Waiting for the Phone to Ring

February 25, 2005

Question: I recently had several interviews at the annual convention in my field. Here I am a few weeks later, waiting to hear from those who interviewed me. What is the normal timetable for this type of thing? What should I do in the meantime? I'm going crazy waiting to hear from someone.

Question: I had what I considered to be a very successful campus interview about two weeks ago. I haven't heard anything. Is this typical? Is it appropriate for me to contact the institution, or would doing so decrease my chances of receiving an offer?

Jennifer: When candidates wonder if it's typical not to have heard anything after having what felt like a very good convention or campus interview, the only answer we can give is that nothing is "typical."

If you believe that the convention interviews you had went quite well, it simply may be that other candidates were stronger. A search committee usually interviews 10 to 15 people at a conference. Even if eight of them are terrific, they're nonetheless going to bring only four to six finalists to the campus for further interviews. If you are the first choice it's likely that you will hear something shortly after the campus interview, but if you're not, you could face a long wait.

Keep in mind that several weeks can pass between the time when an offer is made and when it is accepted or rejected. The top candidate may be hoping for another offer from a different institution. So if you're the second choice, you may not hear from the committee for a month or more. Some colleges send out e-mail messages saying a decision has not yet been made, but many don't communicate with candidates at all.

Julie: As you wait, it's important not to second guess yourself or worry that your interviews went badly, or that you've failed. Sometimes an interview that you didn't feel confident about will result in a campus visit or a job offer. Conversely, an interview that you thought went well might not lead to anything.

Jennifer: Although it is acceptable and even advisable to send thank-you notes to the head of the search committee (and other departmental members with whom you've established a good rapport) after meeting with them, we would hesitate to contact someone from the institution with which you've interviewed to find out where they are in the hiring process.

The academic timetable can be slow, but the committee will most certainly contact you if they are interested in you. If you are not selected, it is most likely that you will eventually receive a letter from the search committee saying that the position has been filled. Receiving a rejection letter can seem particularly harsh, especially when it's from an individual whom you enjoyed meeting, and especially when the letter arrives months later.

Julie: Unfortunately, some academics do not remember their manners and often deal with the difficult task of rejecting a job candidate by simply never speaking to him or her again.

Occasionally, you won't hear anything about a job opening because it simply no longer exists. It is fairly common for departments to advertise positions before they've secured money for them, only to have the money fall through. Again, don't take it personally, and keep moving forward.

Jennifer: Sometimes things happen behind the scenes of a search about which you have no way of knowing. Perhaps there were two different factions in a department and the sides had trouble agreeing on what kind of position to announce. They may now have trouble agreeing on which candidate would best fill that position.

There may be interdepartmental conflicts that can cause the committee or department to take much longer than normal to make a decision. If you applied to a small college, the search committee will have included people from other disciplines and they may have trouble coming to a decision about what the institution needs. Your performance at the interview, no matter how spectacular, will not sway the decision if there is divisiveness behind the scenes.

Julie: Even when there is no such strife, a search committee, like any employer, is looking for someone it perceives to be a good "fit" for the department. Although the committee members may respect you as a future scholar, you might not be exactly what they are looking for, even if you feel that you are.

To get a sense of the deliberation process and the factors considered to see if there is a fit, take a look at this diary of a search committee.

Jennifer: If you are still in graduate school, professors in your own department can sometimes be very helpful. Be sure to keep the members of your dissertation committee (and others in your department) updated on the status of your job search.

If a professor has a personal contact in the department where you are a candidate, he or she might volunteer information about its inner workings. It is important, however, to let a faculty member voluntarily divulge that information, rather than asking that source to reveal information inappropriately or indiscreetly.

Julie: Not all mentors are helpful in this stressful period. Some can be downright discouraging. If you're in that predicament, you need to realize that it may say more about your adviser than about you. Just know that you've done your best in a notoriously difficult market, and steer the conversation toward what you can do to improve your chances next year. There is nothing to be gained from beating yourself up (or allowing someone else to do it).

Jennifer: How can you get through this difficult period? The first thing you might do is to put your focus back on your research, which can sometimes be challenging after the hectic application process and the excitement and nervousness provoked by the conventions and the interview process.

Try to refocus your energies on the task at hand. If you are ABD, work on finishing your dissertation. If you are teaching and doing research in another capacity, focus on those tasks. If you're worried about your chances in this year's job market, it never hurts to start thinking about new projects, new courses, and publishing -- all of which will make you a better candidate if you need to go on the job market again.

Julie: Try to relax, and re-establish your social connections. Have fun with your friends and family. Because many of them will not understand how the academic hiring process works and why you are so worried about your job search, be sure to explain it to them.

Jennifer: Thoughts like "if I don't get the job at Research Institution X in Amazing City Y, my life and career are over" are not productive. Even if you don't get the job you have your heart set on, you will find other opportunities.

It's difficult to remain optimistic given the struggles that you face on the academic job market, but try to remember that you can be successful, either in academe or in another capacity.

Julie Miller Vick is associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania. Jennifer S. Furlong, who earned her Ph.D. in romance languages from Penn in 2003, is a graduate career counselor at the university. Vick is one of the authors of "The Academic Job Search Handbook" (University of Pennsylvania Press), along with Mary Morris Heiberger, who was associate director of career services at Penn.