Your First Search-Committee Gig

Brian Taylor

August 05, 2010

A seminal moment for any new assistant professor comes when you serve on your first search committee. A new faculty member in the social sciences recalled how she attended the initial meeting, gazed around at the senior professors, and thought, "I am one of them now." For more than a decade she had been on trial as a student—both in graduate school and on the job market. For the first time, at that meeting, she sat among the judges.

It's an exhilarating moment, a true indication that you have arrived, not only in title but in fact.

On the other hand, as with almost every other activity of the probationary faculty member, you are still being judged—by the senior faculty members, the department chair, the university administration. Your performance on the search committee could affect not only job seekers' future but your own when you go up for tenure.

Sometimes tenure-track faculty members—especially at research-oriented universities—are sheltered from weighty committee work. Most senior professors perceive that a junior faculty member's load of service work should be lighter than their own, although that perception is not always dutifully applied in practice. Thus whatever service you officially take on as an assistant professor becomes a significant marker of your contribution to the department and university.

Some service tasks will consign you to comparative obscurity. Every department has a few committees that rarely meet or are considered trivial pursuits. An assistant professor who served on one such off-the-radar group mentioned the appointment to his senior mentor, who replied, "I didn't even know we had such a committee."

By contrast, in even the largest and most diverse departments, a search committee is high-profile service, and your performance will be noted by everyone. Senior professors view service on a search committee as a test of a central quality that is most sought after in the character of junior faculty members: responsibility. Your teaching and research may be impressive, but if you radiate immaturity and unreliability, your tenure bid could be handicapped. How you handle a search—its bureaucratic complexities, procedural nuances, ethical and legal proscriptions, sheer workload—can be a crucial factor in proving to your elders that you deserve to be a permanent member of their club.

The qualities that make a good search-committee member should, in theory, be the same whether you are a rookie assistant professor or a member of the old guard. But in practice, the expectations will be somewhat different for people of different levels of experience. The advice I offer below, then, may strike some probationary faculty members as unfair. Keep in mind, however, that in your tenure-track years, people are watching your every move, so your actions and remarks—positive and negative—can have a disproportionate effect on your future.

Do better than they say and better than they do. Search committees are conglomerations of quasi volunteers, and faculty members are not trained headhunters. Most of us are aware of ethical guidelines and legal rules that govern the search process, but that's about it. No surprise, then, that the faux pas and foibles of search-committee members are commonly decried in these pages and in the blogs, forums, and wikis frequented by job seekers: A clueless faculty member asks a job candidate about her religion; another ill-advisedly tells a candidate that he is a "sure thing."

A well-known senior professor may get away with such behavior on a search committee, but it's downright dangerous for you, a tenure-tracker, to try. You may find yourself aping the inconsistencies and errors of the tenured class out of some desire to fit in with "the old boys." In a word: Don't. Just because the silverback senior does it doesn't mean that it's right, or that you will escape chastisement for doing the same. Better to quietly and modestly obey institutional procedures to the letter. Follow the rules because the rules should be followed.

Don't abuse your status. The long slog of graduate school and then job hunting can produce resentments as well as angst. The inner anger you feel over advisers who take nine months to read a dissertation draft, senior professors who treat graduate students like errand clerks, and hiring committees that seem to specialize in humiliation is augmented by the fact that you can never, ever express your ire directly to its sources.

There is a temptation, once you find a tenure-track position, to rebuild your self-esteem at the expense of people who are now technically "below you," like graduate students and job candidates. But no path is less satisfying than beating up on people who are in a position you once were. In search-committee service, being polite to candidates, treating them decently, completing whatever work relates to the efficient and timely processing of their applications—that, in the end, will give you the most fulfillment and, you hope, will impress the senior professors.

Don't be an easy mark. In direct opposition to the tendency just mentioned, many young job applicants may assume that the junior member of a search committee is the kindest and most sympathetic. As a consequence, they are likeliest to open up to you with potentially damaging self-revelations, as in, "I've been turned down everywhere else. You are my last hope."

You, as a rookie, are also the most likely to be solicited for inside secrets, as in, "Tell me, is there an internal candidate?"

Your responses are up to you; everyone has his own moral compass and personality. But avoid being too chummy with the candidates. Your first loyalty is to your department and colleagues. And what you gossip about with an outsider may come back to haunt you if the job candidate reveals that you were the source. Your loose lips may sink your ship as well as theirs.

Furthermore, you are but one member of the committee. You should not be free with information and advice, because you may end up being wrong.

Don't be an overly enthusiastic cheerleader. In one of my first stints as a junior member of a search committee, I spoke with a candidate during her campus visit in terms that I only later realized were inappropriately positive. She had asked me what I thought her chances were. I honestly didn't know, or should have known that I didn't know. Two other candidates were due to visit; few on the search committee and no one else on the faculty had revealed their voting inclinations. But I commended her achievements and her presentations in glowing terms. Although I did not actually assert, "You are a sure thing," whatever I said was too far up the effusive meter.

Yes, one of your roles as a member of a search committee is to encourage top candidates whose CV's fit the profile. But there are limits. Never predict a candidate's success, never overpraise, never guarantee your support. Until the last vote of the last meeting, until all the information and responses have been shared, don't commit yourself. Yours is but a single vote, and you will cause more pain by instilling false hopes than if you had said nothing.

The caution about being too much of a cheerleader applies to your internal advocacy of a candidate, too. If you develop a strong preference for one of the finalists and champion her or him, no one will begrudge you that. You just need to know the point at which advocacy can devolve into argumentativeness and divisiveness.

A second-year assistant professor in a language department described to me the final meeting of a search committee where he spoke, at length and with great passion, about the virtues of a particular job candidate. After he finished, he surveyed the dropped jaws and raised eyebrows and realized that (a) no one else shared his enthusiasm, and (b) everyone was taken aback by his zealotry. He had lost a battle he probably never should have fought—or fought so vigorously. Perhaps more important, he had (at least temporarily) lost the respect of his peers.

So balance dispassion and passion on your first search committee. Enjoy the opportunity to help your department make one of the most crucial decisions possible in our business. It is a platform on which you can prove, by your display of diligence, good humor, correct behavior, and sober deportment, that a previous hire—yours—was well worth it.

David D. Perlmutter is director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and a professor and Starch Faculty Fellow at the University of Iowa. He writes the P&T Confidential advice column for The Chronicle. His book Promotion and Tenure Confidential will be published by Harvard University Press in the fall.