Timothy Larsen, a professor at Wheaton College, answers four common questions young academics have about the mysterious process of getting a tenure-track professorship:
Given how eminently well qualified I am for this position, how can you possibly justify eliminating me so early in the process?
We announced one entry-level position this year and garnered 176 candidates. That number is a little high, but not far off from what has been a typical yield for the last five years or more. There are a handful of cranks and dreamers in the pack with a diploma-mill Ph.D. or the like, but tossing them out makes no real dent in the pile. In other words, there were at least 150 scholars who were all completely qualified and suitable. In our system, these are technically people who have expressed interest in the position. We then invite some of them to submit the full application.
This ticks people off. We probably need to find some new nomenclature. “I was not even allowed to fill out the application!” is a grievance against us that job-seekers shout to one another across hotel lobbies at annual meetings. The truth is that the full app is a pain. We demand that candidates write a whole series of thoughtful essays on topics such as their personal research trajectory and their understanding of the meaning of a liberal arts education. It seems cruel to make people who have no statistically significant chance of being offered the position spend days of their lives doing this. (Not to mention making their referees send in letters.) Of the 176 who expressed interest we sent the full application to 37. This was almost certainly too many. From our perspective, it means that the bottom 7 needed 30 apparently better candidates to somehow self-destruct or melt away before they would really be in the running. A few of these 37 undoubtedly made it through this stage simply because we did not want to give them the right to go run into friends at the book tables and blurt out,
“And they did not even allow me to apply!”