Failed Search

Mar 29 2011 Published by under faculty, interviewing

A longtime reader recently asked an excellent, interesting, and perplexing question:

Why do some faculty searches fail?

A failed search is one in which candidates were interviewed but no one was hired.

Given the large pool of highly qualified applicants for every faculty position, you'd think that searches would never fail. It should always be possible to hire someone good; and not only that, but someone who wants and needs the job. Yet searches do fail, and, although certainly less common than successful searches, failed searches are not so rare.

Economic issues may be involved, but these are typically resolved at an earlier phase of a search. For example, an anticipated search might be canceled after the application stage but before the interview stage, owing to budgetary issues. In some cases, however, a search might be canceled after the interviews. In my academic youth, this happened to me with one position for which I interviewed. After the interview, I got a call saying that the position was "on hold" owing to budgetary issues.

So, economics can play a role, perhaps even more so today, but I'd be surprised if most failed searches are owing to lean budgets. I would expect economic concerns to squelch a search before candidates are brought to campus to interview. Every failed search with which I have been directly involved as a faculty member has failed owing to non-economic reasons.

What are some of these reasons? Here are a few, and I hope readers will add to this list from their own experiences:

1 - All the candidates looked great on paper, but  in person, they were all jerks and/or lacking in creativity, communication skills, and/or ideas for future research. Being a jerk has not traditionally disqualified some faculty from being hired, but encountering a series of unpleasant and uninspiring interviewees definitely decreases a department's enthusiasm for hiring any one of them, especially if they all turn out to have no ideas beyond their awesome doctoral research (e.g., interviewees who say: "I plan to keep on getting more data just like these and see what falls out.").

It's unusual for every candidate interviewed to be deemed unacceptable to hire, but it happens.

As I've described in the FSP blog, I have been surprised over the years by the degree to which some interviewees are willing to be rude, patronizing, and disingenuous to faculty, students, and staff. One minor example from the FSP archives: A candidate for a faculty position, during a meeting between the candidate and the faculty (and only faculty), singled me out to wish me luck with finishing my thesis. That's nice, but, as a tenured professor, I didn't appreciate his kind wishes. This incident was one of several ways in which this candidate demonstrated that he was "out of touch" and unlikely to be a dynamic or desirable colleague. Also, his interview talks were boring.

That search failed, but only temporarily. The search was redone the following year, with great success. This is typical of many failed searches -- the position is filled during a do-over search process.

2 - The top choices accepted other offers, and none of the remaining candidates were deemed hireable. This situation arises if:

(a) The top candidate or candidates have what they consider a better offer or offers, owing to considerations of salary, start-up, geographic preferences etc.; or

(b) The timing of offers is uncoordinated, such that the top candidates have to make decisions about other offers before the university in question is able to put together an offer.

I've also heard of candidates turning down offers because they knew they weren't the #1 choice. I personally think that is a mistake, as there is commonly no real difference among the top candidates, and the ranking of #1 vs. #2 or #4 may come down to details about research specialty. If you take the job, being #2 or #4 in the search doesn't mean your colleagues will forever think of you as second- or fourth-rate, especially since they probably never thought that about you to begin with (although there are exceptions).

Most of the failed searches with which I have been involved had elements of explanations #1 and/or #2, but there are other possibilities:

3 - The department was impressed with all or most of the interviewees, but the Dean would only allow offers to be made (successively) to the top n candidates, with n < number of interviewees the department considered hireable. This happens, although I suspect it is more rare than the other explanations (correct me if I am wrong). Most academics -- including Deans -- know that every single interviewee might be an excellent hire, and, as noted above, ranking them is only done because it has to be done. The one who ended up ranked 4th or 7th or whatever might be a great hire, so why not keep making offers until one is accepted? If the search is terminated after the first or second offer is turned down, it's possible that there are reasons not known to the faculty, but it could mean that an administrator is being short-sighted and focusing only on the ranking (i.e., giving the ranking more significance than it warrants).

A failed search is a tragic thing for all concerned, and represents a lot of time and money. If a department is lucky, it gets to re-do a failed search, perhaps with success the next time because the applicant pool is different, the search is taken in a new direction, or a different search committee is formed to make initial decisions about interviewees.

