Too Close for Comfort to the Search

March 09, 2001

Among the many annoyances of the academic job search is the anonymity that shrouds the process. The first contact between the search committee and the job seekers is an impersonal invitation, stipulating minimum requirements, documentation, and deadlines -- nothing but the facts. The applicants respond in kind with formulaic cover letters, vitas, statements of teaching philosophy, samples of scholarly work, all straining to convey originality while kowtowing to convention so as not to be dismissed out of hand.

In the initial stages of the search, the goals of the applicants and the search committees are the same -- to move beyond the piles of paper and past the anonymity. The candidates hope their application materials are persuasive enough to warrant a face-to-face meeting. The search committee is trying to distinguish from the mass of files those applicants who will complement the department. It all leads up to the on-campus interviews, where the real decisions are made. And yet, after the interviews, tours, meals, and discussions of pedagogy, much of what goes on within the search committee and the hiring department remains a mystery to the candidates. They wait, and they wonder who else was interviewed, how they performed in their job talk, and when the hell the phone is going to ring.

Wouldn't it be great to know exactly what the search committee was doing and thinking, without having to hound the department chair? It would seem so, but I recently found that having intimate knowledge of the search process as a candidate is not all that it's cracked up to be.

Within weeks of finishing my dissertation in April 2000, I was hired in a renewable, nontenure-track position as an assistant professor of biology at a liberal-arts college. The position would give me some full-time teaching experience to round out my vita, and would hopefully be a springboard to a tenure-track position in a year or two. Much to my surprise -- and delight -- a couple of weeks after I was hired, a longtime member of the department announced his departure for an administrative position, opening up a tenure-track line.

I had my eye on the vacant position almost as soon as I arrived on campus last fall -- a secret I kept from no one. I figured that since the department had already hired me once, the odds were better than even that it would hire me again. There was a clear precedent for my optimism: Two faculty members originally hired in nontenure-track slots in the department had been promoted to tenure-track positions. When the job description was finally drafted toward the end of September, I was happy to see that it adequately matched my teaching and research interests.

My friends and colleagues outside the university assumed I had the job in the bag. So did I. After all, I was qualified, my first semester of teaching was going very well, and I even shared an office wall with one of the search-committee members. There was one potential problem: I was not the only person who could make all of these claims.

Because the vacancy I was vying for had come up suddenly, the department had been forced to hire another person to teach the departing faculty member's classes. To fill the slot, they dipped back into the same pool from which I was selected. My new colleague and I overlapped broadly in research and teaching specialties, and we were both very interested in the tenure-track job.

As luck would have it, we also had the same first name, which was a source of amusement for everyone in the department -- aside from us, perhaps. I was prepared to dislike my new colleague since he was my greatest competition for "my" job, but upon meeting him, I found him to be very amiable and we quickly became friends. In addition to commiserating about the challenges of our first faculty positions, my "rival" and I discussed the awkwardness of competing for the same job from within the department. And many members of the department discussed it too. We all knew that there was but one position to fill, and that someone was going to be disappointed. Some members of the department suggested the situation was more difficult for them than it was for us. We respectfully disagreed.

As potential job candidates, we were excluded from departmental meetings when the topic dealt specifically with the job search, but we were still privy to a lot of the inner workings of the search committee. Such close access surely had its advantages. For example, after noticing a slew of typos in the application materials I submitted, I walked corrected versions down to the search committee chair's office, and together we replaced the offending documents. He let me know as each of my letters of reference came in and we frequently discussed the number of applications for the job. Other members of the committee candidly discussed the quality of applications, the mind-set of the search committee, and related topics that most applicants would absolutely love to hear about firsthand.

My rival and I both made the short list of eight applicants. The search committee held phone interviews over the course of a week late in the fall term, and then met to whittle the list to four candidates who would be brought in for on-campus interviews. After that meeting broke up, the department chair and search committee chair approached me and asked to have a chat. Cheerily, I invited them into my office where they unceremoniously informed me that I had been eliminated from contention. Moreover, because they knew I would hear eventually, they let me know that my rival had advanced to the final stage of the search and would interview for the job.

While I had given passing (but not serious) thought to the fact that I might not be offered the job, I had never considered that I might not get a chance to interview for it. I listened half-heartedly as my colleagues explained that while they thought highly of my scholarly qualifications and my teaching abilities, I did not fit the specific needs of the department as well as my rival did. Because the department was confident that, between the two of us, they would chose him rather than me, they saw no need to keep my application active. Nonetheless, they said they hoped I would stay on in my nontenure-track position.

It would be awhile before I got past feeling that I had been punched in the gut.

During this recovery period, I realized that while I had enjoyed being on the inside of the job-search process, close proximity comes at a cost. By knowing the decision makers so well, I had completely lost any anonymity within the process. In any other case, I could attribute my failure in a job search to sources other than my own shortcomings. For example, last year I made the shortlist for a job that I thought I fit extremely well, but I was not invited for an on-campus interview. I consoled myself by thinking if only they had spent a couple days with me in the interview setting they surely would have ended up offering me the job (the ever popular "they don't know what they are missing" defense mechanism). That particular rationalization had to be laid aside in this case. In any other search where I was not interviewed or offered the position, I didn't have to face the members of the search committee or department. However, while I could leave early to lick my wounds on the day when I received the bad news, I had to be back the next day and the next, and the next, and the next. When I talked with the members of my department, I'd know that most (if not all) of them had decided against my application. My initial reaction was a noxious mix of anger, disappointment, embarrassment, and incredulity, but I'd like to think that I recovered fairly quickly.

Early on, although I was sure that I would be offered the job, I was not so sure as to not apply for other positions. My plan was to use interviews at other colleges as an opportunity to fine-tune my interview seminar for the home crowd. Fortunately, within a few days of falling out of my department's search, I received an offer for a tenure-track position at a small, private Midwestern university. The solid job offer validated my sense of academic self-worth in the wake of a rather humbling shot. I gave serious consideration to the offer, speaking with the department chair at length about teaching loads, research support, and other pertinent details. Through our conversations, I found that the position I was being offered had many advantages that would not be available to me in the job I had been hoping for within my current department. After discussing with my wife the prospect of relocating for the second year in a row (and the fifth time before hitting our seventh wedding anniversary), I gratefully accepted the offer.

In the end, my belief that being an "insider" in a job search would have distinct advantages was right on the mark: the department ultimately offered the tenure-track position to my rival. In retrospect, it is easy for me see how he fit the particulars of the job description a bit better than I, and I am glad he was tapped for it. The nontenure-track gig worked well as a springboard to something bigger and better, and I am very excited about heading off to my new job next year.

At this point I am almost glad that my department turned down my application (not ecstatic, mind you, but almost glad). It may sound like a rationalization, but their decision forced me to recognize that perhaps the place where I was comfortable was maybe not the best place for me. As they say, all's well that ends well.

Travis J. Ryan is an assistant professor of biology at Furman University. Next fall, he will be an assistant professor of biology (on the tenure track) at Butler University.