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

This is the second part of a two-part post detailing my (a new faculty member) experiences on a hiring committee.  For Part I, go here.

The campus interviews

We had our three candidates on campus for interviews over a period of seven days.  Each candidate flew in the day before the interview and had scheduled activities from 7:30 am to 8:30 pm. Candidates had a meeting with the department faculty, meetings with each of us individually, time with the Dean, lunch with the graduate students, gave a seminar, and had dinner with the department. Overall, the three candidate each did a great job – one of the best things about doing phone interviews first is that collegiality and competence come through pretty well on the phone.  All the candidates were personable, prepared, and would probably be successful in the position.

Each had a distinct approach to their meeting with the department, in which we asked a series of questions that had been sent via email the week before. One had notes which he referred to, which was fine.  All three had obviously thought about the questions and prepared decent answers. The thing that impressed us most, however, was that two candidates brought example syllabi for the classes they were being (partially) hired to teach.  This showed a real commitment to the classes, and given that teaching them was in the job description it was very appropriate they had come prepared. This was particularly important for the candidate that had less teaching experience and a weaker foundation for one of the courses – he had obviously thought a lot about it, and convinced us he could put a great lecture or lecture/lab based course together on the topic.

The seminars were supposed to be research-focused and pitched to upper-level undergraduates, thereby combining teaching and research into one talk. All three were decent although one was less ‘put together’. That least successful seminar had a few fixable flaws. First, the candidate tried to interactively draw on Powerpoint, and it didn’t work – don’t try to use fancy technology in a job talk! Second, he had no overarching theme or big picture – the talk was set up as a 3 part presentation showcasing different aspects of his expertise. And third, he didn’t talk about any future plans or ideas that he wanted to work on here.  In contrast, the most successful seminar introduced past and future research projects, had an intriguing, theory-based big picture, and also made it clear how the research would work well at our institution and involve undergraduates.

My one-on-one meetings with the candidates were quite interesting, since they were all interested in my viewpoint as the new faculty member. I was excited to talk with the candidates that seemed enthusiastic about being part of a department that is about to go through a major flux (three of the six faculty are expected to retire within the next five years).  Questions that I didn’t ask as a candidate but provoked interesting discussion were “where do you see this department heading in the next five or ten years?” and “how does this program compare to other similar programs regionally and nationally, and what would you change if you could?” When I was interviewing I was focused more on asking about life in the area, or nuts and bolts about the college, because they seemed like safe topics. In retrospect I wish that I had asked “harder” questions.

The selection

The department was scheduled to meet to vote on the candidates two days after the third left.  In the interim there was once again a lot of maneuvering as people tried to figure out what everyone else was thinking.  There was also an aborted attempt to petition the Dean to hire two of the three candidates and forgo a future hire (ultimately not enough support in the department to even try). In our decision meeting we each took turns talking about the candidates – here is another moment where being an eloquent, well spoken, convincing speaker would have helped.  Unfortunately I’ve always been shy and quiet, and it’s a real challenge for me to speak my mind in a room of peers. This is something I need to work on for the coming searches and meetings about important topics. Luckily for my preferred candidate he was also preferred by everyone else and we had a unanimous vote – what a relief!  We then ranked our second and third choices and needed to decide how far down the list we were willing to go.  We agreed that all three would be adequate candidates. It’s not uncommon for first or even second choices to choose to go elsewhere – we’re not a top-tier RI or private liberal arts college, after all.

Until I went through it on the committee side I didn’t really understand how the recommendation process happens, at least here. In the last meeting everyone but the Chair casts the last round of votes (although the Chair voted in all previous rounds). The “committee” (i.e. department without Chair) writes their recommendation to the Dean. The Chair then writes his own, separate recommendation – which may or may not agree with the committee’s decision.   In this case, they did. Apparently that isn’t always the case. “Last time” (i.e., my hire) the committee recommended one candidate and the Chair another. In that case the Dean went with the Chair’s choice – so, not only do you not need a super-majority vote, you can even get a minority vote and still get the offer, depending on whose votes they are (and what the Dean wants).   Happily for me everyone has been very supportive and friendly since I’ve arrived, so it appears there aren’t any residual hard feelings.

So, what do I wish I’d known before I was a candidate, or back when I was still a graduate student? Here are a few:

  • As commentators noted on Part I, tailoring each application for the job is key. It wasn’t something I focused on for most of my dozens of applications last year, but the search committee really noticed when people seemed genuinely excited and a good fit for the position.
  • Applicants for teaching focused jobs are at a major disadvantage if they haven’t taught a class.  I went out of my way to get teaching certificates, and although that demonstrated that I cared about teaching (which is very important) I had no proof that I could do it.  If you think you might ever want to be at a primarily undergraduate institution, teach a class!  You don’t even have to get the best evaluations on the planet – just be able to show that you’ve done a decent job and have a letter writer who can speak to that.
  • At regional or small schools where you are expected to bring in some funding (but not at the level of an R1) having prior connections or experience with local or regional funding sources is a major bonus on your application.  Most PIs at smaller institutions are never going to get that huge NIH or NSF grant, and showing that you know how to get at smaller pots of money, or at least that you have productive collaborators, is important.
  • In general, faculty and students are really excited to meet you and want you to do well in the on campus interviews. They want you to be the obvious best choice for the department, and they are excited about bringing in a new colleague. It’s easy to get lost in the negatives and stress of it when you are the candidate. Stay positive and keep your enthusiasm, and don’t let a few missteps get you down.

