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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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