Rumors: milling

If any of you were wondering whether this whole job wiki thing we mentioned earlier would work, well, that would seem to be a “yes.”  Greg mentioned it in a (totally off-topic) comment, but I thought I would point it out for those of you who aren’t subscribed to their recent changes RSS feed (what?  I’m addicted to RSS.  I’ve never denied it).

The question this raises in my mind is “Who is posting all this stuff?”  There are now short-list candidates listed for about positions at the moment.  I’m assuming, in practice, for tenure track stuff, “short list” means the people who did on campus interviews (though the site doesn’t even try to define that, so I may be totally off-base).  An on-campus interview is a pretty public thing that lots of people know about.  I would be very curious to know whether it was the candidates themselves, someone on the committees in question, or just some department denizen who’s been paying attention.  Of course, there’s probably some of all three, but what’s the mix?

One can try to guess this by looking which edits occur simultaneously.  In some cases, the same person will be added to several lists, which you can guess is the person in question, or perhaps one of their friends (hooray for gossip)!  One such person even used their last name as a username (though we still can’t be sure it was her, of course. Silly internet).  On the other hand, some times just a single name comes up, and we don’t know what to think.

Of course, the person who really knows about this is the wiki (non)moderator (who as far as I can tell is pseudonymous).  So if you’re feeding this, oh font of job wisdom, feel free to comment (hell, you can guest post if you want) on said mix.

And I can’t help but wonder how the rest of you are feeling about this job rumor mill thing.  Jealous? Transfixed? Annoyed? Indifferent?

15 thoughts on “Rumors: milling

  1. “And I can’t help but wonder how the rest of you are feeling about this job rumor mill thing.”

    I just wanted to say again, I think the wiki is great for job applicants: they can use it or not as they see fit. But it has potentially very negative consequences for everybody if hiring committees (or even just individual members of hiring committees) use it to find out who “has buzz”. That is why I repeat my opinion that all hiring committee members should not look at the wiki.

    Those negative consequences obviously are exacerbated if any applicants manipulate the system by (self-)reporting in an overly self-aggrandizing way.

  2. I’m curious what other people think of this argument. I’ll admit, it’s hard to underestimate how suggestible people are, but I’m not feeling it. These aren’t 14 year-olds trying to fit in at school. Band wagoning doesn’t tend to work to your advantage, since only one school can ultimately hire someone. I actually would fear more that committees look at the wiki, say “So-and-so got a interview/offer from them? I guess we shouldn’t even think about it.”

    But, of course, this is just irresponsible speculation on my part.

  3. “I actually would fear more that committees look at the wiki, say “So-and-so got a interview/offer from them? I guess we shouldn’t even think about it.””

    I would hope that a job candidate who had an interview/offer from school A but was very interested in school B would actually contact school B and let them know the situation. (“Dear so-and-so, I have an offer from A, but I’m very interested in your department. Can you update me on the situation there?”)

    Similarly, a candidate with an offer from school A who is not interested in school B should let them know, so school B knows to focus elsewhere…

  4. Jason Starr writes:

    That is why I repeat my opinion that all hiring committee members should not look at the wiki.

    That sounds good, but once hiring commitees find out about this wiki there’s no way they won’t look at it. Hiring commitee members already use every known form of gossip, email, etc. to find out which candidates are good, which ones have other offers, what are the deadlines of these other offers, etc. There is no way they’ll resist using a publicly available website!

    So: if you can’t get rid of the website, you have learn to live with the idea that everyone with an interest will look at it.

  5. I totally agree with Ben’s point that everyone involved is an adult with plenty of time to make rational decisions. To be sure, adults are still susceptible to peer pressure and so forth, but I generally don’t believe in having adults wear blinders to improve their thinking. Moreover, search committees already know a lot more of the type of information on the jobs wikis than candidates do.

    But Jason may have a point about higher administration. A department can under pressure from the university administration to hire people with buzz. I think/agree that departments deserve a lot of independence from the administration, and that can justify a measure of temporary privacy. But I think that this effect is outweighed by constructive peer pressure among different math departments. Our department has hired people who attracted more buzz after they came, and I think that it makes us look good rather than bad — it’s a victory to hire underrated people. What’s bad is when a department tells itself that a candidate has a lot of buzz when it ought to know that it isn’t true. I think that a jobs wiki can convey constructive peer pressure in that case.

