Some schools (typically those in the top ranks) give candidates ‘as long as they reasonably need’ to make a decision. Others set deadlines, giving candidates an ‘exploding offer’ which will last until a certain date, and then ‘explode’ in a puff of smoke and disappear.
Schools give exploding offers for at least two reasons, one perfectly understandable and the other more problematic. The understandable reason is that most schools are constrained in the number of hires they can make in a given year, and they worry that if Candidate A takes too much time to make a decision and then chooses to go elsewhere, in the meantime they will have lost Candidates B & C to exploding offers from other schools and they’ll be left high and dry.
But schools also make exploding offers to try to play on candidates’ understandable risk-aversion in the face of incomplete information. The market is a nerve-wracking process for everyone, and it can be very, very hard to turn down a bird in the hand, even if the candidate is still ‘in play’ at a handful of schools that s/he might prefer. In some instances it can seem like the purpose – rather than just an unintended consequence of the first explanation for exploding offices – is to force candidates hands before they get a little more information about their prospects. I’ve heard of schools doing things that seem to me pretty outrageous: a bottom-of-the-second tier school refusing to give a candidate 48 more hours to decide, knowing that she was going to get an answer from a top 20 school within two days; or a dean who wouldn’t give a candidate a 72 hour extension (from a Friday to a Monday) so that the appointments committee at a top-10 school would have the chance to meet and report back to the candidate on her prospects.
The advantage to these schools in playing ‘hardball’ is obvious: they may well nab candidates this way whom they’d otherwise lose. Of course, there’s a serious possible downside too: even if the candidate comes (succumbs?), it may well be with a bad taste in her mouth. In one of the cases I describe above, the candidate jumped ship for another school just one year later.
None of this is new: one friend of mine, probably about 10 years ago, accepted an exploding offer at a top-20 school even though he had job talks scheduled at the time at three schools in the top 10. But he was only sure that he preferred one of the three, and he made, I think pretty comfortably, the risk-averse decision. (Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that candidates with complete information necessarily follow rankings – they are obviously choosing schools along a whole host of dimensions, with school prestige as just one input.)
But while I don’t have more than anecdote on which to base this claim, I get the feeling that exploding offers just might be increasing, and sometimes with deadlines that seem ever-earlier. At the same time, I think it’s fair to say that the super-elite schools are in the ‘junior market’ pretty actively these days – and these schools, especially Harvard and Yale, often wait until quite late in the spring to make their full array of offers.
This combination is putting pressure on the schools just below them – roughly the schools ranked, say, 5-25, those schools who are competing for some of the most sought-after candidates, but who (with a few exceptions) have tended not to be in the exploding offer game. These schools risk losing some of their candidates to schools that make aggressive exploding offers. At the same time, they risk operating a bit like the testing ground for the super-elite schools. There are a couple of schools (mentioning no names) that seem to sit back, watch the market unfold, see who’s playing well across the country and then cherry pick very late in the game – and though they don’t always get the candidates to whom they make offers, the reality is that most of the time they do.
So my question is this: are we going to see more defensive efforts by top-tier schools to respond to and block these moves from above and below?
There are certainly hints that some schools may be attempting minor rebellions. Northwestern was allegedly trying a new hiring tactic where they promised to take up an ultra-hot candidate or two for very early consideration if the candidate pulled out from consideration at all but a couple of the ultra-elite schools. (Rumor has it that at least with respect to one such candidate, the deal broke down.) Northwestern’s approach, if captured accurately, strikes me as a little bizarre, in that by letting the candidate still play out a couple of schools on a pre-selected list, they are still likely to have to wait until late in the season to get a final answer. Moreover, to ask candidates to pull out of schools before the AALS is asking them to constrain their options with extremely incomplete information: I’d say that anyone to whom Northwestern made such an offer, unless they had very strong institutional or geographical preferences, ought to realize that it’s probably not in their interest.
Here are three other possible responses I could imagine schools trying out:
(1) Offers with deadlines emerging from more of the top schools. Probably not the extreme early deadlines we sometimes see – but February 1, February 15, something like that. By this point, candidates generally do know many of their options – and if lots of schools began imposing deadlines it might force the super-elite schools to make decisions on a more similar timeline as other places. But by definition, the hottest candidates have quite a few offers. So unless a whole bunch of schools began imposing deadline en masse, a candidates’ response to any one school that imposed a deadline while that candidate was still waiting for some options might simply be, “I’m very sorry to have to turn down your offer.”
(2) An ‘early decision’ approach to hiring, parallel to what many colleges offer applicants. Schools might contact a few very promising candidates and give them the option to be considered on a fast-track. If they chose to take it, they would interview early (pre-AALS) and get a decision from the school by, say, November 15, -- but, in exchange, they would be expected to decide by December 15 (a point at which they would probably have a reasonable idea about their job talk options, but fairly limited info about likely offers). Alternatively, the candidate could decline the ‘fast track,’ and be interviewed at the AALS and considered along with the rest of the pool. Because the candidates would have been electing the fast-track themselves, there might be less of a risk they’d feel strong-armed and resentful about the might-have-beens.
(3) Greater use of a technique that some schools use on the laterals market: the ‘we’ll vote you an offer when you’re ready to decide about it’ approach. The appointments committee chair would tell the candidate something like, “My committee likes you very much, and so do my colleagues. We’ll be prepared to bring you to the faculty, where I expect you’ll get an offer, whenever you tell us that you’re ready. Assuming we make the offer, we’ll give you three weeks to decide. Of course, I want to be clear that this isn’t a promise. I can’t swear as to what the faculty will do. And we’re looking to hire 2 or 3 people this year, so there is a chance that if you wait too long, we’ll already be through with our hiring for the year.” This too would put candidates on a shorter leash – but one that they played a role in constructing.
I don’t know whether any of these will happen, and I certainly don't know whether any of them would be a good idea. But I do have the sense that the current equilibrium might not be all that stable. . . any thoughts?