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Hiring from the Institution’s Point of View

Tomorrow's Graduate Students and Postdocs

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Further complicating the situation is the tendency of departments to advertise positions simultaneously at the assistant and associate professor levels, leaving the area of specialization entirely open.  In that case, the department has clearly chosen to "see who's out there," planning to make an offer to whoever in its view is the best candidate.



The posting below gives some great advice on hiring from the institution's point of view.  It is from Chapter 2 - Hiring from the Institution's Point of View, in the book, The Academic Job Search Handbook, by Julia Miller Vick and Jennifer S. Furlong, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia. [ ]. Copyright © 2008 Julia Miller Vick and Jennifer S. Furlong. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Graduate Students and Postdocs

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Hiring from the Institution's Point of View


Just as your vita presents the public face of your qualifications in a simple, organized form, without revealing the full complexity of your individual life, an advertised position is the public presentation of an outcome of complex negotiations within a department and possibly within an institution.

It will generally be impossible for you, as a job candidate, to have a full understanding of what goes on behind the scenes.  Even if you are fortunate enough to have an inside contact who can give you additional perspective, it is still extremely unlikely that you will know everything about the hiring decision.  Thus, throughout the job search process, you will need to present yourself in the strongest fashion possible without tying yourself into knots trying to second guess the institution that has advertised the position.

However, here are some of the considerations that might be at work.

Defining and Advertising a Position

It may be fairly easy for a department to obtain approval and funding for a renewable lectureship or sabbatical replacement position.  When a tenure-track position is listed, however, it reflects efforts by a department to maintain or strengthen its hiring position vis-à-vis other departments in the school.  In today's financially stringent climate, approval to fill a position that has been vacated is not granted routinely.  The department that has lost a faculty member must defend to its dean the necessity of replacing the position.  Meanwhile, other departments are lobbying to expand their faculty.  If the hiring department has been given a new position, that very fact may reflect even more intense departmental lobbying.

The definition of the position more frequently reflects discussion internal to the department.  In some cases the definition is obvious: the department absolutely must replace a faculty member who has a particular expertise.  Perhaps, too, the department has a long-range plan that calls for increasing areas of strength or adding new areas of expertise.  At other times, there may be discussion within the department about how the new position should be defined.  Some want the department to move in one direction, some in another.  The debate is resolved to the point necessary to define and advertise a position, but it does not necessarily mean that everyone has been convinced.

Further complicating the situation is the tendency of departments to advertise positions simultaneously at the assistant and associate professor levels, leaving the area of specialization entirely open.  In that case, the department has clearly chosen to "see who's out there," planning to make an offer to whoever in its view is the best candidate.  New Ph.D.s are often unnecessarily frightened by an ad that mentions positions at both levels.  The hiring department will not compare a new Ph.D. to a senior faculty member.  The new Ph.D. will be compared to other new Ph.D.s, the more senior faculty member to other more senior faculty members, and an offer will be made to the individual who both is the best candidate relatively to his or her peer group and can best fit the needs of the department.

Implications for Candidates

A department that has gone to considerable trouble to get approval to hire for a position will not take kindly to applicants who seem to view it as a second-best alternative to be abandoned as soon as something better comes along.  Therefore, it is important that you as a candidate convey a serious interest in the position throughout the search process. Don't get bogged down in self-comparisons to imagined other candidates.  Concentrate on communicating what you have to offer.  The position may be even more appropriate and desirable than you realize.

Screening Candidates

In a small department, all faculty members may be involved in hiring, whereas in a larger one the logistics of managing the search, and a good deal of decision making, may be delegated to a search committee. In some cases the committee may include a student representative who could be either a graduate student or an undergraduate, depending on the focus of the institution.  In most hiring bodies, there will be some members of the group who are intensely interested in who is ultimately hired and who take the process very seriously; others who take participation seriously, but view it as an obligation that interferes with things they would rather be doing; and, possibly, an individual who wishes he or she were elsewhere and who participates without giving the process full attention.

