Attention, Search Committees

June 14, 2007

With the academic year over, new faculty members are preparing to make the transition to their first tenure-track jobs. The 2007-8 academic year will bring new searches and it seems timely to offer some advice to newcomers and veterans on how to conduct a good search.

An earlier Career Talk column on the nuts and bolts of running a search is worth revisiting. But in this column, we would like to offer advice to hiring committees, inspired by the observations of some of our readers who were candidates on the job market this year.

Write a Clear Position Announcement

Take some time to think about what you are looking for in a candidate before posting the opening.

I am currently on the job market and have been surprised as to how vague some of the job descriptions in my field are. Even worse, some committees seem to be looking for a combination of research interests that seems almost impossible. This is my first time on the academic job market, so I'm going to be applying only to positions that really fit my research profile. How can I tell which positions are the right fit for me?

It's a commonplace to talk about the overwhelming number of applications that search committees receive for tenure-track positions in some fields and subfields. Committees that post short, imprecise job announcements should expect to receive nothing less than a flood of applicants.

Candidates are loath to let a job opportunity pass, even if they are unsure whether their background makes them a good fit for the position. Search committees can do both themselves and job seekers a favor by taking the time to craft a job description that describes what the department is looking for in a candidate, and gives some indication as to the priorities and goals of the institution as a whole.

Be Specific About Application Requirements

Vague phrases -- like "send evidence of teaching excellence" -- make applicants very nervous.

What do employers want when they ask for "evidence of teaching excellence"? Are they talking awards, comments from evaluations, class materials?

Candidates do not want to overburden committees with unnecessary documents, but they do want to make sure to send enough information so that a committee can get a sense of who they are and what they have to offer.

It would be far more helpful if your job announcement stated something like: "Send evidence of teaching excellence, such as examples of student work, student evaluations, and faculty testimony on your teaching ability."

The same is true for other application materials. Don't just say: "Send dossier." Be specific about which materials you want to see.

Keep Candidates Informed

When you're serving on a search committee, you would do well to recall the anxiety you felt on the job market.

I recently invested considerable time and effort (and money) filling out applications, writing detailed cover letters, enclosing (always proofreading first) my vita, including letters of recommendation, and enclosing various other required documents (my vision of a learning-centered community college; my definition of the meaning of diversity on campus), to meet 52 deadlines. I haven't heard a word after six weeks (going on seven). What is the point of a committee soliciting applicants and requesting so much information from them, when it hasn't the time itself to invest in a little courtesy?

Waiting to hear from an institution can be incredibly nerve-racking at every stage of the hiring process. Job seekers' eagerness to have definite news about the status of your search might be so they can decide how to move forward with their own.

While it is difficult to respond personally to 300 to 500 applicants, some search committees post a timeline on their Web sites and update it regularly -- for example, "scheduled screening interviews with 14 candidates." That can be a way of giving candidates a sense of where the committee is in the hiring process and can demonstrate that it treats candidates with respect.

At small-sized institutions and departments, where tenure-track hiring happens infrequently, it is not uncommon for candidates to complain about a disorganized search or a lack of information. If your department is unused to hiring, you need to take the time to get organized before you post the position.

How will you let candidates know their application materials have been received? Who will be the main contact person for candidates? If your department has posted information about the search on a Web site, who will be in charge of updating it? If you have posted the job announcement on your institution's human-resources database, who will be the liaison to HR? Who will contact applicants to schedule interviews? Who will alert applicants that did not make the cut?

You may be surprised by the amount of work involved in conducting a search. Be sure you are ready for it and have a plan in place that will help you to treat candidates respectfully.

Don't Pressure Candidates in an Unethical Way

The head of the search committee is responsible for discussing with its members what qualifies as appropriate recruiting tactics and what is inappropriate.

In my first year on the job market, I have landed campus visits at the two big research universities with an opening in my field. They are comparable state institutions, and I would really have a tough decision to make if I were offered both jobs. The campus visits for the first university took place in mid- to late January. The head of the search committee called me at the end of January to tell me that I would be offered the job, that I should expect a letter within four days, and after that, I would have a week to give them a decision. Meanwhile, the person asked me to tell no one, not even a spouse, that I had been offered the job, requesting that I wait until the formal offer was made. When I told the person that I have an upcoming campus visit and would like more time to come to a decision, I was told that I would have "to fish or cut bait."

Sometimes we hear of search committees conducting searches earlier than is common practice in their field, thus giving candidates early job offers as well. However, what happened to the candidate above sends up a red flag. We wonder if perhaps the committee isn't united on its choice and the chair is trying to assess the candidate's interest.

We can see no legitimate reason to prohibit candidates from discussing a possible offer with their adviser or spouse. While you may want your chosen candidate to accept on the spot, in all likelihood, he or she may have other options to consider.

In such situations, we suggest that candidates express interest in the offer but state firmly that they will need several weeks to consider it. One week is absolutely not enough time to make such an important decision. (Note to candidates: You do not need to say you have other interviews; simply state that you need a few weeks.)

And for Heaven's Sake, Don't Ask Questions Like These

It is never a good idea, and indeed can even be unlawful, to ask questions about race, age, children, marital status, and religion (unless it is a religious institution).

Last fall, during a campus visit for a department-chair position at a public university in the Midwest, I was asked at least twice about my marital status, if I had kids, and about my age. I understand that people may just be trying to make small talk. Although the question about my age was not small talk, but rather came after the questioner examined my vita, noted my prematurely graying hair, and asked what profession I had been in before entering academia.

If you are the head of the search committee, you are responsible for educating its members about inappropriate questions. You should get in touch with human resources to learn about institutional policies on interviewing, and inform the other members of the committee.

We understand that some search-committee members ask such personal questions, not with malicious intent, but rather to inform a candidate about the university's resources and policies. If there's something you think a candidate should know (about great local day care, wonderful schools, relocation help for spouses), you might state those benefits without asking the candidate any direct personal questions.

For example, a committee member might say, "One of the things I like best about working at X College is the diversity of the faculty members, many of whom have come here after a previous career," or "This may be a small town, but we have exceptional schools, and several wonderful day-care facilities."

Final Thoughts

Any job search can be taxing, and an academic one even more so because of our unusual calendar. (In what other sector of employment, do the majority of the opportunities come out more or less during one time period?)

Our earlier column provided organizational advice for the various steps of the search; this one provides firsthand accounts of the angst candidates experience when each step is not well considered. We hope that, taken together, they will serve as useful guides.


Julie Miller Vick is senior associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania, and Jennifer S. Furlong is associate director. Vick is co-author of The Academic Job Search Handbook (University of Pennsylvania Press), along with Mary Morris Heiberger, who was associate director of career services at Penn.