Thursday, August 14, 2014

Are you thirsty? I am.

It's been so long since we had a Big Thirsty that I forgot to ask the writer to suggest a name for herself.  Let's go with Hanna from Hoboken for now.  Here it is.

I am a very junior-level academic, fresh from my PhD in the humanities and with one published article to my name.  I'm new to interviewing for jobs and I wanted to gauge whether what I experienced was normal or not.

I had a campus interview very recently in which I was interviewed by the president of the university. The president told me that starting from this year, he would interview all the university's faculty job candidates to make sure that they were supportive of his mission. However, he didn't even explain what his mission was.  This is a university that is remodeling itself and has had faculty protest against previous presidents in the past.

When I applied for the job, the advertisement was for a tenure-track 4/4, but when I interviewed with the search committee over the phone and in person at the campus interview, it was a 5/5 with some service. Then, when I interviewed with the dean, the job entailed a much heavier research load and establishing a cultural center. When I got to the president, however, he wanted a researcher who could establish international exchanges with other universities. I'm not sure about the position because they want me to help them establish a cultural center, start a major, and do international outreach.  I don't have the connections or skills necessary to do the kind of outreach they wish to accomplish. 

Needless, to say, I left that campus interview a bit confused, especially since the department made me understand that I would be an emergency hire to fill their open classes and create new ones for a major.

Do you have any advice about what is going on here and what I might do if I get an offer for this job?

Also, if I get an offer, I have until September to move there and start teaching. I'm waiting to see if I get an offer to know what this job is really all about.

-- Hanna from Hoboken


  1. Be careful. This could be a bait-and-switch deal. You're promised one thing but once you've accepted the offer and made a commitment by, say, moving to a different part of the country, they've got you. (If your move is paid for, you may find that you're required to work there for a minimum amount of time. Leave before that, and you have to pay the difference.)

    Don't be surprised if your duties are significantly different than what was described to you when you were interviewed. As well, don't be surprised if you find out that there's still a search for the "perfect" candidate and, once that person's been found, you're out the door. If you are indeed hired because of dire circumstances in the department, it wouldn't think twice of boomeranging you out. It needed a warm body to fill a position and you'd be it.

    A former employer pulled that stunt on me. I smelled a rat during the interviews I had but I couldn't quite put my finger on what didn't quite make sense to me. It didn't take long after I started there that I was indeed promised something different than what I actually ended up doing. It fired me less than a year later. Apparently my unhappiness with that discrepancy (particularly since I had to move to another province) was sufficient grounds to have me sacked.

    But, before you make a decision, get *everything* in writing and don't take any verbal statement as a promise. You may be offered what seems to be a sweet deal, but there may be lots that you've not been told.

    1. What QWV said. That kind of uncoordinated expectations, multiple lines of authority, is a recipe for disaster. They want to solve all their problems (including taking all the teaching duties) on the cheap, and if you're not walking on water by the end of the first semester...

  2. Multiple warning flags go up here. When I was in the U.S. Navy, we used to call this a cluster-fuck. If the management is this disorganized and inconsistent at this stage, what’s going to happen when they actually start managing?

    First, that the president of the university would interview you personally usually happens only in very small schools where teaching is prized. It only ever happened to me at Swarthmore College (where I didn't get the job), out of 30 interviews from over 150 jobs I applied for, in 6 non-consecutive academic hiring seasons spread over 10 years.

    Second is how the president wants you to be supportive of his mission, but won't tell you what the mission is. It reminds me of how Richard Nixon campaigned in 1972 that he had a "secret plan" for ending the war in Vietnam. The joke that ensued was that he'd be voting for McGovern. Let's hope he doesn't keep an enemies list, the way Nixon did.

    Third is how the job starts in September. That’s not so bad, since that’s when the school year starts (for a quarter system). What worries me is that it’s August now, isn’t it? This should have been taken care of by May, at the latest. Again, “cluster-fuck” comes to mind.

    Fourth is how they change from a 4/4 load to a 5/5 plus service load, just like that. A 2/2 load is really the maximum still compatible with research that can attract sufficient external funding to be commensurate with an international reputation. (R1 universities often require t-t faculty to bring in sufficient funding to pay they own salaries.) A 4/4 load is common at teaching universities, which let you have some time off during the summer for research, but it will get rejections from funding agencies that say "Good proposal, but we don't believe you'll be able to carry it out with such a heavy teaching load." Doing research with a 4/4 load is like being a dog that rides a bicycle in the circus: what’s remarkable isn’t that he does it well, so much that he does it at all. A 5/5 load is what instructors who carry no research obligation get. A 5/5 plus service load exceeds a full-time commitment: it means no time for research, since there just aren't enough hours in the week for it.

    That they don’t seem to know this isn’t good. What’s worse is how they seem to think you’ll be all things for all people. Getting a tenure-track job these days has become so difficult that it does help to present oneself as all things for all people, but only the most inexcusably out-of-touch higher-ups will sincerely expect you to deliver 100% on all points, particularly when there is a large variety of them that they seemingly enlarge at whim without limit, and very particularly so since you're an emergency hire. What happened, did the person they hired in May find a better job?

    Humans beings can’t do all that. Try to make a machine do it, and it’ll break. Someone should tell these people that the purpose of the activity is to educate students. It isn’t to see how much stress they can heap on junior faculty, until they can get someone better. It for dang sure isn't a fraternity initiation.

    1. Your point about the starting date of September while it's mid-August reminded me of a college I had dealings with a number of years ago.

      When I was finishing my Ph. D. thesis, I was scheduled for an interview for a university transfer position at that place. The timing was bad for several reasons. One was that it was supposed to be held late in July of that year and the term started in September. Since my landlord required at least a month's notice if I decided to move, it wouldn't have left me much time to make a decision if I had been offered the job. In addition, I hadn't defended my thesis and I wasn't keen on starting a new job under those circumstances.

      I declined the interview. One reason was that I didn't really need the job as I had taken a leave of absence from my position at the tech school where I was teaching. Another was that I wanted to finish my thesis as I was coming close to the university's deadline for time spent on my degree.

      Several years later, a position at the same university transfer program at that college opened up. Perhaps it was the same one I would have been interviewed for earlier. This time I went and, again, the interview was late in July. Less than a week after I was there I received my "get lost" notice. By then, it was already August, too late to give the landlord adequate notice without having to pay an extra month's rent.

      I wondered why those interviews were scheduled so late in the summer. Was it to pressure the selected candidate into making a snap decision, given that he or she might be renting and needed to inform the landlord in a timely manner? Was the college administration disorganized? Or was it simply a sham interview, one required by internal regulations, because the institution already know who was going to get the job? Considering how it was handled, I suspect the latter was the real reason.

    2. QMV: Who was it who said, "Never attribute to malice that which can be explained by stupidity?"

      Hanna: What I infer to be happening here is that they wanted to hire someone for a 4/4 load with frankly unrealistic research expectations for that heavy of a teaching load. The job market being so tight, they managed to snag someone in April or May, but this person found a job with more humane, or at least less clueless, management. Alternatively, maybe they didn't snag anyone: it would serve the bastards right.

      What they want is for an emergency hire to come in and do what, quite frankly, is almost certainly a setup for failure. Don't take this job unless you have no other prospects. I should know about jobs like this, since I did precisely this as an Accursed Visiting Assistant Professor some years ago. At least after two years I did manage to get a much better job, with still heavy but at least humanly realistic expectations. It was also tenure-track: the best my previous taskmasters could offer was a one-year extension to prolong the agony.

      Nietzsche observed that what does not kill you makes you stronger. That assumes you survive the experience.