I remember a country-and-western song about how potential dance partners start getting better looking as closing time nears; the job search can be a little like that.
As the search year grinds toward summer, job seekers become more skittish about finding positions, and they begin to broaden their searches. When looking for my first tenure-track position, I spent dozens of hours on applications, often to colleges about which I knew almost nothing. Soon I realized the need to focus only on campuses that were a good "fit" to my background, interests, and career goals. This saved me valuable time (better spent working on publications) and dwindling emotional energy (from those "what ifs" that swirl in all job seekers' minds).
Knowing little about colleges and universities outside my own region, I was amazed to find many hidden gems: respected liberal-arts colleges, excellent religious institutions, and small state universities located in classic college towns with a high quality of life. Likewise, I was surprised by how many campuses would have been terrible places to work because of struggling institutional finances, poor support for teaching or research, or low quality of life.
I started asking myself, What can I find out in 30 minutes or less on the Internet that can help me decide whether I want to go through the hassle of applying to and thinking about this place? I now recommend four basic Internet sites to job searchers:
The institution's own home page
Often I had to use a search engine to find it, but a quick scan of the home page can be revealing:
If the institution doesn't have a home page or has only a handful of associated pages, that's a warning sign. Don't expect to find a computer on your office desk or lots of use for your PowerPoint lecture presentations. The more material posted, the greater the likelihood of technology support. Can you find the mission statements or strategic goals posted anywhere? Are they conducive to a long career at that institution?
Look at the section on academic programs: What majors are offered? What academic credentials do the faculty members in your prospective department have? Are they graduates of institutions that are peers to your own alma mater?
Skim through the student-life sections; believe me, those photos are chosen very carefully. Be sure to notice what's in the background of the classroom photos. What do they reveal about technology? What do they indicate about campus diversity? Are buildings and classrooms in obvious disrepair?
Look for the news and announcements page. Are the news releases dominated by the sports program, with little mention of academic lectures, honors, or faculty research? Do they make mention of any regional accrediting probations or that "pesky" American Association of University Professors? (You'd be amazed at what you might find on these pages.)
Finally, you may wish to look for local links, like to the area chamber of commerce, etc. (especially when you are chosen as a finalist). Check out a real-estate site and search for a few houses in your potential price range. Look at other community features like hospitals, churches, shopping centers, or a local newspaper. Many colleges are in semi-rural areas, and these places are pretty tough sells for new faculty members who have lived in major metropolitan areas. I would never apply for a job in a town where I couldn't find a pizza joint in the local business listings. Just a simple matter of principle, and there really are such places!
U.S. News & World Report
Aside from the college rankings, this site contains a wealth of information. I would recommend selecting your "ideal" university and running a comparison search (the site will do this for you) with it and the prospective institution. How does the college stack up in terms of class size? Numbers of full-time faculty members? Graduation rates? Retention rates? Where does the institution rank? If it is in the bottom tier, can you find factors that might overcome a perceived lower academic reputation? In the institution's academic profile, you can find out about library holdings, diversity, and other information.
The Chronicle of Higher Education
Since you already know about this site, you should be certain to use its full capabilities. The Chronicle posts information on salary surveys for faculty members at most institutions. For subscribers, The Chronicle offers a searchable database of faculty salaries at more than 1,700 institutions, using data compiled by the A.A.U.P. Look at the salaries for two or three years. Were there good-sized increases? Do the salaries differ substantially between ranks? Also, try searching for the name of the college and its president. This may turn up other information about successes or turmoil on campus, either of which may spur your interest or spoil it.
Guidestar's Charitable Organizations Page
You'll find this site most helpful if you are a finalist (or just curious). Guidestar archives copies of the actual tax forms (called 990's) for most of the nonprofit entities in the country; the site works best with Netscape and an Adobe Acrobat Reader. Public universities are not posted, but their foundations are; almost all private institutions are posted. You can see revenues, debts, and investments. Look especially at line 12, where total revenues are posted, and line 66, where total debts are posted. If the debt has grown substantially over the tax year, that's a huge warning sign. If the total debt exceeds the total annual revenue, that's really dangerous; such institutions rarely have money for program or faculty development because their extra funds are going into debt service.
This half-hour of searching will potentially save you lots of grief. Trust me when I say that one of the biggest mistakes made by people seeking tenure-track positions is applying for jobs that they shouldn't take even if offered, or accepting jobs they really shouldn't want. Believe it or not, another year on the search is a whole lot better than a really bad faculty position. And maybe, just maybe, you will stumble across one of those aforementioned hidden gems where you will have a long and happy career.