Avoiding a 'Nuclear Veto' in Hiring

December 03, 2009

Members of a search committee meet to discuss their near-unanimous positive reactions to a job candidate's campus interview. Professor Homais is the lone holdout: "I found it disturbing that she did not like teaching," he says. The other committee members, unwilling to pick a fight with a senior colleague, eventually vote to hire another candidate.

The job in question may be a tenure-track position at a high-powered research university, and the candidate's love of research may have included its dissemination in the classroom, but somehow Professor Homais heard differently, and the bee he had in his bonnet was roiled and set to sting. So he decided to oppose the candidate.

That's a case of what I call the "nuclear veto" in hiring. You as a candidate may write or speak tens of thousands of words in your job-application materials, interviews, and presentations; 99.9 percent of your comments may find a favorable response with members of the hiring committee. But if you make one remark that hits a sour note, is misinterpreted, offends someone, or upsets some pet idea or theory, that single misstep can be fatal to your hiring.

Unfair? Absolutely. Common? Unfortunately.

Sometimes, for whatever reason, someone on a search committee tries to find a way to stop your candidacy. That professor may decide to be outraged by something you have said, or determined to take it out of context. You can't completely inoculate yourself from the nuclear veto, but there are some techniques you can use to anticipate and ward it off.

Have your mentors vet your application. Consult multiple trusted sources to get the best picture of how to write a good letter of application and structure an attractive and comprehensive CV that is as error-free and controversy-free as possible. Make sure your mentors know their stuff. You want them to give you an honest critique and let you know when something you've said or written might be misconstrued. Good mentors can, perhaps, even warn you about irascible senior scholars of whom you want to be especially wary in the hiring process.

Know your audience. If you are interviewing for a position at a small liberal-arts college or a community college, practically everyone you meet will want to hear about your dedication, experience, and love of teaching. When the audience is mixed, such as for jobs at large universities that honor research, teaching, and service, you can get a fairly good sense of people's interests and concerns from their online bios or CV's. If Professor Homais, for example, is so concerned about teaching standards, probably he has written some essay on the subject. If you are having lunch with him, bring it up and showcase your teaching credentials. The point is not to twist yourself into someone who promises everything to everybody but to make sure that each constituency for your hire feels that its concerns are adequately met.

Gauge the room. One of the biggest complaints about job candidates, regardless of field, is that they are so focused and rehearsed in presenting themselves that they fail to listen to the responses from the people they meet at conference interviews, on the phone, or at campus visits. You can go a long way toward warding off a nuclear veto by using your senses to gauge people's reactions, even their tone of voice and pauses over the phone. You want to detect if something you have said (or left unsaid) has people wondering or even irritated.

For example, an assistant professor in the social sciences who was looking to switch from one tenure-track job to another was invited for a campus interview. At the initial dinner with the search committee, someone asked him about his research interests. His answer was polished and incisive. He could tell, however, that a senior faculty member, Professor Maximus, looked a bit disconcerted. That night, back at the hotel, the candidate did what he should have done earlier and looked at the old fellow's bio. He found that in the early part of his career Maximus had published extensively in a related area.

Ask questions. Sometimes the only way to assess whether you have failed to say enough, or have said too much, on a subject is to ask. Don't conclude your job talk by asking, "So, have I ticked anyone off?" Instead, probe politely: "If I were lucky enough to be working with you, what would be your advice about what my priorities should be here?"

Such a question is attractive on several counts. It expresses a degree of humility, which is perceived to be a character trait lacking in many newly minted doctorate holders. It also is open-ended and inviting, so that someone who genuinely may have that proverbial bee in his bonnet will reveal it and allow you to pacify it.

Limit pontification and rambling. Offer as small a target as possible. No need to be so cautious and cryptic in your research presentations that you come off as too shy for the classroom and too detached for the lab. But we all have witnessed what I call the "worldly philosophical" job talk.

I recall one. The candidate was discussing his research area, which was pretty much limited to a narrow area of entertainment television. But he responded to every question, and every new slide of his, with a rambling discourse on political, sexual, and social issues. A colleague of mine leaned over and whispered, "I didn't know our position called for a 'worldly philosopher.'" Ninety-nine percent of our irritation would not have been incited if the candidate had just kept on topic. For most of us, his meanderings were the single factor that killed his chances.

Show some humility. Another tool for lessening the chance of a nuclear veto is avoiding overstatement. Senior scholars interviewing new Ph.D.'s or young assistant professors will never find arrogance a deserved or attractive quality. In fact, the more cocksure and self-important you seem, either in your letter or in person, the more likely someone is going to try to find a quote or action to hang you with at the next search-committee meeting.

One of the best job candidates I ever saw presented major but preliminary findings of her dissertation. What we all appreciated was her framing it not as the summa that some doctoral candidates feign but rather as a tentative and early exploration of a subject that she was obviously excited about and engaged in. We could see her as a future assistant professor following a coherent track of research and not at any time assuming she would be the font of all knowledge on the topic.

Point out the chinks in your own armor. Anticipate small flaws in your record or persona that might get blown out of proportion. A famous interchange in Akira Kurosawa's film Seven Samurai offers some shrewd advice in that regard. Samurai defending a peasant village detect a weak spot in their fortifications. Their leader, however, notes, and I paraphrase, that "every good fortress should have some obvious flaw so that we know where the enemy will attack."

Indeed, no matter how shiny your CV, or how well you fit the position, you will always have a few ways in which you come up short. And you may run into critics who can't see past that weakness and indulge in a nuclear veto of your candidacy. Why not nullify those weaknesses by pointing them out yourself and putting them in context? Critics will be impressed by your candor and assume that, in time, you will overcome the challenge, since they know they are hiring you for your potential, not your perfection.

Search committees are collections of humans, with all the fickleness that comes from any intraspecies enterprise. But you can engage in a little bit of self-reflection, planning, and, above all, sensitivity to inoculate yourself against a minor error that could have a major consequence.

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.