Help Wanted

by Caroline Berens | 5/21/15 8:31pm

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Ali Dalton/The Dartmouth staff

In May 1992, Thomas Cormen, vying for a position in the mathematics and computer science department, had a lot on his mind.

Cormen, then working toward his Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was interviewing at an unusual time for prospective professor candidates. Most apply in the fall and, if they are contacted for an interview, visit campus in the winter before learning about their status in the spring to allow time for the move.

By the spring of 1992, though, the mathematics and computer science department had failed to hire any new professors. In a rare instance, rather than trying again the following year, the department began a second round of interviews.

In Bradley Hall — torn down a few years later — Cormen endured the stifling heat throughout his interview and colloquium, a presentation in which a professorial candidate presents their research to their respective department.

“The colloquium is a very hard talk to give,” Cormen said. “You have essentially one hour to convince people that your work is cool and fundable and that you’d be a good teacher and colleague.”

Although most candidates are taken out to dinner after their day of interviewing, presenting and touring, Cormen had no interest. Instead, he opted to go out for ice cream with faculty members.

Cormen was later offered a position and is now the chair of the computer science department.

Not all applicants are so lucky.

Just as thousands of gifted high school seniors dream of attending an Ivy League school, it’s the ambition of many recent Ph.D. recipients pursuing academia to teach at one. As arduous and competitive as college admissions are, the process of securing a teaching position is perhaps even more onerous and selective.

Cormen explained that the process begins with a retreat for deans during the summer, at which they discuss how many positions they will allocate to each department. If a department decides it wants to hire, it outlines parameters — specifically, how many positions they’re looking to fill and in which research areas.

Engineering professor John Zhang, for example, explained that the engineering department mostly hires in medicine, engineering and complex systems.

The department then puts out an advertisement in appropriate areas after it is reviewed by the Institutional Office of Equity and Diversity.

Classics department chair Roberta Stewart said that for positions in the humanities, the advertisement might be posted in standard academic publications like the Chronicle of Higher Education, while Cormen said for others like computer science it could be put in the communications of the Association for Computing Machinery. Stewart noted that some disciplines use listervs as well.

Stewart emphasized that departments try to extend their reach to an extensive pool of applicants, including prospective faculty who live abroad. Sometimes, Cormen and Zhang noted, departments will actively recruit exemplary applicants.

Cormen said that a distinct feature of advertisements for positions at the College, at least in the computer science department, is that they require individuals to boast their teaching chops.

“We’re one of the few high research universities where our ad says at least one of the reference letters must comment on teaching,” Cormen explained.

Stewart said that although advertisements for positions in the classics department do not have the same requirement, all letters ultimately mention an individual’s teaching.

Cormen referenced a favorite quote of his colleague, computer science professor David Kotz:

“At most universities, research is up here,” Cormen said, raising a hand above his head, “and teaching is down here,” putting his other hand flat on the table.

“But at Dartmouth, research and teaching,” he added as he raised both hands to a level plane above his head, “are both up here.”

He told the story of a friend of his, a professor at an unspecified university, who encountered the opposite philosophy.

“Her dean told her, ‘I don’t care about your teaching — I don’t even care about your publishing. All I care about is how much money you bring into the department,’” Cormen explained. His friend, he said, left her position at that university.

Still, Cormen did note that another reason some candidates decline positions at the College is its overly high expectation of teaching.

“We expect more teaching than a lot of other places — there are some places where you teach one course and are done. So it might be amount of teaching, or the pressure to teach well,” Cormen explained.

Next, potential candidates apply for positions. Although it varies by discipline, the application package is standard — a CV, research statement, a teaching certification or statement and letters of recommendation.

Stewart said that some applicants include course evaluations from students they have taught, but she can be skeptical of those.

“Those can be tough to evaluate because some people cherry-pick,” she said.

Cormen said that candidates do not necessarily have to have a master’s degree, but must have a Ph.D. or be ABD — an acronym that stands for all but dissertation, meaning the applicant is on track to receive their Ph.D. soon.

This was the case with Cormen. Hired alongside his friend from MIT, Cliff Stein, Cormen was still ABD, whereas Stein had finished his dissertation. This meant Cormen would have the title of instructor until he completed his degree, while Stein would be an assistant professor.

Perhaps feeling a little competitive, Cormen said he worked tirelessly to finish his dissertation the summer before coming to Hanover.

“The thought that I’d be here with [Stein], a good friend of mine, and I’d be an instructor and he’d be an assistant professor was very good motivation to finish up my dissertation that summer to avoid that situation,” Cormen said, laughing.

Once applications are received, a recruiting committee assembles in each department to review.

“The committee has to put in a tremendous amount of effort,” Zhang said. “There could be up to two hundred applicants, depending on the opening.”

Once the associate deans and IDE give the okay, those selected are contacted for an interview. If the position is temporary, Stewart says, it’s usually done over FaceTime or Skype. For tenure track positions, however, candidates are invited to campus. Unfortunately, the visits are done during a largely unfavorable time for Hanover.

“We do the interviews at the worst possible time — in the winter,” Cormen said. “I wish we [would] do them at another time, but that’s the season.”

To work at the Thayer School of Engineering, Zhang had to give two seminars during his visit. The first was a talk, open to the public, where he had to explain his research in such a clear way that “a grandma could understand it.” The second was a smaller presentation to the department where he described his value as a teacher.

