September 24th, 2018

Institutional, Chair Challenges in Recruiting Faculty in STEM Disciplines


Recruiting Faculty in STEM Disciplines

For many years, those in higher education have been hearing about the aging of our faculty members and the new hiring that should take place, if resources allow, to replace those who leave. The mass exodus predicted has been blunted to some degree by the end of age-related mandatory retirement and health care issues for faculty whose spouses and children require health insurance coverage. Years of poor salary increments and low investment yields, which have resulted in slow growth in retirement accounts, have made it difficult, from an economic perspective, for some faculty to retire on time. Although all of this together has reduced the bolus of retirements predicted, there are vacancies occurring that need to be filled.

In many cases, institutional resources are insufficient to allow the replacement of all lost tenure-track faculty with new versions in the same discipline. In fact, some lines are left unfilled for periods of time until resources can be accumulated to re-fund them. In the interim, course coverage is achieved with part-time hires or by increasing the instructional loads of the faculty who remain. This dismal scenario is not seen among large elite public and private universities or in most of the small private colleges with stellar academic reputations. Rather, it is seen in modest-sized and comprehensive public universities, where state support has been diminished, tuition caps are in place, and enrollment growth is limited. Similar situations are present in private colleges where endowment growth is limited by a weak economy that limits philanthropic giving and low interest rates and where there is resistance to increasing already high tuition.

For institutions that have not been able to grow or replace faculty for several years, the advice is: “get ready for sticker shock.” This is particularly true in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines. There are strong national and local interests in producing more STEM graduates, with the latter evidenced by some states where performance-based funding provides a premium reward for STEM degrees. At another level, every state has launched a life/health sciences initiative to take advantage of federal dollars supporting research and the real potential for intellectual property development that spurs the formation of start-up companies. Another area exploding with both need and opportunity is information technology, with “security” of all types being a major driver. Although there are some who disagree with the STEM emphasis, higher education is expected to step up and offer its research expertise to train the next generation of STEM graduates to address the pressing issues facing society.

One reason for high entry-level salaries across all disciplines is the slow salary growth among existing positions. Several years of zero or minimal increments may seem the way of the higher education world, but it is not the reality of the outside world, where beginning salaries have been briskly rising. What this means is that there will be little savings between the salaries of the retiring full professor and the incoming assistant professor. What this also means is that recruiting the quality people desired might mean that salary compression, or sometimes even salary inversion, will have to be tolerated. It is not uncommon for a first-year assistant professor’s salary to be on the heels of several associate professors’ salaries—and even exceed some of them. If such a scenario appears to be likely during the recruitment process, the chair should meet with the faculty to gauge their support for the hire and acceptance of the fiscal realities in play. Carefully accounting the details of the offer and reviewing the alternatives coupled with an undeniably strong candidate will usually gain the support of the majority.

Hiring costs in STEM disciplines have a parameter that goes beyond salary; that is, the start-up package. In high-expectation research environments, the package includes funds for instrument acquisition, personnel (e.g., technicians, graduate students, postdoctoral appointees), supplies, travel, and publications, with all but equipment recurring over 3–5 years. Depending on the instruments sought, some of which can be well over $100,000, the package can easily reach several hundred thousand dollars or more. The technological advances seen in everyday life are reflected in the instrumentation now being used in laboratories, and new faculty will want to have access to versions that perform advanced analyses quickly and with precision in order to be competitive.

There are also escalating costs for STEM hires in small teaching institutions, and these are the result of two phenomena: The first is the desire to add research to undergraduate teaching to enhance their overall profiles and become more competitive for a wider range of external funding. The second is the recognition of undergraduate research as a powerful pedagogy/best practice in undergraduate education. Related to the latter is the emerging idea that undergraduates should engage in “authentic” research in their laboratory courses. That is, they should participate in the design of experiments that have not been done or reported in the literature, analyze the data, and form conclusions. Coupling these two concepts may mean that teaching institutions will have to invest in the modernization of their teaching equipment inventories and create new spaces outfitted with the type of instrumentation used by potential employers. One can easily envision the increased excitement when students in energy engineering can say they are working on a new vehicle battery that promises greater power and longevity or when biology students work with stem cells that may restore sight versus routine exercises that may illustrate a principle but have no “discovery” element. Although the investment here would not be as great as it was for the research-intensive hire, it could, in many cases, exceed six figures, which is more than enough to consume any salary savings one could expect from replacing a full professor with an assistant professor. Finally, chairs and deans should be prepared for requests for workload accommodations (i.e., reduced teaching loads) in exchange for the efforts spent on research with undergraduate students. To summarize, the new hire would cost more (salary plus start-up), require new space, and teach fewer classes but would improve the learning outcomes for students, enhance the institutional reputation, and increase its eligibility for new external funding.

The question that naturally arises at this point is: How do institutions with resource restrictions afford to hire transformational STEM faculty given their increased costs and the competition for their services? The first step is to reduce the cost as much as possible. Although it may not be possible to close a large salary gap, smaller differentials can be addressed through environmental factors. First, there may be a cost-of-living differential that can be exploited. Second, if applicable, emphasize to the candidate that collaboration is a cultural expectation at the institution. Many newly minted faculty expect this. Third, when negotiating the start-up package, ask for equipment lists that have three categories: (1) items used every day, (2) items used weekly, and (3) items used occasionally. Category 1 items stay on the purchase list; category 2 items may be found in another faculty lab, the department core, or in another department nearby (collaboration/sharing). If it is not present but desired by other faculty, institutional capital or interdepartmental budgets may help or offer the prospect of writing a proposal to an external agency for research purposes or as part of the revitalization of the undergraduate experience; the National Science Foundation and others have programs for both purposes. For category 3 (and possibly others as well), check on the availability campus-wide or even with nearby community employers who hire STEM graduates. Assuming cordial relationships, the latter can be approached as donors for recently replaced instruments, as places where faculty can run samples on occasion, or for opportunities for research collaborations. All of these possibilities re-enforce the collaborative commitment of the institution and community. Projecting a welcoming atmosphere where all elements speak to supporting the success of the candidate is sometimes critical to overcoming shortcomings on the resource side.

Another way to allow for faculty hiring in challenging financial times is to consider what types of expertise the department really needs moving forward. This involves developing a staffing plan, a concept that has been recently explored (Lees, 2016). To construct such a plan, the chair would project a best guess as to when senior faculty will retire (some will announce ahead of time, whereas others may decide just before they leave) and then determine what work must be replaced or is not presently being done. For example, a regional public university that wants to increase its research profile in a STEM field knows it must reduce its teaching load to accommodate the research expectation, and it may seek to replace, over a few years, several tenure-track lines with two fewer faculty members and hire three fewer expensive, nontenure track lines (lecturer, academic specialist) to pick up the teaching, develop an online presence, and work in assessment. Although not ideal in some ways, this at least allows the department to move forward in terms of changing its profile and modernizing its student experience.

In summary, institutions with modest resources face challenges in recruiting quality faculty in STEM disciplines due to the elevated salary and start-up costs and the competition for their services. These obstacles can be addressed through a collaborative, sharing culture; engaging the entire campus and beyond in the process; and preparing a staffing plan that is flexible in allowing for multiple ways for the department to meet its obligations.


Lees, Norman D. “Planning Department Staffing to Meet Academic Needs.” Academic Leader 32, no. 9 (2016): 5–6.

N. Douglas Lees, PhD, is associate dean for planning and finance, professor, and former chair of biology at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.