In my last blog post, I talked about my experience searching for my first assistant professor job, and talked about being on a search committee. I left off describing how the process was like a game, except that as a candidate, you don’t get to play the whole game. All of that changes as Department Chair.
As Department Chair, I now get to play the game from start to finish, and the game looks REALLY different. The game has seemingly different instructions and is far more stressful than it ever was before. So here’s what the whole game looks like, from the seat I now sit in.
The game starts when you have to write the job posting. Well, that is, after you’ve received approval from the Dean to have the search, who in turn received approval from the Provost. Who probably asked God’s permission… The job posting has to sound appealing to applicants and must differentiate your position from the possibly hundreds of others out there. I’ve always felt fortunate when interviewing to be in a field in which there are still so many job opportunities, but now I just see it as more competition for good candidates! If we’re interviewing good people, the competition is also interviewing these folks… and what if other institutions started earlier? What if they have more money available to attract top candidates? Might they snatch up our candidate before we even get a chance to interview him/her? What if they take our “perfect fit”?
Next, you have to choose a search committee. This is the group of faculty (and sometimes staff and students) who you are entrusting to make important decisions on behalf of the Department in a timely fashion. They put in a lot of time reviewing CVs, publications, letters of reference, and personal statements, and from a lot of candidates. They are the first line of defense, often having the first contact with the candidates. It is not a trivial commitment of time or effort. The search committee must represent the diversity of the department in every sense of the word. I am currently in a department that comprises two disciplines, so the difficulty in finding the right balance of faculty is compounded.
After the search committee reviews all of the applications, the committee then typically does 30 minute Skype/phone pre-interviews with a subset of the applicants – sometimes as many as 20, which can help narrow down the pool to those that have real interest in our Department, who have good communication skills, and who ask well thought out questions. Based on these initial contacts, the committee then determines who will be invited for an on-campus interview.
On-campus interviews are a time-intensive endeavor for the departmental faculty: there are meals to be had, individual meetings to be had, seminars to attend. Also, someone has to organize the troops and make sure all travel, scheduling and room arrangements are made (shout out to the BEST STAFF EVER). As the Department Chair, I spend a lot of time with each candidate. I try to see the candidate at the beginning of their visit, so that I can provide them with the context they need to appropriately evaluate us. I give them a guided tour of their itinerary, so that they have a good knowledge of who everyone is and how they fit into the Department. I go to their seminar, and I have to pay better attention than I’ve ever had to pay during a talk before. I want to be able to really evaluate their ability to explain their research, but even more, I want to be able to evaluate their ability to answer questions (which means I have to be able to formulate an intelligent question). The seminar is extremely important – not only does it give us some indication of the candidate’s research abilities, it also give us some idea of how they would be in the classroom. I also like to meet with the candidates at the end of the day to recap their visit, answer any lingering questions they may have, and let them know our timeline and next steps as best I can. Because I spend so much time with them, I get to know them quite well.
And then it gets even more difficult. We have to make a decision. If we’re lucky, we’ve had several outstanding candidates visit, and now we have to try to figure out who has the highest chance of being successful in our Department. The search committee collects feedback, makes a recommendation to me, and it is my responsibility to decide who receives our first offer. This is tricky – we may be competing with other department for the same candidates. Some already have offers pending by the time they receive our offer. Also, I have to reconcile the recommendations of the search committee with my opinions, which may or may not coincide. We have a shared goal of moving the Department forward and bringing in faculty who we think will be successful, but we may have different views on who could best contribute to our mission. I don’t want to do wrong by Department, and I feel like a have a great responsibility to them, but I also don’t want to do wrong by the candidates. I want to ensure we’re hiring a candidate who has a high probability of being successful in our Department.
The hardest part of this process for me is telling candidates that we are NOT going to offer them a job. I know, and I hope the candidates know, that just because we’re not offering them a job doesn’t mean that they weren’t outstanding. Because I spend a lot of time with the candidates, I get to know them and often become quite fond of them, and so I want to see them all be successful. And while I recognize that it is strictly a business transaction, the lines between business and friendship can be blurred. This is especially true in my field, which is a very small world, and often friends are applying to positions in my Department. I know I will see the candidates again at conferences and will encounter them in other venues, so I want to be sure that I build bridges regardless of whether I hire them.
All of that being said, it is definitely exciting to be able to make a job offer to someone At the same time, it is scary! What if they don’t like us enough, what if we don’t offer enough money, what if they “swipe left”? There are so many different emotions at play. When I get on the phone with a candidate I’ve just made an offer to, I’m guessing that I’m just as nervous as they are! Is the candidate going to tell me that they have another offer – a better offer? Are there unknowns that I hadn’t thought of? Maybe there are collaborators I should have introduced them to around the University that would have made our Department more attractive? If they’re a senior recruit, we need to determine whether they are eligible for tenure at our institution, a whole process in and of itself. Maybe they also have a two-body problem? Perhaps they’re worried about finding good schools for their children? What if the Provost doesn’t approve the offer we want to make? While I’m hoping that we find a new faculty member that we can help grow and succeed, I have to remember that each faculty candidate has their own definition of fit, and we may not be it.
And then… game over, because our candidate has accepted our offer. Or is it? If the first offer doesn’t work out, it’s back to the drawing board. Again, hopefully we’ve interviewed several outstanding candidates. If we’re fortunate, the next outstanding candidate on our list has not yet accepted another position. So the game starts again. What will this candidate need to be successful? Will we be able to attract him or her? Will the Provost approve this letter? So many things to think about, so many rules to the game, and they are always changing.
Ultimately, we all hope to win the game. To me, a win means that not only did we hire someone, we hired someone who will be an asset to the Department, and to whom the Department will be an asset. The process is long, expensive, and exhausting. It is a lot of fun, but also fraught with emotion. But like with any game, you can’t win if you don’t play!