The Slips-Ups of Search Committees

May 18, 2001

Although they are daunting for candidates and exhausting for search committees, most academic searches proceed civilly and professionally. But just as candidates make some common mistakes on the job market, so too do those doing the hiring.

In general, we encourage candidates to take garden-variety departmental mistakes in stride. Don't waste energy being annoyed that searches aren't always handled perfectly. Instead use your energy to get a good job and make sure that when you're in a position to hire, you do a better job of it. If you encounter a truly egregious situation, you might want to consult a lawyer. But short of that, you might also find some helpful advice in our previous columns.

Julie: Of course some candidates do stupid things in the application process -- sending form letters, neglecting to proofread their materials, failing to research the colleges that they have applied to. But most candidates put tremendous time, energy, and thought into each application, and it's frustrating to them and to us when they encounter thoughtlessness, rudeness, and occasionally, marginally legal behavior on the part of hiring institutions. Such problems are often the result of inexperience. Faculty hires are usually made by committee, many committee members are involved in hiring only occasionally, and hiring is often seen as a necessary, but burdensome, administrative task, rather than as a key to the long-term health and reputation of the department.

Mary: Some errors are made because departments are clerically overburdened. Applicants aren't the only ones who make cutting and pasting errors, as one reader of this column noted, after receiving a letter from a college that listed his address correctly, but put someone else's name in the salutation. He got a letter from another institution thanking him for applying for a faculty position in a specific department when he had actually applied for an administrative job.

Julie: The most common error made by hiring committees is failing to keep candidates informed at each stage of the process. We speak with many candidates who say they send in an application and never hear anything more about it, or hear only six months down the road when a final hire is announced. Given the clerical burden of letting 200 or 300 applicants know that they haven't been selected for an interview, this is at least an understandable, albeit sloppy practice. What is harder to fathom is the department that invites four candidates to campus for all-day interviews, tells them a decision will be made by the end of the next week, and then fails to communicate further with any of them, except, presumably, the candidate who gets the offer.

Mary: This is particularly difficult when a candidate has developed a relationship with the department chairman or the head of the search committee through numerous telephone calls, a convention interview, e-mail messages, and a campus interview. No one enjoys telling candidates that they didn't get the job, but that is the responsibility of the person running the search. When a candidate has been assured that he or she will hear from the search-committee chairman, and doesn't, it reflects poorly not only on that chairman but also on the department.

Julie: The other side of this error occurs when an overly enthusiastic member of the search committee erroneously leads a candidate to believe that she or he will surely get the job. In addition to being profoundly disappointed, many people who've seen a sure thing evaporate are further frustrated by realizing that they slowed down their other job-hunting efforts because they were so sure they'd be offered a particular job. Of course candidates should keep hunting until they've accepted a position, but people in a position to hire should never get so carried away by enthusiasm that they set a candidate up for this kind of disappointment.

Mary: Speaking of enthusiasm, let's talk about behavior during the interview. Part of the campus interview usually includes some socializing in which members of the search committee may boast about their department. Most candidates do their very best to be professional and relaxed in these unscripted situations. So, it is distressing for a candidate to be cornered by an inebriated senior member of the department or to attempt a serious discussion while a mariachi band plays right behind your head (to mention only some of the things that have happened to people we know).

Julie: The interview itself may be corrupted when committee members ask questions or provide the sort of misinformation that would panic university lawyers if they knew these things were being said. "You know, we'd love to interview you, but we're under pressure to hire a minority." This is a misrepresentation of how affirmative action works and a way to avoid responsibility for the committee's decision. "Are you married?" "Do you plan to have children?" "Will your husband be willing to move here?" "We like to think of ourselves as a young department." Many of these remarks and questions may or may not be innocent, but all of them make candidates very uncomfortable and can certainly give the appearance that the hiring decision will be based on illegal considerations.

Mary: Ironically, many of these remarks are made by search-committee members who are enthusiastic about a candidate and want to think of as many ways as possible to attract him or her. Unfortunately their intentions can backfire. When a faculty member asks a young candidate, "Do you have children?", the professor may simply be eager to talk about the institution's parental-leave policy, day-care center, and local schools and youth programs. But the candidate may interpret this question any number of ways, including, "They worry that my having children may make me less tenurable," or "There is concern I won't be able to shoulder my teaching responsibilities if I am pregnant and subsequently take a leave." While we continue to advise candidates not to panic at such questions, we would love to see the day when candidates interviewing for faculty positions can be sure they will be asked only questions related to legitimate hiring considerations.

Julie: Other problems arise when members of hiring committees fail to keep the names of candidates confidential. By the time an applicant visits the campus to teach a class and give a talk, their candidacy is not exactly a secret, but neither should it be gratuitously volunteered to colleagues at other institutions, to the candidate's current employer, or to people at other institutions whom the candidate has not given as a reference. Candidates often want to keep their job searches private, for reasons ranging from sometimes legitimate fear of retaliation by their current employer to the simple embarrassment of having it be widely known that they were not chosen for a job. It can take a member of a hiring committee only a moment to make a thoughtless remark that can cause lasting harm.

Mary: We do believe that thoughtlessness, rather than malevolence, is usually what makes looking for an academic job harder than it should be. A little forethought on the part of a hiring committee can make life easier for candidates and be good public relations for the department. Many professional associations have established standards for hiring, and we hope that hiring departments will reacquaint themselves with them each time they begin a search. We also hope that readers of this column will remember their own job searches and be considerate when they are the ones doing the hiring.

Mary Morris Heiberger and Julia Miller Vick are the authors of The Academic Job Search Handbook (University of Pennsylvania Press). They have provided career services for thousands of graduate and professional students since 1985. Ms. Heiberger is associate director and Ms. Vick is graduate career counselor at the Career Services office of the University of Pennsylvania.

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