The hiring group will read through the materials submitted in response to the advertisement.  At this stage, candidates get the least careful screening because it simply is not possible to do an in-depth evaluation of what may be up to several hundred sets of materials sent in response to an advertisement.  Individuals in the hiring group are probably not yet wedded to the candidates they prefer, because most of these are still abstractions, presented on paper.

Therefore, if someone asks the group to pay special attention to a candidate at this stage, the request is likely to be honored.  The request may take the form of a phone call from a dean who says, "X is the spouse of Y, who is department Z's top choice.  We'll lose her unless we can make an offer to him.  See what you think." It may take the form of a phone call from a department member's former dissertation adviser who says, "Dr. L. is the best student the department has had in the last five years and she is seriously interested in this job.  Can you be sure to look at her application carefully?"

In some cases, those who are to be interviewed at a convention or who are to be directly invited to campus for an interview will be chosen from the materials sent initially.  However, as the money available to bring candidates to campus interviews tightens, departments are often trying to narrow the pool of candidates to a smaller group, who will be asked to provide additional materials such as dissertation chapters or articles and/or to have initial screening interviews by phone.

Implications for Candidates

As will be discussed in detail in later chapters, make all the materials used in your application clear and accessible, even to someone who is not a specialist in your area.  Don't be afraid to be slightly redundant. For example, if your cover letter repeats some of the material in your vita, someone who does not pay full attention to one may pick up key points from the other.

Consider asking a senior faculty member from your Ph.D.-granting institution whether he or she knows anyone at the school to which you are applying, and then ask for a phone call on your behalf.  This call can draw attention to your candidacy and help keep your application in the group of those chosen for further examination.

Once you apply for a position, be prepared to submit additional supporting materials promptly and/or to be interviewed by phone on very short notice.


In some fields, departments interview many candidates at a national convention and then invite a smaller group for second interviews on campus.  In other fields, the campus interview is the first and only one.  Once the interviewing process begins, issues of personality, style, and the department's own history begin to come into play, in unpredictable fashion.  Most departments have their own histories of hiring "successes" and "mistakes."  Naturally they will attempt to repeat one and avoid the other.  Therefore, statements made by a candidate during an interview may have resonances unknown to the candidate.  For example, if your remarks closely parallel those of a candidate hired two years ago, they will probably be heard differently depending on the current consensus as to whether hiring that candidate was a coup or a mistake.

As a candidate, you are unlikely to have a full understanding of power and influence within the department.  Obviously, you must be chosen by the hiring committee and approved by the chairperson.  In addition, however, there may exist individuals of sufficient influence that the department may be reluctant to hire anyone to whom they strongly object.  In some institutions, particularly community colleges, non-departmental faculty members and administrators are significantly involved in hiring.

Implications for Candidates

When your interview is scheduled, find out with whom you'll meet during the course of your visit.  Get all the firsthand information about the department and institution that you can possibly gather.  However, you should recognize that you are likely to gain, at best, only a partial understanding of the departmental dynamics.  Therefore, don't try to second guess your interviewers. Again, concentrate on the clear communication of what you have to say.

Decision Making

After a small number of candidates have been invited to campus for an interview, the department must decide to whom to offer the position. Sometimes the choice is simple; sometimes it is agonizing.  Faced with the real people who have interviewed for the position, rather than the "ideal" represented in the ad, the department may need to make very concrete trade-offs.  What if the candidate who is ideal in terms of the qualities described in the ad has charmed half of the department and totally alienated the other?  What if no one really fits the job that was envisioned, but one candidate seems outstanding in every other respect?

The department must make its decisions, knowing that job offers and acceptances will occur over the space of a few months.  It knows the highest salary that it can pay, and it knows that it must give its first-choice candidate at least a week or two to decide whether to accept the offer.  It may believe that the first-choice candidate is highly unlikely to accept the position, and that the second-choice candidate, also very good, is likely to accept, but only if the position is offered within the next few weeks.  Finally, if none of the candidates seem entirely satisfactory, the department must decide whether to leave the position vacant for a year and risk losing it to some kind of budgetary constraint, in the hope of reopening the search the following year.