Some universities have the luxury of being in continuous search mode, rather than conducting episodic searches when a position is open and the powers-that-be permit the search. A few times, I have been invited to give a talk at another university, only to realize during my visit that the department was in crypto-recruiting mode and had brought me in to ask me if I'd consider moving from my current university. In that mode, searches never really "fail", they just keep going until the department finds a good match. That works for some searches, but of course it limits the searches to people who are already known to the faculty, and may not give the searching department a very broad view of the possibilities. I think an open search is better for getting a large and diverse applicant pool, even if this type of search could ultimately fail.

So, faculty readers, have you been involved in a failed search? Why did the search fail? Was it re-done at a later date? With your responses, perhaps we can compile A Semi-Comprehensive Guide to Failed Searches.

33 responses so far

  • ah says:

    I have also heard of failed searches where the candidate was offered the job but demanded start-up / support / salary / timing that was beyond what the dept could afford. Neither side was prepared to compromise so the negotiations broke down at that stage. I'm not sure if the job was offered to candidate no 2 on the list or re-advertised.

    • K says:

      Yes, these situations can lead to failed searches. Cash-strapped schools may be unable to make offers that sound reasonable to any of the interviewed candidates, and even cash-strapped schools need to hire people who will teach effectively. (And many candidates seem to assume that teaching-intensive institutions will hire anyone, and that their research in a semi-related field qualifies them to teach anything. Not true.)

  • Dr. Confused says:

    You seem to think failed searches are rare: at my department they seem to be the norm these days. I myself was hired in the second-go-round of a search that failed the first time. We are woefully understaffed right now with about 5% of our faculty positions open and in some stage of the search mode, and a majority of them are in my broad research area and teaching stream.

    The reason for this I believe in our case is that our university is very reputation-ambitious right now. Most of us think overly so. The vice chancellor is obsessed with getting us in the list of the top 100 worldwide universities, but we are traditionally a fairly local education establishment with a few good departments. Therefore, any time we need new staff, university management insists it be a chair, that is a full professor with a stellar research record. But we don't have the reputation that would back up that kind of recruitment effort. And we're not in a geographically desirable location (for different reasons that you outlined in your post on geographic desirability).

    Even when we do manage to convince the administration to let us hire an entry-level person (as with the search for me), we're again not all that famous a university, so getting a good person to seriously consider us can be a chore. Also, the human resources law here is complex, and trailing spouses are simply not accommodated (though I've heard rumours that if you're senior enough there can be exceptions made). I wasn't interviewed on the first go-round of the search that eventually hired me due to an oversight on the part of the panel and a technical rule that meant I could not be interviewed: the chair contacted me between searches and strongly urged me to apply on the second attempt (which was apparently illegal, but nevermind).

  • MathTT says:

    We are in the midst of a search, one which may or may not fail. We have had a couple of declined offers. In addition to the reasons you cite, a popular one these days is the 2-body issue. In some cases, the partner is an academic. In other cases, the partner is in another field entirely, but one where another institution can drum up a reasonable job and we cannot or will not. I have been surprised at how dominant 2-body questions are in the top candidates this year. If our search fails, our inability to solve these issues (combined with the fact that geographically we do not give trailing spouses lots of other options) will be the primary reason.

  • studyzone says:

    My grad institution had two years of failed searches in which both candidates were offered a position, only to accept an offer from the same key rival institution (primarily because of geographic location, although in the first case, the rival institution offered a better package for the researcher spouse). After the first search, the second search committee pulled out all the stops during the candidate-elect's second visit to sell up the city, research community, etc. Because there were no other candidates that had a 100% of the faculty's support (as required in searches), there were no backup candidates. A great candidate was hired (and accepted) in the 3rd year of the search, so the general consensus is that the two failed searches were not entirely negative.

  • A. Nonymous says:

    I interviewed for a position that was cancelled because it was a joint position (2 departments) for which the departments were unable to reconcile orthogonal programmatic considerations. They each ultimately wanted very different things to come out of this search, and it was impossible for a single person to satisfy all constraints.

