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Faculty Hiring Practices in Social Work Education: A National Survey


Philip M. Brown, LCSW, Ph.D.
Private Practice
York, ME

Angie H. Rice, LCSW, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Department of Social Work
University of New Hampshire

G. Brent Angell, LCSW, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
School of Social Work & Criminal Justice Studies
East Carolina University

Brenda Kurz, LCSW, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
School of Social Work
University of Connecticut





This national survey explores the perceptions and experiences of faculty candidates and search committee members in the faculty hiring process. Findings indicated numerous statistically significant differences between these two groups in their relative perceptions of those factors which influence a school's decision to extend a job offer.


As we begin the new millennium, political, economic, and social changes are impacting the American university system. Changes in funding for education, use and allocation of resources, and student demographics are affecting various aspects of higher education including faculty hiring. In social work education, the number of accredited BSW and MSW programs has grown rapidly during the last twenty years. This growth will inevitably lead to increasing demands for qualified faculty. How will decisions be made regarding faculty hiring?

        Very little empirical research has been conducted on faculty search and hiring practices in social work with none on the perceptions or experiences of candidates and/or faculty interviewers. Much of the existing research on faculty hiring is either quite dated (Bloch & Weinbach, 1979; Miller, 1978; Feld, 1988; Harrison, Sowers-Hoag & Postley, 1989) or lies outside the social work discipline ( Ballou, 1980; Posner, 1981; Moin & Kehoe, 1982; Leland & Nelson-Wernick, 1983; Moore, 1987; Bronstein & Joyce, 1988; Follette & Klesges, 1988;Young et al, 1990; Ng, 1997; Merritt & Reskin, 1997; Nelson, 1997). A systematic analysis of the hiring process could ultimately lead to better outcomes in faculty hiring. This study sought to examine current perceptions and experiences of persons involved in the faculty search and hiring process. The research questions included: 1) What are the perceptions and experiences of faculty applicants and interviewers vis-a-vis the search and hiring process? 2) How do these compare; and 3) What are the implications for faculty hiring in social work education?

Literature Review

        In the psychology and counselor education, a number of seemingly opposing factors were identified that influence faculty hiring decisions including: low budgets; limited evaluation methods; and professional and societal politics. Previous research (Ballou, 1980; Harrison, Sowers-Hoag, & Postley, 1989) noted inconsistencies between the actual processes and the supposed standards of the field, with both gender and minority issues being involved. Women were often had lower average earnings and were hired for less prestigious positions than males. While there has been some increase in minority faculty hiring, the majority of faculty were still white (Ballou, 1980; Young, Chalmers & Withers, 1988; Follette & Klesges, 1988; Merritt & Reskin, 1997). While most departments used a search committee for open positions, many of these committees had no specific membership requirements (Leland & Nelson-Wernick, 1983). Nelson (1997) has stated that requirements for search committees need to be strengthened in order to produce better qualified and informed members which would lead to better hiring decisions.

        Other problems identified in the hiring process included: 1) positions are advertised without information regarding pending funding or strong internal candidates; 2) salary ranges are often kept secret; 3) requirements for positions lack specificity, (with evaluation criteria for selection left vague); 4) little development of more reliable criteria beyond the time-worn criteria of grades, publications, recommendations, and who knows whom; and 5) frequent and unaccountable delays in schools responding to applicants for an advertised position. Non-selected applicants are often not informed of the rejection, and for those who are, useful evaluation information is not provided (Ballou, 1980).

        Studies of hiring trends and practices in social work have revealed several interesting patterns. Block and Weinbach (1979) studied faculty appointments in schools of social work in 1968 and 1976, and found that there was an overall reduction in the total number of academic appointments. However, there was a 25% increase in the number of graduate social work programs during the same time period, and an even larger increase in the number of undergraduate programs. Appointments for women increased for both undergraduate and graduate programs, but there was a greater increase in the number of female faculty in undergraduate programs. The increase of women faculty in the graduate programs was seen at the higher professorial ranks. The higher rank of appointments for female faculty may be related to the increase in the number of women receiving doctoral education.

