Behind the Scenes with a Faculty Search Committee

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Behind the Scenes with a Faculty Search Committee

Photo by J. Raffin

For doctoral students who are going on the academic job market after years of being a student, uncertainty about how academic search committees operate can make a stressful process seem more unnerving. Even if you’ve put together your application package and tailored your job letter, CV, and teaching materials to a specific opportunity (perhaps with help from our office), it can pay to get a peek behind the curtain.

This blog post brings together advice from a recent event sponsored by the Office of Career Planning & Professional Development in which GC faculty and alumni gathered with current students to share their advice, wisdom, and perspectives from their collective years of experience on search committees.

What Tasks Must a Committee Complete During a Faculty Job Search?

Create an advertisement of the job opening

The first thing a search committee must do is advertise the job opening. Many people think the job ad reflects a specific candidate who fills all the desired specifications (a “unicorn”). What many people don’t know, though, is that the job description is the result of compromises among the committee members. So even if you’re missing one or two criteria, it may well be worth your time to apply if you’re a strong candidate in other respects!

Select candidates from whom to request more materials

From the pool of applications that is received, the committee winnows down the field of candidates and asks those applicants for written materials (or for further written materials, depending on what was originally requested).

Discuss applicants and select finalists

The committee then gathers to debate the applicants’ merits and select finalists. The number of finalists depends on the conventions of the discipline; the needs or best practices of the individual department; and the institutional policy of the home university.

Interview finalists and arrange campus visits

Many disciplines have preliminary interviews via phone and/or Skype. A small number of applicants, usually the finalists for a position, are invited to campus. Once they’ve arrived for a campus visit, the candidate meets the search committee as either a group or individually. The candidate gives a job talk, shares a meal, and generally meets with the students, the department chair and provost. They may also be asked to conduct a teaching demonstration.

Make a final selection

Finally, the committee makes its final selection. Most often, everyone in the department also gets a vote.

What Does the Search Committee Look for in a Candidate?

Fit

The number one thing search committees are looking for is to see whether or not you are a good fit for the position. They want to know that you’re competent and capable of doing the work and that you meet the specific needs of their department. This can include everything from curricular and teaching needs to student advising responsibilities and university service. Be forthcoming about all the ways you might be useful to the department.

Someone who will make a good colleague

Search committees will be interested in how good of a rapport you are able to form with the people you meet. The new hire will become a colleague who they will work with for many years to come; they want to make sure that this person can not only get the work done, but also be a good social fit within the department. Being involved in service activities is often a good way to demonstrate your willingness to take part in campus life and do your part in sharing the workload of your department.

Someone who is tenurable

If you’re applying to a full-time academic job, most committees are asking themselves “Are you tenurable?” How do they determine that? By asking questions like: Is your dissertation publishable? Do you have a clear post-dissertation project? (You must have one.) Will you be able, in 6-7 years, to go up for tenure successfully? Will you have a book by then? Do you already have articles published? What scholarly profile will you have by then; and what profile do you have now?

Is There an Advantage to Applying Earlier than the deadline?

No

There’s no advantage to applying earlier than the deadline, but make sure you don’t miss it! Committees wait to review all the applications after the deadline—in fact, sometimes committees may not even receive the applications until 7-15 days after the deadline. Nowadays, applications are almost always received and processed electronically. At some institutions materials go to HR first, who review them for compliance before passing them on to the committee.

On Interviews and Campus Visits, What Can You Do to Stand Out?

Have great job documents

Your cover letter, research statement, and teaching statement are important. These statements should be clear, direct, and unambiguous about your merits as a candidate. Use similar language to the department’s mission statement on their website, as well as the job advertisement. Unless otherwise specified, each of these items should be no longer than two pages.

Craft a pitch about yourself

During your job interview and various meetings on campus, have a pitch ready that points people back to your job materials. Craft a narrative, repeat it, and keep referring back to your materials so that they’ll be interested in examining your writing more closely. Be able to communicate why you are the best fit for the job. Why do you want to be at that institution? Remember, you’ll have to repeat your pitch constantly throughout your visit to everyone you meet. This may feel repetitive to you, but for your audience it will be their first time hearing your pitch. To that end, it may be helpful to practice your pitch out loud to yourself, with a friend, or by scheduling a mock interview with our office.

Demonstrate good pedagogy

When it comes to teaching, the committee is not necessarily looking for absolute mastery of the subject matter. Instead, what they’re generally looking for is your ability to build a rapport and communicate with students, as well as your ability to design and implement interactive activities and lesson plans.

Always be “on”

Remember that all social interactions, including those that happen over lunch or dinner with your hosts, are part of the job search. Always be professional, emphasize your strengths, and continue reminding the committee why you are the best fit for the position.

Any Advice for Letters of Recommendation?

Choose recommenders with whom you have good relationships

Be aware that recommenders can sometimes inadvertently harm your application. It’s important that your references know you and your work well. Someone who is lower-profile but knows you very well, and can speak about you in depth, is a better recommender than a higher-profile person who would only write a couple of lines about you.

Any Other General Advice?

Apply only to positions you actually want

Consider applying for all jobs at which you would be willing to stay. This is not to say you might not “trade up” universities, should your publishing or administrative careers allow. However, do not waste  time by applying to and accepting an offer from a school that you do not want at all. Be sure you understand the teaching load before you apply. The number of courses new faculty teach is often directly related to how much they publish in the early years, which can set a pattern in motion. If the emphasis is on teaching, make sure that appeals to you.

Tailor your applications

All your application materials should be tailored to the specific institution to which you are applying. Committees will immediately recognize a generic application and put it at the bottom of their list.

Apply to positions even if you don’t match all their criteria

More and more positions are hybrid appointments in interdisciplinary departments. Even if you’re applying to a very traditional department and the job announcement requests someone who can do many things, apply if you can do one or two of those things. These job announcements reflect the wish list of a committee and they don’t necessarily expect one candidate to have or be everything. It maybe be enough to express interest and explain that you certainly can do what they’re asking for.

Curate your social media

Know that the committee will likely look you up on social media. Make sure your online presence is clean and presentable. They also might want to hire someone who is good at social media and will tweet for the department. If you have digital and social media skills, emphasize them.

Finish your PhD

Almost always, your PhD must be completed the summer before the job starts in the fall.

Thanks to Drs. Patricia Cooper (Associate Professor, Department of Elementary and Early Childhood Education at Queens College), Gregory Donovan (Assistant Professor, Department of Communication and Media Studies as well as Co-Chair of the Digital Humanities Working Group at Fordham University), and Jane Sugarman (Professor, Department of Music at the GC) who shared these insights.