Search committee double speak

Over the past twelve years, I have served on a number of academic faculty search committees, and have been discussing faculty hiring issues with many a colleague at other universities. There seems to be a rather broad consensus among us, that phrases utilized by search committee members often ought not be taken at face value, but rather be, so to say, “interpreted”.
Of course, all of us have used such phrases, consciously or unconsciously, which is why we can easily identify the not-so-hidden agenda behind each and every one of them.
The following is a list of the most commonly utilized boilerplate sentences, and their most commonly accepted interpretations. Any suggestion for additions is welcome.

Candidate does not seem the type of person who would want to be here.
I fully intend to make their life a little hell, if they come here.

Candidate comes across as conceited, talks down to others
Candidate makes me feel stupid by knowing so much more than me.

I wonder how much of a team player the Candidate is
Upon being asked, the Candidate expressed ideas on how our departmental operations could be “improved”, instead of praising us unconditionally for doing everything just perfectly.

Not sure how many graduate students would want to be supervised by the candidate
Could be way too many for my own taste, and I already have enough problem recruiting as it is, I can hardly afford more internal competition.

The candidate seems to be abrasive
I did not appreciate the fact that the answer provided by the Candidate to my stupid question during the Candidate’s seminar made me look, er, stupid.

Honestly, is the Candidate’s research field viable, in the long run ?
Why are we having a search in this stupid field anyway, instead of hiring someone in my own pet area(s) ?

We ought not settle for second best
No Candidate is ever going to be good enough for me. My intent here is to derail this search.

Candidate comes across as someone who does not see much value in collaborating with colleagues, and may not be willing to take input from senior ones
This Candidate is going to work on his/her ideas and projects — I would much rather have someone here who will help me with mine, and/or revitalize my flagging research output by collaborating with me.

Candidate’s strong focus on research may be detrimental to teaching effectiveness
Candidate is likely to be successful in research, which means that (s)he will get teaching relief and that in turn means that I shall have to teach more myself.

This Candidate seems to be a bit of an outsider
Why are we even discussing the hire of someone who does not have the pedigree ? This person did not get his/her doctorate at one of the very few institutions that are universally acknowledged as the ones and only that can educate future university faculty.

My guts tell me that this Candidate…
I am now going to pass an utterly gratuitous, baseless judgment about the Candidate, preferably over something subjective and impossible to quantify, demanding that it be taken seriously on account of my experience and seniority. Hopefully, it will stick with some of the least clever, most vulnerable and/or easily influenced members of the search committee.

I wonder whether the Candidate may not be an effective teacher, given the fact that English is not the Candidate’s first language
Candidate’s English is probably better than mine, but I have run out of arguments.

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6 Responses to “Search committee double speak”

  1. Cherish Says:

    I am very sad to say that I think there may be some people who will enjoy reading this. It’s sad because I’m sure they can identify. Otherwise, very good list. 🙂

  2. Devin Says:

    What does one say if they genuinely think a candidate is an incompetent who doesn’t play well with others?

    • Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

      If one really thinks that the candidate is incompetent, perhaps one could say, oh, I don’t know, “I think that this person is incompetent” ? What do you think ? Would that work ?
      I have heard this sentence many times, have not included it in the list because I do not regard it as in the same category as the others, obviously.
      Now, mind you, usually one is required to substantiate such a negative assessment with rather concrete, factual observations, for example pointing to flaws in published work by the candidate, or inability to articulate convincingly a research plan, unsatisfactory answers offered to questions at the seminar… failure to do so, the demand that one be taken at face value, without providing any explanation whatsoever, is normally not regarded as an intellectually honest position.
      I have to confess that, personally, I never take very seriously the objection that someone “may not play well with others”. A faculty is hired to establish an original, successful and independent research program, and to teach effectively at various levels, not to “play with others”, whatever that may mean. Suggesting that someone with the potential to do both tasks well not be hired because of some (usually highly subjective and debatable) assessment of something that is not really relevant to the search, seems out of place and suspicious.

  3. Mad Hatter Says:

    “I have to confess that, personally, I never take very seriously the objection that someone “may not play well with others”. A faculty is hired to establish an original, successful and independent research program, and to teach effectively at various levels, not to “play with others”, whatever that may mean.”

    Hmm…I’m not sure I agree that “playing well with others” is irrelevant. In my field, faculty who refuse to allow access to shared equipment, refuse to share reagents and expertise (within reason, of course), pit their trainees against those in other labs, etc. would all be considered to “not play well with others” to the detriment of research in general and of a collegial departmental atmosphere specifically.

    The unfortunate part is that this kind of “not playing well with others” is not usually detectable during the interview process. It’s almost always after said faculty member has been hired that s/he starts hogging the sandbox and kicking sand in everyone else’s faces.

    • Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

      MH, usually “don’t play well with others” is not used to describe a generally dislikable, and potentially uncooperative and hostile person whose presence may be disruptive to the functioning of the whole unit — as you said, detecting something like this at interview time is difficult. In my experience “don’t play well with others” is double speak for “too independent”, or “does not look and feel like one of us”…

  4. Successful Researcher: How to Become One Says:

    Great post!

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