looked at more critically, because they really have had an opportunity to get their research program going, while someone just 2 years out could understandably still be getting their first papers through peer-review, etc.

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