More students than not have been known to roll their eyes when professors vehemently stress the importance of teacher evaluations.
As it turns out, however, those bubble sheets really do matter.
By taking a glance at what departments look at when hiring and retaining professors, students can learn that their end-of-the-term evaluations are one of many hurdles a professor must clear to obtain tenure.
What do departments look for?
Shirley Chiang, a professor and chair of the UC Davis physics department, provided an overview of the hiring process for her department. She explained that the department advertises for available positions in specific research areas, and that the most important qualification is experience in the candidate’s research field.
Kathryn Russ, an assistant professor in the economics department, said that to her knowledge, universities generally look for economics professors with experience in their field of study, working with data sets, theoretical models and so on, but also for someone who is going to be committed to quality teaching.
Chiang added that teaching ability is important for the physics department, too, but it’s necessary to keep in mind that this goes beyond teaching undergraduate courses.
“We have big introductory level classes, classes for exclusively physics majors and graduate level courses,” Chiang said. “Sometimes when we are hiring junior faculty, they might not have a lot of teaching experience. However, we do look very seriously at teaching before we recommend them for tenure.”
Candidates submit a curriculum vitae, which is like an extended resume including papers and publications, presentations, services and schools. Russ said that these – in addition to recommendations – are important for the preliminary stage of hiring.
How does the hiring process work?
Being hired at major research institution like UC Davis can be a big accomplishment for one’s career, and the length and complexity of the hiring procedure seems to reflect this.
Chiang said that in the physics department, the process begins with a search committee. The committee is responsible for evaluating all of the applicants and narrowing them down to typically five to seven candidates.
Once these individuals are selected, they are introduced to the entire faculty, typically at something similar to a breakfast introduction, and they then meet with individual faculty members in the same or related field.
“Candidates are then asked to give a research talk to which students are invited,” Chiang said. “There are additional meetings in which the search committee meets to discuss applicants, makes a recommendation to the faculty, and then faculty members hold a vote.”
Russ said that hiring within the economics department is a centralized process. Schools and the government operate a resource called JOE (Job Openings for Economists), which is published online by the American Economics Association.
Before candidates are invited to UC Davis for interviews, they attend preliminary interviews with representatives from different hiring universities.
“The process is stressful, but I also could recognize that it was stressful for everyone,” Russ said. “I remember running a mile in heels to make an interview with a famous individual who I really wanted to meet.”
Hiring within each department is overseen by Bruce White, the Interim Vice Provost for Academic Personnel.
Is teaching ability important, and do student opinions matter?
Teaching ability, while it is not the easiest factor to evaluate when a professor has just been hired, becomes very important in determining whether one is ready for tenure, Chiang said. Student evaluations become very important at this stage.
“Faculty at the UC are reviewed every two to three years, depending on the level – associate professors every two, full professors every three,” Chiang said. “We always look at three things: research, teaching and service. We do look very closely at student evaluations when considering the teaching component.”
For Tom Johnson, a junior English and philosophy double-major, in-depth knowledge about the subject matter and the ability to explain difficult material are essential in a professor.
“Professors need to be easy to understand,” he said. “They’re obviously talking about something complicated, but if they do a good job explaining the material, it won’t seem difficult.”
In terms of personality, Johnson added that a sense of humor and the ability to relate to one’s students is also a plus, and the less pretentious, the better.
Shabnam Tavatli, a cellular biology major, also said that sense of humor is really important to her. She added that her least favorite professors have been those who take themselves too seriously and think that they are more important than everyone else.
While personality is not necessarily the most important factor for
departments to consider, Chiang said that her department looks closely at the “is this person a good teacher?” and “would you recommend this instructor?” questions. These questions, particularly the latter, give students an opportunity to rate every aspect of a professor.
DARCEY LEWIS can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. XXX