Usually the department comes to a decision that balances competing priorities.  Depending upon the department's style, a job may be offered to the candidate who has not alienated anyone, to the candidate who is most strongly backed by a few influential department members, to the candidate who appears most neutral in terms of some controversy that has split the department, or to a candidate chosen in a close vote.  Depending on the institution, the department's decision will be endorsed by the administration or must be vigorously defended to it.

Implications for Candidates

Do your best to accept the fact that hiring is usually a matter not of choosing the "best" candidate by some set of abstract criteria, but of making a reasonable choice among valid, if competing, priorities, an inherently political process.  Do your best, therefore, not to dismiss the process as somehow unethical.  If each member of a hiring committee honestly thinks a different candidate is the best choice for the department, a decision must be made somehow.  Unless it is to be settled by a duel or a flip of a coin, it must be decided through a negotiated process that acknowledges several factors not necessarily known to the candidates.

If you insist on thinking either that there is an obviously "best" candidate for every job and that every time that person has not been chosen an immoral decision has been made, or that hiring is a random process amounting to no more than the luck of the draw, you will diminish your own ability to understand the difference between what is and is not in your control.  Worse, you risk becoming angry, bitter, or cynical and therefore approaching potential employers with a visible presumption that they will be unfair.

Approach a department as if you expect it to behave in a fair and reasonable fashion.  Make it easy for those who would like to hire you to lobby for you, by being well prepared, by communicating an attitude of respect for everyone you meet during the course of a day, and by making all your written application materials as clear and strong as you can.  Let your enthusiasm for the position be obvious.

Keep a record of the people with whom you speak during each application.  Even if you do go elsewhere, you can keep in touch with them, send papers to them, and cultivate a relationship with them over the years.  They may invite you back after you establish a reputation elsewhere.

Negotiations and Acceptance

Once a position is offered, there will likely be a period of negotiation about salary, terms of employment (for example, research facilities, or how many classes are to be taught in the first year), and time given the candidate to make a decision.  Sometimes there will be delays, as the department must receive approval from a higher level before making a specific offer.  Usually other finalists will be notified of a decision only after a candidate has definitely accepted a position.

Implications for Candidates

Understand that delays may be inevitable.  However, if your own situation changes (for example, if you get another offer), do not hesitate to let the department know immediately.  If you are turned down, it's natural to wonder why.  Except in the event that you have a friend in the department, you're unlikely to find out.  However, you may wish to ask for constructive feedback.  If you do ask, concentrate your questions on what you might have done to strengthen your presentation, rather than on how the decision was made.

Hiring and "Inside Candidates"

Sometimes, at the conclusion of a search, it is widely perceived that the advertised position was not truly open.  There was a high probability at the outset that an offer would be made to someone who was already within the department; to someone whom the department had been wooing for the last few years; to a member of a group whose underrepresentation among faculty members was viewed as an intolerable situation; to a clone of those already in the department; and so on.

Implications for Candidates

Compete for every job you want as if you have a genuine chance of being offered it, whatever you guess or have been told.  That way you best position yourself to take advantage of the uncertainty inherent in every hiring situation.  Maybe the department does have a strong front-runner, but he or she will not accept the position in the end.  Maybe you are very unlikely to get this job, but the campus interview you are offered will help you polish your interviewing skills so that you will do better at the next interview.

Remember that, even if you are not successful in getting a particular job, you have left behind an impression of abilities, talents, and personality.  Frequently, faculty members will talk with colleagues at other schools about good candidates whom they interviewed but were not able to hire.  Even if your interview at a particular school is unsuccessful, it can serve as good advertising, depending upon how you deal with the interview situation and, particularly, with any rejection.

When you are hired, there may well be disappointed candidates who think that you had some kind of unfair advantage, so try to be generous in your assessment of the decisions made by what are, by and large, well-intentioned people.