Sunday, March 10, 2013

Job Search: The Watch and Wait

Flavia, of Ferule and Fescue, reports that her department has successfully concluded its search.  Congrats to her and her department.

It's this time of the year when the search process turns, when search committees have interviewed, brought candidates to campus, and had yet more meetings.  On my campus, everyone in the department community is welcome to give feedback, and then the search committee makes a recommendation to the chair, who makes a recommendation on up the line.  (I think it's theoretically possible for a chair to recommend a different candidate than the committee recommended, but I don't think that's happened while I've been here.)   Then, if all's well, the nod comes back down to the chair, and the chair makes a phone call and starts negotiations.

At this point, the search committee pretty much waits.  We don't get to hear much about the communications or negotiations, and that makes sense, but it's also anxiety producing.  Will our chosen candidate accept our offer?   Sometimes candidates ask for a week or two to decide because they've got other campus visits lined up.  So we wait.  Once the chair knows, then we know.

And if not, what do we do?  Is there another candidate who has visited that we'd like to make an offer to?  Or do we need to go further into our pool?

We may have had an easy time deciding which candidates to invite to campus, but if we have to choose one more candidate, we may have less agreement.

Flavia mentioned that in past searches her department has had candidates turn them down and has hired a second candidate, but that once the new candidate is hired, the department members are pretty happy and think about the person they have, rather than worrying about the person who didn't accept the offer.  That's also been my experience.  I know we've hired candidates after some offers were turned down, and the people are excellent colleagues.

One time, we had someone sign the contract and then back out, so we had several weeks before we had to go back to the candidate pool and try again, by which time some other folks already had jobs.  (No one here had a bad word to say about the person who backed out; we totally understood that we're not the most desireable job.)  We ended up hiring a superb colleague.

If we need to go back into the pool, we're still bringing in excellent candidates, but we and our colleagues are feeling search fatigue.  In an average hiring year (we aren't allowed to hire every year, but when we are, we often have 2-3 searches), for example, I'm likely to have gone to 5 or 6 job talks, meals with candidates, maybe additional receptions.  If I'm on a search committee, I've probably done more.  So when I see the call go out weeks later for another job talk and meals, I know we'll have trouble with attendance.  I'm not trying to excuse faculty members for not wanting to attend more candidate events, but to acknowledge how tired we are.  Not so long ago, I was at one of these events, tired and grumpy (and very much wishing I had never gone to grad school), and trying not to show it, and the candidate asked about living in the community, and one of my colleagues said, "Oh, Bardiac, you love living here.  Why don't you talk about it?"

Let's imagine a search for a brackish water basketweaving theorist.  There are, say, 150 candidates who are applying for, say, 10 searches in the field.  Of these, 25 stand out on paper as strong candidates.  Of this number, we select maybe 10 for initial interviews.    Maybe 6 or those really stand out as stellar.

The thing is, I have a feeling that if there are 10 job searches in the field, we're all looking at about 15 or so candidates in common, and maybe 8 who impress greatly in interviews and campus visits.  Those 8 will likely get several offers, with two others getting a secondary or tertiary offer.

From the candidates' points of view, there's massive competition for very few slots.

For the search committees, there are relatively few really qualified candidates who give stellar interviews, so we feel like we're also experiencing serious competition for those candidates.  (Yes, it's still way better to be on the search committee than in the candidate pool.)


  1. Regarding "relatively few really qualified candidates": I'm sure some job candidates out there will want to push back against this idea, so I wanted to add my $0.02. Based on the parameters that a search committee defines at the outset, you're totally right that there wind up being relatively few strong candidates.

    We encounter this problem not-infrequently, since we limit our pool by a) requiring degree-in-hand or a scheduled defense, b) requiring publications, at least one of them something substantive in a reputable, peer-reviewed, in-field journal (or an obviously high-quality edited collection), and c) requiring relevant teaching experience, ideally at least a couple of semesters of it in the exact area we need coverage in. Obviously, this leaves out a lot of excellent people! Some candidates haven't yet taught the bread-and-butter courses in their subjects (or have done so only as a TA). Some candidates have tons of teaching experience, an amazing dissertation, but no solid pubs.

