Friday, November 07, 2008

How to be a good host--for schools that are still hiring

After today's economic indicators were announced, it is hard to ignore the bad economy. Many schools I know are seeing hiring freezes. Yet, even in this very bad economic climate, many disciplines are still participating in the yearly search process, as indicated by the rash of blogs giving advice to prospective candidates on everything from applying for a job when you have one, writing the cover letter (just don't get into the whole letterhead debate, trust me!), initial interviews, campus visits, whether to write thank you notes, and (my favorite part) negotiating. In fact, I write about such topics regularly. However, this year I would like to expand my purview to the role of the host school.

As I tell our doctoral students, when candidates are applying to a school, they are checking out the school as much as the school is looking them over. Candidates are trying to assess if schools will be supportive of their research interests, their academic and personal lifestyles, their various personal and professional identities, and their teaching. Beyond the basics of the teaching/advising load and the school status, there are many climate issues that are under the microscope. Is the atmosphere collegial, combative, or aloof? Do faculty believe in mentoring or is the mantra "sink or swim"? Is there diversity among students, faculty, and staff, and is it consciously and consistently pursued, or happenstance and temporary? Is the department well respected and connected to the larger college/university? Are there supports for interdisciplinary research, or is such research frowned upon?

The first round of answers to such questions come from the search committee in interviews. It makes sense for search committees to actually have a discussion before they begin their interviews about some of the answers to those questions. Otherwise, answers can be scattered and not very thorough. Thinking about "where the university and department are going in the next 5 years" is a productive conversation for a faculty, and a short discussion before the conference interviews can yield some interesting insights from (and about) colleagues. Also, committee members should be reminded (by the department chair, if necessary) that interviews are NOT the setting to air grievances and complain. That said, you can't control people, especially not academics, and besides, you don't want to sound too rehearsed or saccharine.

The search committee's answers represent only the opinions of a small group of people, and good candidates know that the proof is in the pudding--or the campus visit. After numerous searches, I am of a mind that, in combative departments, chairs need to lay down some ground rules. First, be clear that the people serving on the committee are doing just that--service! Don't dis' the committee. If you have concerns, ask to meet with the committee to address them. If you need a larger discussion, bring it to a faculty meeting. Do not write snarky comments about the committee on feedback forms or complain loudly in the breakroom or to doctoral students about the committee members or the hiring pool. That is just tacky.

Second, don't play "get the candidate." While a spirited discussion about a candidate's research is exciting and fun, and can show a candidate that you are intellectually vital as a school, nothing is more of a turnoff than audience members who need to show that they are smarter than the candidate. This is especially embarrassing when the candidate has just finished his/her degree and the obnoxious faculty are senior people. Grow up, okay?! Be clear about this issue with doctoral students, as well, for they sometimes want to show their intelligence by pointing out mistakes by the candidate. I was never prouder of my colleagues than when they humored one candidate whose research was a nightmare; they asked easy questions, smiled and nodded, and then agreed privately after she left that the decision to bring her to campus had been a big mistake. There was no need to embarrass the candidate; she did that all by herself. I explained this to our doctoral students, who were aghast by the presentation and the lack of critique. Sometimes good judgement is more important than proving you are the smartest person in the room.

The other reason to avoid the "gotcha" game is that candidates will eventually get hired elsewhere, even the ones who don't do so well. And the pond in each discipline is quite small. Everyone will hear about the terrible interview experiences at your school, and your reputation will precede you.

When the candidate is on campus, remember that your faculty are quite literally the hosts. Nothing is worse than treating the candidate like s/he is a bother. I heard from one friend about a school that told her to catch a shuttle from the airport, left her a campus map at the hotel desk, and expected her to get herself from meeting to meeting across campus with no escort. My friend called me upon arriving and said she basically just wanted to go back home again. That school was out from the get-go. Personally, I think candidates should be provided a schedule before they arrive, picked up at the airport and brought to the hotel (one you wouldn't mind putting up a valued friend or family member), and shuttled from meeting to meeting by faculty/staff/students.

Provide the candidate with as much input into and information about their schedule as you can. Ask them who they would like to meet with and try to make it happen. If they do interdisciplinary work, arrange meetings with faculty in other departments. If they are a person of color or an LGBT person, see if you can create opportunities for them to meet faculty with similar identities and talk about the climate and community. I always encourage meetings that include students, and student-only meetings are a great opportunity for candidates to really get an unvarnished sense of the strengths and weakenesses of a school. Also, be nice and build in breaks and some alone time to wander the campus, seek out the "salary book," go to the bathroom, or just answer email. And for goodness sake, have your school pay for the hotel, meals, and airfare if you can, so the candidate doesn't have to carry a major credit card bill just to find a freakin' job.

Serving on the search committee is not for the faint of heart. It is a LOT of work. So, if you are not on the committee, do your part. Read the candidates' CVs, attend their colloquia and any small meetings that are scheduled, and provide your feedback on the candidates. It is one of the best investments you can make, as you are helping to select your future colleagues while creating the initial impression that they will bring to campus when they come. You may also make some friends and meet future collaborators, whether the candidates become your colleagues or not.

Here's hoping we all have a great hiring season...


Anonymous said...

Good tips!

Anonymous said...

Here's another tip--tell them about what they should do for breakfast! I have had several places where I didn't have tomorrow's schedule ahead of time and the hotel breakfast wasn't free, so I wasn't sure if I needed to eat on my own. I've guessed wrong more than once (charged breakfast at the hotel only to find that my morning meeting included breakfast OR skipped breakfast because my morning meeting was at 7:30 and I thought for sure there would be breakfast and there wasn't). Tell candidates what they should do so they aren't stressed and hungry--such a bad start to the day.

Anonymous said...

And overlook the little stuff. On one interview I realized 5 minutes before being picked up at the hotel that the socks I had carefully packed had vanished! I sure hope the committee didn't think I meant to wear no socks!

LumpenProf said...

What you say about playing "get the candidate" is very true. I have a hard time trying to convince some of my colleagues that a job talk is not an inquisition. A search committee's goal is not just to find the best candidate, but to recruit him or her too. If you manage to piss off everyone you bring to campus, it makes the job or recruitment pretty tough.