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What Do You Do, Dear? The Radical Announces a Series of Posts on the Upcoming Job Season

July 28, 2008, 4:32 pm

A message from the home security company, received this morning on my cell phone, reminded me of what I know too well: my vacation in the North Woods of Minnesota will be over on Wednesday. They also reminded me that I had forgotten to reset my fire alarm, which is a significantly better message than “Oh, your alarm went off and no one was home, so the fire department broke down the door to investigate.” And despite my best efforts to leave the blogosphere to its own devices until I return, this brush with the real world caused a post to begin to form in my head.

So today I present the first in a series of posts about the upcoming Job Season. It will be a “how to” if you will, intended for those of you who are chairing a search, applying for jobs, interviewing (from both sides), and all stages up to and including making — and responding to — the offer. I will also want to take some time to speak to and about the overlooked — candidates who, despite their best efforts, are left at the end of the job season looking for a visiting post and wondering why their best wasn’t good enough. What I hope is that these posts, and the conversation they generate in the comments section, will act to put a lot of us in conversation about the hiring process, expose us to each others’ practices, and make the system more accessible for job seekers.

So let’s begin. You have been asked to chair a search — I’ve done three so far, and am about to embark on my fourth. I’ve probably been on about seven or eight search committees, and watched other chairs do their work. What are you responsible for?

The ethical conduct of the search committee.To the best of my knowledge there is no book or article that describes the horrific things that many job candidates have been exposed to during the process, although those stories are readily available in the blogosphere and in conversations with colleagues. But ethical conduct includes a number of categories we will elaborate on later in this series. It includes creating an ad that says, as specifically as possible, what qualities the right candidate should have, or stating explicitly when the field and qualifications are open. It includes public notification if the search is canceled. It includes the search committee coming to some internal agreement as to how candidates will be evaluated, both in the reading of their dossiers and in the interviewing process. And it includes being explicit with your committee about what kinds of conduct are and are not appropriate, both internal to the committee, in committee members’ communications with others in the department and in interactions with the candidates.

Making sure that the search process is compatible with university regulations and with the guidelines of your professional association. What will be tricky is if these two standards are not compatible with each other — which they might not be, for reasons that are not in the least sinister. But now is the time to find out. For example, I discovered last year that in anthropology, by decree of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), it is standard practice not to ask for letters of recommendation until the committee has decided the candidate is of interest. This strikes me as eminently sensible and humane, and yet it is not standard practice in most other fields, and our practices at Zenith tend towards giving the letters of recommendation equal weight with the other materials in the decisions that lead to the preliminary interview. So this was something that needed to be reconciled early on in the search, prior to the ad placement, so that all candidates (we were searching with several departments) had similar dossiers.

Creating, and managing, a timetable for the search. Every member of your committee deserves to know before school starts when they will be expected to get their reading done, around when the meetings to pick semifinalists and finalists will be, and what weeks the interviews will occur in. This information allows them to figure out how they will accomplish the other things they need to do this year without the search putting undue burden on them, their families or their students. Furthermore, it is not unlikely that members of the committee will be contacted by colleagues elsewhere about when decisions will be made, and they should be able to respond to such questions. As chair, you will receive anxious emails from candidates about the search timetable — how much better to be able to tell them in their first message from you, the response that acknowledges that the application itself has been safely received and is under consideration, when they might hear from you again? Which leads us to our last item for today:

Communicating with the candidates in a timely and responsible way. Given the state of the job market, there is very little that is more important than this, as far as I can tell. First of all, dear reader, you would be shocked at how many job applications go entirely unacknowledged — no note that it has been received, no note informing candidates who did not receive an offer who was hired. Nada. More commonly, general wisdom on searches is that you don’t communicate in any way with the candidate pool until you have made an offer and the offer is accepted — probably some time in March or April. I think this is wrong. I think that a search committee should meet twice before selecting semi-finalists, and the first meeting should be to weed out candidates that you wouldn’t hire under any circumstances, and let them know. That should still leave you with a sufficiently large pool (in 20th century United States history,probably 100 people or more) so that even if you needed to go back into the pool for some reason, you can. Then, after semi-finalists are chosen, write to everyone else and tell them that they are not semi-finalists at this time. Worst case scenario, you have to go back to them and say, “Actually, our idea about this hire has shifted, and we would like to interview you after all.” Same with the semi-finalist pool: let them know they are not finalists. And you know what? If someone came to me late in the process and said, “Guess what? We do want to bring you to campus after all!” why wouldn’t I be pleased about that? Particularly if I had the pleasure of saying, “Gee, it’s too late — I’ve accepted another offer. But good luck to you!” That would be one for the scrap books.

Next Week: Writing And Placing the Advertisement.

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