Monday, July 28, 2008

What Do You Do, Dear? The Radical Announces a Series of Posts on the Upcoming Job Season

A message from the home security company, received this morning on my cell phone, reminded me of what I know too well: my vacation in the North Woods of Minnesota will be over on Wednesday. They also reminded me that I had forgotten to reset my fire alarm, which is a significantly better message than "Oh, your alarm went off and no one was home, so the fire department broke down the door to investigate." And despite my best efforts to leave the blogosphere to its own devices until I return, this brush with the real world caused a post to begin to form in my head.

So today I present the first in a series of posts about the upcoming Job Season. It will be a "how to" if you will, intended for those of you who are chairing a search, applying for jobs, interviewing (from both sides), and all stages up to and including making -- and responding to -- the offer. I will also want to take some time to speak to and about the overlooked -- candidates who, despite their best efforts, are left at the end of the job season looking for a visiting post and wondering why their best wasn't good enough. What I hope is that these posts, and the conversation they generate in the comments section, will act to put a lot of us in conversation about the hiring process, expose us to each others' practices, and make the system more accessible for job seekers.

So let's begin. You have been asked to chair a search -- I've done three so far, and am about to embark on my fourth. I've probably been on about seven or eight search committees, and watched other chairs do their work. What are you responsible for?

The ethical conduct of the search committee.To the best of my knowledge there is no book or article that describes the horrific things that many job candidates have been exposed to during the process, although those stories are readily available in the blogosphere and in conversations with colleagues. But ethical conduct includes a number of categories we will elaborate on later in this series. It includes creating an ad that says, as specifically as possible, what qualities the right candidate should have, or stating explicitly when the field and qualifications are open. It includes public notification if the search is canceled. It includes the search committee coming to some internal agreement as to how candidates will be evaluated, both in the reading of their dossiers and in the interviewing process. And it includes being explicit with your committee about what kinds of conduct are and are not appropriate, both internal to the committee, in committee members' communications with others in the department and in interactions with the candidates.

Making sure that the search process is compatible with university regulations and with the guidelines of your professional association. What will be tricky is if these two standards are not compatible with each other -- which they might not be, for reasons that are not in the least sinister. But now is the time to find out. For example, I discovered last year that in anthropology, by decree of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), it is standard practice not to ask for letters of recommendation until the committee has decided the candidate is of interest. This strikes me as eminently sensible and humane, and yet it is not standard practice in most other fields, and our practices at Zenith tend towards giving the letters of recommendation equal weight with the other materials in the decisions that lead to the preliminary interview. So this was something that needed to be reconciled early on in the search, prior to the ad placement, so that all candidates (we were searching with several departments) had similar dossiers.

Creating, and managing, a timetable for the search. Every member of your committee deserves to know before school starts when they will be expected to get their reading done, around when the meetings to pick semifinalists and finalists will be, and what weeks the interviews will occur in. This information allows them to figure out how they will accomplish the other things they need to do this year without the search putting undue burden on them, their families or their students. Furthermore, it is not unlikely that members of the committee will be contacted by colleagues elsewhere about when decisions will be made, and they should be able to respond to such questions. As chair, you will receive anxious emails from candidates about the search timetable -- how much better to be able to tell them in their first message from you, the response that acknowledges that the application itself has been safely received and is under consideration, when they might hear from you again? Which leads us to our last item for today:

Communicating with the candidates in a timely and responsible way. Given the state of the job market, there is very little that is more important than this, as far as I can tell. First of all, dear reader, you would be shocked at how many job applications go entirely unacknowledged -- no note that it has been received, no note informing candidates who did not receive an offer who was hired. Nada. More commonly, general wisdom on searches is that you don't communicate in any way with the candidate pool until you have made an offer and the offer is accepted -- probably some time in March or April. I think this is wrong. I think that a search committee should meet twice before selecting semi-finalists, and the first meeting should be to weed out candidates that you wouldn't hire under any circumstances, and let them know. That should still leave you with a sufficiently large pool (in 20th century United States history,probably 100 people or more) so that even if you needed to go back into the pool for some reason, you can. Then, after semi-finalists are chosen, write to everyone else and tell them that they are not semi-finalists at this time. Worst case scenario, you have to go back to them and say, "Actually, our idea about this hire has shifted, and we would like to interview you after all." Same with the semi-finalist pool: let them know they are not finalists. And you know what? If someone came to me late in the process and said, "Guess what? We do want to bring you to campus after all!" why wouldn't I be pleased about that? Particularly if I had the pleasure of saying, "Gee, it's too late -- I've accepted another offer. But good luck to you!" That would be one for the scrap books.

Next Week: Writing And Placing the Advertisement.


Brian W. Ogilvie said...

I agree wholly with these points. Let me share an example regarding timely communications with candidates. The last time I chaired a search, I got my committee to review applications as early as possible, given when we got authorization for the search and could place advertisements, in order to draw up our first shortlist in early December. That way I could notify those whom we were not interviewing at the AHA meeting that we were not pursuing their application further at that time. (I like your idea of doing two first-round cuts, but at places with a slow bureaucracy, the application deadline might be too late to do that.)