    Of course, you might then ask the question of why did they put together a job ad and invite people when they hadn't sorted these things out in advance? I don't get it.

  • mathgirl says:

    My former department had a failed search to look for the person to take my position as I was leaving. The main reason of the failed search was that they were forced to advertise the position in certain area (my area), but they really wanted to hire someone in another area (that's part of the reason I left). Not surprisingly most of the candidates were in my area and the committee had very few options of people to interview. They did interview some people, but either they weren't strong enough, or some candidates weren't that interested in the position.

    A related problem that happened with my former deparment but I think it must be happening to many math departments is the widespread use of the mathjobs website. This is a unified website that allows employers to advertise their positions in math, and applicants to apply to all the posiitons with a the same documents. It makes applications VERY EASY. As a result, more people than ever are applying to positions without even noticing what they do. So you get super strong candidates who don't even know where your school is, you're tempted to interview them, but of course, those interviews are almost certainly a waste of time.

  • plam says:

    I'd say something about our current search, but it's still active, so it's probably in bad form to give details non-anonymously.

  • Heavy says:

    How about when search committees have an incredibly broad job ad because they can't decide among themselves which flavor of educator/researcher they want to hire. Four people are interviewed in disparate areas of study, the committee members each pick their favorite, backed up by the corresponding faculty in those fields, and no one can come to a consensus in the end.

  • Sam R. says:

    And, building off of Heavy's comment, let's not forget extremely factionalized departments. The faculty can argue over the candidate pool and agree upon a short list... but then once they actually have to cut to a first offer, key players refuse to compromise.

    Often such lines are drawn along disciplinary background or areas of research, but not always.

  • quasihumanist says:

    There is a fairly common variant on #3 at places with limited budgets. The recruitment budget only allows at most n (usually n=3 or 4) people to be interviewed on campus, and if all of these people either turn the job down or are unacceptable, then the search fails. No provision is made or allowed for a second round of campus interviews.

    This can lead to some tricky judgements by which the best-qualified candidates are not interviewed because they seem unlikely to take the position. A smart search committee in such a situation usually makes sure they interview at least one safe candidate who seems very likely to be acceptable if not too spectacular and also likely to take the position.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    A failed search which results in no hire is better than a failed search which results in hiring someone you regret. Maybe we should have two categories of failed search.

  • Zen Faulkes says:

    At some institutions, the applicant pool is not as large as one might expect - even for the much coveted tenure-track position.

    Not only are resources for interviewing candidates finite, time is also an issue. If you want to make a hire for someone who can start teaching classes in late August, you are not likely to be successful if you make offers in June.

    The timing is actually much more constrained than one might think, but the whole approval process for advertising for the position, the review, the recommendation, the approval, the negotiation... it's can be a very tight timeline. And if one offer doesn't work out, there may not be time to make another offer.

  • Alex says:

    If the budget for on-campus interviews is an issue, why not do phone interviews first to partially narrow down the list? Almost all of the jobs I've ever applied for (in physics) first had phone interviews and then in-person interviews.

    I have to admit that with all of the masses of desperate postdocs out there, some with very long publication lists, I don't quite comprehend how a search can fail. Yes, people have explained it here, but I'm willing to bet that if you went beyond your top 3-4 candidates, and into the top 6-8, you could still find somebody quite good. That doesn't mean you have to invite all 6-8 to campus and pay the expense: You could invite your top 3-4, make offers, and if none of them accept invite #5 for an interview, and only invite #6 if #5 either isn't suitable or declines the position, and so forth.

    Yes, this is still costly, but not as costly as redoing the search next year.

  • Newbie Prof says:

    I'm surprised that you didn't mention gender issues as one of the reasons that a search can fail. My department, of 5 senior tenured men who have worked together for 10+ years, was told that they needed to bring in a woman. They conducted two searches in which they only interviewed women (not sure if this is even legal?). In both cases, the final candidates did not accept the offer. The official story was that those candidates chose to pursue other opportunities, but I can't help but wonder if they were uneasy about joining the old boy's club.