A last note – one thing that I didn’t anticipate is how tiring the process is for the hiring committee.  Not just during the phone interviews but throughout. It takes a lot of time to give the applications and the applicants the attention they deserve, and it’s worth investing the time in order to get the right candidate.  In this case the hiring process was accelerated throughout, as we found out that we got the line in September with a targeted offer date of before Christmas.  These accelerated hires are becoming more common as smaller schools try to get the ‘cream of the crop’ (and we did get a great pool of candidates applying for our position).  But it also meant that the entire process was incredibly exhausting for all of us, and my classes definitely suffered.  One lab and two lecture periods were booked with interview slots, and spending evenings and weekends working on the search took away prep and grading time.  Although being part of the search was a great experience, I would recommend new faculty members wait until at least their second or third year to serve on a search committee if they are in a position (i.e. large enough department) to do so.

15 thoughts on “The hiring process from the perspective of a new hire: Part II

  1. Pingback: The hiring process from the perspective of a new hire: Part I | Tenure, She Wrote

  2. Having recently experienced something similar (though from a top-ranked R1 department), I would just add one thing: If the search committee did its job, it has found more good candidates than it can hire. This is the hard part for both the committee and the candidates. But the good news is that it means regardless of whether or not a person gets hired, they’ve made some valuable colleagues going forward. I know that’s really hard to remember once you’ve interviewed and imagined yourself in a particular place, but it’s true and it makes the near misses valuable too.

  3. Great post.

    The good news for search committees is that, if you get the right pool, it’s quite possible for regional/small institutions to be able to land candidates who are experienced/interested/dedicated to teaching *and* are positioned to land the big federal grant.

  4. “As commentators noted on Part I, tailoring each application for the job is key.”

    — I wholeheartedly agree with this. Tailored applications stand out, and at this stage in the game standing out (for positive reasons) should be your goal.

    And though it may seem obvious to some, I add that if you get a phone interview, make sure you have researched the school before taking the phone call. You *might* get through the initial stage with a shotgun application, but eventually you need to do your homework. I just went through a round of phone interviews for a search in my home department and we were immediately able to rule out more than half of the candidates who had made it to that stage because was clear they had not so much as googled our institution and were glaringly unaware of my school’s mission/identity, student body, or even size.

  5. Thanks for the post! I just want to stress two things:

    1) The talk is super important. Different institutions may expect different things from the talk, specially regarding the intended audience (some places want a specialized seminar, others a colloquium, others required the talk to be understood by undergraduate students, others that you give two talks, etc). Candidates should inquire about the expectations before the interview and follow them! Some candidates who are called for several interviews make the mistake of preparing just one non-tailored talk.

    2) The second most important thing in my opinion is to be prepared to both answer and ask questions. I think it’s useful to have questions prepared to all people you meet in the interview: dean, chair, faculty, grad students, staff members…. you name it. You may have to spend time with random people as they walk you from one meeting to another, so don’t assume that you will only be meeting committee members. Asking questions is good for two reasons: on one hand, it gives you valuable information, and on the other hand, it shows that you’re interested in the place. I’ve seen many people fail this, in the sense that they only prepare a few questions to the committee, chair, and dean, and then they don’t have anything to say to other faculty, or students, for instance. The problem is that other faculty or students may be asked to give an (informal) opinion on the candidate. So, don’t underestimate anybody.

    • Great point. Candidates who are serious and realistic about the job should be chock-full of questions, about all kinds of things related to the job, the area, the people, the students, the institution, and so on.

  6. Very few people have the acting skills required to present a consistent and likable portrait of something that they want to portray. Many people are likable and consistent as themselves. Candidates focusing on selling themselves, rather than being themselves, are putting up barriers and are less likely to make the sale.

  7. But don’t ask so many questions that the committee think you’re avoiding answering questions. We experienced that with one candidate. Every time we talked to him/her, s/he barraged us with questions, even at dinner. At the end, we felt we didn’t really know the candidate at all.

  8. Pingback: The other side of the market | Memoirs of a SLACer

  9. Pingback: Advocating for women in hiring decisions | Tenure, She Wrote

  10. Pingback: How to fail better (and even succeed!) in the academic job market | Tenure, She Wrote

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