        A survey of deans and directors of social work programs regarding the number of academic jobs available and the characteristics most desired in new faculty (Feld, 1988) revealed that the demand of social work faculty appeared to have remained stable in the mid-1980s. Tenure track positions made up the majority of new positions, with schools offering only a BSW reporting hiring fewer new faculty than those offering graduate programs. Units with doctoral programs had higher demands than those with only a master's degree program. There was also a greater focus on research and publication credentials, with a somewhat lesser emphasis in those units offering only BSW degrees. Teaching skills and practice experience were generally described as important, whereas personal qualities, gender, and racial status were not.

        Harrison, Sowers-Hoag, and Postley (1989) completed a national survey of deans/directors, search committee members, and other faculty to delineate the factors that affected hiring decisions in schools and departments of social work. For the entire sample of BSW and MSW programs, the candidate characteristic ranked most important was the degree obtained (55%). This was followed by refereed SW Publications (53%), ability to relate to students (41%), fears of social work teaching experience (40%), and facial Minority (31%). For the most part, deans, directors, and search committee members agreed in their preferences for candidate characteristics. Results of this study support the results of similar studies of desirable candidate characteristics (Moore, 1987; Posner, 1981; Miller, 1978). Other studies have pointed to the need for schools to review program needs, goals, and mission, and affirmative action criteria (Morin & Kehoe, 1982; Steele and Green, 1976).


        A self-administered questionnaire surveying the perceptions of faculty candidates and faculty search committee members was constructed. Specific items for the self-administered questionnaire, which included both closed and open-ended questions, were drawn from the available literature (Harrison, et al., 1989; Miller, 1978; Moore, 1987; Posner, 1981) and interviews with faculty colleagues from various schools across the U. S. The questionnaire was pre-tested and revised. (See Appendix). The survey was then systemically distributed at an annual national conference during three successive years. So as to ensure an even broader, more representative sample, additional questionnaires were mailed to faculty candidates and search committee members throughout the U.S. (Total N=227: 102 Interviewers and 125 Applicants). To avoid duplication, instructions requested that respondents who had already completed the questionnaire at the annual conference not complete it a second time. The overall return rate for the combined distribution was 60.2%.

        Quantitative data were analyzed to examine possible differences between the various identifying items (e.g., gender, ethnicity, etc.) and each of the 18 quantitative items contained on the questionnaire. Frequencies were computed for each group (candidates and interviewers) as well as group means for each item. The group means were statistically compared using the Mann-Whitney U test. This statistical test was used because the data were not normally distributed. Thus, non-parametric statistical analysis was more appropriate. The narrative responses from the open-ended questions on the survey were analyzed by three different reviewers. Themes were extracted and compared for both candidates and interviewers. Similarities and differences between the two groups were analyzed.


        There were twice as many female applicants (66.7%) as male (33.3%). Among interviewers the ratio was somewhat more even with 40.2% male and 59.8% female. With respect to ethnicity, 17.5% of applicants were ethnic minorities while 82.5% were not. There were slightly more minority interviewers (29.7%) while 70.3% were not. The average amount of teaching experience among applicants was 2.42 years (SD= 3.80) with a mode of 0.0. Almost one-third of the applicants had no teaching experience whatsoever. For interviewers, the average number of years of teaching experience was 14.47 years (SD=9.26) indicating faculty who are well established in their respective schools.

        The relative importance of possible factors which influence the school's ultimate hiring decision was also examined. These frequencies are reported for applicants in Table 1 and interviewers in Table 2. The relative means for each item in the influential Factors Grid were compared using the Mann-Whitney U test of significance of differences (Table 3). Statistically significant differences were found between the following factors: Meeting with Search Committee; Meeting with Dean/Director; Meeting with Students; Teaching Experience; Practice Experience; Physical Appearance; Age; Gender; Race/Ethnicity; and Sexual Orientation. Interpersonal Skills approached statistical significance at p=.056.

         Interviewers viewed the following factors as more important than the applicants: Meeting with Dean/Director; Meeting with Search Committee; Meeting with Students; Teaching Experience; and Practice Experience. On the other hand, applicants viewed the following factors as more important than interviewers: Physical Appearance; Age; Gender; Race/Ethnicity; and Sexual Orientation.

