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Detecting a Bad Fit

Written by: David D. Perlmutter
Published on: Nov 2, 2015

ou took the job because you thought it seemed like a good fit and, after all, it was a tenure-track offer. Then you arrive on the campus only to find yourself trapped in a bog. Maybe the problem is bait-and-switch support, where the department promises much more than it intends or is able to give. Maybe the faculty culture turns out to be toxic, and you spend every day praying for deliverance from your sniping, backstabbing colleagues. Maybe the administrators in charge are petty tyrants who have no management principles beyond paranoia and punishment. Or, as is very common nowadays, departments may be in a structural or budget crisis and you have signed on to the crew of a sinking ship. My own experiences as a job candidate have been a mixed bag. Sometimes I enjoyed pleasant interludes among good people; other times I have suffered hell and met callous jerks. Either way, I always felt I learned something. In this series of essays on academic-search fails, I accentuate the negative not to depress or scare job candidates but to help you better spot problems and deal with them. In Part 1, I examined the fake search. Now let’s turn to the places and situations that truly are threatening to your sanity, health, and ascent in the profession.

So how can you tell — before you accept the offer — when something is seriously amiss in the department or institution? You may not have any choice, financially, but to accept the job, but it’s always better to know what you’re getting yourself into.

Gather intel, online and in person. In this age of automatic self-disclosure in social media, it seems almost impossible that any academic department could hide its problems. Yet over and over again I hear from people who took jobs and found themselves in terrible environments where they had walked in unaware and unprepared. Job ads rarely reveal the internal workings of a department. You have to dig, and ask, and search to learn what you can about the real story behind the facade.

The obvious place to start is with trusted advisers. Have they heard of the department (and the college or university)? What do they think of it? Shrewd mentors will not let their protégés walk blindly into a furnace. The various wikis and blogs about "places to fear" in academia can also be good sources of knowledge. And if you can do it discreetly, sound out people in the department or who know others there; they might help paint a full picture.

Another potential source of useful intel is refugees. Try to find someone who has recently left the department. What are their impressions or recollections?

Don’t take anything anyone says — good or bad — entirely on faith. Just because one person described his colleagues as crazy on the "universities to fear" wiki doesn’t mean they really are. Nor does it mean that everyone else in the department is amiable and stable and it was only an outlier who chose to post. Likewise, people may post positive reports because they don’t feel like picking a fight with their former colleagues or still need them for reference letters.

Learn as much as you can from a variety of sources and make up your own mind.

Read the mood and manner. When you meet department members during a conference interview or a campus visit (or even via telephone or Skype), you have the opportunity to learn from direct testimony and close observation, rather than hearsay. One Ph.D. student described a conference interview in which members of the hiring department greeted one another’s comments with chortles and heavy sighs. The candidate’s impression was that she was sitting at Sunday dinner with a dysfunctional family — not a good sign of the state of departmental culture.

So reading how people act — and inferring what they don’t say aloud — is sometimes as important as what they actually say.

Another candidate described a campus visit to a department where all of the assistant professors were taciturn to the point of gruffness. To almost any question she posed, they answered, "Can’t talk about that" or "I don’t know." That could have been a sign of a fake search. Perhaps they knew there was no point in elaborating since someone else had been preselected to fill the job. But it could also have been an indicator — and the candidate eventually confirmed it — that the young scholars in the department were being terrorized into silence by a cohort of bullying silverbacks.

Gather your data. Human intel — whether in person or from a wiki — can be hit or miss, but crunching the productivity numbers can give you a more precise view of what is going on in a department, at least in terms of outcomes. At a research-oriented institution, look at the CVs of junior faculty, especially the ones who have been there the length of the tenure track. Are they publishing at a quantity and in the venues you aspire to emulate? That won’t tell you if there is a toxic atmosphere in the department, but it will tell you that the culture is not so bad as to crush productivity and that the support for research seems pretty stable.

Another number to look at, if you can decipher it, is the turnover rate. See if you can find out how many tenure-trackers leave after only a few years — and why. Often there is no story here. People move on for many reasons, including family and better offers. But a high rate of departures and a pattern (e.g., "the labs seem great but they don’t maintain them") of why they leave is worth trying to track.

Read the fine print and get it in writing. Years ago I met an assistant professor who bluntly described why he wanted to leave his institution: "They lied!" His chair, after calling to offer the job, was rather casual about the specifics in the appointment letter. In fact, there were none, including no listing of salary or support. The candidate, desperate for a stable job, took the chair at his word not to worry and believed the assurance, "We’ll take care of you." Upon arrival on the campus, however, Dr. Jekyll turned into Mr. Hyde: Everything from salary to professional support to teaching load was different from what was promised (or heavily implied) in the previous conversations. Short of just quitting on the spot, the hapless tenure-tracker was stuck.

An outlier situation, yes, but warning bells should sound in your head if the administrator (chair, director, or dean) discussing the deal seems to want to avoid putting anything down in writing, or seems to change the terms of the appointment slightly in every conversation.

That said, even a written contract can be broken for any number of reasons — including that a new chair comes along who does not want to honor it. Again, that is not common, but you want to get a feeling of an atmosphere of trust in the institution, not just in an individual.

Sure, being on the tenure track somewhere is almost always better than being unemployed, but that doesn’t mean you should accept an offer impetuously. A tenure-track position is a potential lifetime commitment. Don’t walk into the relationship so giddy with relief that you neglect to be alert to any danger that may await you.

David D. Perlmutter is a professor in and dean of the College of Media & Communication at Texas Tech University. He writes the "Career Confidential" advice column for The Chronicle. His book, Promotion and Tenure Confidential was published by Harvard University Press in 2010.