The Nathaniel Fitz Randolph Gate at Princeton University

Ever since reading Daniel Kahneman’s great book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, I have been intrigued by the issue of how the ideas about hiring and predicting success that he discusses might apply to the academic job market (I wrote some initial thoughts here).  Recently I have been more directly involved in some academic job searches, and also having recently read Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath (which deals with some of the same issues of predicting success) I thought that this was an issue worth exploring a bit further.

The process of hiring for an academic post, it seems to me, really needs to be broken down into three separate issues: (1) the qualities that the academic unit seeks in an applicant; (2) the evidence necessary to determine if the applicant has those criteria; and (3) the actual nuts and bolts process.  This post will deal only with the first issue, with subsequent posts on the other two.  This is a series targeted primarily at those who, like me, are academics involved in hiring, although it should also interest those who are seeking academic positions.  Please note that these are just my personal thoughts; they do not necessarily represent (and in some cases emphatically do not represent) the views of my colleagues or my employer.

A word might also be in order about why this issue interests me.  The central question for most job applicants – at least it was for me when I applied for jobs – tends to be, “What are they looking for?”  After watching this process from the other side, at three separate academic institutions, I realized that “they” mostly aren’t entirely sure themselves.  It is one thing, for example, to specify that we seek an excellent scholar, but it is another to evaluate quite specifically what that means.  This often results in fuzzy discussions around factors that are easier to evaluate but perhaps a bit peripheral to the actual qualities being sought.  I think, for example, of superlatives in reference letters (e.g., “she has a lively mind and is the best student I have taught in twenty years”) that really privileges the skills and reputation of the letter writer over the demonstrated qualities of the candidate.  Or an engaging public lecture that becomes the basis (rather than the written record) of a candidate’s scholarship.  Because these discussions are inherently vague and based on subjective evaluations, they can sometimes generate heated, and unpleasant, disagreement within an academic unit.  I have often wondered if there might be a more analytical, transparent, and rigorous way to do this.

Here are a few thoughts about what a list of qualities for a place like Brown University might look like:

  • Soundness of Scholarship
    • Is the written scholarship accessible to scholars outside of the candidate’s specialized field?
    • Is the written scholarship likely to be significant to scholars outside of the specialized field?
    • Can the candidate communicate the results of her/his scholarship to a wider community of scholars?
  • Productivity