A recent thread in The Chronicle’s forums on “Eliminating Star Candidates from the Pool” once again has me thinking about how the profession defines “stars” and how we should treat star candidates as we select our interview pools.
My whole career has been at small, teaching-oriented institutions. The first of these was the only one where we realistically had a regular chance to hire the most obvious stars in the pool. Since then, I’ve been at institutions that are challenged by location, reputation (deserved or not), teaching load, and other resources in such a way as to virtually guarantee that we wouldn’t be able to hire candidates immediately recognized by the profession at large as stars. But as I’ve said before, at all of these institutions we have managed to make stellar hires most of the time anyway. (This is because there’s more than one working definition of “stellar,” of course.)
The question at such institutions then becomes what to do with an obvious star’s application, and that is the subject of the thread in the forums. Of course, every situation is different, and each institution has its own historical pattern of interview and hiring experiences that will form the backdrop of its interview and hiring decisions.
That a star has bothered to apply is on some level a de facto indicator of that individual’s interest in the job. Even with electronic applications, e-mail, and word processing, it takes real effort to craft a compelling application. Thus it’s easy to eliminate an apparent star from further consideration if there’s evidence that that person did not put any effort into the application materials. I have seen, for example, applications to a college that say, “I look forward to visiting your university to learn more about it,” or that mention “my career goal of working at a research-oriented institution where I can complete my projects with full institutional support.” These candidates are in no way “stars” for the kind of institution I’m talking about, and they are relatively easy to cut.
Still, there are applicants whose written materials suggest that they are truly interested in the job, and they have at least provisionally engaged with its possibilities and challenges. Those applicants should probably get a chance at an interview, particularly if the first round of interviews is relatively large. It may be a different question if you’re going straight to campus interviews, where there are few slots and the stakes are higher, but that’s a bad idea in any case.
I’ve been at many such preliminary interviews. When I was a professor and department chair (at two different institutions), I almost always went to the Modern Language Association convention, and most of the time I was on a hiring committee or at least sat in on our interviews. Ultimately, more than half of those obvious star candidates made their lack of interest in our position clear in their interactions with us. A number of them were condescending, clearly hadn’t thought much about the job specifics, or otherwise indicated that we were not on their list of interesting prospects. But we did look at their candidacies carefully and interview them thoroughly. The ones who showed an obvious lack of interest were very easy to eliminate from the on-campus interview group. Among those we brought to campus, we often did end up hiring them and getting a star for our efforts, and in many cases these people have ended up being just as terrific as they looked when we got their applications.
In my day-to-day job and in the thinking I do to write this blog, I often (very often) find myself wishing that somewhere, sometime, there would be an easy answer to some big administrative question. Tolerance for ambiguity and complexity is a good quality for an academic in hiring as elsewhere in the profession, because these easy answers are virtually never to be found.