         Using the frequencies reported in Tables 1 and 2, the influential factors for applicants and interviewers were rank ordered using the mean scores (Table 4). Both interviewers and applicants appear to believe that the meeting with the Search Committee and the meeting with the Dean/Director are the two most important factors in influencing faculty hiring decisions. Interpersonal Skills were ranked third in importance by both groups. However, substantial differences emerged in the relative importance of the other influential factors. For interviewers, teaching Experience and practice Experience tied for the fourth most influential factor. Whereas, for applicants, these ranked eighth and ninth. Among applicants, the fourth most influential factor was having the Doctoral Degree in Hand. While Papers Presented at professional conferences represents academic scholarship and research productivity leading both to greater positive visibility for the school as well as potential publications, applicants (14th) and interviewers (13th) both ranked this factor low in importance. Applicants rated Race/Ethnicity 12th , while interviewers ranked it 14th . Meeting with Students appears considerably more important to interviewers (9th) than applicants (15th). Research Skills (6th) and publications (7th) were considered more influential among applicants than among interviewers who ranked research Skills (8th) and publications(12th). The Faculty Colloquium was rated 11th in importance by both applicants and interviewers. Physical Appearance, Gender, Sexual Orientation, and age were all rated relatively unimportant in relation to the other factors by applicants and interviewers alike.

Male versus Female Respondents

        Differences between male and female respondents were analyzed again using the Mann-Whitney U test. Results indicated that male applicants tended to believe that Papers Presented (p=.003) and Gender (p=.04) were more important than female applicants. Female applicants viewed Interpersonal Skills (p=.025) and Meeting with the Dean/Director (p=.057) as more important than males. Among interviewers, females indicated that Philosophical Match (p=.06) and Research Skills (p=.06) were more important than male interviewers. Male interviewers felt that Physical Appearance (p=.04) was more important than female interviewers.

        Differences between minority and non-minority respondents were also analyzed using the Mann-Whitney U test. Results showed that minority applicants viewed Letters of Recommendation (p=.047) as more important than non-minority applicants. Minority interviewers rated Papers Presented (p=.047) as more important than non-minority interviewers.

Analysis of Themes

Faculty Candidates

        Analysis of responses from the open-ended questions of the survey revealed that, on the whole, faculty candidates found the faculty hiring process very stressful. They raised numerous concerns, ranging from the relative influence of personality factors over academic qualifications to the ways in which gender and race figured into final hiring decisions. Representative quotes illustrating these themes are given. While the vast majority of candidates found the process stressful and raised concerns about how it was conducted, there were a very few candidates who did not express any concerns, or stated that they found the process interesting. From most candidates' perspectives, gender is a key variable in the hiring of a candidate.

        However, men and women each had a different take on this issue. One candidate noted, it seems to me that all ads I read for faculty positions stated something to the effect of 'women and minorities are encouraged to apply.' For this reason, I am certain that gender is an important factor. However, some women felt that men continued to have an edge when it comes to securing a faculty position. As one woman concluded: I believe more credence is given to the male candidates with regard to interviewing and possible job offers. Another candidate summed it up this way, women appeared to be hired for practice positions and men are more often considered for policy and research openings.

        Female candidates, many of whom were young, found that the majority of faculty interviewers were middle-aged men who expected females to present in a sexually stereotyped manner. As one candidate surmised, gender plays an enormous role in being perceived as 'appropriate.' You must wear a skirt, not be assertive, too questioning, and it always helps to be young enough to flirt with older males. (They are the problem.)

        Male candidates also felt that gender played a role in the hiring process. According to one male candidate, if you are male, you have a significantly reduced chance of being hired. Another said, ... (There is) a decided preference for women. I picked up some hostility on the part of one interviewer which was a thinly veiled, anti-male bias, possible homophobia.

        Both male and female candidates identified race/ethnicity as very important in the hiring process. It was a commonly held view that preference is given to minority candidates. In fact, one candidate pointed out that, faculty are often 'desperate' for minority candidates. Several places I interviewed with identified the desire for racial minorities. They would pay more for them, even if they hadn't finished their degrees. Furthermore, numerous candidates felt that whites were turned down for jobs in favor of minority group members, particularly people of color. One put it this way, the market is buying race, not credentials. Many of these faculty (Black/Hispanic) may be denied tenure due to prejudice (which continues unabated). Another candidate, who wrote a lengthy letter about his experiences, summed m up the overall tenor of the responses stating, despite what is publicly stated, it seems gender and ethnicity are key determinants of the hiring process.

