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From The Profession column of the October 2008 issue of Perspectives on History

Running a Job Search: Some Practical Suggestions

Jane Hathaway, October 2008

Editor’s Note: The following essay was commissioned by the Professional Division as part of its effort to offer, from time to time, advisory statements on best practices that would be of help to the profession. The division approved the text of the essay on April 14, 2008.

This article complements and, one hopes, supplements, articles that have appeared previously in Perspectives on the topics of conducting a job interview and hiring in non-Western fields.1 The strategies suggested below are conceived not as a checklist or a how-to manual, but rather as a series of considerations that may help to guide search committees, department chairs, and history faculty in general as they contemplate and pursue searches within the historical discipline. I address these issues in what amounts to chronological order; that is, in the order in which they are likely to arise as a search progresses. Nonetheless, they fall into two major categories: logistical and what we might call philosophical or ethical. The overriding concern is that the search be as straightforward and transparent as possible to all concerned: members of the search committee, other members of the hiring department, and, above all, job candidates.

Defining the Position

Once a search has been authorized—or even before, when the department decides on hiring priorities—the department chair should choose the search committee as soon as possible, or at least consult with departmental faculty who have expertise in the area of the search to determine how the position should be defined. Consulting with the entire department is likewise highly desirable since even faculty members outside the field of the search will have insights into how a new hire could play to certain thematic strengths within the department or reinforce course offerings in certain topical or thematic areas. If this is the first hire in a particular area, members of the search committee should unquestionably contact colleagues at other institutions with strength in that area to acquire a sense of the potential applicant pool. Wide-ranging consultation of this type is already common, if my own experience is at all representative. This past year, I received a particularly gratifying request from a colleague at another large state university, asking me to list considerations that his department should take into account when conducting a search in Middle Eastern history. This sort of thoughtful inquiry will, ideally, help to prevent uncertainties and ambivalences in evaluating applications later. Before the search begins, the department and/or the search committee should have resolved such questions as the rank of the position (if they have the luxury of deciding this themselves), as well as its chronological and geographical range. The more certain the committee and the department are of what they want, the more smoothly the search will probably go.

Assembling the Search Committee

Ideally, a search committee should include at least one expert in the field of the search, although in the case of a first-time hire in a particular field, this will not be possible. On the other hand, the search committee should probably not consist solely of specialists in the search field. Faculty members from other fields can offer fresh and sometimes unexpectedly valuable perspectives on a pool of candidates. They can also be extremely helpful in gauging a candidate’s ability to explain his or her research focus to non-specialists.

If a search is joint with another academic unit, university or college guidelines will probably determine how the history department and the partner unit apportion percentages of the faculty line, as well as how much influence the other unit will exercise in the search and in evaluating the new faculty member’s performance. These matters should be clarified before the search begins. In a joint search, the search committee will almost invariably include one or more faculty members from the other unit. The rights and responsibilities of these faculty members, such as voting in history department meetings and familiarizing themselves with departmental procedures, should be outlined at the outset of the search. Apart from the question of voting on personnel matters, outside faculty members should feel that they have complete freedom to participate fully and to speak openly in history department meetings at which the search is discussed. Naturally, the same courtesy should be extended by the other unit to search committee members from the history department.

Many search committees include a graduate student, whose special function is to assess the candidates’ ability to work with graduate students and to gauge graduate student opinion of the candidates. While it is desirable that the graduate student member of a committee have some background in the field of the search, she or he should probably not be the advisee of one of the search committee faculty members, lest undue pressure be brought to bear on the student to support a particular candidate.

It is likewise common practice for a department to designate a member of the search committee as the Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action member, whose task is to ensure that women and members of minority communities and other underrepresented social groups receive due consideration in the course of the search. This committee member should get to know the gender and demographic composition of the candidate pool and of the field at large. Beyond this, what the search committee does to fulfill Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action goals depends largely on the collective will of the department. Bringing a token female or minority candidate to campus does not constitute a proactive approach to equal opportunity. If it is clear that the candidate pool would allow for a hire from an underrepresented group and the department agrees that it wishes to pursue a proactive approach, then it should be possible for most or all of the short list to be drawn from these groups. Naturally, the quality of the applicants’ records and the compatibility of their skills with the department’s programs and goals should be the overriding concerns.