Stewart said that in the classics department, students attend a candidate’s lecture and fill out detailed questionnaires afterward. She said she appreciates and values the emphasis on getting student feedback.

“What adds the pressure is that you have to convey your ideas very clearly in a defined time frame,” Zhang said. “But as a professor, you should always be ready to talk about things in a concise way.”

Zhang said that the lunch he had with students during his visit was what ultimately sold him on Dartmouth. Students’ openness and honesty increased the appeal of campus, he said.

Once these visits end, the committee convenes to discuss each applicant’s strengths and weaknesses. Students who met with the candidate are also included in the discussion process.

After a vote, final decisions are made, and the dean or department chair begins calling candidates to make offers. That’s when the strategizing can begin.

“You make the first two offers to A and B, if A turns down offer it to C, if B turns it down make offer to D,” Cormen explained.

Cormen said that in his experience, candidates are almost always interviewing at other institutions, but that these institutions vary greatly — they are not just other Ivies.

He noted that last year the computer science department lost a candidate to the University of Indiana, and a few years prior, an applicant took a job at the University of Rochester before the College had offered them a job.

Competition, he said, can result from Hanover’s geography. Many applicants might prefer working in a city.

“Our location mostly works against us,” Cormen said.

Stewart qualified Cormen’s thinking. When considering taking a position, she said, there is a lot more that goes into the decision than the College’s academic reputation.

“Most people are looking at the job, the quality of the students, the resources the college has — those attractive features,” she said.

She noted that one of her colleagues left because he disliked Hanover’s small size, but that people generally focus on the job itself.

Cormen also mentioned what’s called the “two-body problem” — when a candidate declines a job because their partner or spouse cannot find suitable work in the area. In rarer cases, that might really be a one-body problem, where a single candidate turns down the job in fear that there aren’t enough romantic prospects in the area.

Biology Ph.D. student Vivek Venkataraman explained that it can difficult to reconcile priorities in these situations.

“There are trade-offs with personal life versus professional life,” Venkataraman said.

Zhang, who worked at University of Texas at Austin for nine years, said that he came to the College when he had a clearer professional agenda and priorities.

He said, however, that he enjoyed beginning his career as a professor in a large city like Austin. Professors who begin their careers at the College might not be afforded the same benefits.

“Dartmouth’s location and size play dual roles,” Zhang said. “It can be a disadvantage in terms of convenience [and] access to certain locations.”

If a candidate decides to accept the position, he or she will often return to Hanover with a spouse or family and meet with a local realtor. The yield rate for professors, however, varies greatly according to discipline.

“You’d think at Dartmouth, being as good a school as it is, we’d get our pick of faculty,” Cormen said. “But our batting average tends to be pretty low.”

He said that last year — when the computer science department made seven offers and filled three positions — that was “really good.”

Cormen noted, however, that the low yield rate is in line with other elite universities. Cormen said that at Princeton University, for example, under half of the offers it made last year were ultimately accepted.

Cormen attributes this to the fact that the College is ambitious in its aim to hire the most outstanding people in individual fields.

“We try for the very best people, and we’re competing against other top institutions and several with much bigger research programs,” he explained.

Stewart, however, has had a very different experience in the classics department. She said that throughout her career here, there have only been two people who turned down a position in her department. They both did so because of the two-body problem.

She said that some other disciplines are more “sellers’ markets,” which might contribute to the disparity in yield rate.

Some Ph.D. students may feel more like buyers than sellers.

“There’s not a whole lot of jobs out there for biologists and anthropologists,” ecology and evolutionary biology Ph.D. student Tom Kraft said. “It’s certainly a concern a lot of people have, purely the numbers game.”

Stewart said that the increasingly impressive quality of applicants makes the process even more competitive.

“There is an enormous number of Ph.D.s right now,” Stewart said. “People work really hard and are really smart, which means the quality of applications is stellar.”

In the humanities, she said, there simply are not enough spots to hire all of them.

“It’s wonderful, on the one hand, for us — we have a choice of some truly remarkable people,” Stewart said. “But it’s hard on the other side for the job applicant.”

Kraft also noted that the process can become even tougher if you have a significant other.

“The competition is so high that universities have little incentive to offer a position to someone with whom you need to move,” Kraft said.

Kraft and Venkatraman both said that they enjoy graduate school, but Venkataraman noted that people sometimes no longer find it worth doing when they could be getting paid twice as much elsewhere. Also, he explained, the academic environment might not be what they originally envisioned.

“Academia is full of politics,” he said.

Perhaps this, coupled with what Zhang called an “incredibly rigorous” application process, is what makes securing professorship so difficult.

But ultimately, Cormen said, this process is the nature of a competitive, elite institution.

“Slots are precious at Dartmouth,” Cormen said. “They don’t hand them out like candy.”

Corrections appended (May 22, 2015):

A previous version of this article used the acronym ABADto mean "all but dissertation." The proper acronym is ABD.

A previous version of this article quoted Cormen as saying, “You’d think at Dartmouth, being as good a school as it is, we’d get our pick of faculty, but our battering average tends to be pretty low."

The quote should have said that our "batting average" is low.

The Dartmouth regrets these errors.