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The Hazards of Getting a Job in the Academic System

Ingegerd Gunvik Grönbladh
Department of Educational Science
Uppsala University
March 2002


My work questions the last step in recruitment in an educational system. When somebody applies for a position at a university or college, experts and members of appointment boards use the notions of excellence in teaching and of research when judging applicants' CVs and publications. The law states that the same care shall be given to the scrutiny of the two notions. I study how and why different participants view teaching and research differently. What do they really build their judgment upon?

The academic hiring process is strictly regulated. To begin with, an employment profile has to be used for advertisement. This profile is formerly decided upon by a faculty board. This first step means that a department board and administrators at a faculty office together describe requirements such as discipline area and work assignment. After the position is advertised, candidates can send applications to the faculty office. The next step is the department's suggestion on who should be appointed as experts/referees (two or three depending on position) to be decided by a faculty board. Only professors from other universities of the scientific area can be chosen for this mission and this process usually takes several months. Experts write separate judgments ranking applicants' qualifications in science, teaching and other activities and all judgments are made public.

My research deals with the confrontation between research and teaching articulated in academic hiring. Teaching merits must be taken into account with the same and equal precision as scientific merits. The appointment board usually has four members holding a teaching position at the university (chosen by the faculty board) and two student members (chosen by the local student union). The head of the department and experts take part in a meeting on who to recommend but are not part of the final decision, sometimes followed by interviews with top candidates. The appointment board makes a final recommendation and the faculty board, department head, or the president of the university decides depending on position.

Historically, the idea of teaching at the university level was built on discipline knowledge. The large increase in the number of students at universities started a chain reaction in the organization of higher education. These factors have effects on the procedure of selecting applicants for teaching positions. It was recently made possible for an instructor to apply for promotion as an assistant professor and an assistant professor for full professor based on a bachelor's degree in addition to excellent teaching merits.

My theoretical standpoint is built on results from an earlier study, where I examined 32 positions as associate professor with 162 applicants. I analyzed 62 written judgments and documents from 12 appointment boards at six faculties at Uppsala University. This study uncovered the tension between members in appointment boards and experts. Board members underline the combination of excellence in teaching and research, and experts underline excellence in science. This shows a struggle within the academic field and made me interested in the field analyses of French sociologist P. Bourdieu. A field is seen as "a system of relations between agents or institutions that fight over something they find valuable." In Bourdieu's "Homo Academicus" he focuses on reproduction and socialization in an academic system.

Do the participants in the hiring process really know what they are talking about? There is no consensus on who the best ones are nor on the valuation of the criteria used to rank top candidates. What justifies a decision? Are social factors decisive in competition? I do not believe it is possible to establish criteria for the notions, as every appointment is unique. I will not try answering the question of how excellence in teaching and research can be judged in the very best way. I will instead search for investments and strategies in this struggle through documents and interviews. What "symbolic capital" is necessary for getting a job in the academic world? Experts involved in the struggle above will be asked for new judgments written during different appointment procedures. Chairmen of the appointment boards, the main decision-makers in the hiring process, will have my attention. Case studies on "confrontation cases" will follow. I want to clarify academic hiring and find out what is hidden in the mixture of social and scientific factors. This is not trivial. The hiring process affects science. If this impact on the academic world is explained and understood, I believe it will benefit education, research and society in the future.