Selection Processes in Academia: Time for a Revamp

25 August 2023, 0953 EDT

Current trends in the academic job market paint a bleak picture. Data from U.S. universities reveal a drop in job postings in the Politics field over the past three years and a decline in tenure-track positions over the last decade. For 2021-22, APSA reported that 53.12% of job listings were non-tenure track. Meanwhile, in the UK, 54% of academic job advertisements across disciplines were for fixed-term positions. With an excess of PhD graduates and a dwindling number of academic openings, many are now increasingly seeking jobs outside academia.

As an early career scholar, I’ve spent the past two years navigating the chaotic academic job market in the Politics and IR field. I’ve undergone numerous selection processes and found myself constantly preparing applications, tailoring CVs and cover letters, celebrating shortlists, weathering rejections, and occasionally relishing job offers.

I initially thought of writing this piece once I had secured a permanent academic position, hoping it might serve as a “beacon of hope” for others in similar situations. However, I chose to share my ongoing struggle while still in search of that stable role hoping to reach members of selection committees and perhaps initiate a necessary conversation about hiring practices.

When one is “fortunate” enough to secure the typical one-year position, the search for the next post often starts immediately.

Before stepping onto the academic path, I worked as a psychologist, assessing candidates in job selection processes for several years. Drawing on this experience, the purpose of this piece is to describe some poor practices and propose ideas for improving them. While we can all agree that the academic job market is complicated and job hunting is stressful in most fields, inadequate hiring practices exacerbate this stress, taking a significant psychological toll on applicants.

To provide a snapshot of the current academic job landscape for early-career scholars, consider the following: Over the past two years, I’ve submitted 73 applications. Out of these, 62 were rejected. I was shortlisted 11 times, faced rejection after exhausting rounds of presentations and interviews on 7 occasions, and received 4 job offers. The majority of these applications were for positions at European universities, primarily at renowned higher education institutions in the UK.

So, what exactly is going awry?

In recent years, I’ve spoken with several scholars facing challenges like mine. The concerns are strikingly consistent, with many questioning the value of continuing in academia due to job insecurity and emotionally taxing job hunts.

Hiring committees, often comprised of tenured and established academics, sometimes overlook the challenges faced by early-career scholars. This disconnect might account for some oversight in the hiring process. While the present difficulties of the academic job market warrant a dedicated blog piece, I can summarize the issues in a few keywords: precarious contracts, low salaries, and lack of long-term career development.

As academia evolves, so should our approach to recruitment, emphasizing transparency, fairness, and respect.

Early-career scholars must manage not only the usual academic responsibilities but also the added task of job hunting. When one is “fortunate” enough to secure the typical one-year position, the search for the next post often starts immediately. While it’s hard to separate general job market issues from hiring specifics, I’ll highlight problems in the latter.

  1. Excessive application requirements: Some institutions demand an unreasonable number of documents. Often, the same details are asked multiple times, making the process lengthy and tedious. For instance, beyond the standard CV and cover letter, I’ve been asked by some universities to design not one, but three separate course programs. During my years overseeing recruitment processes, we avoided asking candidates for tasks that might seem like unpaid labor, especially before shortlisting. Asking for reference letters before this stage is also poor practice as it burdens both the applicants and their referees. Personally, I’ve stopped applying for roles with such requirements.
  2. Unprepared and disorganized interviews: Departments consist of individuals with varying interests and priorities that inevitably influence interview questions. However, when there’s a visible lack of preparation and structure in interviews, it can impact both the candidate’s performance and the quality of the hiring process. I’ve sat on panels where interviewers look at each other, unsure of the next question, leading to one member taking over or interviews concluding prematurely.
  3. Hostile interviewers: Facing them can be a daunting part of job interviews. It is not rare to encounter interviewers who seem to ask questions to throw candidates off-balance. While I’ve observed this tactic in the corporate world to test stress handling, I find it rather detrimental. For example, drawing from personal experience, stress can significantly impair fluency in a non-native language, often English in academia. Thus, native English speakers might come across as more composed and eloquent when facing hostile interviewers. Such tactics could also disproportionately disadvantage underrepresented groups such as women and minorities.
  4. Ghosting applicants: The disregard shown to applicants throughout the process can make job-hunting a disheartening experience. Some universities fail to inform those who haven’t been shortlisted, which can be frustrating. However, the most demoralizing part is the dismissive attitude towards candidates who have been shortlisted and interviewed. A study by Glassdoor revealed that job seekers have reported a notable increase in ghosting practices after the pandemic, a trend that’s also evident in academic settings.
    • In my experience, when there’s no communication within the initial days following an interview, it often suggests the job has been given to another candidate. While this outcome is disappointing, it’s understandable. The true concern emerges with the ‘ghosting’ strategy, where instead of direct feedback from the hiring committee, candidates receive a generic rejection email from HR—sometimes weeks after the interview. This approach is especially frustrating for those who’ve dedicated considerable time and emotional energy to their application. While most studies on ghosting’s effects center on romantic relationships, its toll on job seekers can be comparably harmful. Such practices amplify feelings of self-doubt and anxiety, especially among those facing extended job searches.

