On being lazy and ignorant: Job ads that restrict the pool of applicants on the basis of time from degree

The last few weeks have seen the appearance of controversial ads for entry level positions in Harvard’s Comparative Literature Department and the English Department at Colorado State (since revised).

The ads are controversial because they restrict the position to applicants who have had their PhD in hand for less than three years (two years or less in the case of Colorado State).

These conditions are particularly cruel because they seem to discriminate against students who completed their PhDs immediately before and in the first years of the 2008 depression–a period that has seen particular retrenchment in University budgets and hiring practices.

Such language has been rarely found in job ads in the past. This is in part because new PhDs often spend several years after their PhDs working in temporary Post-Doctoral positions or surviving on sessional and adjunct positions while waiting for an appropriate position or completing their first major publications (indeed in many of the sciences, it is essentially unheard of for a new PhD to move directly into a tenure-track research and teaching position without 6 or 7 years post-doctoral experience).

The fact that it is beginning to appear now suggests it is connected to the effect the last several years have had on the economics of the University sector. Although post-doctoral and adjunct work was becoming an increasingly common part of a new PhD’s career path in the Social Science and Humanities even before the recession, this work was part of a progression: each year some portion of the graduating class of PhDs was hired directly into an entry-level job, some portion from the last few years’ classes were hired after spending one, two, or three years adjuncting or in post-doctoral work, and some would leave academia for (for the most part) apparently satisfying careers in other sectors. A number of people from the graduating class who were not hired straight into tenure track jobs would then take up vacant adjunct, sessional, and post-doctoral positions, and come back on the market in the next year or two.

The retrenchment of job market in public universities since the beginning of the 2008 recession may have affected how this “system” worked. With fewer jobs available (including perhaps post-doctoral positions), more new PhDs have presumably gone into adjunct and sessional positions. In contrast to what you might have seen in a pre-recession job search, departments who post vacancies now presumably can expect to see an applicant pool that contains more people with “older” degrees (from the classes of 2006 on who either graduated into or finished their first postdocs during the current slowdown) and more people who have spent more time in relatively poor adjunct and sessional jobs.

A fairly obvious  implication of the language in the Harvard and Colorado ads is that these departments recognise this possibility and are trying to eliminate the “stale” PhDs from their applicant pool: presumably, by restricting their applicant pool to PhDs of less than two or three years standing, the departments are hoping to avoid dealing with candidates whom they think might have to restart a research career that has been hard to maintain in the face of heavy sessional teaching loads. And presumably the thinking is that this would allow them to focus their attention on those with “fresher” PhDs who can move directly from their thesis research to their first projects as an assistant professor.

The chair of the English Department at Colorado State, Louann Reid, told Inside Higher Education that this interpretation of her department’s ad is mistaken: the purpose of the language is to indicate that the position is truly entry level:

I think people are assuming things that we are not assuming… While lecturers and adjuncts who earned their doctorates before 2010 would not be part of the pool, neither would tenure-track professors who earned their degree before 2010.

In an email to Chad Black, an associate professor of early Latin American history at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville (also reported in Inside Higher Education), the chair of the search committee, Paul Trembrath, explained that the original language was in fact supposed to give the more junior applicants an advantage:

By specifying ‘between 2010 and time of appointment’ we indicated that we are interested in applicants with up to three years in a tenure-track position as well as those who are just beginning their careers.  In examining the pool of applicants, we have actually given the true ‘entry-level’ applicant an advantage in that such applicants will not have to compete with others who have as much as six years’ more experience.

None of this is convincing. By lumping adjuncts and sessionals together with tenure track faculty solely on the basis of the age of their degrees, these explanations betray a fairly fundamental misunderstanding of what “entry-level” means in the context of an academic career in the humanities and social sciences, preventing otherwise potentially qualified  people–whom we graduated into an appalling job market–from even making the case that they qualify for the position.

The important thing to keep in mind here is that this language is about restricting the pool, not the hire. Presumably, as with most entry-level positions, the committee is going to be looking for somebody who is showing promise of developing a productive research career, has the necessary expertise for the courses they hope to staff, and has shown evidence of teaching proficiency. By giving the department permission for an entry-level hire, the dean and/or department head are also suggesting some financial and experiential constraints on the salary they expect to award to the incoming candidate: the person they hire will not have an existing salary that makes the position at Harvard or Colorado unattractive, and will not have more than a few years experience in a tenure track position. In other words, in academia, “entry-level” means not “young” but “little or no previous experience in a tenure track or comparable position.”

None of these conditions directly involve the age of a candidate’s PhD. In actual fact, even if the language was less restrictive, most people with older PhDs would enter the competition at a disadvantage, especially if they have been working as adjuncts, since it can be harder, though by no means impossible, to maintain evidence of a promising and productive research career over a stretch of four or five years if  your research has not been directly funded and you are forced to find time to do it around other commitments. We can predict that such candidates are unlikely to get on the short list against those whose research has been funded all along, even if they are allowed to apply. There has always been an oversupply of PhDs relative to the available tenure track positions and adjunct positions are so bad precisely because they are designed to use people up: they generally offer no support to help the incumbent maintain the (very costly) research skills and programme they developed during their graduate studies nor for continued professional development that might allow them to improve their chances as candidates for permanent tenure track employment in future years.

In other words, even if the ads allowed “older” PhDs to apply, it is unlikely that the committee would end up making a different decision from the one it is presumably going to make on the more restricted pool: in the end, they will choose the candidate with the most promising and productive research career who fits their teaching needs and has not had more than a few years experience in a different tenure track job. Depending on how much money they have, this means that a good researcher coming from a tenure track position at a low-teaching, high-research school is likely to do better than somebody who has a brand new PhD and an article or two in press, and both are likely to do better than somebody whose research career has been interrupted by heavy adjunct teaching responsibilities.

In my experience, moreover, these distinctions are relatively easy to make. Committees rarely have much trouble in identifying a long list of candidates who have a suitably  promising research career, appropriate teaching experience, and the disciplinary expertise the department is looking for. It can be more difficult to draw up a short list of the three or four candidates you are going to interview–a situation in which you are eliminating people from consideration who on a different day or with a different committee might have been selected for it–but deciding who you are going to draw that short list from tends not to be that difficult on the basis of even a relatively quick reading of the letters, references, and CVs.

It is precisely because this is not difficult to do–and because candidates with older PhDs already face such structural impediments–however, that these ads are so destructive and so offensive. By using the age of the PhD to restrict the pool, rather than criteria that are directly relevant to the nature of the position and the financial constraints the department is under, these departments are allowing laziness and prejudice to prevent themselves from being exposed to even the possibility that they will discover alternative or exceptional talent. Removing the language about the age of the degree would have no effect on the likelihood that they would be able to hire a candidate with a research, teaching,  disciplinary, and experiential profile suitable to an “entry-level” tenure track position. But by putting this language in they prevent themselves from discovering this person among a type of candidate they apparently don’t even want to consider. The only benefit I can see for the hiring department is that the hiring committee is spared the not-very-difficult task of going through a potentially larger number of applicants who do not meet the profile they are looking for.

Good departments try to find the best people for the job and are willing to put some effort into it. Bad ones are willing to let unexamined prejudices and unthinking fads place artificial limits on what and who they are willing to consider. I know the kind of department I’d rather work for.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox

Join other followers: