Guest Post: How to improve the job search process, from the perspective of a candidate

Job openings are both a blessing and a curse. They can infuse both search committees and applicants with a sense of hope for the opportunities to come, but at the same time the search process is stressful for everyone involved.  Search committees and departments spend their time and energy reading through applications, selecting candidates, and making choices. Are they making the right decisions? Are they selecting the ideal candidate for the job?  But, no matter the stress the current faculty are under, the applicants are under more.  Each of us applicants are applying for dozens of jobs, possibly year after year.  What’s a minor annoyance in one application, such as a system that keeps crashing, or having to ask for yet another letter of recommendation that may never be read, can become a heavy burden when you multiply those annoyances by 10, 20, or 30. The same goes for interviews, both on the phone or in person.

I’ve submitted close to 40 applications over multiple years, and I have seen the worst the application and interview process has to offer.  I’ve also had some really great experiences that have helped me feel more comfortable, that I think would be great if other search committees adopted.  So what can search committees do at each stage of the process to make the search better for future searchers so the emotional toll can be reduced?

  1. Application deadlines – Lots of searches pick a deadline date according to a specific formula, either the first, 15th or last day of the month, without regard for weekends or holidays. As a result, deadlines often fall on a weekend when you know the committee is not going to look at the applications. This means I need to get my application materials in even earlier due to the required contact request going in before the end of the week (see #1 above). Even earlier for a holiday. And don’t get me started on holiday weekend deadlines! The other issue is that you often have 5+ applications due on the same day making it really difficult for your letter writers to keep them all straight and to spread out the work load. It also reminds me of college when all professors picked the same day for midterm exams and you ended up having so many on the same day it was exhausting. It would be nice if the deadlines matched when the committee actually planned to meet. I am able to put a lot more into my applications due on the 9th for example.
  2. Submitting the application – A lot of searches now have online systems for submitting your application, which is helpful, but also can add to the difficulty in several ways. First, letter writers don’t know where their letters need to go and may lose track of these invites from third party sites. Second, the letter deadline and the application deadline are often on the same day, but the invite for submitting letters doesn’t happen until after you submit you completed application. This means you actually need to get your materials in earlier. Third, glitches are more likely – I submitted an application and was never sent a confirmation. Later I realized it never went through and had to submit a late application as a result. Although, it is worth pointing out that inboxes often have limits and that can pose a glitch when a broad posting receives so many applications it fills the inbox. Fourth, it makes updates really hard. It often happens during a job search that you get a paper out or a new award or give a talk. This is easy to email when you have contact information, but quite difficult when you have no one to email or no way to even check your status. I’ve actually had to re-submit my application to do an update for several online applications, which makes me feel very uneasy that my application will then be considered late.
  3. Gathering your references – In a given year, applicants apply for 30-50 jobs depending on how many are advertised and how aggressive they are. This can weigh heavily on your letter writers, especially with emails coming in from all over with different sets of submitting instructions. Recently there has been a trend to ask for contact information only. This is fantastic in that it allows me to only ask for letters for jobs where I am actually a good candidate and I am free to apply for more jobs without weighing the inconvenience on my letter writers. I hope this trend continues and most search committees adopt this practice. This may lead to multiple rounds of cuts which allow the committee to give a fresh look to an applicant that may ultimately be a great fit and vice versa. It also gives you a better idea of how you are progressing through the search. I’ve had positions where my references were requested, but I was not selected for phone/campus interviews. Still, it made me feel better knowing I made at least one round of cuts.
  4. Waiting for the news – As Red said in the Shawshank Redemption, “Hope can be a very dangerous thing”. For this reason, I have been a strong supporter in the past for academic jobs wikis that allow you to check your status for applications since you may never hear from the search committee again, even after interviewing. It is helpful in this regard. But it can also be a huge time sink and the greatest source of emotional drain. You start out your day fresh, you check your email, you may check your website spyware to see if any of the universities you are looking at have paid it a visit, and then with excitement you check the wiki. That is when you find out one of your best chances at an interview have moved on. You start to wonder why you even thought you might get an interview there. What gave you that false confidence in the first place. And there it is – your day is shot dwelling on these negative emotions. Solution? Perhaps search committees could send out news as it comes. This trend has already started as I was contacted early (as compared to last year) by several places to inform me that I was no longer being considered. This definitely beats the email in late June telling you that you are no longer a candidate that you receive at a summer meeting after having drinks with the person who got the offer. This would save you from the ‘curse of the wiki’ since you would have the information you might otherwise seek there. I don’t know if the blow of not moving forward would be any better based on where it came from, but on the wiki, chances are the persons who got the interview are the ones updating the wiki. I’d rather hear from the committee than the person who just got a shot at my dream job over me. I know in several searches, the committee has no control over this for legal reasons, but for those who do, it would be great to know as soon as possible!
  5. The phone/skype interview – I personally like the idea of a phone interview so search committees can pre-screen applicants. I also think that like the reference letter request, it’s another step where you made a cut that others didn’t. For the committee, the phone interview may help search committees avoid all inviting the same group of top candidates in a given year and instead interview someone who otherwise might not have stood out who may be an excellent fit for your department. As for the interview itself, if it is on a regular phone, it is really difficult when there are more than 5 people on the call. It is really hard to get a sense of who your talking to, and in this modern age, there is no reason we can’t do skype interviews. It is also difficult not to be informed ahead of time who will be on the call or who is on the search committee at all. Finally, sometimes, you don’t know ahead of time how long the call will go or if you do, it may run over. If you scheduled it without knowing the end time or assuming it was only 30 minutes, you may not have prepared well enough to end up talking for over an hour.
  6. The on-campus interview – This is the most promising cut you can make, but also the most exhausting step in the process. I have had some terrible experiences during the on campus interview, including a skipped meal because the person picking me up for breakfast didn’t realize he was supposed to take me to breakfast! By the time I got to my seminar I was so faint, I was grateful to have packed my power bars. It is really helpful to have your schedule arranged in advance and make sure everyone is clear on the parts not on your schedule, like who is supposed to take you to-from appointments. On one interview, I had a designated faculty host, who was not on the search committee and there in case I needed anything – this was AWESOME! As for meals, my stomach is very sensitive and being anxious all day and in a strange place can add to this stress. I am really interested in some good comfort food, not something that is going to bring me out of my comfort zone. Finally, if you are going to ask a candidate to make their own travel arrangements, tell them up front any issues with airports and reimburse them in a timely fashion. I’ve had friends out several thousand dollars during job season from travel that was not reimbursed yet.
  7. The talk(s) – It is really good to tell a candidate beforehand who the audience will be. For a department seminar, this is usually pretty straightforward, but for the chalk talk, there is a huge range for the audience and the expectations, and in my experience neither have ever been completely laid out in advance. Perhaps this is part of the process – to see how well you do when not allowed to prepare. It is also really embarrassing and not fair to the candidate if you have a scheduling error that forces a candidate out of the room mid-way through a talk for another group who has the room. And, finally, I understand if you need to record talks or phone interviews, but give advance notice. Showing up or getting on the call only to be told you will be recorded (and honestly, even if they ask our permission, we are not in the position to say no!). If this is standard practice, then you should given standard notice.