I have qualms about the structure of first-round convention interviews, but until we adopt a different procedure, I wanted to make sure that no one bought tickets to Atlanta in the hope that they would hear from us a week before the meeting.

I also used email to keep shortlisted candidates apprised of where they stood. And at each stage of communication I informed candidates of the number of applications we had received and the number who had been invited to AHA interviews and then to campus interviews.

It's not too hard to do this if you prepare ahead: draft the letters and, if necessary, run them by your dept. chair or whoever vets search correspondence. That way the administrative assistant handling the search can send out the appropriate letters as soon as you tell him or her who is on the short list and the final list. If your department has a good administrative assistant, there might be templates on file for such correspondence; if not, suggest creating them. I'd be happy to share mine if anyone is interested.

By the way, when I was on the market back in the late 90s I applied for some 25 t-t jobs and another 15 or so postdocs and short-term positions. I think I got acknowledgements of my application from around half, and rejection letters from about 80%--including some who never acknowledged my initial application. I still keep the file of rejections, partly when I need something to keep myself humble, and partly because that file offers me some great examples of how to reject an application as gently as possible.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I am so glad you've decided to tackle this topic. I'm an advance pretenure faculty member, and it's very likely that this fall I'll be on my first-ever search committee. I'm also vaguely contemplating going on the market myself, in a very selective way.

Do you take requests? Any chance you'd address the topic of the job search for candidates who aren't fresh out of grad school? Seems like some of the rules and potential pitfalls would be a bit different.

Anonymous said...

This is a great post -- as always. I was wondering, though, if you might not add a little bit more information about how your search committee is constituted. At my university, search committees are appointed by the head and include specialists in the broadly-defined field in which we hope to hire. It usually works out very well, and it has been nice to work closely with colleagues with whom I might not have much of a chance to discuss substantive intellectual matters in our field or discipline. I'm always surprised at how energized we all are as a committee by the end of the reviewing process.

We generally don't have more than five people on the search committee, but I've heard from a lot of my friends at other institutions that search committees are either battlegrounds (people fight to become the search chair, or to be on the committee, or to exert pressure on its deliberations, for example) or they are open to anyone at all, which can be quite odd. How does your department appoint search committees?

In part I wonder about this because when my own graduate students go on the market, they want to know a lot about who will be interviewing them (it's a good thing, I think, to research future colleagues) but I also tell them that they can't spend too much time trying to analyze the shifting dynamics of the committee. It's a tough part of the job search, all around. When a committee works, it really works. When it doesn't, sometimes the candidates pay the price.

Anonymous said...

This is a valuable public service, TR. My hope is that it will generate more mutual understanding of the process. Grad students and new Ph.D.'s who have never served on a search committee don't understand that searches are frequently hobbled by strange bureaucratic rules and regs that aren't of the search committee's making, and members of SC's may have forgotten the anxiety caused by LACK of communication, especially in those delicate weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Good luck to everyone on the job market this year, and to all departments searching tenure-track positions! My department is not conducting any searches this year. I know I'm supposed to say that's a bad thing, but in some ways, it will be a relief not to be entertaining candidates all January and February, as we have for the past several years.

anthony grafton said...

Dear TR,

Yes, the curse is coming upon us all. Thanks so much for this really helpful post. I will be bearing these suggestions--and the comment--in mind while serving on a search committee this fall.

May I also recommend a complementary document, highly consistent with yours, from the AHA Professional Division, which is at

Happy end of summer!


Bear Left said...

What a public service indeed!

I could - as you well know - fill up a blog for a year with posts related to my job hunting stories. But having no interest in frightening Stephen King with my horror stories, I'll just thank you, and throw out one thought.

The conduct of a search committee reflects on the department and its members like few other activities. The outrageous behavior of my former employer is known widely, not just because I had a bad experience, but because they severely mistreated numerous people involved - some of whom now have fantastic jobs and will be supervising new generations of grad students. Historians, after all, remember - especially the wrongs of the past.

(And on the other hand, I will think kindly for years upon one search committee chair at a Big 10 university who sent out a letter of acknowledgment with a schedule outline the first round of cuts, the second round, AHA interview notification, etc. Everything was so professional and humane - and it's quite sad how much that stands out, 200 applications later)

AcadeMama said...

Radical, may the Goddess bless you eternally for what promises to be another reliable source for helpful Job Market Advice! I'm in my last year as a grad student, and I'm hitting the market for the first time this fall. This is the calm before the storm, so I'm all ears.

davidjhemmer said...

I think it's very useful for someone in each field to keep a website like the mathjobs wiki

This way the balance of power shifts a little back toward the applicant, at least in terms of information.

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Tenured Radical said...

Dear RWP,

I did visit your blog & see that you are just getting started. I do encourage you to say who you are -- as long as we are all civil with each other, I think being explicit about our conflicting views adds intellectual energy.

