Dear Search Committees,

August 7, 2012
By | 3 Comments

It’s almost job season again, which means that it’s almost advice season again. Grad students and job seekers will soon be inundated with advice, some coming to them for fun, some for profit.

Search committees need advice too. So I submit this letter to search committees in the US and Canada. It probably doesn’t apply to committees in Europe and elsewhere, since the expectations and protocols are different.


3 August 2012

Dear Search Committees,

Soon, I’ll be writing you letters. Right now, I’m writing with some requests.

1. Consider requesting less from people in their initial applications. How much of an initial dossier do you really need? When I go through a set of applications, it’s usually obvious to me from a letter and CV that a good proportion of the applicants in a pile aren’t a good fit for the job. Sure, there are still many people left over after that, but couldn’t you ask for additional information then? Do the student evaluations and statement of research philosophy really matter if you advertised a transnational media studies position and someone writes in with an organizational communication CV (but they took a postcolonial seminar once)?

2. Consider accepting as much of the dossier as possible in electronic form. As someone who writes dozens and sometimes hundreds of letters in a year, it makes a huge difference to me and to my printer when letters can be sent electronically. If your HR department requires paper recommendations to make an offer, request them for finalists only. But imagine how convenient it would be to have electronic dossiers for candidates: no more running around trying to figure out who has that file you need.

3. At every stage, consider telling candidates as much as possible about what you want. Do you want them to design new courses or to teach ones already on the books? Do you hope they’ll build a new lab or bridge two areas of the program? Unsure of what you want? Why not tell the candidates and let them make their best pitch possible? Let them know what’s important in the letter or interview.

4. A Skype interview is a phone interview with video, nothing more. Every Skype interview I hear about from applicants has a bizarre or wacky component to it. No two are remotely similar.  Phone interviews and campus interviews are genres and have predictable protocols. Skype interviews are about as predictable as an LSD-enhanced disc jockey on a 1970s freeform FM radio station.

Skype interviews are not substitutes for on-campus interviews where candidates give research presentations and have lengthy discussions with committees. They are also not occasions to submit candidates to surprising challenges. Keep them short and to the point, and treat them like phone interviews: you’re getting a sense of the person at the other end, and they’re getting a sense of you. That’s it. If you want to get to know the candidate better, invite them to campus. Please don’t add tech support, camera, mic work and troubleshooting bad connections to candidates’ stress.

5. Send out rejection letters as soon as you can. Sure, you’ve got to hold onto your finalists and maybe a few others as you’re sorting out who will actually be offered the job—and whether they will accept—but most of the people in the pile could get their letters right away. A swift and kind letter is one of the most humane things you can do for your candidates who aren’t going to be hired.

6. For on-campus interviews, consider having a formal interview with the entire committee, or even the entire department. The formal interview is a great place for everyone to ask their questions of the candidate, and for the candidate to respond once, in front of the group, so that everyone hears the same thing. It makes deliberations easier, and it also helps clarify which questions are really important.

7. Also, consider keeping the on-campus interviews to about a day in length (plus meals).  Are all the meetings really necessary to decide if the person will be hired or to properly recruit them?

8. Be good hosts on the interview. Sure, it’s nice to go out to dinner on your school’s dime, but make it a place where the candidate can actually eat something, and make an effort to include them in the conversation. And I don’t mean by firing more interview questions at them about how they will deal with late student papers. Also, if there are unexpected things that go against conventional interview wisdom, please tell all candidates up front. For instance, when I was running searches here in Montreal, I made a point of telling candidates not to wear nice shoes, or to bring indoor and outdoor shoes, since they’d be walking through snow banks and slush pools.

9. Don’t ask candidates to front the costs of the interview. For instance: don’t make them buy their plane ticket. Ideally, the only reimbursements they should have to submit at the end would be cab fare if you live in that kind of place. Unless you’re making a senior hire, odds are that your candidates are broke, and while your school may be as well, if you’re interviewing them, you’re probably acting like you’re not broke. So why not keep up the act? It’s the decent thing to do.

To sum up: try and be a little kinder to your candidates this year. Ask them all the difficult questions you can think of; challenge them as part of the job talks or the interview. That’s all fair, and good for everyone. But try to make the rest of the process as humane as possible. Not only will they appreciate it, you’ll feel better about the process and do your department’s reputation a service at the same time.



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3 Responses to “ Dear Search Committees, ”

  1. Jason Mittell on August 7, 2012 at 10:02 AM

    Great advice all around, Jonathan! To add a few addenda:

    – I’d recommend institutions consider using Interfolio or a similar online provider to manage the search. We did this last year, and things worked well, especially allowing people to access search materials remotely, even from abroad. It saves hassle for everyone, plus is environmentally & economically efficient.

    – I do think there’s great value in some one-on-one sit-downs with candidates, but it’s important for the faculty to remember that the candidate is doing many of these. Before the interview, it could be useful for the committee to divvy up some of the issues that each will address in their one-on-one so it’s not endless repetition of the same material.

    – Be honest with the strengths and weaknesses of your department, institution & location. If the search is successful, this person will be your colleague for (hopefully) many years, so a bait & switch will bite you in your ass. A candidate who knows what type of place they’ll be working is set-up to succeed far more than someone who is disappointed to discover that things aren’t what they had expected.

    – Try to shelter the candidate from the depths of your bureaucracy & rules. Every institutions has its own quirks, and you shouldn’t subject the candidate to your gripes with how things work. That can mean being clear about expected reimbursement timelines & procedures (if the rules don’t allow the institution to pay for everything in advance), avoiding complaining about limits on dinners, alcohol, etc., and just trying to show candidates that they would be working for a functional institution. Don’t lie, but show them how things work best by successful planning & clarity.

    – Be as transparent as possible. I blogged about one search I led, and think it was quite successful to embrace that level of transparency. You might not be able to convince your administration to do that, but in general, make sure you know the legal & ethical limits of what you can share – and then share everything you can within those limits.

  2. Jonathan Gray on August 7, 2012 at 1:33 PM

    Great points, J&J.

    re: Jonathan’s #1 — two added bonuses here are that:
    (a) the process of asking for more materials as you go along will inevitably be documented at the job search wiki, so even if you’re not allowed to tell candidates when they’re out of the running, they’ll likely know when they haven’t made the next round. So it’s a more humane way to run a search; and
    (b) asking candidates for more info gives you a better sense of them as people. I’ve often found that the little back-and-forth emails that accompany this process can be friendly and informative.

    My other key bit of advice: HURRY UP. There’s a humane argument and a strategic one here. The humane argument is that academia is ludicrously slow in its hiring, and those of us lucky to have jobs and be on committees owe it to those applying not to leave them hanging for months. If you know you won’t be able to look at the materials till, for instance, Nov 1, don’t ask for them on Sept 1! The strategic argument is that the faster you go, the more likely you will beat other institutions to the punch. I’ve found that as much as, yes, the market is flooded, there are definitely much better candidates and much worse ones out there, so a little speed can help ensure that the better ones are locked up and signed before the others even wake up, take the coffee pot off, and look at the first CV.

    And a final one is to be nice. When I hear horror stories about programs and depts from friends who were treated poorly there, I smell mean dysfunctionality, and I won’t recommend friends apply there in the future, I’ll warn prospective grad students away from applying there, and it makes me wonder about the folk working there. Niceness is karmic, in other words, and if you’re not nice — even to the candidates you don’t like — it’ll bite you on the ass.

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