Fishing in the stocked pond

October 9, 2012, 4:51 pm

Idyllic stock pond

Stocked ponds have always been a strange phenomenon from my perspective. If you have enough money and land, you can dig yourself a pond and then hire someone to dump fish in it for you to catch at some later time. So, someone already caught the fish, or perhaps raised the fish in a fishery, and they are now delivering them to you so you can try to catch them yourself. It is like hunting, but they bring the game to your neighborhood. Perhaps I am more likely to be critical of the practice, though, due to my own squeamishness about baiting the hook–or the disgusting sound of tearing the hook out of the fish’s flesh. Truthfully, I am not one to see the innate lure of fishing (pun intended), even if it is in one’s backyard.

Hiring in academe, though, especially from the perspective of the administrator in charge of the hiring process, reminds me of fishing in stocked ponds–though the candidates we hook end up swimming in our own little pond, rather than on a plate. The hiring pond is replenished every year with brand new PhDs, stocked by our friends who are teaching in doctoral programs around the country. Of course, nowadays, more ponds have fish that have been swimming around the pond for a few years. Further, some older fish have been placed back in the hiring pond due to financial exigency of their universities.

One question we fishers of the academic hiring pond face is who is stocking the pond? The Mississippi State University Extension service suggests that people with stocked ponds consider the following concerns regarding their stock fish:

  • Is there a warranty on the fish? Keep in mind that fish may be delivered alive but may die several days later because of hauling stress, insufficient tempering to the pond water, or disease. Get it in writing! There is no warranty on the candidate you select, but it is important to consider whether they will thrive in your location. Consider the warmth of your school’s “pond,” whether the other fish are friendly or fighters, and what kind of environment they will enter. 
  • Does the supplier produce the fish or buy them from a third party? Vendors who produce their own fish are more likely to know the health history of the fish. One might read this as whether the PhD is coming from a known and respected university or from a smaller or completely online program? I admit to being a little squeamish about doctorates from people who have never had an in-person classroom experience in their doctoral program. How well do the faculty who “worked with” this student actually know them?
  • What species and sizes of fish do they supply?Not all

    Stocking the pond

    suppliers sell all species of fish, and the sizes, strains, or reproductive capacity might not be right for your pond. In my field, I have seen recent candidates from certain schools who lack (a) the ability to teach courses in different areas of the curriculum, (b) the practical experience that supports their research expertise, and (c) any teaching experience at all. These candidates wouldn’t work in our pond, but they may have done well in one of the R1′s where I used to work.

  • References! Ask to contact some of their satisfied customers! Be sure to actually contact those references. Don’t just rely on letters; make the call. Find out how the candidate worked in teams, how well s/he contributed, how independently s/he worked on the dissertation research, and what strengths s/he will bring to the classroom. 

The MLA??

In some fields, such as English, History, Sociology, and other Humanities and Social Sciences, the number of candidates greatly outnumber the available positions, and the fish are fighting over who gets to go for the lure. There are a lot more fish who have been in the pond a little longer. I would imagine that the pond gets a little crowded for these fish, and the challenge becomes catching the right fish.

In other fields (i.e., professional disciplines like nursing, social work, and specialties in economics and some hard sciences), there are too many people fishing and not enough fish in the pond. There can be several reasons for this phenomenon. It is sometimes an issue of overfishing by those outside of academe, where the ponds are larger and offer better fare. (I have heard those discussions about law and medical schools in the past, though I think those times are changing.) Other times, there is a lack of supply, as  in the field of social work: Dr. Jeanne Anastas describes that “From 1999 to 2003, the average number of social work doctoral degrees awarded annually was 258 (Anastas, 2006; Lennon, 2005)”, whereas there are almost 700 accredited social work programs in the country; thus, “we have too few graduates to meet current faculty needs.” Nursing has both issues, with few doctoral programs (either Doctorate of Nursing Practice or PhD) producing graduates, many more lucrative job opportunities outside of academe, and lots of open positions looking for nurses with doctoral degrees.

According to a Special Survey on Vacant Faculty Positions released by AACN in September 2011, a total of 1,088 faculty vacancies were identified in a survey of 603 nursing schools with baccalaureate and/or graduate programs across the country (88.6% response rate). Besides the vacancies, schools cited the need to create an additional 104 faculty positions to accommodate student demand. The data show a national nurse faculty vacancy rate of 7.7%. Most of the vacancies (91.4%) were faculty positions requiring or preferring a doctoral degree. The top reasons cited by schools having difficulty finding faculty were a limited pool of doctorally-prepared faculty (31.3%) and noncompetitive salaries compared to positions in the practice arena (26.72%).

What options do these professional programs have for stocking their ponds? One option is to fish in their own pond by hiring their own graduates. If you have raised the fish yourself, you know the product and you can better sense whether they are prepared to do well in your pond. Building a stocked pond/fishery in your own back yard might help solve the issue for these specific programs, though it has been noted that inbreeding can limit theoretical, experiential, and racial and ethnic diversity in academic departments. While big-time schools have done this forever (cough *Harvard* cough), other schools with doctoral programs that have forbidden the practice before are starting to consider it. Some programs in undergraduate and masters-level institutions don’t have that option, though some are considering creating doctoral programs just for that reason.

No matter where you are fishing this year, I wish you all a happy season. And may you land the right one!

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