Microeconomics of the Faculty Job Search
An institution's most important resource is its people.
See my Teaching Faculty Job Search for details on my specific academic job search and the context that inspired this article.
An institution’s most important resource is its people.
The faculty job is a rational economic exchange between the institution and the candidate. The faculty candidate offers highly-skilled and specialized labor and mentorship; contributes to the community through their actions and initiatives in teaching, research, and service; and influences the prestige of the institution, which has downstream impacts on funding, productivity, and attracting future faculty candidates. In return, the institution will commit several millions of dollars in salary and funding over the span of a full academic career; thousands of hours of faculty mentorship and attention; and a steady supply of administrative, teaching, and research support. The faculty search committee’s role is to connect the two sides by identifying and recruiting the candidates best prepared to generate the most value for the institution.
The faculty job search is about value alignment: the fit between what the candidate wants, what they bring, and what the institution needs. This shouldn’t come as particularly surprising but is worth stating explicitly because it provides a framework for the faculty candidate to make the decisions that best support their candidacy throughout each stage of the process.
- Composing application materials.
- Preparing and executing interview plans.
- Making a final decision.
How do you, the faculty candidate, generate value for the institution? The outcome of a faculty job search can be measured by how a candidate answers this question through their application and interview. A strong faculty candidate understands the value alignment differences between small and large institutions; public and private institutions; tenure-track vs. teaching-track vs. research-track vs. adjunct positions; the norms of the field; and the particular needs of the institution.
The faculty job application is an argument for your value alignment typically spanning a set of 4 or 5 documents and academic references.
- Cover letter, formally prepared.
- Academic CV, very different in format, content, and context from a resume.
- Research statement, for jobs with expectation of research.
- Teaching statement, for jobs with expectation of teaching.
- Diversity statement.
I spent most of September 2018 writing, updating, and refining my CV, teaching statement, diversity statement, and cover letter. The application is similar to your dissertation or thesis in that it draws together various professional experiences into a cohesive narrative. But beyond your dissertation or thesis, the application argues how your experiences form a foundation for generating future value for the institution in the ways that matter to the particular job.
An effective faculty job application is an argument that explicitly positions the candidate as well-prepared to generate value in the most relevant ways for the job. One way to structure this argument is to break it down into three parts.
- Identify a central challenge or problem of concern for the job.
- Take a position.
- Present an effective argument for the position.
In larger departments, the application’s audience is the faculty search committee. The faculty search committee is primarily composed of a few faculty members within the department. They are tasked with reviewing potentially hundreds of applications and shortlisting candidates to invite for further interviews.
To this academic audience, effective argumentation involves systematic reasoning and logical presentation of evidence to support a position. Don’t pander, and don’t make empty statements. If the faculty search committee needs to present your application to the rest of the faculty, the department chair, and the dean of the college, what would convince them that you would be the most successful candidate for the job? Every statement in the application, as well as later in the interview, should be held to this standard.
I did a bit of research to form the foundation of my argument. The challenges of teaching CS, especially in times like today, are well-published. I supplemented this public information by cold emailing teaching faculty at a few institutions that particularly interested me. Combining this research with my teaching experiences, I argued that teaching CS at scale is a problem that can be solved through automation, support, and preparation. But there are many ways to respond to this problem. Furthermore, this isn’t the only problem that I could have written about. Different institutions have different priorities, and not all institutions would benefit directly from my experiences with teaching CS at scale. How evidence is selected and tailored to the argument can reflect differently on the search committee.
Throughout the process of developing your argument, a tension can develop between tailoring an argument to particular job requirements versus your own job wants. There likely won’t ever be a perfect job where one can work in absolute freedom on their pet projects in perpetuity. Realistically, the ideal scenario is that of optimal value alignment: a common ground that maximally satisfies both the institution and the candidate.
I delivered the majority of my applications between October and December, and began receiving video interviews starting November and December. On-campus interviews followed almost immediately afterwards and continued through March and April.
Video interviews typically involved members of the faculty search committee asking questions from a list of prepared questions.
- Why do you want to teach computer science? (Why not industry?)
- Why do you want to teach here in particular?
- What existing classes would you be interested in teaching?
- What new classes would you be interested in teaching?
- How do you support the less-motivated or underprepared student?
- How will you mentor students?
- How do you utilize teaching assistants?
- What is your teaching philosophy?
- What are your questions for us?
I prepared my Talking Points Document to address these questions. Though the questions rarely lined up exactly with the questions interviewers actually asked, the process of preparing answers with value alignment in mind made it easier for me to focus more on the interpersonal aspects of the interview such as building a rapport with the search committee.
Building rapport is particularly important in the next interview phase: the on-campus interview. The on-campus interview involved a full day of events coordinated by the faculty host, typically a member of the faculty search committee. Most of my teaching-track faculty interviews ran between 9 and 12 hours long with the shortest at 5 hours and the longest at 13 hours. Interviews largely followed a standard template.
- Breakfast with the host.
- Half-hour, back-to-back, one-on-one meetings with interested faculty until afternoon.
- Lunch with faculty.
- One-hour teaching job talk.
- More one-on-one faculty meetings until evening.
- One-on-one meeting with the department chair.
- Dinner with faculty.
Some departments added meetings with directors, deans, administrative staff, and students. I actually found these meetings to be most indicative of the department culture because they showed the degree to which people outside of the immediate faculty were involved in the different missions of the department. I made sure to request an additional meeting with undergraduate teaching assistants to envision mentorship and program development opportunities if it was not already included in the schedule. The departments that most impressed me demonstrated a high level of engagement from staff and students outside of the classroom. Likewise, the nature of the requests you make in the planning of the interview will make an impression upon the faculty search committee.