        Faculty candidates did acknowledge the need for schools to achieve a racially balanced faculty. Candidates also expressed a desire to hire minorities to serve as role models for their (minority) students, adding that ethnic minorities bring a different world view or perspective that can potentially enrich the university.

        Overwhelmingly, candidates indicated that the most important qualities a faculty candidate should possess included: teaching experience/skills, strong research skills/publications, interpersonal skills/collegiality, and practice experience. In addition, having the Ph.D. degree in hand, being a good philosophical match with the interviewers/school, and possessing a sound knowledge base grounded in traditional social work values were also seen as important.

        Overall, candidates felt that the hiring process was very stressful. One candidate said that, candidates are frequently treated like ... pieces of meat. Interviewers are sometimes arrogant and brag about their school. They love to posture and pretend that candidates are unworthy.

        Candidates were surprised that hiring decisions seemed less related to their professional abilities and experience than their personal attributes. I was never asked questions I expected about my teaching philosophy, future goals, etc. The people I interviewed with ... seemed most interested in my interpersonal skills and personality factors (like am I easy going, fun, get along with others, etc.). Most candidates agreed that it was a very complicated and competitive process which feeds a lot of improvement on both sides for it to become less intimidating.

        In addition, candidates experienced the process as very political. Tearch chairs were often dishonest or at least unclear regarding the process. They did not inform me they had already made an offer when I asked. Another candidate said, advertisements and descriptions in CSWE bulletins should aim at greater candor for the candidates sought. If meeting affirmative action criteria is important, then say so. There is a certain mystery surrounding the faculty hiring process which contributes to the candidates' perceptions that schools often have a overt agenda. One candidate complained, it involves having favor with God and the faculty hiring committee. In other words, it's a miracle to get a teaching job.

        According to many candidates, there is a clear need to be more systematic in constructing and implementing faculty searches. Many of their feelings are captured by one who wrote:


For a social worker with a Ph.D., I am totally disgusted by this inhumane, insensitive way a future teacher in America is treated. Why can't faculty rely on objective data like presentations and publications and then invite candidates for campus interviews like other fields like sociology or psychology have done for ages. I felt like a cheap whore trying to sell myself. Some school faculty I interviewed with at CSWE-APM were rude and totally obnoxious. She further observed, ... If your own school faculty digs up connections and helps you to find a job, then the likelihood of you finding a job increases... I believe the faculty and search committees rely on subjective 'gossip' more than on objective assessment and skills of the candidate they are hiring.


Another faculty candidate summed up her overall impressions this way:


Unbelievable. With a few exceptions, there was a feeling of having to be superwoman. (It was) intensely competitive, impersonal, and often takes place in chaotic surroundings. (There are) just too many hoops to jump through. You have to prove yourself over and over. (It) makes you wonder if it's worth it given the financial compensation and the constant pressure to be all things to everyone.


Faculty Interviewers

        Overall, faculty interviewers were considerably more circumspect and brief in reflecting on the faculty hiring process. A nagging concern about political correctness also seemed to color many interviewers' responses in regard to gender and race.

        On the one hand, some interviewers contended that gender made no difference in their hiring decisions. However, most felt it was more related to a desire to ensure both balance and diversity. As one interviewer stated, we are looking for males to increase diversity of our staff. Another interviewer noted that hiring women is, very important. We are trying to find women to keep a gender balance. One interviewer who did feel that gender mattered contended that, people make assumptions based on gender. Gender, like race, matters.

        There was a sense among some respondents that the issue of affirmative action dictated a certain political correctness, which represented a bias against (White) males. there is a bias against men and being a female plays a role in making the short-list. However, other interviewers disagreed, suggesting that men continue to be given preference in the hiring process.

