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I am a postdoc in mathematics (US) in the process of applying for tenure-track positions. The job market was very competitive and I only ended up with one interview so far. But I found out that for the position that I am being interviewed for, there are several other interviewees, and one of them is a tenured professor.

To me, the competition seems unfair because obviously the university wants the best candidate, and since the tenured professor received her PhD 10+ years before me, she has a lot more publications than me. And there is only one position for the university.

The situation looks hopeless to me. Is there anything that I can do or say during or before the interview that will make the hiring committee take me seriously? I have of course read several posts on here before asking this question. The answers seem to say that the "promise" is also taken into account. But will it actually be taken into account when the tenured professor has fifteen more papers than me? Since she also has more experience speaking in conferences and knows what to say or do during interviews (since presumably she has also served on hiring committees), I think her job talk will be better than mine, too. I just don't see how I could even be called a serious candidate when she is interviewing for this position.

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    Not much of an answer, but just because someone is tenured don't assume that they are great at doing interviews. – somerandomdude Dec 3 '16 at 1:25
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    Younger candidates have some advantages too: the upper bound on their future achievements is higher, and they are cheaper. – Boris Bukh Dec 3 '16 at 2:09
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    Not a helpful comment, but one that is true anyway: the situation is not "unfair" just because you may not have a chance. If the other person was better qualified and got the job, then that is not unfair -- it is objective. But I recognize that that of course is not a productive comment for you. – Wolfgang Bangerth Dec 3 '16 at 3:35
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    You also might not be directly competing. Just because the job posting only lists one position doesn't necessarily mean that they'll only be able to hire one person. Departments can make various arguments to the dean to try to increase the number of positions, the administration could have extra money available for candidates underrepresented groups at the tenured level, etc. – Noah Snyder Dec 3 '16 at 17:28
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You are a serious candidate

You are. That is why the university is interviewing you. It would be a complete waste of time and resources otherwise. They liked your application materials and want to know more.

Candidates must have good potential

Generally, academic hires are made not on the basis of what you have done but on what you have the potential to do. This is why the job doesn't automatically go to the person with the most publications.

Search committee members know how academia works

Of course the tenured professor has more publications than you! Of course they have more teaching and advising experience, and of course they have more contacts and a wider network within the field. The search committee knows this, and they don't expect postdocs to have all of these things. But perhaps the postdoc looks like they have the potential to blossom into a better scholar than the tenured professor. Perhaps the tenured professor will just stagnate. Which brings me to my final point...

You have seriously incomplete information

You have basically no knowledge which could help you figure out your odds. Here are some possible scenarios:

  1. The tenured professor (who I'll call P for brevity) is not actually serious about this job, but just wants an offer so that she can have a counteroffer from her current institution to get a nice raise.
  2. P is fleeing from a toxic department; she is on bad terms with her current department chair.
  3. P is leaving her current department because she is effectively being pushed out due to a scandal involving an affair with a student and misappropriation of research funds. This is hot gossip among the more senior members of your field but no one knows the full details.
  4. P is applying for the position to live close to her ageing parents. She thinks that she will easily get the job because she is from a prestigious university and this job is at a mid tier school, however her arrogance poisons the interview and no one likes her.
  5. P is the best candidate on paper, but just doesn't "click" week with the current faculty, so they vote to hire someone else.

We can go on like this for all the candidates, including you. Then we can invent scenarios of what the search committee is looking for, pet peeves of individual members, and so on. But the fact is we just don't know, and even if we did know then there's nothing you can do about it.

Get back to work

Quit worrying. Use that nervous energy to polish your talk, to practice answering questions, and to do research about the school. The job goes to the best candidate, and that could be you.

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    When I read the question, I wondered why a tenured professor would be applying for a tenure-track job. Thanks for giving several plausible answers for that. (I don't think I've ever seen such a thing happen, though.) – Andreas Blass Dec 3 '16 at 5:16
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    @AndreasBlass The tenure track is the track that includes tenure, as opposed to the teaching track or the research track. – JeffE Dec 3 '16 at 6:20
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    @JeffE Interesting. In my department, "tenure track" always means "not yet tenured but eventually to be considered for tenure". We'd never describe a tenured position as tenure track. – Andreas Blass Dec 3 '16 at 7:43
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    @AndreasBlass: I know several cases, and they were not that convoluted. Prof. X gets tenure, but is unhappy at the current place. Meanwhile, his career has taken off, and a good department that he likes is hiring. – Martin Argerami Dec 3 '16 at 7:52
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    @BenWebster I completely agree that they allow wiggle room as you said. I only assert that, in the usage I'm familiar with, "tenure-track" and "tenured" are two disjoint sets of jobs. (The former can turn into the latter when a tenure-track person is promoted to tenure.) Until Jeff's comment here, I had not heard "tenure-track" used to include tenured. In other words, I'd describe wiggle room as "we have a tenure-track position and we might be able to upgrade it to tenure," not as "we have a tenure-track position that might be tenured". – Andreas Blass Dec 3 '16 at 22:47
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As sometimes happens, this is a question where the literal question and subtext are a little different. To address the subtext: Relax. You don't really know what the situation is, and you're not going to benefit from trying to guess about it. They wouldn't interview you if they didn't think you were competitive. Of course, the downside of that is all the other people they'll interview are competitive as well. The start of December is still pretty early for interview invitations, so just because you only have one invitation now doesn't mean you won't get more later.

To address the explicit question: I know from the applicant side it must feel like the market is such that schools can hire whoever they want, but it doesn't feel like from the hiring side. The best people are highly sought after, and even if this tenured person is their top choice, they might be someone else's top choice as well. Even the very top places, but especially everyone else, is very concerned about whether candidates will really come.

