, , , ,

There’s been much discussion of late concerning Peter Higgs’ assertion that, were he a newly-minted PhD today, he likely wouldn’t have been hired.  Yes, that Peter Higgs.  You know, the Nobel laureate for whom the Higgs boson is named?  Since 1964, he’s published fewer than 10 papers.

Fast-forward just a few weeks, when Rebecca Schuman posted that a search for a tenure-track job in pre-1900 English literature was going to interview candidates on 5 days’ notice at the Modern Language Association conference in Chicago.  She pointed out that not only was this logistically and financially impossible for many who are on the job market (postdocs and early-career researchers generally don’t have much disposable income to purchase last-minute flights and hotels), but that it signalled the devastating way in which the academic hiring system is broken.

To be clear, I don’t think this particular problem is found that frequently in the sciences (at least in Canada).  I’ve been to two interviews, both of which were paid for by the interviewing department, and both of which gave me at least 4 weeks’ lead time.  But this aspect is tangential to today’s subject.

In a rebuttal, Claire Potter at The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s Tenured Radical blog put forth many reasons for the short notice, and generally took issue with Schuman’s original assertions.

Today, Schuman argued that Potter’s view was skewed by her position – as a tenured full professor – and took to analysing the following hypothetical question: would Potter, with her CV at the time she was hired in 1991, be competitive for a job today?  Her conclusion: No.

But I want to step back from these two cases, and propose something that would both be useful, and (at least in my opinion) blindingly obvious.  But then again blinding obviousness has never stopped scientists before.

Let’s take the CVs of n (maybe 10) postdocs (or others on the academic job market), and the CVs of n tenured faculty at the time they were hired (but with dates changed & updated) and present them to a series of fake search committees.  Who would be short-listed? Interviewed? Hired, even?

Of course, the CVs wouldn’t necessarily have to be from real people, and should be anonymized based on gender, race, and other hiring biases.  In fact, this very thing was done to show that female scientists were less likely than their male counterparts to be hired as a lab manager, even with identical qualifications.  And yes, there’s more that goes into hiring someone besides their CV, but without a competitive CV, a well-written teaching philosophy or research plan won’t get you very far.

I don’t think there are many that would argue that the academic job market hasn’t changed in the last 10, 15, 20 years (which is when many of those on search committees were hired, if not before).  But as an ecologist (a discipline who’s motto should be “Quantifying the Obvious“), I think showing the numbers would sway many of those on the fence, especially if they are one of the Tenured Few.

And, I think that any critical introspection into the way that we, as individuals, “do science” can only improve things.  And by starting with the individual, hopefully things will scale up to the department, the discipline, and perhaps even the Academy™.

Finally, this isn’t just idle speculation.  I really think that someone with the required sociological bona fides (and research ethics board approval) should consider this question, even if the answer is staring us in the face.