• October 22, 2014

What Search Committees Wish You Knew

Empty-Chairs-Careers

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

Enlarge Image
close Empty-Chairs-Careers

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

Search committees are often assembled to ensure procedural fairness, to provide different stakeholders with an opportunity to express their views, and to give a nod to shared governance, which calls for collective decision making on certain appointments. While faculty search committees tend to be fairly homogenous, made up of academics in the same field as the new hire, administrative search committees are often an odd amalgam of people with varied expertise and often-competing views.

Understanding the dynamics at play within search committees and the constraints under which they exist can help candidates navigate the hiring process more effectively. Having served on my fair share of committees inside and outside of academe, I thought I would let you in on their inner workings and share a few things that search committees wish you knew, but will never actually reveal:

Search committees have less power than people think. Committees are typically assembled to offer guidance to the ultimate hiring authority—the administrator to whom the lucky finalist will report. The committee is often asked to forward three to five names to the dean, provost, or president who will make the final decision.

To give themselves wiggle room, reduce embarrassment in the event the top candidate declines the job, and ensure that search committees do not come to believe that they have true decision-making power, hiring administrators tend to request an unranked list that includes each candidate's strengths and weaknesses. That means that impressing the search committee is important, but it's not enough to secure you the job.

We often have no idea what we want. A position announcement may contain detailed information about responsibilities and qualifications, but members of the search committee may not understand what the hiring authority wants, and we may even disagree among ourselves about what we are looking for in the position.

That's especially true when the committee includes a mix of people from different departments as well as alumni or members of the community. Strong and confident candidates can use this confusion to their advantage by creating a vision of what the job and the successful candidate should look like. If you sense confusion, take control and share your bold ideas.

We resent being used as a facade for fairness. Sadly, there are times when committees are used to make it appear that a search is truly fair and open. In those cases, the hiring authority has someone in mind and forms a committee only because it is an expectation or institutional requirement.

Search committees tend to figure that out quickly and will often demonstrate a sense of apathy when communicating with you. Remember, it's them, not you, so don't take it personally. If you have a sense you aren't a serious contender, you can bow out of the process or use an interview or a campus visit as a learning experience or opportunity to meet new people.

Search committees want you to at least pretend this process is a not a hassle. Because we want to ensure that you are successful here, we have scheduled you to meet with a wide range of people who want to weigh in on your candidacy. That means: meeting after meeting, presentation after presentation.

In addition to showing you around, we are testing your stamina and ability to remain polite after the 17th person has asked you to explain your views on community engagement. Eye rolling; saying that you have answered this same question nine times so far today; responding with, "As I explained to the last three groups," or heavy sighing will not be good for you. Act like every question is shiny and new—and answer it accordingly.

You are a reflection of us. You are certainly being judged when we bring you to the campus for interviews, but how you are perceived will be a reflection of our competence as a search committee. If you are brilliant, we will look brilliant. If you turn out to be a dud, we will look stupid. We want you to wow everyone so that we can take credit for discovering you.

We skimmed your résumé several weeks ago and can't remember the details about your background. Candidates put incredible effort into their résumés and CV's and often believe that search committees have perused them carefully. Some committee members certainly do, but not all of them. Even those who gave your documents a careful read during the screening process have since forgotten the details. While we probably recall where you are now and what you are currently doing, it's likely we've forgotten your past roles, awards, and accomplishments.

Given that, remember to artfully review your history as you answer our questions. Say: "I encountered a similar situation during my tenure as interim director of the libraries when I led the merger of two library teams." Or, "While I've been in financial services for many years, I spent the first part of my career coordinating the logistics of clinical research projects, so I understand the dynamics of a health-sciences campus."

We want you to like us. It's normal for candidates to feel uncomfortable or insecure during a search process, but committee members are nervous as well. Will the candidate express concerns about the quality of our students? Did the candidate uncover that embarrassing little episode that brought press attention to our campus last year? Will the candidate think we are yahoos when she discovers there are no restaurants in town that serve Thai food or gelato?

Candidates who put us at ease by expressing admiration for the institution and interest in the community will have an edge in the evaluation process.