This may sound like a lot of complaining about the process, but a really good interview can make the candidate want to come to your department just as bad as you want them in your department, and make them feel better about negotiating a fair startup versus playing major hardball after a tough interview process. I know it is important to interview candidates, but it is equally important to for us to be treated well during the process.

Today’s post is by Dr. Belle, a fourth-year postdoc


24 thoughts on “Guest Post: How to improve the job search process, from the perspective of a candidate

  1. I wish employers would also communicate after the interviews. A simple email would be nice – ‘We’ve been unavoidably delayed but we will be in touch’ or ‘we’ve hired someone so don’t wait up’ etc.

  2. I heard through the grapevine that a certain U of C invited all 5 candidates for ONE day. That is almost certainly a new low.

      • Yes, same as is common in Europe, and same as many institutions do for incoming graduate students. Among the many negatives is that it is impossible for the candidate to meet with each of the present faculty. It shifts the balance of power to a much more one-sided interview.

    • Yeah, it’s very common in Europe to invite all the candidates on the same day. The candidates have dinner together on the night before, watch one another’s seminar, then all go out for drinks and celebrate/commiserate.

      • Well, the candidates don’t always go out to dinner together and watch each other’s seminars, but it is common. I have a couple of good stories about the resulting awkwardness from my British interviews, but they’re the sort of stories best shared over a beer rather than on a blog…

        So yeah, if a U of C campus is moving to that system, that’s not a new low, it’s just a different way of doing things. Not one I’d personally choose, as either a candidate or a search committee member. I always prefer more time to get to know the people I am potentially joining, or the candidate we are potentially hiring. But my preference probably just shows that I’m used to the N. American way of doing things.

    • I do not believe this is UC-wide, but I know of another UC department that did this with 8 candidates (for two positions). As a candidate, I might not be happy with it – and think it shows a department that values its time over a candidate’s – but it is not as terrible as I first thought. I think it may even lead to better decisions to some extent by minimizing the amount of weird social rituals that are viewed as important.

  3. Great post! I’ve been on both sides of this process now, and I agree with everything said here. A lot of your suggestions are easy, and help search committees out, too! I think asking for reference contacts, rather than letters up front, is just plain smart.

    More communication in general hurts nobody, and makes everyone look better. Even if you don’t get the job, we may be colleagues, mutual reviewers of papers and grants, and even collaborators.

  4. Recently I misread an ad and wrote to a search chair inquiring about a position. Now, she could have just said, “Would you just go back and READ the ad?” Instead, she wrote me an incredibly warm, appreciative, and gracious email, showing she had looked carefully at my credentials, but also kindly pointing out that there were some seniority-related gaps in my profile vis-a-vis the position. I’ve been brushed off *without a word* by hiring committees where I would, without being presumptuous, have been extremely competitive. In these days of easy internet communication, surely common decency and humanity (let alone our awareness of the higher ed economy) require some courtesy toward those of us who – for no fault of their own – happen to be down and out.

