Asking About the Status of the Search

Brian Taylor

May 10, 2010

Sometimes you need to be careful about preaching what you practice. I learned that lesson when, drawing on my own job-hunting experiences, I gave some advice to a job hunter that may have sunk her chances.

The tale began happily—for me. As a Ph.D. candidate looking for my first tenure-track position, I had sent out applications that led to several conference and telephone interviews. One position particularly attracted me, but I had not heard a word from the department.

I fretted: Should I call to "just check in"? Perhaps calling was too intrusive. But I feared that an e-mail message would seem too impersonal and get overlooked. And a paper letter could appear too formal, as if I were tendering legal notice. Would the department think I was desperate? Would I get a polite brushoff? Incredulous laughter? A flat rejection?

After days of debates with myself, I called the head of the search committee. He said he was "glad I called" and asked when I could come down for an interview. Not long after, he offered me the tenure-track job, which I accepted with joy.

A year later, a friend was in the same situation, A.B.D. and waiting to get word about a job. I urged her to call the department to check on the search's progress. She did, and was met with a surly remonstrance in the vein of "Don't call us; we'll call you." And they didn't, of course. Eventually she got a different job, but we both learned that not all search chairs and cultures treat a status inquiry equally.

Now, whenever I talk with job candidates, lurk on online forums about the job market, or chat with veteran search-committee members, I hear echoes of my long-ago anxiety. One anonymous poster cried out: "AAAaaaaaaaaah! What is taking them so long!? It's April next week and I'm still waiting on 5 apps. How much longer does this go? ... This is horrible. The waiting and the silence."

The possible answers to the question—What is the status of the search?—have not changed in the 15 years since I first applied for an assistant professorship. What has changed are some of the means by which we answer the question.

But before we dive into the considerations, principles, and protocols of how to ask about the status of a search, ask yourself a question: Do you really want to know?

A few years ago, on the market again, I wrote an essay for The Chronicle about why I didn't want to be kept informed about the status of a search. My thought was, If I get the job, I presume the committee will tell me; if I don't, I'll eventually find out what happened. My perspective was that of an early-middle-aged, tenured faculty member. Even when I'd been A.B.D. and applying for jobs, I took the step of calling the department only after months of nothing happening. But doctoral students and assistant professors I talk with today insist that they want to know the news, even bad news, as soon as possible.

Perhaps a generational difference is at work here. I grew up before the era of instant feedback, text messaging, and Twittering. As a young acquaintance said of me, "You can wait a couple weeks for an answer to something. Three hours for me is the same as three days."

For many people, confirming a failed job application is the mental equivalent of ripping off a Band-Aid: Better to get the pain over with quickly. Closure delayed is anxiety prolonged. The "enforced passivity" of waiting—to borrow a phrase from the historian Robin Fedden—while others decide your fate is maddening. Doing something active, like a status inquiry or even indirect snooping, makes you feel empowered, however slightly.

In a practical vein, there are good reasons to know the status of a search as soon as possible. Applying for tenure-track positions is a part-time job itself. News that you didn't get a particular position can be useful if you divine in it a trend or pattern. For example, if you are consistently getting turned down in a particular subfield, it may be an indication to give up on such positions.

So how do you know when to contact a search committee and when not to?

Sometimes it's obvious: If you have received a job offer, do not hesitate to contact the other departments where you are still a candidate. Your message should be clear and concise: You have received an offer and want to notify the department. Add that "you were my first choice" only if it really was. If you have a certain amount of time to respond to the offer—typically two weeks—say so. Maybe nothing will happen, but perhaps you will suddenly find yourself with multiple offers.

But what if you don't have an offer in hand and are just on a fishing expedition? In my graduate-student days, when applications were submitted by paper mail, it was perfectly acceptable to call a department to make sure all your materials had arrived. Later in the process you could use the excuse of "sending an updated CV" as a reason to call the chair and ask about the search. That could lead to a brushoff, an "I can't share that information with you," or, who knows, a connection and an interview.

Today many universities have candidates post their application materials on a Web site, and you can confirm delivery yourself. Some institutions lock you out after the initial submission process, however, so you can still try the "update my CV" gambit as an excuse to call the search chair.

But what if you have no excuse but curiosity and concern?

I wish I could say, "Sure, go ahead—how could it hurt?" But as I learned with my friend long ago, a simple inquiry is not so simple. Some departments and professors just don't like the status question, although if they get irritated with you on the phone, perhaps they weren't championing your candidacy in the first place.

The pressures of the modern job hunt only worsen the situation. For many jobs, there are more candidates, and more anxious ones, than ever. Search committees are facing a bigger burden of processing applications and selecting finalists. A call or an e-mail message from one worried applicant is no trouble, but what about 100 such calls or messages?

Faced with so many inquiries, search chairs can get frustrated and flummoxed—not because they don't want to respond, but because they can't. There are HR rules and privacy issues about being too forthcoming about a search. Committees certainly cannot tell you whom they just made an offer to until it's officially accepted and the contract signed.

It's also bad strategy for a committee to reveal too much. It is theoretically possible, for example, that all three finalists may not work out, and a search committee might start looking for additional candidates to interview. Telling callers, "We have our top three; they are coming to campus next week," might sabotage that process.

If you do call to ask about the status of the search, you might hear a highly ambiguous response. One job applicant described a stilted conversation with a chair who told him, "We still take your candidacy very seriously." A day later the candidate found out that a friend had been offered the job.

You have two options if you want to avoid a direct status check that could alienate the search committee. The first is an old-fashioned backdoor inquiry: i.e., snooping. See what you can learn via friends, colleagues, and mentors who may have access to or know someone with inside knowledge.

The second takes advantage of online social networks. Blogs, forums, and wikis, however, have several drawbacks as tools for monitoring a particular search. First, the information may be wrong. A rumor posted on the Web is no more or less reliable than one passed on by phone, although the former does allow people with contradictory postings to add their information, too.

Sometimes, I've heard, people actually post misinformation. They might, for example, attempt to discourage additional applicants to a position by spreading the word that a department plans to "hire an insider" or "already has its top three picked." I can only imagine the anxiety of the job candidate who reads competing falsehoods and inaccuracies.

Social media also are controversial for search committees. To paraphrase a senior professor to whom I had just pointed out extensive wiki reports on the search he was leading: It's ridiculous! We go to great lengths to maintain confidentiality and people are airing our every move! That professor does not represent a minority opinion.

Job seeking in academe, especially when you are a graduate student or untenured, is never a serene journey. Too much information, especially when it is contradictory, can be as disconcerting as too little. But the status-check inquiry, whatever trepidations you feel about the act, sometimes is necessary for you to move on in your mind as well as in the practical task of focusing on other openings.

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 on promotion and tenure will be published by Harvard University Press in the fall.