You might also scroll back through this blog to see some of my reflections on anonymity, particularly here. It took some inhibitions off my writing that I initially valued, given that I had mild writer's block following some workplace bullying, but I then came to regret my lack of inhibition after I realized that I was well-known on my own campus. In other words, I had to apologize to a lot of people and work hard to regain their trust. And even after I came out, it took me a bit of time to become a good self-editor, to accept that certain kinds of things were off limits, and that things I thought were funny were sometimes cruel to others when I didn't (or perhaps, subconsciously did) intend it.



Anonymous said...

Dear Tenured R.,
Last year was my first year on the market and I gave one campus interview. After three and a half weeks with no word from the school, I contacted the chair of the department and requested information about when I might hear a decision. He sent a short reply telling me they'd hired someone else. Is it too much for me to expect a phone call or even an email after a campus interview? What's the standard protocol for contacting finalists?


Bear Left said...

Dear Newbie,

It's not at all too much to ask for that courtesy. That said... it's definitely not something to take personally when this kind of unprofessionalism occurs. I've had two AHA interviews where I was never notified about the results of the search (one, about six years ago, I wrote to inquire how things had turned out in about April; last year, I didn't even bother to find out what happened). Worse yet, I had a campus interview in spring '07 where I never heard back from the department/search chair (though I've had the experience of chairing a panel at OAH where the successful candidate was a participant).

All of which is to say: virtually everyone you encounter is going to have stories like these. I don't think I can say there is a single protocol, although I'm looking forward to what TR has to say about how to conclude a search in a professional and humane manner.

Brian W. Ogilvie said...

Dear Newbie,

As Bear Left said, you can certainly expect that minimal level of courtesy. That said, strange things can happen. I know of a department whose secretary would give letters to search committee chairs (and others) to sign and then just never get around to mailing them out; until someone complained, the search chairs were not aware that the rejections had not been sent.

Cha-chan said...

May I add that search committees should maintain minimal standards of email etiquette that they would most certainly expect any potential new hire to practice?

In my ongoing job search, one chair accidentally sent an email intended for the search committee to all the applicants (in the "To" line, therefore exposing all candidates' email addresses to each other). We all know the basic rule to check your addressees before hitting "Send."

Even worse, in another case, the committee managed to mix my email address into some internal emails about the candidates for the position. One of these emails outlined various candidates (by name) and their relative inadequacies and/or strong points (including my own). You can bet I immediately googled my competition to see what I was up against!

On a more serious note, these are serious invasions of confidentiality that should be avoided at all costs.

Tenured Radical said...

Dear cha-chan and newbie,

Already there is some good advice. C-C -- all I can say about your experiences is yuck! You know, if you *didn't* get a job at that place (or even if you did) it would be worth dropping a note to the chair of the dept. -- or if it was the chair, then to the dean. Careless things can happen, but that person needs an email tutorial as well as a lesson in manners.

newbie: it's experiences like yours that make people think the job wiki is essential. I think it is very rude and -- as someone whose AA forgot to send out acknowledgments last year -- even though we had printed them -- I blame myself. I should have asked at several points and -- as I would have discovered they hadn't been sent out -- requested that all other work should cease until they did go out. That said, if you have any kind of preliminary interview, it is wise to ask before it is over: "Can you sketch out the calendar of the search for me? " If you have heard nothing within a week or so of the dates cited, you have a perfect right to drop an email and ask.



Anonymous said...

This is a great column, and I hope that it will help push administrations to think seriously about their obligations to search candidates. I chaired my first search committe a couple of years ago, and I was appalled to find that it is administration policy that no candidate be informed that they were unsuccessful until the selected candidate has signed his contract. We had a very close search and were torn between two very good candidates, and this put me in the appalling position of not being able to courteously let the second place candidate know anything until 6 WEEKS after his campus interview, despite the fact that he had performed very well and could have reasnably expected that he may well have landed the job. I found this disgusting, but my hands were tied and even when he emailed me a couple of weeks after the interview to ask when the committee would be making a decision (and of course we had already made our decision) I was not allowed to tell him anything. I am still ashamed and embarrased about this, and I think it really speaks to the pernicous influence of administrators who have no real understanding of academic realities and have never been through this process. I have also been on the receiving end of this, and have still never heard back from an institution where I had an on-campus interview five years ago (I guess I didn't get the job!)

Brian W. Ogilvie said...

Anonymous @6:13: my administration did not prohibit contacting unsuccessful candidates before the final offer was accepted and the ink was dry, but their policies discourage it. In my initial meeting, as search committee chair, with the administration's EO/AA coordinator (or one of them), I discussed that point and made it clear that I intended to contact those who didn't make the cut at each point, not to exclude them definitively from the pool, but to let them know where they stood at that particular point. The difference in emphasis can make a big difference with administrations, even though those of us in the profession know that when you get a letter that says, in effect, "Thanks for your application, you were one of 150 applicants and, unfortunately, you were not one of the 15 whom we will interview at the convention; we will get back to you should we wish to pursue your candidacy further," your chances of returning to the short list are slim to none. But it's not the same as saying "you're out," and it might make a world of difference to administrators.

Frankly, had I faced a point-blank refusal to allow me to contact candidates whom we had ruled out for the moment, I would have created a Gmail account and sent them "anonymous" emails letting them know the situation. What good are the advantages of tenure if you don't use them?

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