  5. We’re not allowed to tell people they’re out of the running until the job search is filled or cancelled. They say it’s for lawsuit reasons, but I think it’s because at any point we could go back into the pool and get a new shortlist.

    • I hear this a lot and I understand that even if the probability of that happening is quite low, there’s still a chance so committees like to play it safe. However, how many times has this actually happened? Any anecdotal experiences out there?

      • I actually think it’s fairly common need to go to a second set of candidates. Nobody wants a search to fail, and there’re lots of reasons why the first round might not work out, especially if you consider the strongest people are probably the strongest in other searches as well. Sometimes the process can go very long — for example, if there is a negotiation for a spousal hire — and so months can go by before an offers accepted. I have seen many instances of a second round of candidates being brought out, and one case where this happened after three months of failed negotiations, so the second tier was brought in for campus interviews for months after applications closed.

        So, I would not consider this a low probability outcome! Is happened many of the searches I’ve observed.

        • It is interesting that this has happened in *many* searches in your experience. Are you able to say whether these are R1, R2, SLAC and whether these are recent experiences? I didn’t think it would be common, especially considering how institutions nowadays invite at least 4-5 excellent candidates to campus to get their pick. Despite protracted negotiations potentially derailing the process, I have a hard time imagining that in today’s brutal TT job market all these other second/third choice candidates have alternatives that they can fall back on and take themselves out of the running for said position. But then I’m talking about R1 and have no experience with SLACs so maybe it is different for different types of institutions?

          • These are competitive R1 institutions in the last 6 years. Offers aren’t always made to everyone brought out– people aren’t just self-selecting out. Bombing a job talk or interview happens surprisingly often, considering how tight the market is. Examples from the last year:

            1) Two sets of candidates brought out, drawn out spousal negotiations failed, candidate from second set offered a position four months after applications closed.

            2. Two sets of three brought out because offers either broke down (twice) or candidates went elsewhere (once) or were not offered (three deemed poor fit). Search failed. Hire made the next year.

            3. Offers made to two out of three in first round, declined after negotiations, second set of three brought out, offer made and accepted.

            4. Offer made to one of three, turned down, other two not offered, fourth brought to campus, ultimately offer made to earlier candidate (accepted).

            These are just ones I know about personally, and which are recent. It’s just anecdata, but it seems common enough to me that it makes sense not to shut anything down until an offer is signed.

          • Oh, if you’re talking about going back into the pool– we do that a lot. We’re at an R1. We don’t have protracted negotiations for junior positions because we’re in a fast moving field, so we only give people 2 weeks after they get the formal offer. I’m a second round hire. Some searches we get our #1 candidate, some searches we go back into the pool. We also keep the pool open and are clear in our language that the deadline date is the date we start looking at applications, so if we go back to the pool, it will often be different than when we started.

            Still, depending on the search, there are people who don’t make the cut at all (including people who we wouldn’t be able to hire if we wanted to because they don’t fill the job description because, for example, we’ve specified associate and they’re still in grad school– if we’re open to associate we give leeway in the ad), but they don’t get rejected until everybody gets rejected.

        • Thanks, Jacquelyn. Those are indeed quite a few examples and these are all just from one person’s experiences! I need to revisit my thoughts on this.

        • Yes nicoleandmaggie, I was talking about going back into the pool. Sorry I wasn’t clear in my earlier comment. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  6. I’ve just finished chairing my 2nd tenure-track search in as many years, and I think a lot of this is spot-on. (I’m also appalled that there are schools that don’t do the things you mention here, a lot of which just seem like common courtesy!) In our searches, we *do* actually read the reference letters on the first pass, and frankly sometimes these do make a difference in whether someone makes the first cut or not. I’ve seen letters boost someone’s app and letters confirm a niggling suspicion that we couldn’t quite figure out, so it works both ways I guess. I’d hate to not have that information on hand early on. That said, that might just be an artifact of how we conduct searches (I’m at a small liberal arts school), and might not be universally true for all searches.

  7. Pingback: CAA News | College Art Association » Blog Archive » News from the Art and Academic Worlds | CAA

  8. Reblogged this on The Academic Happy Hour and commented:
    As the job season slowly comes to an end (except for a few places that will tell you on July 27th that you can move across the country and start August 15th), a thorough evaluation of the process from Dr. Belle, previously posted on “Tenure She Wrote”.

  9. Great post. I will add two pleas to search committees:

    1) Please read and re-read your own advertisement, especially if it is to be posted on a third-party website. If your application deadline and required materials are mismatched within the ad or when the ad is posted in multiple places, it makes you and your department look disorganized and unprofessional.

    2) Please update your department’s website! A candidate’s job is to spend days prepping for questions such as “What courses can you teach that will expand our current offerings?” and “How does your research complement current departmental research strengths?” If your website lists courses that aren’t actually taught anymore or contains outdated information about faculty’s active research interests (not just pubs, we can find those elsewhere if needed), it makes it very difficult to prepare for an interview, and gives an unfair advantage to candidates who already know the department.

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

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