Administration 101: Assembling the Application

Kevin Van Aelst for The Chronicle

April 10, 2017

It is of no comfort to candidates seeking their first tenure-track jobs that the process of applying for senior academic-leadership positions — chair, dean, provost, and beyond — is even more painful and tedious.

For one thing, hiring criteria amplify and diversify immensely once you move into the administrative ranks. To become a tenure-track assistant professor you need to demonstrate potential excellence in a limited range of qualities, mostly under the headers of research and teaching. To become a dean, you might need to hit the ball out of the park in dozens of "required" qualifications and many more "preferred" ones. Hiring profiles for provosts and presidents often run 10 or more pages (single-spaced), looking to recruit someone who is part Wall-Street genius, part saint, part Greek hero, and part psychic empath.

Then there are the application materials. I detested writing cover letters for faculty jobs. But filling out the dreaded "executive summary questionnaire" and recasting a 60-page CV to highlight your leadership skills are akin to the labors of Sisyphus.

No need to cry for us — just know what awaits you if you choose to pursue this career path. So far this series on becoming an academic administrator has covered the initial decision to get in the game, the ways to prep for the job hunt, and the challenges of working with executive-search firms. Now we look, with both courage and caution, at the application materials themselves.

Don’t be generic. A universal rule, whether you’re applying to become an assistant professor or a provost, is to avoid leaving the impression that your application would pertain to any position anywhere. Of course, many institutions seek similar qualities in a leader. Every ad for a dean will ask for evidence of fund-raising ability, for example. Every hiring profile for a provost will list some variation of "showing commitment to diversity at all levels of the institution."

Yet institutions and departments want to feel that you have some special affinity for them. No doubt in writing and in interviews you will get several questions like, "So why us? What makes you interested in being our dean?" They are looking to answer a meta­question, "Do you fit us?"

So make sure your application materials answer that big why. Read the hiring criteria. Pay attention to the search consultant’s advice on local areas of pride, ambition, or worry. Familiarize yourself with the institution’s strategic plan. Identify major ideas or aspirations. Try to find statements or speeches given by the senior administrators who will be hiring you: Are there key words and concepts they repeat as vital? Certainly check out the bios of the search-committee members — not to flatter them individually but to get a pulse of who your immediate audience will be.

As you assemble your application, use what you’ve learned to tailor your cover letter and CV to the position and the campus. Make yourself seem like a natural fit.

Your cover letter — even more unambiguously than your CV — should reflect the key job requirements listed in the hiring profile, and in their order of appearance. For example, if the first qualification listed for a deanship is, "must possess a wide range of excellent communication skills to clearly and succinctly articulate the college’s mission and vision to both internal and external constituencies," then the initial point of your cover letter should be about how important that is to you, too. Cite experiences and accomplishments that demonstrate your relevant talents. Likewise, with the CV — reorder the sections specifically, to follow what is of most interest to the institution.

Don’t be (obviously) desperate or (overly) coy. Desperation is never attractive — in hiring or love affairs. You may well be miserable working in a toxic campus culture, with a slashed budget and hopeless programs. But keep it to yourself, for the most part. Nobody wants to hire an academic leader who is the cheapest buy at a fire sale.

Always cast your reasons for changing jobs in a positive light, such as explaining the greater opportunities and attractions of the new position. In search-firm parlance: Focus on the "pull factors," not the "push factors."

Aim for a balanced approach in how you present yourself in the application. You do not want to resemble a puppy capering at the prospect of a new position, nor do you want to come off like an aloof Siamese cat. I have too often seen candidates fail to give a sense that they were really interested in the position or the place — when, in fact, they were eager — because they mistakenly thought that a certain degree of reserve made them more attractive.

There is nuance here that trips up many a candidate. Being hesitant with a search consultant right after you are nominated is attractive. But stating in your written materials and expressing in later interviews that you are not really sure you want the job is probably fatal to your prospects.

Be a countertype, not a stereotype. It may seem counterintuitive, but the oft-given advice of "playing to your strengths" can work against you in an administrative leadership search.

For example, suppose you are chair of a chemistry department and you are applying to be a dean of arts and sciences. Likely your CV speaks to your strengths in bench science, science publication, mentoring graduate students in science, motivating science faculty, procuring and overseeing external grants in science.

Therein lies a problem. The audience for an arts-and-sciences dean is not just made up of chemists and other scientists. People on your prospective campus will be wondering: How will you win the support of the literary theorists, the sociologists, and the violinists, since you are measurably "one of them" and "not one of us"?

Instead, I recommend a tactic that has worked for political candidates in elections: Play to your weaknesses, not just your strengths.

So, for instance, a senatorial candidate with a military background and a gruff demeanor might emphasize family, social, and personal issues, empathy, and kindness in his campaign. Likewise, you, the successful chemistry scholar, should describe at length in your application materials how you have contributed to multi­disciplinary projects with the humanities and the social sciences and how you value greatly those realms outside your own. You want to countertype, so that people in those fields don’t assume you will be deaf to their issues.

Steel yourself for the "hanging tree" questionnaire. As an administrative candidate, you will have the most contact with the search consultant when you are filling out the executive summary questionnaire. It serves as a sort of filter for candidates and a source of information for search committees.

I have never met any candidate who loves these questionnaires, and clearly I don’t either. I refer to them as "hanging tree" questionnaires — an image derived from The Hunger Games — because I find them to be a place of public pain, humiliation, and possible self-destruction. They are wearisome and repetitive, and force you to rewrite parts of what legitimately should be simply your cover letter.

Nevertheless, you must complete them with verve and thoroughness.

The good news is that many of the questions are obvious and common. If you are even considering being a candidate for an administrative position, you might as well start now to accumulate answers to queries like:

  • What are your top three accomplishments in administration?
  • What was your most difficult personnel challenge and how did you resolve it?
  • How have you fostered an atmosphere of shared governance in the administrative unit you have led?
  • How would you determine fund-raising priorities?
  • How have you increased diversity in faculty hiring?

And so on. After a while you will be able to answer the questions in your dreams (or nightmares). However, resist the temptation to just cut and paste your answers from the last time you filled out a similar form. You must do at least a minimal level of tailoring so that the answer does not come off as rote or pat. Whatever examples you use from your present and past circumstances, try to tie them to what you understand to be the situation on the ground in job you’re seeking.

Filling out application materials for academic-leadership positions is on no one’s list of favorite weekend activities. Expect to chafe at, and curse, their copiousness, repetitiveness, and tedium. But take some succor in the fact that everybody is in the same boat and if you approach the task systematically it is doable and will lead to better outcomes.

David D. Perlmutter is a professor in and dean of the College of Media & Communication at Texas Tech University. He writes the "Career Confidential" advice column for The Chronicle. His book, Promotion & Tenure Confidential, was published by Harvard University Press in 2010.