We may need to be "fixed," but we don't want to hear that from you. Every organization can do better, and search committees are well aware of their institutions' gaps and areas of vulnerability—but we don't want you to embarrass us by talking about how you can save us.

One of my colleagues, a woman known for her directness, recently spent two days at what she perceived to be a "lower-tier" institution offering her myriad recommendations for improving rankings, streamlining operations, and enhancing the curriculum. She had done her research and proposed a brilliant five-year plan for achieving the college's aspirations.

There was just one problem: This made people resent her. Had she engaged in conversation about the institution's aspirations, asked questions about the trouble spots, and expressed excitement about working together to achieve a better future, she would have been their top choice. Instead, she issued a manifesto and positioned herself as a bossy, know-it-all, institutional savior.

We know all about you, but we don't want you to know all about us. We have scoured the Web and our respective social and professional networks trying to understand who you truly are. We know that you lettered in soccer in high school, were criticized in an open forum for proposing to centralize information-technology services, and that despite your claims that it would be hard to leave your community, your house is actually up for sale. We think we have figured you out.

If you appear to have Googled us too extensively, however, we will be extraordinarily offended. If you dare to mention the names of our spouses or note that our brothers were in the same fraternity, we may judge you to be a creepy stalker.

You would be smart to do deep research on us—and then smarter still to keep your mouth shut during your interview about the trivia you uncover.

Keeping the employment needs of your spouse or partner a secret until the very end can wreck the whole process. The need to secure employment for a significant other before accepting a new position is a common challenge in academe. Regardless of whether your partner would do better in an academic environment or in the larger community, it can be uncomfortable to reveal that your potential relocation hinges upon your partner's ability to find a suitable job. It can be tempting to keep that a secret until the very end of the process and then spring it on the hiring official as a condition for accepting the offer. That rarely turns out well.

The earlier a search committee knows that it is important to identify career prospects for your partner, the easier things will go for everyone. Noting that your partner is excited about the potential move and would be interested in exploring career options in (choose one: museum management, pharmacy, plant sciences, or some other field) will provide the search committee with the time and space to start talking to people who might be able to put something together.

We want to understand your possible reservations. An African-American colleague of mine was considering a position in a very white community. While that made him a little uncomfortable for himself, he was especially worried about what life would be like for his young children. "I couldn't exactly ask the committee to round up some black people for me after the interview," he said, "but it would have been nice to know if there actually were any around."

Because he couldn't get a sense of what life would be like in that community, he eventually turned down the offer. I urged him not to be so reticent the next time about asking for what he needs. "If the response to the request is not positive," I explained, "you'll learn something important." I am regularly asked to connect candidates to people in my community who can describe what it is like to live here, so I maintain a diverse list of friends and colleagues who are happy to share their perspectives and life experiences with candidates.

We sometimes wish candidates would put us both out of our misery. I once served on a search committee that was very excited about a particular candidate, but within his first hour with us, he and we realized that we had made a terrible mistake in coming together. His vision didn't align with ours, and we didn't "click" during the opening conversation.

As search-committee members, we longed to call a timeout and suggest that our candidate find an earlier flight home, but good manners stopped us from doing that. Instead, we took him from interview to interview and collected a huge amount of feedback to confirm what we suspected within the first 30 minutes.

He grew more despondent as the day wore on, and we felt badly for him. Mercifully, the day came to a close, but we still had a group dinner to attend. I have never witnessed a candidate claiming to have a family emergency or a migraine to get out of the search process early, but I'd like to recommend it. There are times when it makes sense to set each party free.

You were truly our first choice, but the hiring administrator liked someone better. Feel like you clicked with the search committee? Looking forward to using them as your brain trust when you land your new gig? Not so fast.

As noted earlier, search committees typically serve in advisory rather than decision-making roles. Given that, they don't have the power to slot you into the position in question. Search committees often bond with candidates and feel genuine remorse when we are unsuccessful in making a case for their hiring.

If you sensed that we really liked you, we really did. And we want you to know that we are as disappointed as you are.

Allison M. Vaillancourt is vice president for human resources at the University of Arizona, in Tucson. She is a regular blogger for The Chronicle's On Hiring blog.

subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.