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The Faculty's Research Agendas are Outdated, "Local" or Non-Existent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?