The Decision

May 21, 2003

I've been chronicling for Career Network the progress of a history search at a major research university, trying to offer some insights into the hiring process from the standpoint of a search committee. My last column described our selection of four finalists -- I've called them Joe, Jim, Bob, and Susan. As head of the committee, it was now my job to contact the four and arrange to bring them to campus.

Fortunately, I was able to set up visits that would not conflict or overlap. (Sometimes we have found it impossible to avoid having two candidates on campus simultaneously, one leaving while another arrives. We then cross our fingers that there will be no embarrassing encounters in hotel lobbies or anywhere else.) I had lengthy telephone conversations with each of the candidates before their visits, telling them what to expect while they were on campus, and innumerable (it seemed) e-mail exchanges with them and my committee members while firming up the details.

Our standard interview process requires each candidate to be at the university for a full day of meals, informal meetings with students and faculty members, and of course the all-important job talk, which almost always occurs in the late afternoon, when it will not conflict with most classes. We ask candidates to arrive some time during the afternoon of the previous day. We house them in a decent hotel, take them out to an early dinner to get acquainted, and then start the formal interview at breakfast the next day.

We try to give them some down time just before the job talk, but otherwise we run them through a very demanding schedule. The day concludes with a second dinner with another group of faculty members, and the candidates leave the next morning.

All four of our finalists -- Joe, Jim, Bob, and Susan -- were already employed in academe, but at less desirable colleges than ours.

The search committee expected a polished performance from Susan, the one candidate who had already published a book, and we got it. The most experienced of our invitees, she proved to be a pleasant person with an open manner. Of all the finalists, Susan asked us the best questions about life at our university, which was only to be expected given her relative seniority among our finalists. Those who socialized with her liked her very much and judged that she would be a good colleague and an excellent departmental citizen, for she had just such a track record at her current institution.

Her job talk touched on her published work, but focused primarily on a new project, which is taking her into an area of historical analysis just beginning to appear in the scholarly literature. Her presentation style was fine -- she is clearly very good in a classroom -- and she responded well to questions. Yet the content of her talk aroused mixed reactions from our colleagues. Some were dubious about the significance of the work, others were wary of its very nature. The project was admittedly daring and creative. People liked her imagination, but some questioned the utility, or even the validity, of the direction in which she was moving.

The verdict in the hallways in the days after her appearance was thus ambivalent. She had strong supporters, yet much depended on people's reactions to other candidates.

Bob had been something of a wild card on our shortlist. The search committee judged his written work as very solid, but it seemed to us somewhat more narrow than that of his three competitors. His research skills were undeniable -- he had found previously untapped sources offering new insights into a subject that had received considerable attention in recent scholarship. But we were uncertain whether he could extract generalizations from a mass of detail.

The committee was pleased to find that we need not have been concerned. He turned out to be a smart young man with a self-deprecating sense of humor. Many members of the department were wowed by his job talk, which covered his subject both broadly and in depth. Some were not quite so enthusiastic, but still positively inclined. Bob responded thoughtfully to the toughest questions anyone threw at him.

Colleagues walked out of the room afterwards grinning and giving each other covert "thumbs-up" signs. We appeared to have a hireable candidate, an important result for my committee, because it meant that our search would not fail, regardless of how the department assessed the remaining interviewees.

Jim, our top applicant based on his written work, did not impress our colleagues as much as we had expected. After his visit, two or three were enthusiastic about his candidacy, but the majority reported being underwhelmed. Indeed, he disappointed the committee members too.

Jim's informal meetings with department colleagues over coffee and meals went well enough, but his job talk was not successful. It was polished and smooth, yet at the same time lifeless, conveying no excitement about his research. His too-pat answers to most questions also gave us little insight into the way his mind worked. We could not see him listening and thinking, something we always like to observe in our candidates.

Moreover, he replied to some challenging queries with put-downs that verged on arrogance. What if students had raised such questions? I asked myself. A department member could stand up to off-putting responses, but a student would probably shrivel into silence, perhaps for the remainder of the semester. He did not invite others to have serious intellectual exchanges with him, but instead curtly cut off those exchanges with dismissive replies. Only a couple of times in the question period did he respond to inquiries in a lively and open-minded way.

The committee's consensus at the end of the day was that Jim was smart and articulate, but that his candidacy had been derailed. We didn't want to put him in a classroom with our students, nor did he strike us as a colleague with potential for intellectual growth, a quality we seek in junior hires.

Joe, too, disappointed us, but in a different way. Although he had taught for several years, he was very nervous during his interview (a problem we usually encounter only with inexperienced graduate students). Perhaps he simply wanted the job too badly and could not relax. People who met him at meals found him personable and well read in the scholarly literature, yet his job talk was poorly timed and badly presented. During it, he seemed very ill at ease.

Joe's mixed performance in the question-and-answer period, where some candidates redeem themselves from less-than-stellar talks, also gave us pause. He answered some inquiries well, but others seemed to flummox him. Joe had a tendency to mumble and generally lacked dynamism, which raised questions in our minds about his teaching ability. Could he successfully handle the large survey courses we all had to teach regularly, we asked ourselves? His low-key manner would be suitable in seminars, but what about other venues?

The content of Joe's talk, though, had impressed some colleagues. That confronted the search committee with a dilemma: Could we still regard him as a viable candidate? Should we attribute the failure of his presentation solely to nervousness, or did that failure reflect a more fundamental problem with research and conceptualization? Some colleagues were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, but others were not, and a few had serious questions about the validity of his work in general.

In our department, new members are hired by consensus, and search committees try to talk to as many colleagues as possible before making their formal recommendations. For their part, faculty members attend all the talks they can, read the application files, and skim at least some of the written materials submitted by finalists. Professors in the same general subfield as the candidate do much more -- socializing with the candidates and carefully studying their published and unpublished works.

Our preliminary soundings told us that, as we suspected, Jim wholly lacked support, and that Joe's advocates were too few in number to carry the day. That left Susan and Bob, about whom the committee members themselves were divided. One member favored Susan, the other two -- while not objecting to her in principle -- thought Bob the better candidate.

Our informal discussions with other department members decided the matter. Although Susan had supporters, Bob had many more. Further, Susan had significant opponents, whereas Bob was acceptable to everyone.

The committee therefore formally recommended to the department that we extend an offer to Bob. The department unanimously accepted that recommendation, and Bob has accepted the offer. He will be joining us in the fall as an assistant professor.

Our colleagues congratulated us on a job well done, and the committee members breathed a collective sigh of relief. We plan a small celebration for just the three of us -- when we have caught up with all the other work we've had to postpone while engaged in this time-consuming, but ultimately satisfying, process of finding a new department member.

C.A. Wilcox is the pseudonym of a tenured professor of history at a major research university who is writing a column this academic year on how the job-search process works from the hiring side of the table.