    But while this is a perfectly defensible strategy in a buyer's market (and when a department needs to make a fast cut and has hundreds of applicants), when you're aiming high, you can expect to get turned down a fair amount of the time. In theory, if you found 6/10 of the MLA candidates acceptable, nos. 4-6 should still be strong contenders for the job if nos. 1-3 all turn you down. But sometimes there's a sharp drop-off in quality (or suitability for one's needs), and if you've limited the pool too much at the outset, you're hamstrung. There may be people who didn't even get MLA interviews with us who are better than what's left from MLA--but we don't know that, we lost the chance to preview them at MLA, we can't jettison the list without approval from HR, and time is running out.

    (FWIW, I didn't get an MLA interview at my current job, but was plucked out of the slush pile in mid-March for a hasty phone interview and then a fly-back. So I've seen both sides of this!)

  2. Absolutely, and thanks for making that point. If we're looking for someone who is a Miltonist, we'll limit by a thesis that focuses at least somewhat on Milton. There may be a fine Shakespearean out there, but zie won't get an interview for the Milton position.

    I was on the market for three years before I got my first job. So I have a pretty good sense of the worries and frustrations of being on the market without success. When I look back, I realize that I was a weak candidate the first two years, and considerably stronger the third year. By the time I went on the market again, I was quite a bit stronger for a teaching school (but weaker for an R1). (Yes, the market is worse now, but it wasn't a cheery thing in the 90s, either.)

  3. Anonymous9:29 PM

    This sounds straightforwardly like you're confident you've picked the most qualified from among the 150 and the person who got the job can feel sure that s/he was just flat better than the person who didn't get the conference interview. And maybe it's true but it's completely contrary to what people say to candidates who keep trying and failing to get a job.

  4. Actually, I was making a slightly different point, one that I think addresses Anastasia's concern. I meant that (in my department, anyway), in order to narrow the field to those who seem most likely to hit the ground running, we set parameters, like those I described, that are in addition to what's explicitly in the ad. We may say in the ad that we want a strong track record of teaching and research, but that sounds like boilerplate. So a candidate may imagine she's a very strong contender for our 3/3 job because of all her teaching experience--but the fact she's only published a couple of encyclopedia entries means she would not get an interview. A year later, with another, better line on the vita, she would.

    We can't judge by raw potential; no one can. We hire based on what a candidate has already done and what that past performance suggests about her future performance. Someone with a knock-your-socks-off writing sample who's never published anything may, in fact, never publish (or publish just one or two articles), and not be tenurable. Someone who's never taught Shakespeare may indeed be able to work it up. . . but why risk it when other candidates have?

    So I definitely would not say that we always get the "most qualified," in term of raw potential--since I think no one can accurately assess that. And I suspect that, as it is, we do miss out on at least a few candidates every year who are every bit as good as our MLA interviewees, but whom we rule out preemptively because we don't have the time (or sometimes the expertise) to finely sift the qualifications of those who fall short of one of our cut-off requirements.

  5. Thanks, Flavia, I see your distinction now. We do that, too, though I think less strictly than you do.

    Anastasia, I guess I'd say that within the searches I've been on, I feel confident that at every decision point we made good decisions based on our criteria and the evidence we had. I'd say that the person who got the interview (in my experience) can say that the committee felt that zie demonstrated a better fit for the criteria than someone who didn't get an interview. That's not necessarily better as a scholar, a teacher, or colleague, but a better fit for the criteria.

    As someone who's been consoled and done some consoling, I sometimes wonder why person X didn't get an interview, when from my point of view, they're incredible. But then, I'm not seeing all the evidence from person X, nor am I seeing the criteria, sitting in on the committee decision, and so on.

    I think the point Flavia makes about the fine sifting of candidates for interviews is important.