    As for Ben’s original questions, I will say that the best sources of information are the candidates themselves and the search committees. Because then it’s authoritative information rather than just rumors. I don’t see what’s wrong with self-promotion in this circumstance as long as it’s true.

    I have gotten the full range of responses to this from various job candidates. Different people are grateful, transfixed, annoyed, and indifferent. Maybe jealous too, although no one has said so. (But I have asked not to see e-mail sent to the wiki moderator.) I don’t think that merit of this project is a straightforward moral calculation at all, but I still think that on balance it’s a good thing.

  6. Hopefully hiring committees are less suggestible than I am cynically suggesting. But I am a cynic :) I haven’t had much contact with hiring, but what little contact I have had does not inspire much faith. And I agree with Ben that improper use of the wiki is as likely to discourage a committee from considering a worthy candidate as it is to promote an unworthy candidate. No matter what the reason, I think it is a bad idea for committee members to look at the wiki.

    Ultimately, even if committee members are using the wiki, I think they should be careful what they say to others. After all, there are potential legal ramifications. As paranoid as that argument sounds, I think we all know there are people who sue over hiring/promotion decisions. My employer claims they keep track of what we do online.
    I assume those records can be subpoenaed (if there is cause).

  7. On the whole I think this is a useful development, but three things bother me:

    (1) Information from candidates may be unreliable. I assume almost all of them are honest, but it’s not clear how to interpret things. If someone at a university says encouraging things to you but doesn’t explicitly say “you are on our short list”, does that justify listing yourself on the wiki? This could give a buzz advantage to candidates who are less scrupulous about when to list themselves.

    (2) If a candidate is in fact dishonest, there is much more potential for abuse. Who knows what the chances of getting detected are, and it would be difficult to prove that the candidate is actually responsible for the deception.

    (3) Search committees are not justified in releasing information on who has applied or is being considered. Some people may not wish their current employer to know that they are looking for other jobs. I am in industry, and I have not known my employer to take any negative action when someone searches for academic jobs, but I can imagine this would be an issue at some companies. Similarly, I’ve heard stories about people on the tenure track who get accused of disloyalty if they apply for jobs at stronger schools, and nobody wants to jeopardize their chances of tenure before they even reach the stage of getting another offer.

  8. John P.-

    Yes, candidates obviously should do those things. But isn’t this whole discussion about human frailties? In particular, it’s totally unclear whether candidates have a really reliable preference order for schools. Almost certainly not, in fact.

  9. You might want to compare this wiki with what happens in other countries. In France for instance each year the french math societies organize a nationwide procedure “Opération Postes”.

    First offers from each university are collected, then applications from candidates are open until a common deadline. The list of names detailing who applied where are then made public and the universities have a few months until another deadline to have a look at each application and organize short vivas. They then produce a secret sorted shortlist of 5 names of who they would like most for the job. Finally all these shortlists are published on the same day and the candidates make their choice (some are listed first at many places so do have a choice, others are 4th or 5th at just one place and can only hope for those above them to go elsewhere, there are two rounds).

    I would think the crucial step is when each university makes its shortlists, trying to infer what the other universities will do (and I don’t know what happens behind the scenes then). The idea being that they can afford to shortlist 1st somebody that may turn them down, but sometimes it’s better to forget the best application and lure somebody slightly less fashionable by ranking him/her first. (There is also a rule that universities cannot hire their own PhDs to avoid unfair competition with external applicants, although in Paris this can simply mean stop at a different métro station).

  10. Leon-

    I wasn’t aware of that, but I’m familiar with the idea; in the US, a similar system is used for doctors. I’ve contemplated at points how things might go in math in such a set-up, but at the moment I don’t think there’s much interest in it here (though again, maybe I’m wrong and irresponsibly speculating again).

  11. Some additions to the description of the French system: a big difference is that all universities depend on the central government, hence the possibility of a globally organized process. Another big difference, is that every position (in the context described) is a permanent position. However, it is not quite as uniform as suggested by the previous comment. It is true that all positions are advertised at the same time (say around March, though it is often possible to know in advance which places will have what jobs) and the candidates must apply before around April 15. But then the hiring committes — which is the same for all mathematics positions within one university — meets twice (once to select the interviewees and once to produce the shortlist), and everything must be done by (say) May 30, but the timing of the interviews and other meetings are free.