Composing and Placing the Ad

Ideally, the search committee should take shape early enough that its members can compose the job advertisement themselves. When a department chair composes the ad on behalf of a search committee to be named later, the ad can suffer from the chair’s lack of familiarity with the field of the search. The ad should be as specific as possible in depicting the position, including the well-defined chronological and geographical scope alluded to above. A search committee that runs an overly vague position announcement, opting to “see what we get,” will almost invariably end up with a cumbersome workload and disgruntled applicants. The advertisement should likewise be as specific as possible as to the successful candidate’s qualifications, the materials required with the application, and the application deadline. All these elements are fairly standard. But a watertight ad should also specify whether conference interviews will be conducted and, if so, whether at the American Historical Association meeting or at an alternative conference venue (such as the meeting of the Middle Eastern Studies Association, the Association for Jewish Studies, or the American Academy of Religion), depending on the particular field of the search. If the search concerns a subfield with its own major conference that routinely serves as an interview venue, then the deadline for applications should perhaps be geared to conducting interviews at that conference; in that case, the ad should point out whether interviews will be held at that conference rather than at the AHA meeting. Ideally, the ad should also note approximately when the department expects to make a hire, to the extent that the department controls this issue.

All history departments know that they should run their position announcements in Perspectives on History in order to ensure the widest possible exposure among historians. Most likewise know that they should run ads in the H-Net job guide and perhaps the Chronicle of Higher Education. However, a canny department that is seeking the widest range of applicants will also place ads in the publications of smaller professional organizations; this can be particularly important in the case of non-western and underrepresented fields. Thus, a department conducting a search in a non-Western field or in fields such as women’s history or disability history would do well to advertise in the newsletters of professional organizations associated with those fields; these are usually easily identified through a visit to the various organizations’ web sites. The search committee chair might also send announcement to specialized H-Net lists, such as H-Afro-Am, H-Asia, H-Judaic, H-Labor, H-Women, and so on (a complete list of lists is available at www.h-net.org/lists/). Many committee chairs, in addition, send e-mail messages or letters to prominent scholars in the field in which they hope to hire, asking them to suggest potential candidates who might be invited to apply.

Dealing with the Initial Onslaught

As applications for the position begin to flow in, the search committee should deal with them as efficiently and courteously as possible. Naturally, a letter, signed by the search committee chair, acknowledging receipt of an application should be sent as soon as possible; many committee chairs these days send an initial acknowledgment e-mail, followed by a hard-copy letter. The search committee should likewise notify applicants whose files are incomplete immediately after the deadline for applications has passed. Most often, incomplete files are missing letters of reference, the timely arrival of which is usually beyond the applicants’ control. However, applicants can at least pressure their referees to deliver the goods.

Making the First Cut

Once the deadline has passed and the applications are in, the truly labor-intensive work of the search can begin. In the case of an entry-level search in a large field with hundreds of applicants, search committee members will probably want to evaluate files at least cursorily as they arrive, rather than shouldering the entire burden of vetting applications after the deadline. Regardless of how they choose to apportion their labor, all search committee members would be well-advised to keep notes on all the files they review, both as an aide-mémoire and in order to have a record of evaluations should any question arise as to the handling of one or another application. The extent to which this advice can be followed may vary from one institution to another, since some university administrators instruct search committees to keep as few notes as possible so as to avoid litigation.

