The hiring process from the perspective of a new hire: Part I

Being in a tiny department of six means that you get a say in almost every major decision, which is a nice perk (this is can also be a giant pain, depending in the frequency of those decisions). So when a new line opened up everyone except the chair was put on the search committee. In February I was here on campus interviewing for my job, and this semester I got to help select the newest member of the department. It’s been quite a ride going from the nervous, unsure interviewee to the interviewer in less than a year. The process has been eye-opening, and perhaps it can provide some insight into the process for those about to go through it (at least for jobs at a mixed teaching/research school).

The first step was writing the job ad and associated interview documents, including phone and on-campus questions.  I didn’t get much say in them because (a) the job request went to the Dean before I started (b) they used the same materials as for my search except swapped out the name of the position and the required courses. This made it particularly weird to be part of the search. Apparently it’s such a pain to get questions approved by HR that it’s not worth the effort to improve them. During this period we got a visit from the Dean, who told us in a PC way that we should be ‘open’ to diversity hires. I learned that my interview year a candidate was added to the phone interview list by HR (that candidate did not make it to the campus interviews).


Applications were ‘due’ on a Friday (i.e. “will be evaluated starting ..”). Files that came in by Sunday night were put in the same pile as all of the others – but any that came in Monday or after got a special dot for being ‘late’. We then got the dubious pleasure of reading all ~75 of the applications, identifying whether each candidate met the minimum requirements, and coming up with our individual top 7 lists. This is when I realized how cursorily readers look at materials for the first round or two.  I read every Cover Letter and front page of the CV, but only skimmed the references and statements.  Besides actual qualifications I noticed a few things that could change my opinion of a candidate (mostly by harming it).

  • Research or teaching statements that were shorter than average (do you not have enough to say? Have you not thought about this stuff) or much longer than average (can’t you be concise?). Two pages for each seemed to be enough to get across sufficient information without going overboard.
  •  Research statements that focused exclusively (or majorly) on past work.  We know what you did – it’s in your CV – but what you are going to do isn’t as apparent, and is equally if not more important to us.  Lay out a research plan!
  • Documentation that doesn’t specifically address qualifications laid out in the job ad. Just because you don’t like it/don’t want to teach the class doesn’t mean it’s going to go away. I would imagine this is particularly important for teaching focused schools.
  • Misaddressed the cover letter (REALLY?).

We then set about finalizing our phone interview list, starting with the candidates that got the most votes, with little to no discussion. The final slots for the interviews came down a few ties, resulting in discussion of particular candidates and a re-vote. Our final list of ten was then passed on to the Dean and HR.  Interestingly, at this point, the ‘top’ candidates hadn’t really been discussed – most of the discussion had been around the candidates that just barely or almost made it.  Sadly our list didn’t include any woman.  My top seven had included two women, as had the list one other faculty member.  Those candidates were just not as strong from others’ perspective. I really do think the pool was dominated by well-qualified men, but it couldn’t have hurt to make the review process blind.

The phone interviews

I thought phone interviews were exhausting as the interviewee, but that’s nothing to interviewing 10 candidates in three days, up to four in a row back-to-back.  A few candidates bombed the phone interviews for various reasons (see Acclimatrix’s post that includes how to nail a phone interview):

  • One person kept apologizing and talking about how nervous they were. Everyone was very kind and considerate but that guy immediately lost credibility – noticeable nerves is one thing (many people sounded nervous on the phone), but this guy lost his shit. It was so awkward. Keep it together, people!
  • Another person had obviously not done their homework. They didn’t understand what our department did, and pitched themselves for a completely different type of program. This person had been at the top of many of our lists but received no votes for the next round – it was obvious he wasn’t that into us. If he had been, he would’ve spent some time preparing.
  • One candidate interviewed on a cell phone. The connection was terrible and we couldn’t understand what the candidate was saying.  Clarity is critical during an interview and you certainly don’t need a handicap.
  • Stressing international research and classes. International research (or even national research) is great at a big RI with lots of resources or at a private liberal arts college where parents are paying tuition.  But students at small, regional state schools often are working their way through school and can’t afford to go abroad. The candidates that impressed us were convincingly interested in doing regional research.
  • A few candidates gave long, rambling, never-ending answers to questions. There was a lot of eye-rolling around our table during some of them. When I was prepping for interviews I read that you should keep your answers to two minutes each.  Maybe have a (silent) timer you set every time you start answering a question.

After the phone interviews we had to each decide our lists of top three choices for campus interviews. At this point there was a bit of political maneuvering… other faculty would stop by my office to see what I was thinking, and there were a lot of one-on-one discussions about candidates.  This definitely felt a little awkward, but probably shouldn’t have been a surprise given what I’ve seen in other job interviews.

We then got together to vote on our top three. There was one candidate that got a vote from each of us, so that person was in without discussion.  Half of the candidates (including many of our pre-interview top choices) didn’t get any votes at this stage and weren’t discussed further. We then had to spend quite a bit of time discussing which two additional candidates we were going to invite. We discusses the strengths and weakness of each candidate, referring to application material and phone interview notes as needed, and then re-voted (twice). There was also a bit of bargaining: “I don’t really like candidate B, but I’m fine with inviting him as long as we also invite candidate C, my top choice”. At this stage it was very important for a candidate to have a strong advocate – something that I wasn’t comfortable being as the only junior faculty member. Ultimately we ended up with a list we were all satisfied with (and no hard feelings – critical to avoid in a room of strong personalities).

continued in Part II


22 thoughts on “The hiring process from the perspective of a new hire: Part I

  1. Wow, super interesting! Thanks for the insight! I will be on a search committee this year, so it will be interesting to see how my experience compares with yours.

