Patrick Bigsby is an alumnus, former employee, and lifelong wrestling fan of the University of Iowa. Sometimes, he tweets.
At GradHacker, we get it: the academic job market can be a little intimidating, to say the least. For that reason, we’ve shared job-seeking strategies, professional development ideas, and ways to expand your search. We’ve even debriefed our successes. Building on my colleagues’ body of job search work, I wanted to share the perspective I gained on job searches from a seat on the other side of the table—that of the faculty search committee. My intent in sharing this anecdotal peek behind the curtain is that I might help demystify exactly what goes on in the various rounds of résumés, interviews, and campus visits.
To be clear, my advice isn’t expert advice. I don’t deign to think my experience covers every possible search scenario. For that reason, I would recommend that current grad students seek out opportunities to sit on faculty search committees. In my case, it was as easy as asking to be included. I didn’t get to participate in the search I was hoping for, but the department director remembered my interest and invited me to be the fourth member of a faculty search committee later that year. This was eye-opening (and forced the university to buy me lunch multiple times during candidates’ campus visits). Here’s what I learned:
1. Complete all components of the application. This should go without saying, right? Unfortunately, job applicants in any field are only human and, by inadvertence, mistake, and the sheer fatigue inherent in submitting dozens (or even hundreds) of applications, some of the applications that turned up in our stack lacked a teaching statement or some other such addendum. These incomplete applications were easy for our committee to discard by default. This is a shame; I’m sure several interesting applicants were eliminated by an easily rectified, essentially harmless mistake. But, in the face of limited time and a big pile of cover letters to read, it was also necessary and practical.
2. Pick references who can speak to the characteristics sought in the job posting. If you have advanced to the stage where the committee is calling your references, congratulations! Calling references was one of the most pleasant elements of my search committee work; everyone was always thrilled to tell me how great their candidate was. However, these calls weren’t always terribly illuminating. Too often, the reference had never observed the candidate leading a classroom, giving feedback, or performing some other essential element of the job. While I have no doubt you are every bit as professional, collegial, and even-tempered as your references claim, that endorsement is shared by every candidate in the pool and thus of little help to the committee. Applicants typically don’t provide references who are going to pan them. For this reason, providing copies of the position description to your references might be helpful in marshalling their thoughts.
3. Have a contingency plan for your teaching demonstration. If you’ve been invited for a campus visit to perform a teaching demonstration, congratulations once again! These classroom drop-ins are a great chance to put your passions for teaching and the subject matter on display, and the committee is eager to see you shine. However, the students you’ll be dropping in on might not be prepared match your energy level, or even be aware of the premise of your visit. My committee invited two qualified finalists to campus and both had prepared excellent lesson plans only to be met with relative apathy from their undergrad human subjects. One finalist elected to change her approach on the fly; the other didn’t deviate from her plan. While neither likely achieved everything she was hoping to in the teaching demonstration, the different approaches meant the committee was only able to witness one candidate’s improvisational skills which, in my view, worked to her benefit. If you’re met with a little resistance in your own teaching demonstrations, make sure the committee still sees as many of your skills as possible.
4. Don’t despair if things don’t turn out the way you were hoping. In our case, the committee’s decision came down to two finalists, either of whom were capable of excelling in the position. The person we ended up choosing was something of a known quantity; she already served on our department’s professional advisory board and was familiar with the department’s undergraduate internship placement efforts. This existing relationship and whatever subconscious influence it may have had on the committee’s deliberations was something the runner-up couldn’t have addressed in her application. In other words, while the runner-up was obviously hoping for a different outcome, the committee’s decision wasn’t necessarily a reflection of her application and obvious ability. When you’re on the job hunt, recognize there will always be factors out of control and don’t beat yourself up trying to figure out what you should have done differently. Additionally, we were impressed with the runner-up and ultimately were able to offer her a spot in the department’s adjunct pool. Even if the university doesn’t give you the position you were applying for, it is still possible to come away with something to show for it, be it a tangible offer for another position or an intangible benefit, like professional connections with the committee.
5. Know your worth. This isn’t practical advice for job-seekers, so much as it is an observation on some of the peculiarities of faculty searches. Distilled into a nugget of wisdom, it might translate to: don’t try to pander. Both finalists sat down with the committee for a formulaic interview where all of the same questions were asked of each candidate and both gave thoughtful, detailed responses explaining what they thought each committee member wanted to hear about their respective visions for the particular undergrad program at issue. In this moment, I recall feeling bad for each candidate while they attempted to guess what I, a random grad student with no real stake in the outcome of the process, wanted to hear. All I wanted to hear was the candidates’ excitement for teaching the proposed courses; the idea that they were willing to alter or even subjugate their own judiciously reasoned approaches to the subject matter based on what I thought is silly and, even worse, a waste of their experience and expertise. When you’re the one sitting across the table from the search committee, don’t be afraid to be confident in your knowledge, training, and perspective. It was likely those characteristics that attracted the committee’s attention in the first place.
Have you ever served on a faculty search committee? Did you learn anything that influenced your own job hunt? What do you wish more search committees knew? Let us know in the comments!