At this stage, particularly in the case of entry-level searches, the committee may choose to request additional materials from applicants whom they may interview at a conference or by telephone. Ordinarily, such materials include writing samples, teaching evaluations, sample syllabi, and the like. A request for such materials should be as specific as possible: for example, it might specify a length limit for writing samples, or exactly what indications of the quality of an applicant’s teaching the search committee is seeking: set-response evaluations, narrative evaluations, syllabi, and so on. Many, if not most, applicants will have prepared teaching dossiers that include all these materials in any case; for this reason, the wisest strategy may be for the search committee simply to request teaching dossiers if these are available, but to enumerate what they should contain.

Requests for conference interviews these days are made both by telephone and by e-mail. Some departments feel that it is more courteous to contact candidates in person; in the case of a large search, this duty can be divided among search committee members. The advantage to an e-mail, naturally, is that it removes the necessity of making repeated phone calls if a candidate is unavailable or unreachable; it also prevents the candidate’s being taken by surprise by an unexpected phone call. If search committee members are calling candidates without warning, they should be aware that they may be catching the candidates at moments of stress or distraction. While a candidate will inevitably make some sort of impression, positive or negative, during such a call—as will the search committee member—these interview notification calls should definitely not be regarded as part of the vetting process. If the search committee has decided to interview an applicant, it should wait until the interview to complete its judgment of the applicant’s strengths and weaknesses.

Whether the notification comes through a phone call or e-mail, the search committee should inform each candidate how long the interview will last and, if possible, who will be present. In the case of the AHA meetings, and many other large conferences, as well, specifying the location of the interview is only partially possible until the conference has actually begun. Naturally, the search committee member should be as specific as possible at the time of the initial notification: at which hotel the interview will take place, whether it will occur in a suite or in a cubicle, and so forth. The candidate should also be supplied with at least one search committee member’s cell phone number in case of uncertainty as to the interview site or other problems when the AHA meetings are already in progress.

If the search committee is conducting telephone or video interviews, each candidate should be notified well in advance of the time of his or her interview and of the exact procedures to be followed. In the case of a conference call, this will ordinarily mean simply dialing a certain number. Video conferences are, of course, more complicated; the search committee should make sure that the candidate has relatively convenient access to a video conferencing facility, either at his or her home institution or at a nearby facility. If access is too complicated, an alternative method of interviewing, such as a conference call, should be considered.

This is the stage of the search when the Academic Careers Wiki—the interactive internet site featuring postings regarding the status of various history searches, as well as searches in other disciplines (http://scratchpad.wikia.com/wiki/AcademicJobSearch)—comes into play. For that reason, the search committee should be aware that any requests for additional materials, let alone interviews, that it makes may become public knowledge in very short order. Although few search committees have adopted this practice at this point, the committee might consider notifying all applicants, at least informally, that it has reached the interview stage. Applicants not contacted for interviews should be apprised that their files are officially still under consideration. Notification of this kind, however, allows them to concentrate their energies elsewhere while also, ideally, generating good will for the department that was transparent enough to let them know.

Conference and Telephone Interviews

An excellent article on conference interviews has been published by Mary Lindemann in the October 2006 issue of Perspectives. I refer readers to that article for suggestions on how search committee members should prepare for interviews. I can only underline Lindemann’s point that the search committee should discuss beforehand the range of questions it intends to ask, and in approximately what order. It might even make sense to “assign” certain questions, or types of questions, to particular committee members. If the interview schedule is particularly heavy, these responsibilities could rotate among committee members. Most candidates expect to be asked about their research and about what courses they would like to offer at the institution in question. They usually expect, as well, to have an opportunity to ask questions of the search committee. These expectations should serve as “bare minimum” guidelines to the committee. Committee members should make and keep notes on these interviews—again, to the extent allowable—to facilitate postconference evaluation and, as always, to ensure a written record in the event of questions about a particular applicant’s case.

The logistics of AHA interviews can be challenging for both the search committee and the candidate. A common problem arises when an interview runs long and the next candidate interrupts by innocently knocking on the door. A search committee at one institution came up with this simple yet highly effective solution: they cracked the hotel room door open when no interview was in progress, and placed a sign on the door instructing candidates to knock if the door were cracked open but to wait if it were closed. This and similar straightforward steps, such as offering candidates water and arranging seating so that there is no rigid division between committee members and candidate, will help to make the candidates—most of whom will, naturally, be extremely nervous—more comfortable and thus will enhance their interview performance.

