There is a certain amount of excitement at the beginning of the job search, even when, like me, you are searching for an administrative position.
I've actually enjoyed putting together materials for the different dean's jobs to which I've applied this fall. I'm probably a glutton for punishment, but responding to job advertisements is a useful exercise to me because each search helps me to continue to codify my values and beliefs about higher education. Don't get me wrong -- I would love to be able to "retire" from the search process by receiving the offer of my administrative dreams. But as long as I have to be in this game, I might as well use the process to my benefit.
So far, I've sent materials to seven searches. They are an interesting mix of colleges and universities, and a couple of them are what I would call "stretch" positions. Each institution is looking for a person who is "a leader with a collaborative style" that "embraces change" and "celebrates the richness of tradition" while understanding the "fiscal imperatives" and "important decisions" that must be made "for the continued success" of (fill in the blank) College or University.
I'm not suggesting that all job advertisements for deans have the same boilerplate language, but many institutions are facing similar challenges with a soft economy and budget retrenchment caused by declining enrollments or state cutbacks. One way for a candidate to rise to the top of the "big pile" of applicants is to use the cover letter to address the particular needs of the institution and relate those needs to leadership experiences she or he has had.
I've crafted individual cover letters for each of the positions, relating my professional accomplishments and experiences to what I perceive the institution is seeking in its next dean. I don't embellish what I've done, nor do I try to repackage it to fit the advertisement. Rather, I try to weave a story that describes the "fit" between what I've done professionally and their institutional needs. It takes time to write this type of cover letter, but I've been successful in the past at getting out of the "big pile" into a "smaller pile" on the strength of my cover letter and other pertinent materials.
I've also paid close attention to my network of colleagues, friends, and mentors during this time. Many of them are in administrative positions at colleges or universities and pass along potential job opportunities that they come across. I also have some contacts at some of the academic search firms who know my talents and pass along job possibilities in which I might be interested. Not all of these possibilities are good matches, but more often than not they deserve a second look and some due diligence on my part.
But now is the part of the process that I enjoy the least -- the waiting game. The season for dean searches is reaching its first peak during November. Assuming that a successful candidate will begin his or her new administrative position at the beginning of the new fiscal year (generally June 1 or July 1), the timeline for the process of courtship generally begins toward the end of November.
Candidates from the big pile are reviewed until a little pile of up to 10 applicants emerges. From this little pile, often six to eight candidates are selected for an off-site interview in December or January. Once the off-site interviews are completed, three to five finalists are invited for on-campus interviews in February or March. This culminates in the selection of a new dean sometime toward the end of March or the beginning of April. The process can certainly be accelerated, but most search committees in my experience are deliberate. They want to get it right and are willing to invest some time to make sure they do so.
For those of us who have decided to make an administrative career move, each mail delivery or phone call during this time becomes a defining moment. You're either in or you're not. I've come to realize that phone calls are most often good news at this stage, and letters (particularly those that come in very thin envelopes) are generally bad news. Sometimes the rejection letters are a form letter with little to do with the person to whom they are sent. Other times they are exquisitely written, effusive in their praise, and regretful that you did not make the first cut. Twice last year, I received rejection letters addressed to me on the envelope but addressed to another candidate on the actual letter. Those were particularly painful because not only did I not make the first cut, but someone else besides me knew about it -- the person to whom my letter was mistakenly sent.
During the time I worked on this article, I received one letter (very thin envelope) and one phone call from a consultant on a dean search to which I've applied. The results held true to form: one rejection (the letter) and one request for permission to contact my references (the phone call).
It still remains somewhat of a mystery to me as to why in some job searches I get out of the big pile, but not in others. One thing I have noticed is that I am more likely to make it past the first cut if one of my references has nominated me for the position.
My reference list includes mostly senior-level administrators who know me and my abilities. It seems that their letters make a difference in the attention my application is given. I don't ask often (probably a mistake on my part), but if a position is especially interesting to me, I do ask one of my references who might have a connection, however tangential, to nominate me for the job. The caller who asked permission to contact my references is working on a position I was nominated for, reinforcing my feeling that there is something to a nomination letter.
So, my search continues. The next month will be spent checking the mail (reluctantly), answering phone calls (almost always with anticipation of good news), and hoping for the holy grail at this point in the job-search season -- an off-campus interview. I'll let you know how it all turns out next time.