  2. Thanks a lot for the insight! I’m a mathematician and I’ve been to three search committees in two research universities in Canada with relatively large math departments. We didn’t do phone interviews and went directly to invite 3-5 people in each search. Some observations that complement (in the sense that are different from) your experience:

    1) There was a small committee (4-5 people) doing the search and reporting to the rest of the department. The department may or may not have had a final say in what the committee proposed for campus interviews, but if they voted, they would rise little to no objection to what the committee proposed. Within each of these committees there were interesting power differential dynamics. Professors from the specific area of hiring were heard more than professor from other areas, and senior professors were heard more than less senior professor. Area took priority over seniority in this.

    2) Teaching statements were pretty much ignored.

    3) Cover letters were pretty much ignored unless the application was “unusual” (too senior for a tenure-track position, unclear why the person applies, etc).

    4) CV and Recommendation letters counted the most, in that order, with research statement coming third. Writers of letters were in some cases contacted to provide further clarification. Research statement seemed to help compensating in the cases where the candidate’s papers were not yet submitted/accepted for publication.

      • I’ve heard cover letters are important in other math departments. I’m only talking about my own experiences.

        • Same here, of course- I have little insight into which documents others on the committee focused on, except that the first thing everyone referred to was the CV. I found cover letters particularly useful because they seemed to be the best space for applicants to convince me that they had the enthusiasm/desire to be at a school like ours.

        • “3) Cover letters were pretty much ignored unless the application was “unusual” (too senior for a tenure-track position, unclear why the person applies, etc). ”

          Can you elaborate here? Too senior meaning was already tenured, or age? Unclear as in background doesn’t match? wouldn’t that just mean unqualified?


          • Again, I’ll clarify that this is just my restricted experience.

            By “too senior” I mean in terms of years after PhD (age is never considered). Either the applicant has a position somewhere else and then the question is why they are moving (see “unclear why the person applies”), or the applicant has been postdocing for longer than usual and the question is why they haven’t got a position already (I realize that this is a catch-22, but the questions come, no matter whether they are logical or not. This is super-annoying, and perhaps someone should elaborate on this topic: when do you have too many postdocs in your CV? It seems that you need some postdoctoral experience, but at some point you have “too much” postdoctoral experience.)

            By “unclear why the person applies” could be many different things: the candidate is not in the area of research described in the position; the candidate has a position that is perceived to be about equal or superior than the position this person is applying to (this could be both in academic terms or geographical terms); the candidate is perceived to be stronger than the expected profile and is expected to get a “better” position somewhere else; the candidate is perceived to be applying solely for the purpose of getting an offer and using it to improve their current work conditions; etc.

            In all those cases, the cover letter gets looked at for clues. If the candidate still looks interesting but the cover letter doesn’t clarify the situation, writers of letters of recommendation or even the candidate may be contacted to explain.

            This is all very general. Each case is different. I’m only describing things that I’ve seen.

          • In our case, there were a few candidates that were already Assistant Professors at other universities, and about to come up for tenure (based on how long they’d been there). Then you have to worry that the applicant is just trying to get a better deal at their home institution rather than actually eager for the job you are offering.

            In those cases, both the cover letter and the recommendations provided clues about why they were applying. In one case it became much easier to believe a candidate was actually interested in the position, because their cover letter was upfront about why they wanted to move, and one of their recommendations confirmed it.

  3. Having just completed a successful search at a tiny college that doesn’t even have departments, I really appreciate this post. One suggestion that should be a “duh” but clearly wasn’t: DO YOUR HOMEWORK -at least enough to personalize or “target” your app. We got over 150 apps for our particular position & it was immediately apparent that about half of the applicants hadn’t bothered to check out our college -and probably hadn’t really read the job ad. Instead it seemed that they were simply sending out a generic app to anything with the subject area in the title- complete waste of everyone’s time.In this day and age of electronic access 5 minutes with Google will tell you some cool stuff about where you are applying and another 5 minutes with a word-processor will allow you to adjust your app to indicate that you have clue that the place you are applying to now isn’t the same one you applied to last week. If a place calls itself a College & you talk about your role at “your university” it’s over. If the place is non-departmental and you talk about your “contributions to your department”, it’s over. If the place emphasizes undergrad education & all you talk about is mentoring grad students and post-docs, it’s over. Like I say “Duh” but I guess it needs saying

    • Me three …. yes, this is very important. If you can, you should also research the staff members – at the very least you should be able to find their research and teaching interests. You may not need to talk about it, but it helps if you know their background before answering one of their questions.

    • Yes, this is so key! It’s hard to to take an applicant seriously when they have very basic things about the position wrong – and particularly in the beginning readers are looking for any possible reason to whittle down the pile.

      But even getting those basics right isn’t enough – the strongest candidates are those that can really specify why they want to be at that specific institution – whether it’s because of the region, the research/teaching commitments, the type of students, mission of the college, etc – and of course even better if they can speak to more than one.

  4. Thanks for the insight! I agree with John Anderson. One of the most important advice I received was the importance of targeting applications. If it is generic it will most likely go in the trash.

  5. This is not dissimilar to my experiences on search committees. But one thing that has surprised me is that there can be dramatic differences in what committee members read for in the first (and second and…) rounds of the reading. Some colleagues focus extensively on the teaching, while I only look to make sure the candidate hasn’t said something outlandish and has actually indicated that she is interested in teaching the classes we are needing to fill.

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