The Other Side of the Desk: How to Conduct a Successful

October 30, 1998

Hiring and retaining good faculty members is arguably among the most important activities in the academy, yet search committees and administrators receive little guidance on how to conduct an effective search.

As academic deans, we have been involved in more than 100 faculty searches, and we have seen how poor planning and lack of preparation can derail a search. These mistakes can leave job candidates with a bad impression not only of your program but of your institution as well.

Here are some suggestions, relevant for many disciplines, for avoiding those pitfalls:

Specifying the vacancy. Most openings are available due to faculty retirements or turnover, leaving gaps in specific teaching and research areas. Faculty members should carefully assess the areas in which people are most needed, and then search committees can develop descriptions for the position.

Faculty members need to come to a clear understanding of what they're actually looking for before the position is advertised. Otherwise, universities may waste time and money bringing in candidates who don't meet their needs.

Timing. Most academic units advertise in the fall semester preceding the year in which they intend to fill a vacancy. In a highly competitive job market, the search process should start early, including obtaining administrative approval and preparing advertisements. A missed ad deadline can result in a one- to three-month delay. Even a slight delay can leave departments at a disadvantage.

Many disciplines have annual conferences where faculty candidates are screened. Although such screening can save money by weeding out potential applicants before their campus visits, there is a downside: You will not be a step ahead of everyone else.

By contrast, some programs forgo conference screening, invite candidates to the campus, and prepare job offers before conference interviews begin, thus removing outstanding candidates from the market. Candidates are often impressed by this strategy. Making job offers before competitors have begun to interview reduces your chances of negotiating potentially higher salaries to meet competing offers. Candidates are more likely to accept a good position and forgo the "academic meat market" at annual conferences than risk losing your offer and settling for lesser offers.

The disadvantage of this strategy is that some excellent candidates may elect to defer an early offer in the hope that they will receive other offers. Each institution has to figure out which strategy is best, but we still recommend an early search process.

Preparing the search committee. Ideally, the committee chair should be a seasoned faculty member who can provide leadership in the search. Since most faculty members have no training in the hiring process, the committee chair or academic administrator should give committee members background information about legal issues in searches, illegal and inappropriate interview questions, and relevant institutional policies. Compliance with intitutional policies is particularly important because violations can result in an aborted search.

Setting the climate. Outstanding candidates have been lost due to poor preparation of faculty members involved in the search. We have collected horror stories from applicants who were mistreated by faculty members, search-committee members, or administrators.

Job candidates, whether hired or not, are likely to talk to hundreds of educators over the course of their careers. One professor, whose student was treated badly during a campus visit, now discourages all of his graduates from applying to that institution.

We suggest that academic administrators stress the importance of treating applicants with respect and common courtesy. Even if your department is not interested in a candidate, it is important for all contacts to remain professional. Ideally, every candidate will leave your institution with a positive experience so that even if they are not offered a job, they will speak well of you.

Recruitment methods. Once you have approval to hire, the committee should employ both formal and informal search strategies.

Formal strategies include placing advertisements in several professional venues (for example, The Chronicle, disciplinary newsletters or journals, minority publications, and letters to other departments nationwide). Personally contacting and e-mailing ads to chairs in your discipline can be useful in establishing a solid applicant pool. Consider listing your job vacancy on your department and university Web sites.

Wherever you place your advertisements, pay attention to their wording and appeal. Descriptions should allow potential applicants to determine the degree of fit between their interests and that of the institution. Including some particularly attractive characteristics ("located at the base of the scenic Smoky Mountains" or "a Carnegie I Research Institution") may entice applicants.

We also urge search committees to use informal recruitment sources. These include contacting alumni at other institutions, prominent senior faculty members, and members of special-interest groups in your discipline. Encourage all faculty members and academic administrators to tap into their professional networks. Another recruitment source is recently hired junior faculty members who may know good candidates from their graduate or post-doctoral programs.

Most institutions are keenly interested in attracting minority and women applicants. Aside from advertising in mainstream and specialized minority venues (for example, Black Issues in Higher Education), networking is essential. The competition for underrepresented faculty members is so fierce that some institutions begin cultivating potential candidates two to three years before candidates are on the market. Personal contacts and repeated invitations to apply are helpful indicators of the institutions seriousness.

Screening candidates' vitae. Use a formal rating sheet when reviewing applicant materials. Rate such items as degree earned, teaching experience, publication record, degree of fit with needed areas, ability to conduct research, and quality of reference letters.

The search committee can use a similar rating form when calling references. Screenings of vitae and references can be used to produce an initial ranking of candidates.

Telephone screening. Telephone interviews can help search committees screen out candidates no longer interested in the position, those who are unable to respond well to questioning, or those who sound inappropriate for the position despite an attractive vitae.

The telephone interview can assess social skills, clarify questions from the vitae review, ascertain how soon the candidate will finish the doctorate or post-doctorate position and answer candidates' questions to encourage their continued interest in your position.

Screening at professional conferences. If professional conferences are used for screening, schedule interviews before the conference and leave sufficient time between appointments.

Make arrangements ahead of time to obtain a suitable interviewing area. Do not interview candidates in hotel rooms unless there is a private sitting area away from the bedroom. We know of many job candidates who have been interviewed perched on a hotel-room bed. This setting is particularly uncomfortable for woman candidates.

It is important to conduct your interview in a highly professional manner. All individuals present should be introduced to the candidate and the search chair should begin by describing the institution and academic unit. Members of the committee should have questions prepared for candidates. And always leave sufficient time for candidates to ask questions of the committee.

In part II, we will discuss strategies for completing the search once candidates are scheduled for on-campus visits.

Karen Sowers is professor of social work and dean of the College of Social Work at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. Dianne Harrison Montgomery is professor of social work and dean of the School of Social Work at Florida State University. They are the authors of Finding an Academic Job (Sage Publications). You can order the book directly from Sage