When the head of my department asked to speak to me last spring, I knew what was coming. We needed to replace a colleague whose specialty was similar to mine. I was the logical person to chair the search committee, even though I had just run one a few years ago, and usually that frees you from another such time-consuming obligation for a considerable period.
But at our large university, we have many forthcoming retirements in the department, and we face the prospect of multiple searches in each of the next few years. No one will be exempt from repeated committee service.
As one of the most senior members of the department, I have served on or led many search committees. I also have a reputation for producing acceptable candidates. In retrospect, I don't think I've ever been on a committee that did not find at least one candidate the department proved willing to hire. And that's why, when I was tapped to lead this year's search in our department, I thought it might be helpful to share what I've learned in a series of articles on this site. My main goal here is to give job candidates a window into the search process as it looks from the hiring side of the table.
My track record was probably why I was asked to handle the previous search, although it was in a subfield far from my own. In that case, I took over a search that had faltered under a different, sharply divided committee; no one had liked any of the candidates it had produced. The search was then renewed under my direction, with the department chairman specifically telling me that a majority of the members could override a dissenting minority. In the end, though, that proved unnecessary. After lengthy deliberations, committee members agreed on three candidates to invite; then, after the on-campus interviews, we concurred on which person was best, a judgment the department accepted. And we recruited our preferred candidate, who seems to be working out well.
In recent years, we have not always had such successful searches, despite the seeming attractiveness of our positions in today's buyers' market. In some cases, committees have been unable to find candidates who appeal to most of the department. In other cases, our offers have been rejected. Our frequent inability to supply appropriate employment to academic spouses has been a nagging problem, costing us more than one attractive candidate. (Departments in our university do not often cooperate when other departments ask them to hire spouses of candidates. We have acted the same way in the past, so we cannot complain too vocally when it happens to us.)
Nevertheless, a committee feels it has failed when a search does not produce a new department member. Searches take enormous amounts of time, not only for committee members, who read extensive materials submitted by many candidates, but also for other professors. Even those who do not read all of the work submitted by the finalists usually attend their talks and perhaps socialize with them informally.
Then, of course, there is the time and effort demanded of the candidates, who have to solicit letters of recommendation and send in substantial documentation, all the while keeping track of deadlines for multiple jobs. Because I have graduate students on the job market most years, I can fully sympathize with the people who apply for our positions. That's why, as soon as we eliminate candidates from consideration, I intend to write to give them that information. Such a letter is difficult to draft and send, but those who receive it won't have false hopes and, most important, won't have to wait till the end of the search (which this year will probably be in February) to learn the fate of their applications.
Once I agreed to handle this search, the chair and I discussed the job description, which I drafted for the department's approval. We also considered other possible committee members, keeping in mind professors' past service, current obligations, and so forth. We settled on two younger colleagues: a recently tenured woman and a nontenured man. Both are search committee novices, so I'll be responsible not only for guiding our deliberations but also for teaching them how to conduct a search properly.
I don't know what to expect from either of them, so I'll be learning about them as the search proceeds. During the last search I led, I discovered that one of the committee members tended to evaluate candidates erratically (positive one week, highly critical the next, then sometimes again reversing course). That was difficult to deal with. I'd rather have consistent disagreement than not be able to predict where someone will stand on a candidate at any given time.
Blessedly, our department is little afflicted by the factionalism I hear about elsewhere. Our personal relationships are characterized by varying degrees of warmth or friction, but we all respect each other as historians. We as a group don't have any particular agenda about the kind of scholar we seek, although different individuals may prefer particular approaches. Some of us are more interested in theory, others in solid archival work, others in an emphasis on, say, social or intellectual history.
But we all value quality and think we can detect it during the search process. We rarely achieve total unanimity when making appointments, but on the other hand we also won't make an appointment if there is substantial dissent, even if a majority favors a particular candidate.
I vividly recall a sharply divided vote some years ago when those supporting a candidate had a slim margin of victory. Still, everyone at the meeting concurred that no appointment could be made under those circumstances, because it would be unfair to bring in a new colleague whom so many department members opposed.
Our job advertisement for this year's opening appeared online on H-Net during the summer and subsequently in Perspectives, the monthly publication of the American Historical Association, and The Chronicle.
Now that the deadline is approaching, we are receiving applications nearly every day. A number of the applicants don't fit the job description and, frankly, they shouldn't have bothered. I appreciate the potential applicants who contacted the committee several months ago to describe their qualifications informally and to ask whether they would be suitable for the job. Some of them weren't, for one reason or another. My telling them that saved everyone time and money.
The committee has not yet met to evaluate applications, but we are each reading files as they are completed and as we have time. Some of the files I've read contain poor cover letters, which does not bode well for those candidates.
Cover letters are critical. I often make my own students go through many drafts before approving theirs. It's important for an applicant to convey excitement about research and teaching in such a letter, yet too many people write prosaically and merely repeat information in their CV's. We hire people whom we intend to keep as a colleague for years, so we want to learn more from the cover letter than just the subjects of research projects, the titles of articles, and the names of courses taught. How applicants choose to discuss the content and importance of their past work is tremendously significant. When a candidate tells us something about his or her plans for teaching and research, that's a plus, though it's not required for candidates who are just finishing their degrees.
An applicant who has studied our department and knows something about our needs beyond what the ad said has another advantage. Such care is immediately evident and demonstrates a seriousness of purpose. It's surprising to me how many of those applicants who don't quite fit the conjunction of chronological and topical specialties we specified in the ad have neglected to tailor their cover letters to our needs.
If I were applying for a job that I didn't qualify for at first glance, I'd certainly make every effort in the cover letter to stress the ways in which my interests could fulfill the department's requirements -- not by lying, of course, but by enhancing those aspects of my training and interests (past or future) that did meet the specifications. Yet several applicants with training in other disciplines whose dissertation topics fall within our purview, for example, have made no effort to describe past course work in history or historically oriented teaching experience. Nor have several historians, whose chronological or topical expertise is not what we asked for, explicitly addressed that problem. (Only one cover letter I've read so far even tries to do so.)
Do they think we won't notice that they don't fit the qualifications?
The best way to deal with some sort of difficulty in an application is to confront it head on, not to ignore it, as many in this category of applicants have done.
I know from experience that at this point in a search one can be overly optimistic. Most letters of recommendation sing the praises of the applicants (that's what they are supposed to do, after all), and many candidates seem on paper to be likely prospects. It's the next stage -- when we ask for dissertation chapters or other written materials -- that reality begins to set in. That's when we learn whether the candidates or their references have been telling us the truth about the quality and significance of their work.