The faculty job interview is a grueling process not only due to its length but also because the candidate is always on. Every interaction from the moment you greet the host for breakfast until the moment you’re dropped off after dinner is part of the interview and should be considered critical to the faculty’s view of your value alignment. I echo Philip’s advice that at the heart of the faculty interview is being a great communicator: Strive to engage, not to impress. Faculty are people, first and foremost, so one of the functions of the interview meetings is to determine how you would collaborate and interact with those people. You’re not going there to get a job. You’re going there to meet your colleagues.
The job talk is the most important part of the interview. The norms and expectations of the talk differ significantly between fields, departments, and positions. The faculty search committee, at this point, understand several dimensions of you and your work. Through the application, they understand your value proposition to the department in terms of your background and experience, and to some extent your ability to design, execute, and evaluate research or teaching ideas. Through the interview meetings, they understand how you might fit with faculty, staff, and students. What is missing is an understanding of your intellectual personality: how you present yourself, how you talk about ideas, and how you would represent the department to the public.
The teaching faculty job talk is typically posed to the candidate as an hour-long lecture on a technical topic from the undergraduate curriculum during which the faculty interviewers role-play as undergraduate students in your class. While you can certainly reuse a lecture from a real course you’ve taught before, the delivery of the content and the decisions that go into the job talk should reflect your value alignment. More experienced teachers tend to have an established teaching style or persona. Speaking from interviewing teaching assistants, experienced interviewers can usually get a sense of a candidate’s intellectual personality within the first five minutes of a teaching demonstration. More often than not, these initial impressions are on the mark. How would someone who only saw the first few minutes and last few minutes of your talk respond to your value alignment on the following metrics? How about the entire lesson?
- What pedagogies do you utilize? Why are they suited to the content?
- How do you organize a complex lesson? What do you emphasize in the lesson? e.g. motivation, exposition, demonstration, practice, theory.
- How do you manage time, especially in a dynamic environment where students may want to ask multiple questions throughout the talk?
- How do you engage students?
- What kind of relationship do you build with students?
- How do students feel before, during, and after your lesson? (These are all factors within your control, even in the time-restricted job talk.)
- How do you support students who are less-prepared for the lesson or uncomfortable with the content?
- How does your body language, facial expressions, and physical presence impact learning?
In addition to this teaching talk, a few departments also asked me to give a teaching philosophy talk, a teaching at scale talk, or another type of talk aimed at technical audiences.
Throughout the application and interview steps, the job search has been focused around emphasizing the candidate’s value proposition. After the on-campus interview is a period of waiting as the department interviews other candidates and decides to whom they should make offers.
The process by which a department comes to a decision about to whom they should make an offer is often convoluted. Typically, offers are made between February and May, but this process can be accelerated or delayed depending on the department’s confidence in the rest of the faculty candidate interview schedule. Once the department decides to make an offer, leverage shifts to the candidate’s side.
Determining fit and the overall work environment was the top priority for me in making a decision between multiple competing offers. A few criteria about the institutions ultimately made the difference.
- Who are the students? What is their profile and general background?
- How are teaching assistants and administrative staff utilized? What are the cultural norms around the department? How do students and staff view their own role in the teaching mission of the department?
- What are the expectations of the teaching faculty position? How are teaching faculty treated? What would it be like collaborating with other faculty? What benefits are offered by the position?
- How might I innovate or contribute to the growth of the institution?
- What is it like to live in the area surrounding the institution? Would I like the weather year-round?
While I had gathered impressions from the interviews, my favorite departments supported me on second visits. Throughout this period, I was also thinking about the offer details.
- Salary, typically on a 9-month academic calendar.
- Summer salary funds to cover a few of summer months without external grants.
- Signing, relocation, or startup bonus.
- Teaching or research support funds.
- Discretionary fund.
- Teaching load.
The process of negotiation is also about value alignment. The department chair will do their best to attract you, but equity between faculty in the department is an important concern. Salary, for example, is difficult to negotiate primarily due to salary compression. In many fields, academic salaries have not been keeping up with inflation or cost of living, so the salary difference between tenured professors and new faculty is compressed, leaving little room for new faculty to negotiate on salary.
Negotiating for better benefits doesn’t come automatically. It requires leverage, which can come from your competing job offers as well as your value proposition. Every candidate with a job offer in hand has leverage: they can choose to decline the offer, forcing the department to move on to their next candidate. With multiple job offers in hand, the risk of a declined offer increases for any one department, so the candidate’s leverage also increases. Departments can reduce this risk by matching competing offer details you choose to share. Your role in the negotiation process is determining what you need to succeed, and utilizing your available leverage to get it.
Often, however, negotiations do not just involve the candidate and the department. On the department’s side, funding streams and faculty slots can be controlled by higher administrative units such as colleges, so modifications to the terms of the offer will often require external approval. There can thus be an administrative or political cost to modifying the terms of the offer that works against the candidate’s leverage. The more a change can be proposed as added value for the institution, the more leverage can be recovered. Don’t sell yourself short, do advocate for what you need to succeed, but also recognize that you are one of many faculty in the department.
With the final offer hand, all that’s left is your signature.
A notable exception from this article is the human side of the faculty job search. This article does not address the potential emotional or mental toll of being in a competitive job market. A personal decision needs to be made about your options and their opportunity costs.