Sunday, August 05, 2007

Reflections on a new hiring season

I have served on several hiring committees: once as a student and several more as a faculty member. I like being part of the hiring process. In addition to the subsidized trips to professional conferences and the free meals with candidates (which still seem to my former grad student heart to be just unbelieveable perks!), I get to help determine how our program will grow, what needs are met, and what priorities will be supported. In each search, I learn more about people and programs across the country, what research is being done and by whom, and what concerns candidates--all of which gives me a better insight into the future of my discipline.

Reading application files is a learning experience, as well. I initially was shocked by the many poorly written cover letters, disorganized and oddly structured vitae, shoddy packets, and occasionally damning and/or self-congratulatory letters of reference. I always walk away with additional respect for my own doctoral program, which emphasized professional development of doc students by sending us to professional conferences and mentoring us about the hiring process.

Reading applicants' materials reminded me of a job I used to have reading grant applications from small public and private agencies. These applications, often completed by people with high school or undergraduate degrees, had sentences in them that were so bad or silly that I kept a running list for my own amusement.

Yet, these funding applications had nothing on some of the worst cover letters I have seen for faculty positions, written by applicants who had much more education. I saw one letter that was only one sentence--one of those "attached please find my application for this job" deals. Clearly that candidate had not been schooled in the art of the gracious introduction. Another letter, pockmarked with spelling errors and thesaurus abuse (e.g., I engaged in prodigious research on voluminous topics), was filled with flat-out bragging about the candidate's skills and talents. (Worse yet, the candidate of the long, tedious letter got an offer.)

Search committee members may disagree with me, but here are my suggestions for people applying this fall:

  1. Be clear about what kind of program you want. In addition to the regular divisions (Research Universities, small liberal arts colleges (SLACS), and community colleges), there are divisions at each level. For example, there are R1 university programs that are known as places that will set you up for a high salary and tenure anywhere you want--but not at that school. All you need to 3-5 years at that school, and you can go elsewhere. While you are there, you will work incredibly hard in research and service (b/c the senior faculty don't do service) and get very little mentoring. Other R1 university programs, like my own, are still regarded highly, but we have more reasonable research and teaching expectations and you can actually get tenure here. Or you might opt for smaller SLACs, where you can have fewer research expectations (and supports), but where you can really focus on teaching and relationships with students. I also would encourage candidates to also think about where you want to live, but don't be completely ruled by that unless you have a very good reason.

  2. Don't go on the market too early. While some folks will suggest that doing these interviews gets you good practice experience, I would argue that it saps your emotional and professional energy. Better to use that energy to finish the dissertation. And it also helps to have a completed degree, or a close-to-finished dissertation, while you are on the market. Further, use that last year to publish an article, do a presentation or two at your professional conferences, and get your priorities in order. And while you are at your professional conferences, make the rounds with your faculty and have them introduce you to people at schools that interest you. (That said, if you see the perfect job [i.e., right location, right kind of school, right disciplinary area], apply for that one. Perfect jobs don't come around often.)

  3. If something is noted as a preference, not a requirement, don't let that keep you from applying. If we say, "We are looking for candidates in X area," don't apply if that is not your area. If we say, "We prefer candidates in X area," that means the committee members are not settled about what we need, and we would certainly look at your materials. (Personal aside: I once did not apply for a great job when they said they had a preference for someone in areas different from my own, and then they wound up hiring someone who did research very similar to my own. Sigh.)

  4. Don't send more than we ask for. Nothing annoys me more than when we get tons of extra materials (copies of teaching evaluations, publications or dissertation chapters, syllabi, etc.). Wait until we ask for it. Most of the time we ignore it, and it just clogs up the drawer. Worse yet, it aggravates some of us! ;-)

  5. Spend time on your cover letter and CV. Be sure you know the differences between an academic cover letter and CV and the kinds you see for non-academic jobs. Look at cover letters and CVs from others in your field, if you can, and have people look at yours. Nothing is worse than an application full of errors, overstatements, and omissions. You need to balance bragging on yourself with being humble. It is a hard job, and it will help to get assistance from others.

  6. Use examples. Everywhere. When you write the cover letter and you say that you "involve students" in your teaching, give us at least one example. If your research is groundbreaking, explain in what ways. Similarly, when you come to the conference for an interview, you can stand out by giving us examples from your teaching, research, and service. I have seen this approach also work well for administrative candidates.

