• November 22, 2014

The Ones We Didn't Hire

I remember vividly when I was applying for tenure-track positions. I typed each application letter on my electric typewriter, concealing typos with Wite-Out. I painstakingly typed my curriculum vitae and had it printed on heavy paper. I braved interviews at Modern Languages Association meetings. I visited campuses.

I was a good candidate, with teaching experience, publications, and a strong academic record. However, I had little idea what I was really looking for, nor did I know what options were out there. I knew nothing about navigating my way through job interviews. Graduate school had given me a fine background in English literature; it had left me woefully unprepared for a job search.

Now, as a dean of arts and sciences, I spend considerable time interviewing job applicants. Candidates for tenure-track positions on our campus meet with the department's faculty members, present a paper or teach a class, and interview with the dean and perhaps other administrators and students. With 15 or more faculty searches each year in my college, and three or more candidates visiting campus for each search, I see numerous applicants from an array of disciplines

The hard work usually pays off and leads to some wonderful new hires. Every year when the interviews are over, however, I reflect on those candidates we did not hire.

In some cases, our university did not fit a candidate's interests or goals. In other cases, the candidate did not meet our expectations. Sometimes the search committee should have been more discerning, either in the paper screening or in the telephone-interview process. Frequently, however, the candidates had potential, but they interviewed poorly. They should have been better prepared. They should have thought more carefully about their career goals and interests before sending off an application -- or they should have given more thought to the campus visit and the individuals they would meet.

In many cases, I see myself as I was years ago: woefully unprepared for a job search.

A surprising number of candidates who come to campus, for instance, have not read our university catalog or mission statement. They haven't visited our Web pages. They ask me how many students we have, what majors we offer, or whether we have graduate programs. Sometimes candidates don't seem to have even glanced at a local map: One candidate told me recently that she was attracted to our university because she wanted to live near the ocean. Since our campus is two hours from the coast, her comment was not reassuring.

Ours is a teaching-focused state university. Faculty members teach a heavy load of seven to eight courses a year. We seek candidates who love working with students, people who are committed to teaching first-year students as well as majors and graduate students, people who are passionate about helping people learn. Our job ads and university materials clearly state these values.

Yet when I ask candidates to talk about the students they have taught, some convey no interest in the topic. When I ask about teaching strategies, some give me a blank look. When I mention how much they would be expected to teach each year, some candidates appear shocked and ask how to get a reduced load.

I realize that some applicants, especially those just finishing graduate school, are immersed in their research and may not have extensive teaching experience. However, candidates need to investigate vital issues such as courseload before applying -- and consider what kind of position they really want. Candidates interested only in positions that offer research laboratory space, a substantial amount of start-up dollars, and a light teaching schedule should focus their job searches elsewhere. Those who want a small university where they will have significant contact with students should apply.

Many candidates who have not done their homework also seem at a loss about why they are meeting with the dean. During our time together, they are not prepared to speak persuasively about themselves as candidates. Many ask me about health care and dental coverage (I refer them to the benefits officer) or about housing costs and schools. Some sit passively, waiting for me to ask questions. Others chatter incessantly. (After one campus visit, the department chair asked me if I had gotten a word in edgewise during my interview with the candidate. Needless to say, that question did not bode well for the applicant.)

The interview with the dean is the opportunity for candidates to show a representative of the university administration why they are a good fit with the department and the university as a whole and what they could contribute to the campus in the short and long term. It is an opportunity to shine with pertinent information and intelligent questions. Only a few candidates use this opportunity effectively.

I suppose I should accept that those candidates who prepare well for their campus visit have an edge on those who don't. The differences among candidates make our decision-making processes easier. However, I remember all too well that naïve job candidate of 20-some years ago, making her way with trepidation to the MLA. I feel compelled to provide a few recommendations to those candidates who even now are writing letters, waiting for telephone calls, and hoping for invitations to campuses:

  • Do your homework. Find out about the institutions you are interested in. Be prepared to answer specifically why you are interested in a particular institution or department -- with reasons that go beyond the local weather or proximity to ski slopes.

  • When invited to campus, think about the different individuals you will meet. Professors, deans, vice presidents, and students vary in their priorities and interests; be prepared to provide information and ask questions appropriate to each of them.

  • Know your own strengths and weaknesses and be ready to address them as needed. For instance, candidates might freely admit that they haven't taught graduate courses in the past. But if they've reviewed the curriculum, they could offer ideas for teaching or designing such courses.

  • Think about what you want to know as well as what you want people to know about you. Job interviews are meant to provide information to all parties. Besides, good questions indicate you are taking the interview seriously.

  • Listen carefully and pick up cues. Perhaps, for instance, the interviewer seems concerned that a program is small or has been losing enrollment. This is an opportunity for candidates to discuss how they have built programs in the past or have actively recruited students.

Things have changed since I was a job candidate. Today, you can research colleges and universities without leaving your desk. You can create beautiful résumés on your computer. You can tailor cover letters with a few keystrokes. You can send applications electronically.

Nonetheless, those low-tech personal interviews are just as important as they always were. Approach them with thoughtfulness and care. And, before you visit a campus, make sure to look at a map.

Mary Cullinan is the dean of the College of Arts, Letters, and Sciences at California State University-Stanislaus.

subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.