Best practices, how can we improve?

  1. Reflect and prioritize:

While outlining a clear job description is central to hiring processes, what’s often overlooked is the importance of defining a candidate profile (or candidate persona), which is basically determining what the ideal candidate would look like. Hiring committees should first reflect on the skills, attributes, experience, motivations, and career goals that they believe are required to thrive in the role.

Prioritize the information you request from candidates at different stages of the process. Top-tier universities often receive over a hundred applications for each permanent position, so it’s essential to focus on what’s manageable. Begin by asking for a CV and cover letter. In the next stage, you can ask shortlisted candidates for a research plan or teaching portfolio, if needed.

2. Prepare and reassess

With your job description and candidate profile ready, focus on preparing questions. Due to time constraints, prioritize questions that give essential information for an informed decision. Reconsider frequently used questions that might not reveal candidates’ true motivations and abilities.

While it seems logical to ask about candidates’ fit with the department, remember their knowledge of your institution is often limited to information on the university’s website. Ensure alignment is assessed during the shortlisting phase, rejection at the interview stage for this reason suggests an inefficient selection process. For fairness, pose the same questions to all candidates. An unstructured approach risks decisions being influenced by personal biases.

If fostering departmental diversity is a goal, think beyond just mentioning it in job adverts. To enhance hiring practices in this regard, it’s advisable to form diverse hiring committees and provide implicit bias training to those involved in the process.

3. Evaluate competencies

During interviews, consider using a competency-based model to assess skills effectively. Competencies refer to the skills or knowledge required for someone to successfully perform a position. This recruitment and selection model adopted by sectors like the NHS, GPs, and university libraries, promotes consistent hiring by focusing on applicants’ strengths and weaknesses vis-a-vis the job’s needs and reduces biases. To implement this model, ask candidates for examples from past experiences and their concrete actions in those situations. For instance, ask: Describe a time when you collaborated with colleagues from different departments or disciplines.

Avoid inquiring about hypothetical future situations for two main reasons. First, candidates might shape their answers based on perceived expectations. Second, real-life decisions usually allow more time than a split-second for decision-making. Therefore, an immediate reaction to a hypothetical situation might misrepresent candidates’ true course of action.

4. Keep candidates informed

While employers aren’t strictly obligated to keep candidates informed, individuals quickly develop expectations and beliefs about reciprocal obligations during the job-hunting process. This is commonly termed a psychological contract. Over time, these beliefs solidify into a stable mental model. If we aim to foster a more welcoming environment in academia, prioritising kindness and respect from the beginning is vital.

Notify applicants if they haven’t been shortlisted. For those shortlisted, collaborate with the panel to draft concise feedback for the unsuccessful candidates, sending it promptly. We shouldn’t shy away from providing feedback, even if it’s negative. Remember, how an applicant is turned down can influence the institution’s reputation, the candidate’s self-perception, and their willingness to reapply.

The current academic job market poses numerous challenges, especially for early-career scholars. The already taxing job hunt is further complicated by inefficient and sometimes insensitive hiring practices. As academia evolves, so should our approach to recruitment, emphasizing transparency, fairness, and respect. Embracing best practices will foster a more inclusive environment, benefiting institutions and their potential hires.