  7. When you go to campus to do the presentation, don't read your PowerPoint slides. This is a pet peeve of mine. The secret of PowerPoint is that the slides serve to keep the reader focused. Put your main points there, or a picture that relates to the information, but keep more thorough information on your own presentation notes. Also, if you are dealing with complex tables, make them a separate (full-page) handout and do not try to put the whole table on the slide if font size has to drop below 24. And always face the audience. Nothing is worse than watching a presenter's back. Also, make sure you really have the presentation. Before you travel, put it on a jump drive, email it to the chair, and email it to yourself. Nothing worse than not having the presentation!

  8. Practice and proofread everything: your conference interview, your campus job talk, your campus teaching demo...everything. Ask some good friends and mentors to give you honest feedback. It makes a difference to practice and prepare. I would even practice answers to questions about salary expectations and the later salary negotiations. Sometimes people get an offer on the day of the on-campus interview; know what you want to say.

  9. Assume that everything will go much more slowly than you think it should. Once I got on the hiring side, I realized that it takes a long time. Search chairs frequently have good intentions, but may make unreasonable commitments to candidates. Initially, committees have to read all of the materials and find a time to meet, good for everyone, to discuss applicants. Then paperwork must be submitted before we can call to set up conference interviews. It then takes a while for the committee to meet after the conference to discuss candidates, submit more paperwork, and set the time for candidate visits. This lengthy process just goes on and on: meetings, paperwork, contacting candidates, discussions with faculty and students, etc. So, feel free to check in if it has taken WAY longer than someone told you it would, but don't be a pest. DO call, however, if you get another offer; things can be goosed along a little bit if you have a pressing need. DON'T tell us you have an offer if you don't--the community is too small to lie.

  10. Don't take it too personally if you don't get the job. There are so many reasons that it doesn't work out. Hiring committees and deans are weighing a lot of factors, and straight-out merit or capability is not the only criteria. If you want information about your performance, you can call the search chair. Don't ask "Why didn't you hire me?" There is not a good answer to this question, and it is really a personnel issue that should not be discussed. Instead, say something like, "I am curious if there are some things I could improve in my application or interviewing. You won't hurt my feelings. I really want to be a better candidate next year." You still may not get a good answer, but if you had someone like me, you might. I would tell candidates about useful concerns or comments that I had heard. For example, we had a candidate at one of my programs who did an especially poor job explaining why s/he wanted to pursue a job in our discipline, when s/he had graduate training in another discipline. This was a place where I would suggest that s/he work on a better answer with hir mentor.
  11. Look at the interview process as a learning experience. You will get much clearer about your own research, your professional needs, and your personal needs. You also will learn a good deal about the diversity of programs in your field, the differences between programs at research and teaching settings, and the kinds of lives you can have at each.
  12. Don't burn any bridges (Note: I have learned this one the hard way) or hold grudges for not being hired. Some of my favorite professional connections have been people I met at schools where I interviewed. You never know when those people might become research collaborators, reviewers for tenure, or even future colleagues. I have had all of these relationships with people who I met while interviewing.

Ah, the season is just about upon us... try to enjoy what is left of the summer!


Dean Dad said...

Preach on, LP!

My fave, and this goes back to my previous school, was the candidate who devoted a paragraph to explaining why she doesn't apply to schools in the Northeast. My school was in the Northeast. That one got an express ticket to the circular file.

Ms.PhD said...

Thanks. Although not entirely relevant to science (we do postdoc positions and our advisors typically do NOT take us around at meetings and introduce us to anyone we want to meet), this is helpful.

It would be even more helpful to give examples here of the kinds of things you like to see in a cover letter. For example, what is your idea of a "gracious introduction"? I've read lots of articles on how to write a cover letter, but most fall down on specifics.

Anonymous said...

LOTS of good points that apply to faculty and can also apply to admin posts...

HOWEVER, one point that is important to remember (and LB does identify it in passing) is that often (and I am embarrassed to admit this) a search is conducted while there is an inside candidate who is already the front-runner and will be getting the job no matter who interviews.

I have been obligated to serve on these "fake searches" and leave in total disgust at how disengenuous the whole process is and all in the name of fake "diversity" and "inclusivity". This is CERTAINLY more in the province of administrative hiring, but I have also seen it in FAC hires and it is always an embarrassment to all SC members when despite our best endorsements, the incompetent wife of an aministrator, the chronic face-licker or the most politically-correct lackey gets the job. At this point in my career, I have learned to excuse myself from these "searches" and do my best to be courteous and supportive to the unsuspecting lamb who has been so diligent in her/his compliance with the SC's every demand. I HATE this and unfortunately see it on a regular basis.

Thanks for the article, but my reality views were not going to let me just leave it that way.