  • Anon2 says:

    RE Alex, sometimes timing becomes the key issue. In our faculty search this year, we had MANY excellent applications, interviewed too many (7!), had a hard time choosing our top 3 because they were all quite strong, have an offer out to our top choice but would be very happy with any of our top 3. If our first offer doesn't stick, we plan to make an offer to #2, and so on, but depending on how long the negotiations take with #1, it may be too late to land #2 or #3. We all hope this doesn't happen because we'd be thrilled with any of our top 3. But it is very possible.

  • Alex says:

    So if #3 has gotten another offer, what's wrong with #4, if all 7 are quite strong? If all 7 get jobs elsewhere, why not fly in #8 to interview? It's cheaper than flying in 7 more people next year. Even if the late offer means delaying the start by a semester, that's better than delaying the start by a whole year.

    • Dr. O says:

      There's a time constraint many times, as the strong candidates might have multiple interviews/offers. At some point, I'm assuming it's deemed more practical to start over and gain a new pool of candidates, instead of *settling* on someone who might not be what you really want.

  • quasihumanist says:

    @Alex: In my field, campus interviews for 3 typically come after conference interviews for anywhere between 10 and 40.

    The administration here will not allow more than 4 to be brought to campus. (On occasion, a 5th might be permitted if the candidate is local.) Part of the reasoning comes from an earlier time when candidates without a job by April most likely weren't so good. Also, any available candidate is probably willing to take the job as a VAP by that point; he or she can then apply for the reposted TT job the next year.

  • chemcat says:

    I agree that turning down a job just because one isn't the first choice is not smart. Make sure though that you have strong supporters internally, if possible people who are really vested on your success (eg center directors, the chair, whoever). These people can really make a whole lot of difference in your career at an early stage, by mentoring, by providing opportunities to talk at conferences, by being your advocate with the chair/dean, etc.Especially in large departments it's very easy to flounder otherwise.

  • The Lesser Half says:

    I have interviewed twice, and neither job was filled. I have also declined an interview (because of my 2BP), and that job was also never filled. The only reasonable explanation is that my cover letters contain antimatter.

    The point made above by Jim T is important: The only thing worse than a failed search is a search that succeeds but recruits the wrong person. These days that can mean the person ends up being terrible, but it can also mean that the person leaves for greener pastures after consuming all the start-up funds. And with the 2BP, greener pastures can even mean a big step down in reputation (if there are two jobs at a lesser university), or even just one job (if the spouse is assuredly not ever going to get an offer at the current institution, you might as well risk moving elsewhere where the odds are not zero).

  • As someone else mentioned, the number one reason we have failed searches is a trailing-partner issue. People are rightly unwilling to come to our isolated location without something in the works for their partner, but that may or may not be possible for us in the time we have and in the location we're stuck with. Some kinds of jobs simply don't exist here, and people whose partners have those jobs won't come, no matter how enthusiastic they seem in the interview.

  • Nicole says:

    We're really good with dual partner issues, despite being in the middle of nowhere (everybody is married to someone who works for the university). Most of our failed searches have been a problem of timing. When we hire we tend to hire for a large number of very disparate positions and sometimes folks in the later searches have to make choices before we even have time for them to come out. And, of course, there's candidate #1 dragging his or her heels while candidate #2 ends up taking another (inferior) offer. We'd do better if we could hire 2 a year over 3 years rather than 6 in one year and nobody the other two years, but such is life at a cash-strapped state university-- you take opportunities when they come or lose them altogether.

    What is really nice is when we're able to hire for multiple positions in one search-- then we can give two offers at the same time and when one rejects and the other accepts we're happy!

  • Ace says:

    I am surprised you didn't list "the department couldn't get their act together and decide what kind of person they wanted but did a search anyway and they just could not agree". Perhaps this counts as "unhirable" but not a shortcoming of the candidates. I was not hired at a top US university in a department famous for repeated failed searches. It didn't hurt so much, since I was in good company! Over the years I heard more about the story and it turned out the main factors were an internal mess of departmental politics, ineffective search chair(s), and the fact that they can apparently get away with it...

  • Ace says:

    I just noticed many commenters made the same point!

  • atmos_prof says:

    At my uni we don't seem to be able generally to actually give the Dean a ranked list and have them go down it. At least in most cases we seem to have to make the case to hire a particular person and then only after that person turns us down, try make a separate case to hire #2. This takes so long and is so painful that we seem generally just to fail if #1 says no.

