Saturday, October 20, 2012

Warning Signs and Red Flags That Academic Job Hunters Should Know

Sometimes late at night my mind wanders back to what it was like when I still worked in the academy, and I go to the forums on the Chronicle of Higher Education's site to remember and remind myself why I got out.  One recent thread particularly sparked my interest.  A current job candidate asks what are the signs that the department you are applying to work for is a "snake pit."  That got me thinking about warning signs more broadly, and as a service to those applying for jobs this year, here are some nuggets of wisdom earned after many job searches and three years in a place where snake pit would be a polite description.

High Faculty Turnover
High turnover is the biggest and most obvious sign of dysfunction.  Sometimes this can be hard to find out, since it's awkward to ask people how many people have been jumping ship.  A good way to tell is if the department has a group of people who have been there forever, some assistant professors, but very few associate professors.  If your job is not to replace a retiring prof, chances are you will end up just being the next in a long line of junior scholars forced to escape an intolerable situation.

The Faculty's Research Agendas are Outdated, "Local" or Non-Existent
In regards to departments where no one does research, initially you might think to yourself "hey, this will be a low pressure situation, I can do my research in peace without having to compete with colleagues for resources."  Little do you know that in reality, your research accomplishments will generate massive levels of hostile resentment by some of your colleagues.  This is especially the case if you will be working as a contingent professor.

In a department like the one where I used to toil, many of those who did actually research were incredibly retrograde in their work, and so took every opportunity to slag off my research, even to my face.  (One military historian told me my new project was "stupid" at lunch one day.)  In such a place you will find your book contract or highly placed article not getting praised by your chair, who would rather send out an email of hosannas about a prof who has invited one of the mediocre professors from her no-name (yet nearby) university to campus.

Faculty and Administrators Have Been Hired From Within or Have a Personal Connection to the Institution
Did any of the deans go to your prospective university as undergrads?  Are there a lot of people who seem to have a personal connection to the school or the area?  Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!  I should have known I was getting into a bad situation at my old job when I found out that the university president had been there as an administrator since the mid-1960s, and that the student center was named after him, even though he had not yet retired!  (And it's not like this guy is Clark Kerr, or anything.)  A place like that loves people who are like them, and hates outsiders.  Guess what, unless you give yourself a lobotomy and put blinders on to block out all the dysfunction, you'll be defined as an outside agitator.

The Faculty are Homogenous Even by Academic Standards
Academia is not that diverse, especially so my very white and male field of history.  However, there are some departments whose photos look like they could have had the same cast of characters fifty years ago.  My old department had sixteen full time members and half as many adjuncts, but not one single person of color at a university where a third of the students were either African American or Latino.  It became pretty obvious pretty fast that this situation, as per usual, was not accidental.  Not only that, the university was in Texas, and out of the sixteen full time faculty, six had been born and raised in Texas, and another had gone to graduate school in the state.  All of the part-timers save one were Texans, and they all had been students at the university.  Needless to say, people like me who came from outside were treated almost like foreigners.  

They Do Not Have a Response When You Ask Them Where the Department Sees Itself in Five Years
Remember, you get to ask them questions too, and you are interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you.  Always ask where the department sees itself going, and if no one can really tell you, run to the hills.

After Your Job Talk Faculty Happily Admit Ignorance
After my job talk the self-described "Texas historian" said "I didn't understand what you were talking about, but it sounded good."  I may do German history, but my work is pretty accessible.  The fact that this guy (who is now tenured!) could be comfortable saying such things out loud if front of a room of scholars should have been a huge red flag for me.  I soon learned that most of the other people in the room actually weren't scholars at all.

The Percentage of Contingency Faculty is Very High
This is more relevant for those applying for visiting positions.  I know from my experience as a visitor that when you are just one of an army of contingent faculty, you will be treated like a peon.  Tenure track faculty in such places are always on guard for a sans-culottes uprising, and want to make sure that the grunts know their place.  I have had friends who have had very positive experiences as visitors, but they were all in departments where they were a leave replacement in a faculty with few or no contingent profs.

Faculty Don't Show Up For Talks and Meals
This is pretty self-explanatory (though not something I've experienced first hand.)  If a lot of folks don't show up to the interview events, it's obvious that they already view you as a person of no consequence.  Same goes for lack of interest in conversing with you at meals, or being made to pick up the tab for the ride to airport.  (This actually happened to a friend of mine.)

That's all I can think about for now.  Any of my fellow academic job market veterans out there have anything to add?


Brian I said...

This is a good list for bigger departments, which is where my teaching experience is. However, having attended a small college and interviewed for positions at others, I would suggest a few other red flags:

1. Be wary of places where an idiosyncratic pedagogical method (say, roleplaying games) has taken hold within a department. Assuming that you get the job, your teaching will probably scrutinized and/or critiqued if it doesn't fit their idea of normal/good pedagogy.

2. Be wary of a department with a 70-something year old member who has been there for over 40 years, proudly champions his mastery of sorely outdated historiography in your field (which is not his field), and has participated in the hiring of all of the department's current faculty members. If you get the job, you will likely have to kowtow to that person's old-fashioned philosophies and predilections.

3. Ask about the school's endowment, especially if it is private and has fewer than say 1200 students. If the endowment is less than about $15-20 million, understand that a small dip in enrollment could cause major cash-flow problems that may affect your workload, professional development opportunities, salary, or job security.

4. Ask about preps, not just courseload. Understand that at many small, underendowed colleges a 4-4 load means probably 4 preps per semester and as many as 7 or 8 preps per year. Even for the most dedicated teachers, this number of preps is utterly exhausting and limits your ability to do other things, such as have a family or any other kind of off-campus life.

5. Like one of WHB's points above, be very wary of small colleges where many faculty members or administrators graduated from that college. If you did not go there, you will probably always (at least for a decade or two) be considered an outsider. Furthermore, they will expect a certain type of fanatical dedication to the institution that you may not be able or willing to provide. Of course, in many cases this homogeneity means that the school has a religious affiliation that is taken very seriously--in which case you won't get the job in the first place unless you are very, very dedicated to the religion. (In my case, I interviewed for a position with a college affiliated with a church of which I am a communicant member, but judging from the way the interview went, I was not serious enough about my faith to be invited to campus for an interview.)

6. In all cases, but especially for small colleges, see if the school has been censured by the AAUP, and if so, when and why. Sometimes a school flubs and they fix their problems after getting censured, but in other cases this is a sign of chronic problems that have not been resolved--and may not ever.

I'm sure there are more red flags, but these are a few to consider. I would love to see more discussion on the issue.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

Those are all worthy additions. I never had any experience with small departments or schools, so these points are an important reminder that different types of institutions have different types of pitfalls. I would also add that if the wikis are full of negativity about a particular department, it's not an accident or just one disgruntled person.

Anonymous said...

Your bitterness reminds me of Romans 2:1-3: "Therefore you have no excuse, o man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. Do you suppose, o man - you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself - that you will escape the judgement of God?"