Why You Didn’t Get That Tenure Track Job

Wheaten College’s Timothy Larsen explains that, in a world where 176 highly qualified applicants apply for a single tenure-track vacancy at his institution, a lot of people are miffed. He sympathizes. He closes a longish column discussing the ins and outs of the hiring process:

Believe me, we know that we could not get our current jobs now with the CVs we had then. In some ways you have already outperformed us for life. We will never have degrees from institutions as prestigious as yours. We will never know as many languages as you. We can’t tell amusing anecdotes about mistaking the meaning of an invitation to tea when a Rhodes scholar. We honestly think you would fill this position wonderfully well and we would be delighted to have you as a colleague.

The vast majority of candidates are eliminated because of a departmental discussion about the optimal specialization to fill out the team. This conversation is usually an ongoing, fluid one rather than one that has been determined in advance. In one meeting someone will seem to convince most people that a certain expertise would overlap too much with the research interests of existing members of the department, but at the next one someone might sway the room with a passionate speech about how we could become widely known for particular strength in that subfield. You ended up getting cut because at a crucial moment in the search the logic of “we need someone with a non-Western focus” did or did not win out.

While the qualified applicants to jobs ratio is smaller outside academia, the same vagaries apply. I’ve been on both ends of the hiring process and the truth of the matter is that the people advertising for positions often have only the vaguest idea of what they’re looking for. I’ve lost out on jobs to people who less matched the advertised job description than I did and gotten jobs where I sold them on a different vision of the position than they were initially seeking.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Brummagem Joe says:

    Yeah Jim, the world isn’t perfect.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Oh, no doubt about it. And I’m not sure that there’s evidence that departments aren’t hiring the best fit candidates. It’s just that there’s a boatload of highly educated people out there competing against each other for too few openings. It’s been going on now for two decades, though, and people are still chasing the academic dream.

  3. Ben Wolf says:

    The key is to have something no one else does, and sell it. The ability to read and write in a foreign language is a highly competetive skill to have. For example, I’m amazed at how many history graduate students choose to focus in areas that DON’T require them to understand another language.

    That might make your studies easy, but it outs you on the same footing as everyone else in the country.

  4. matt b says:

    This is why networking, both in all spheres of employment is so important. It was true when I was in the private sector, its true on the speaking circuit, and definitely true in higher ed.

    One thing that I’ve noticed among many grad students at my school is the failure to recognize how important it is to cultivate relationships across departments and participate in events outside of class. Unfortunately, many departments cultivate in their Grad Students the mistaken assumption that one is solely judged on the quality of their scholarship. Even worse, they often also fair to teach people that networking means a lot more than just attending the major conference in your discipline.