    We had one really terrible search where the two top candidates were both internal - meaning they had research scientist, non-faculty appointments but had applied for the same faculty position (along with many outside people). Each internal candidate had strong loyalty from ~30% of the faculty but was thought to be very poor by another 30% - with the other 40% (the ones whose own research was least related) undecided and very confused about why their colleagues disagreed so violently. After this experience I think that generally internal candidates should be excluded a priori. At the end we made an offer to neither one, but rather to a third, external person, who then turned us down. Position still unfilled more than a year later and search not re-authorized. And we really need someone in this area. Sigh.

  • job applicant says:

    Applying for jobs this year, I've encountered a situation that I'm not quite sure counts as a "failed search," but it seems like a failure of a sort. Maybe it's a special case of the economic failure. There's a big department where individual research groups carry out their own searches (experimentalists in subfield A do a search, theorists in subfield B do another search, ...). The Dean told the department they could have two new hires this year. The department chair decided, instead of choosing two of the subfields wanting to hire and telling them they had the funding this year, to tell all the different subfields to do a search and let them fight over which one would get the positions. So it's not a failure to hire, in the sense that the department knew how many openings there were, but different subfields didn't know in advance if they would get the opening or not, but went ahead with interviews anyway. Seems like a lot of wasted effort, when during my interview the department chair gave me a very strong hint that it had already been decided which subfield would get the job (not mine), and seemed oddly pleased with himself for setting up the different groups to fight with each other. It made me feel like I was wasting my time and that of everyone I was meeting with.

  • We had failed searches for a chair for about 6 years. This was stupid strategic planning on the part of our then Dean, who insisted that we had to hire a senior chair before we got any more junior slots. Each senior appointment attempt took about 2 years of negotiations before failing (the Dean was not willing to give the department the resources needed to move a senior person of a quality the faculty were willing to have in the department). We finally got someone from industry with no academic experience who satisfied the dean, but who was not a particularly good chair (good researcher, but not at all in tune with the teaching mission and not a great administrator). We lost a lot of opportunities to hire really great junior faculty while the dean forced us into his top-down mode of department building. We have never recovered from this damage, since hiring was frozen after we did get a chair.

    It is possible for a search to fail without an interview. We had one pool attempting to hire in a new direction for the department where we had few applicants, none of whom were a good fit for the advertised position. We closed that search with no interviews—the slot has been the number one on our wish list for about 6 years without our being allowed to advertise it again.

    Although there may be 100s of applicants for a faculty position, we generally find that only 5–10% of them meet our standards for quality of research. Lots of people apply for "stretch" positions that they really are not up to doing.

  • Candid Engineer says:

    I did my grad work in a well-ranked dept that "prided itself" on "maintaining the quality" of the dept by only making ONE offer. If the first choice didn't take it, that was the end of that.

    Always thought the approach was a little short-sighted.

  • Dean N says:

    We just had a failed search in which the committee needed 4 years to get their act together and then submitted a dossier full of errors and just one name on the short list, although there were over 60 applicants. The person on the list is a buddy of the search committee chair, and the letters of recommendation were practically identical. We killed the committee and will start afresh, we still need someone for the position!

  • Harv says:

    Another related geographical reason for candidates to turn down offers from our department is the state politics. Some of that erupted after the search was initiated, but our state is very conservative and into slashing education funding. This was one of the reasons we were turned down.

  • postdog says:

    The problem i see is that the top schools don't make decisions till very late, march or april. thus, good candidates won't accept or reject other offers till they hear from these dream schools, and so all the other schools are left strung along until it's too late.

  • anonymous says:

    Has anyone ever heard of a situation where they called a failed search because there weren't a quota of qualified applicants--so they didn't even do any interviews? From my understanding, it seems that the provost at this university might have a rule (not sure if it's an official rule) that requires that there be X number of applicants before candidates can be brought in for an interview. If my spouse already is a faculty member (associate prof/tenured), then isn't there some way to get around this? Any advice on how to investigate my options would be helpful. Surely, assuming they want me in their department, they could pull some strings, right?