Specifically with the question of hiring junior vs. senior people. There's a reason that schools hire the former far more often. Senior people are more expensive in a literal sense (generally, they get a pay bump from wherever they were before) and require more work on the part of the hiring department since they need to push through the tenure case on an expedited basis. Often even if a department wants to make such a hire, it will be forbidden by the higher administration (for example, we don't have permission to make such hires this year). There is also a cost along many dimensions to making job offers that aren't accepted, and senior candidates are less likely to accept (since quite often, their offer will be matched by their present institution, and most people would prefer not to move, all things being equal). There's also a psychological bias toward optimism about how a candidate will develop over the years. The senior person may have 15 papers, but they know that's all the papers she will write over that portion of her career (often the most creative); with you, they can instead imagine the great papers you will write at a comparable stage. And they know that you'll still need to get tenure, whereas a senior person will be permanent immediately without any chance to see how they will work out in the department.

As for what you can do during the interview: the cake is mostly baked on that score, but you can concentrate on giving a good and accessible talk. Practice it in front of a more experienced person and get their feedback. Also, do what you can to learn about the department and school and have intelligent questions. It's a minor thing, but giving the sense that you are taking the interview seriously, and are really thinking about what life will be like there will give a positive impression. It's also minor but I worry a little about your defeatist attitude showing, even if you don't intend it to. People can sense confidence or lack thereof, so going into the interview thinking you're the right person for the job can also make a difference around the edges.

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During the interview, everyone has a specific role. Members of the selection panel are going to hear all candidates and make their choice. Candidates should present themselves and explain how they fit to this Department.

Your interview is about you and the position you want to be in. It is not about you and other candidates. I understand it is hard, but try to forget about their existence and focus on the best way to present your skills to the panel. It does not matter if other candidate is a tenured professor or a white rabbit with a pocket watch. It absolutely has nothing to do with what your strong sides are and how you can fit this place.

Comparing yourself with others is never too helpful, and it is particularly so for interviews. From what I see, you are concerned of not getting this post already, and you believe you will not get it before you even enter the interview room. But so many things can happen between now and then.

  • What if this candidate will not show up during the day? (Maybe she has got another offer elsewhere? Maybe her plans changed?)
  • And if she is there, why do you think she will be the first candidate? (Maybe her research is not so brilliant, as it looks to you? Maybe it is, but they are really looking for someone to do the teaching? Maybe they would need a specific expertise to start a new course, and she does not have it?)
  • And if she is offered a post, why do you think she will take it? (Maybe they disagree on salary? Maybe she has a two-body problem that she can't solve? Maybe she does not like the University building and hates the idea of working there?)

There are so many variables involved, on which you have zero control, that the best thing to do is to focus on the thing you can control - work on your presentation.

And good luck with the interview!

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The essence of the answer to your question is very simple, and it is that your entire conception of what it means to be the "best" candidate is misguided. You seem to have taken it upon yourself to decide in advance which of the candidates being interviewed is most deserving of the position, and decided (based on very partial and superficial information) that it's someone else, not you. Hence your strong self-doubt, sense of hopelessness, and low level of confidence (all of which are bad states of mind to be in when going into an interview due to their self-fulfilling nature).

The truth is that departments take many factors into account in their analysis of who is the "best". Some of those factors were listed in the other answers, but in fact there are many others, and I feel like it is not worth the effort trying to list them all since their precise nature is mostly irrelevant. The point is that it is your job to go into the interview and do your best, and it is the department's job to evaluate you and the other candidates and decide who is best. It is unproductive and self-defeating for you to be assuming that role yourself and to make any assumptions that you are either worse or better than any of the other candidates, no matter the reason. The only sensible assumption you should be making is that you are just as serious of a candidate as any of the other ones, since the department has gone to the significant trouble and expense of inviting you for an interview.

To drive home the point, consider the metaphor of a romantic courtship. You (assuming you are male and heterosexual, otherwise make the obvious changes to this story) are courting a beautiful woman, and she has agreed to go for a walk in the park with you on Sunday. You know that on Tuesday she is meeting another of her suitors, who is an older, more experienced, and perhaps slightly more charismatic man. Should you just give up and assume that there is no way for you to be seen as a serious romantic contender? Of course not - the fact that she has agreed to the date is precisely what makes you a serious contender. Just go and do your best. Good luck!

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I'm on a search committee this year. We very much do handicap or adjust for seniority. We are not legally allowed to (and don't) discriminate on the basis of biological age, but it is routine to use academic age as a factor in hiring. Applicants with more recent Ph.Ds have a better chance of having their best work in front of them as opposed to behind them. In addition, applicants with more recent Ph.Ds will be further away from retirement. A faculty hire is a long-term investment, and it costs exactly the same amount to search for a new researcher as it does to search for an experienced researcher, so purely in terms of cost per unit year of eventual employment it makes a lot of sense to hire more recent graduates.

You are not required to compete with senior applicants on equal terms. The search committee will handicap all applicants appropriately. Just do your best!

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    I agree with the first part of your answer, but as for the "cost per unit year of eventual employment", it is negligible unless you are hiring someone who is about to retire in 2-3 years, so I doubt anyone factors that in. – Dan Romik Dec 3 '16 at 22:52
  • If it were negligible then everybody would be volunteering to serve on search committees! Retiring in 15 years vs. 30 years doubles search costs. – djao Dec 4 '16 at 3:39
  • @djao The interesting number is not the expected "years until retirement" but "years until leaving this position". As shown in the question, people sometimes leave tenure-track positions for other ones. – Paŭlo Ebermann Dec 4 '16 at 20:22
  • True, but the two variables are certainly not uncorrelated! – djao Dec 5 '16 at 21:32

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