A Search-Committee Virgin Tells All

January 27, 2004

For 10 years straight, I dabbled in the job market. Year in, year out, I refined my CV, polished my application letter, tapped my advisers for new letters, gave telephone interviews to faceless committees clustered around speaker phones, traveled to conventions for hotel interviews, and was shepherded around on campus visits. The mail brought rejection letters in heaps, but along the way I received enough offers to keep me employed steadily, and I landed a tenure-track position -- all a scholar needs, at bottom.

I was, however, a search-committee virgin. I had never served on the employer side of the process. That innocence wasn't by choice; not having much standing or seniority, I had simply never been asked to serve. But all that changed last fall, when I served on a hiring committee for a tenure-track position in political science and gained some valuable perspective.

Reading and ranking more than 100 job files was eye-opening. First, I was stunned by the sheer bulk of the files, very different from my own spare application packets. Job ads always specify the items required by specific departments, and I had always adhered to the requests exactly. If they asked for a writing sample, I would send one. Uno. If they asked for evidence of teaching or a teaching philosophy statement, I would send it; if not, I wouldn't.

By contrast, the files sent to our committee were massive, volunteering much more than we requested. A majority were an inch or two thick, requiring a monster clip to hold them together.

Part of the bulk, in my view, was fluff. Would anyone, in the course of considering candidates, really care to read their e-mail messages to students? The person who sent this trivia, I immediately concluded, was unable to discern the incidental from the useful, and would probably carry that same obliviousness over into his scholarship and teaching. Scratch.

Another case of fluff: Many graduate departments no longer simply forward letters of recommendation but append a cover letter from their "placement officer" introducing, with vague pieties, the letters from faculty members who actually know the candidate. This formality is supposed to put the imprimatur of the program on the candidate. But it is totally superfluous. When reproduced in dozens of files, the practice wastes reams of paper, all for zero effect on a committee's deliberations.

Yet I was impressed by the comprehensiveness of many of the files, and I will never again construct my own job files in my old spare manner.

The first things that a committee examines in any file are the cover letter, the CV, and the letters of recommendation. Excellence in these, therefore, is imperative.

Cover letters should avoid overly generic formulations and indicate why you fit the particular job. They should contain no errors, such as a failure to replace the names of other institutions to which you are applying. ("I believe I am a good fit for Desirable California University" falls a bit flat when the envelope is slit open at Midwestern State.)

Once a candidate appears a contender, however, any and all additional information is extremely helpful. It is a luxury, for example, to be able to review three or four writing samples. Few committees, however, are going to have the time or energy to ask for that extra information after you make the shortlist, so why not provide it in advance? Likewise, why not send along graduate transcripts, teaching materials, and other quality indicators, whether requested or not? An abundance of significant data may well help tip the scales by helping someone plead your case compellingly in committee deliberations.

I also came to appreciate the value of a teaching dossier, which typically includes a statement on your teaching outlook, statistics and written comments from one or more sample classes, syllabi, and the like, giving a rounded sense of your teaching approach. I resolve to construct such a file for all future applications of my own, a break from my longstanding approach of sending such material only when requested.

Letters of evaluation, of course, matter a great deal, and reading through piles of them, I was struck by the variation in quality. Strong letters can be posed with a great range of force. Damning with faint praise, too, is an art form.

Then there is the curious and idiosyncratic letter. What should be made of the statement that a candidate is a power weightlifter with a formidable physical presence? Although we couldn't resist jokes about the Schwarzenegger solution to our political needs, our committee was scrupulously fair, judging the scholarship on its own merits. But I was left wondering: Why was the irrelevant information included at all? Did the candidate know that the adviser divulged his athletic habits in this way? Why should a file include physical attributes at all? The door was left ajar to peremptory brawn-versus-brains prejudice.

Candor requires that recommendations remain anonymous from the candidates, so you cannot know the exact quality of your recommenders' letters. I have never read my own placement file. Even if I could, I would consider it unethical. Just choose your writers carefully. Ascertain that they have confidence in you, and gauge your conviction that they will not indulge their eccentricities, or reveal yours, in a way that might prove damaging.

My appreciation grew, too, of the vast time and effort that conscientious search committee members put in. From the selection process to the scheduling of visits, a search is a monumental task. For this reason, it is important that candidates comport themselves reciprocally.

One finalist tested our patience with a flurry of on-again, off-again impulsiveness, eventually backing out just before the campus visit. View this, for a moment, from the life of a search-committee member. To arrange a candidate's visit -- appointments with the department head and dean, campus tour, meetings with faculty, job talk, lunch, dinner -- is a scheduling hassle, all orchestrated while trying to carry on one's own teaching and research.

To toy with a committee is, in my book, one of the greatest faux pas of any aspiring scholar. Handling a campus-interview offer in a cavalier or self-centered manner may be enough to make your name forever mud in some circles. If you are uncertain about your level of interest in a position, either pull out quickly, giving the committee time to select a replacement candidate, or request more time to decide. Apply the Kantian maxim: graciousness.

Exemplary conduct may even produce happy outcomes. The candidate we hired in the end had introduced himself to me several years before in an archive where we were both researching. We struck up an acquaintance over lunch, and more than a year later, I remained interested enough in this young scholar's mind that I called him to solicit his application. He was, however, by no means an "inside candidate." Our offer first went to a candidate whom the committee unanimously thought more qualified, though none of us had known of her before reviewing her file. After she accepted another positition, our offer passed to the candidate I had met in the archive. To my delight, he has accepted. The moral: You never know where gregariousness and scholarly exchange may lead.

One last insight is that despite the pain and demoralization of rejection -- feelings I myself know well -- there is no reason to belabor being cut from any job search. This is a buyer's market. For every job in the humanities and social sciences, there are many astonishingly capable candidates, any number of whom we would count ourselves lucky to have as a new colleague.

The decision about whom to hire is subject to many peculiarities. What curricular needs inform the appointment, and how well do you fit them? Does the committee members' intellectual expertise lead them to apprehend your work? Do they find you too close to their existing strengths, or to be carrying out a style of research different from their hopes? Are there diversity considerations?

You cannot control, or even know, any of this. Since competition makes disappointment inevitable even in the best of times, it is absurd to blame yourself in a period of Ph.D. overproduction and austerity budgets. All that you can do is teach and write as best you can, assemble a file that presents your accomplishments in the best way possible, and hope for the best. Take it from me. I've been around.

Max Clio is the pseudonym of an associate professor of history on a regional campus of a major Midwestern research university. He welcomes letters sent to