    Moreover, the (5 names, or less) shortlists are not secret, except that candidates can ask to not be identified. Apart from that, the information is available as soon as the committee’s meeting is done, and what the (very efficient and useful) Opération Postes does is to make all this available quickly in a convenient place, instead of having to rely on phone calls to the secretaries of the various universities. (In fact, in many places, it is the president of the hiring committee whosends the information to Opération Postes).

    Also the shortlists do not appear simultaneously, but over a period of two to three weeks, as each university does its interviews — in particular, some candidates are “interviewed” (between quotes, because the interview is nothing like what it is in most countries ; for junior positions, this will typically be a 20 min talk with barely more than one or two questions, and it’s just a bit more involved in the case of senior positions) when many other universities have already made their choices. There is of course a lot of gossip during the selection period, and it would not be uncommon (I have seen it) that while deciding to interview a candidate, one of the exterior members of the committee will say “You can of course put him/her in your list, but I can tell you that s/he will be ranked first tomorrow in my university, and that we have checked that s/he will accept.”

    [An extra factor is the CNRS hiring procedure, which is parallel and independent and concerns a few (around 10) junior (permanent) positions with no teaching duties _ever_. Usually the top few candidates (those who would end up ranked 1st in many places) are hired by CNRS, and this happens during the period when universities hire…]

    Finally, note that the system is about to be changed to something which is not yet completely determined (it may end up being the same as above, or something closer to other countries) and that the “no local hire” system is not a rule, but a common practice in most mathematics department [other fields, such as Computer Science, where there are many more positions, typically do a little or a lot of local hiring, depending on local conditions].

  12. An on-campus interview is a pretty public thing that lots of people know about.

    Yeah, you can guess from the colloquium listing; you don’t have to be a local, if you’re willing to make errors. If I were a candidate, I’d probably contribute such short lists from schools where I had an interview scheduled. I’m surprised that so little of this information is on the wiki, although I could be wrong about the range of schools for which this works.

  13. One thing that I have done is write to everyone listed on the wiki page to ask them if the information is correct. Some mistakes have appeared on the page, but writing to the people listed has proved to be valuable on all sides. People confirm information, they correct mistakes, they join in the effort and provide more information. I don’t see how there can be much falsehood left on the page. There could be a significant amount of missing information, though.

    (There is also a wiki moderator who isn’t me, but this particular mode of support has been my doing so far, although I forward relevant email to wikimod.)

    Another thing that I did was add an asterisk to the schools that use mathjobs. I know that it is too late to be useful to candidates, but I hope that it will serve as a hint to search committees. At this point, it’s a massive mistake for any research-track search committee not to use mathjobs. (Teaching-track schools can instead use the joint meetings job fair.)

  14. Greg, can you comment on how often information is deleted by secretive search committees? I know you can’t exactly know, but I am sure you have some interesting deletions.

  15. I know that they have not deleted a whole lot. Also I don’t know all that much about who edits the wiki, even though in many cases I can make an educated guess. I know of at least one example that resembled a search committee deleted its entire slate, but the edit was reverted.

    Frankly it wasn’t all that interesting, or only interesting for negative reasons. The point of this project is to share information and make the job market more efficient, not aggravate search committees. The reaction from a search committee or a department chair can be any combination of appreciating its information, accepting it as inevitable or irreversible, and resenting it. I know that one common reaction at that end is to see the wiki as a regrettable act of chutzpah. I don’t know whether most search committees think so, and I hope that they don’t. Regardless, it’s far-fetched for a department to declare its names out of bounds, when so much other information is on display, moreover when a lot of the information is confirmed by the candidates.

    The project is a kind of journalism. A good reporter can maintain a professional relationship with government officials (say), and at the same time play by different rules.

    Because it isn’t just an exercise in chutzpah, I would greatly appreciate help with the page. Official confirmation of short lists is excellent. Posting information about yourself is good. Posting other people’s names is good too, provided that you use common sense: Don’t post third-hand rumors or tenuous conjectures, remember that ladder faculty and industry employees usually want confidentiality, notify people if you are the first to put them on the page, etc.

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