        Faculty interviewers sometimes mixed the issues of race and gender. One interviewer said, since we have been traditionally a white male faculty, it is very important that we hire women of color. Efforts were also made to replace faculty with persons who possess qualities similar to departed colleagues: since I lost a minority female faculty member that represented our student body's images of that group, it is a factor. Sometimes the matter of race seemed to supercede that of gender. One respondent suggested that, being female was not important, but race/ethnicity is.

        Clearly, the candidates' race/ethnicity was important to the faculty interviewers. One respondent explained that, (Race/ethnicity is ) always an issue on our campus. We have some positions tagged as minority hire slots. To promote faculty diversity, faculty interviewers are apt to tip the balance in favor of a minority candidate when it come to the hiring process. Race/ethnicity could be a deciding factor in a situation where two equal candidates applied given our school and university's emphasis on diversity.

        Sometimes faculty interviewers were afraid of being accused of being prejudiced. there is a fear of discrimination or threat of being sued if the minority candidate is not treated to the same scrutiny as a white candidate. As such, we are easier in questioning. However, this statement also implies that minority candidates are less qualified than majority candidates.

        Faculty interviewers overwhelmingly indicated that the most important qualities included: teaching abilities, interpersonal skills/collegiality, practice experience, and research skills/ publications. Other important factors included: possessing a strong commitment to social work values/mission; having one's doctorate in hand; solid academic preparation/training; social work knowledge; philosophical compatibility with the interviewers/school; and having a strong work ethic.

        Some interviewers believe that school administrators exert an inordinate influence on faculty hiring decisions. Some faculty interviewers view deans and directors as meddling in the hiring process. As one respondent noted, the Dean sometimes promises more than we can deliver. Another respondent concluded that, in the end, the person hired is the one that is the least objectionable to the administration, not the one who is most qualified.

        On the whole, most faculty interviewers' concluded that the faculty hiring process is time consuming and exhausting. Many view it as a meat market. Still another described the process as financially costly, unstructured and unorganized requiring the disposition of a mule.

        In sum, questions related to a candidates' practice, research, and teaching abilities appear to collide with issues of gender and race. When it comes to the final hiring decision, faculty interviewers often seem more intent on finding a like-minded, congenial colleague than the most professionally qualified candidate.


        In many ways, faculty applicants and interviewers appear to have a mix of similar and dissimilar views with respect to which factors most influence faculty hiring decisions. The decision making process is exceedingly complex and frequently appears to rely on any number of idiosyncratic variables. Qualitative results indicated that the candidates often seemed more outspoken and critical of the hiring process. In response to their overall impressions of the faculty hiring process candidates made statements such as: cumbersome and starchy. I'm not sure I appreciate the APM atmosphere as a social work market for up and coming educators. Five star hotels do not remind me of those we (should) serve.

        Based upon the qualitative results from interviewers, it appears that gender and race remain emotionally charged issues in social work schools and departments. However, in an era when political correctness on campus is still paramount and the fear of legal retribution ever present, these issues often remain submerged until it's time to hire new faculty.

       Issues such as philosophical match become crucial when bringing new faculty into schools with competing curricular and philosophical orientations (e.g., micro versus macro, psychodynamic versus ecological, or hierarchical versus egalitarian). Given that most faculty are more comfortable in being with others whom they perceive to be similar to themselves, what happens when faculty searches begin to eliminate candidates who are dissimilar (i.e., unappropriate or a poor fit for one reason or another) What does unappropriate really mean when used in this context It could mean lot philosophically compatible. It could mean being the wrong gender or race. It could mean someone who isn't going to give the administration trouble. In any case, it usually means someone who is not like us.

        If diversity is to be valued, then it must be realized that people from different cultures are going to have different interpersonal styles, as culture shapes individuals' personalities and the ways they relate to others (including communication patterns, emotional expressiveness, conflict resolution styles, etc.). One of the seeming contradictions which grew out of this study was an apparent intolerance of difference in a profession which purports to value it. This raises the question, to what extent have faculties become self-replicating (i.e., hiring others much like themselves personally, philosophically and/or professionally). On the one hand, results of this study suggest that schools are indicating a clear desire for better gender and racial balance. However, if diversity is truly their aim, why have so many schools still failed to achieve it Critics will quickly point to the limited availability of qualified candidates, but it may be much more than that. Could this intolerance of difference be a metaphor for an intolerance of diversity.

        What really constitutes a qualified candidate? According to these findings, it's someone who has solid teaching, practice and research skills and possesses the requisite interpersonal skills to comfortably fit into the existing academic culture of a particular school. The candidate accomplishes this by starting out as the correct gender and race whose skills and interests represent a sound philosophical match with the school.

        With ever increasing requirements for tenure, especially with respect to original research published in juried publications, it is curious to note that research skills were not rated higher by interviewers (8th ) as an influential factor in hiring. Since these candidates had an average of only 2.42 years teaching experience (with a mode of 0.0), and since the vast majority of faculty openings sought junior faculty, perhaps it was thought that such skills would develop later. But, is this explanation sufficient?

        In his article, the Real Problem with Tenure is Incompetent Faculty Hiring, Nelson sheds additional light on this very issue: if you hire someone who has a vital intellectual life, a dynamic classroom personality, and a doctoral dissertation that is a rich and accomplished piece of work, that person will almost always be a valued colleague 20 years later (1997, p.84). So in the long run, might it not be more advantageous to seek candidates with stronger research skills in the first place.

         Nelson (1997) later adds, I have regularly seen honest, well-meaning colleagues go through a pile of job applications and unerringly identify some of the weakest candidates as their first choices for interviews.... I have also seen insecure colleagues try to hire people who will not threaten them intellectually. The most intellectually vital people usually try to hire their peers. Second rate faculty members, on the other hand, often try to hire third rate colleagues ( p.4). By what criteria then, should a school distinguish a first rate from a third rate colleague? Given that the Dean/Director (often in conjunction with the faculty search committee) has established public criteria and requisite qualifications in accordance with Affirmative Actions guidelines, much of what will actually be required to receive a bona fide job offer is private and unstated (e.g., gender, race, interpersonal compatibility, philosophical match, etc.).


        Faculty hiring decisions are important because these applicants are individuals with whom one will have to work for any number of years. They also represent the future of the school. Some schools have developed simple forms or checklists which address the candidates' qualifications (e.g., teaching, research, service, colloquium, etc.). However, are such informal attempts to survey faculty opinions (frequently coupled with brief conversations between the Dean/Director and selected faculty members) sufficient for making final decisions about faculty hiring?

        One should remember that colleges and universities are essentially political institutions in the business of education. So, with respect to hiring decisions, the first consideration is economic (i.e., can we get the slot?) followed by a flurry of political activity as various factions within the school scramble to fill what they perceive to be the school's needs. Meanwhile, the Dean/Director is seeking to further realize his/her vision for the school, fully believing that he/she is in a unique position to understand and evaluate the bigger picture. As one faculty interviewer put it: at all comes down to internal politics and economics-anything else is extraneous.

        The issue of seeking a philosophical match has far reaching educational implications. If everyone agrees philosophically, then what happens to the advancement of knowledge through the discussion and exchange of differing opinions. If there is no room for such a dialectical process, then how does knowledge grow?

        One factor mentioned by some respondents is the informal network of Deans, Directors, and social work faculty who can, with a single, well-placed comment, dash the hopes of even the most qualified candidate. During the course of the hiring process (especially prior to any campus visit), hearsay, rumor or innuendo can prove deadly. Comments such as "oh, I hear he's trouble," or "weren't there some problems with her at School X?" have the power to immediately eliminate otherwise qualified candidates (particularly if there is no one present who can authoritatively dispute them). Needless to say, faculty search committee members and Deans/Directors go to some lengths to speak with friends or colleagues off the record about particular applicants, without the prior knowledge or consent of said candidates. Such conversations can do much to influence the final hiring decision. Who you know (and how you know them) is important.

        Considering the fact that these are such vital decisions, social work schools/departments frequently appear to be using a curious mixture of formal and informal means. But, such is the nature of political decision making.


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Authors' Notes:
The authors wish to give special thanks to Todd and Winona Lennon at the CSWE Teacher's Registry for their invaluable assistance in completing this research.


Philip M. Brown can be contacted via e-mail at;



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