The Short List and On-Campus Interviews

When the search committee has narrowed its applicant pool to a “short list” of three to six candidates, it should without question notify all applicants of the status of the search. This is especially important in the case of “long short list” candidates who may have campus interviews or even job offers pending at other institutions. If the search committee does not notify all applicants, it can more or less rest assured that the Academic Careers Wiki will perform this duty in its stead.

Except in small departments in which the entire department serves as the search committee, the search committee will certainly have to make a presentation to the assembled departmental faculty justifying its selection of these particular individuals. This presentation offers an opportunity for the search committee members to outline the nature of the field in which they are searching and the depth and quality of the candidate pool. This is especially important in the case of non-Western fields or underrepresented thematic fields. Committee members might point out, for example, what sorts of scholarship stand out in the field and how representative the candidates’ work is of scholarship in the field at large.

In preparing for on-campus interviews, the search committee should, once again, inform the candidates as fully as possible of what will transpire. Each candidate should receive, as soon as feasible, a detailed schedule of all activities in which he or she will participate, with mention of all persons who will be involved in them, if possible down to the people who will be meeting the candidate at the airport or train station and accompanying him or her to different venues. It is probably wise to send the candidate, who will naturally be quite anxious at this point, a preliminary schedule early in the planning process, then fill in details as they become clear.

There is no fail-safe plan for the campus visit. Naturally, it will include multiple one-on-one meetings with various departmental faculty members and at least one nice dinner, and will culminate in the candidate’s research presentation (about which more presently). A small department may be able to arrange for the candidate to meet almost every member of the faculty individually. However, an entire day of such one-on-one meetings can be unnecessarily exhausting and even confusing for the candidate. Small and large departments alike might find it wise, therefore, to intersperse such meetings with gatherings with graduate students and/or with undergraduate history majors and with meetings with faculty from ancillary units, such as foreign language departments and area studies or interdisciplinary centers. A tour of the library and a meeting with the head librarian in a candidate’s specialty is usually de rigueur, as is a campus tour, however abbreviated. A brief tour of key neighborhoods in the city or town in which the institution is located gives a candidate a more profound sense of what joining the academic community in question would be like. (Of course, there are institutions that would prefer that job candidates see as little as possible of the cities where they are located.) Time should be set aside here and there for the candidate to relax and recoup, in particular before the critical research presentation.

With regard to the research presentation, or “job talk,” the search committee should provide all candidates with uniform guidelines that are as specific as possible: the approximate length of the talk, whether it should be aimed at a specialist or a more general audience, whether it should incorporate discussion of the candidate’s teaching, whether audio-visual aids can or should be used, and so forth. Some departments also require a separate demonstration of teaching, such as “guest instructing” an existing history course. The expectations for this sort of exercise should also be clearly explained in advance. In the case of an existing course, the candidate should receive a syllabus well before his/her arrival on campus.

Individual search committee members will inevitably have their personal favorites among the candidates who come to campus. Inevitably, these preferences will occasionally show through during the campus visits. To the extent possible, however, the search committee should treat all candidates with the same courtesy and respect. Attempting to undermine a candidate whom one does not favor during the campus visit is unethical in the extreme and results only in bewilderment and resentment on the part of the affected candidate and embarrassment all around. The search committee chair should be alert for such behavior among his or her committee members and should nip it in the bud if at all possible.

Choosing a Hire

Once all the candidates have come through, the search committee chair should encourage department faculty members to convey their opinions. Meanwhile, she or he should canvass the other committee members to learn their impressions. Ultimately, the committee chair should convene the committee for a full and open appraisal of the candidates’ strengths and weaknesses. There are two chief dangers at this stage: first, that the search committee itself will be divided in its opinions; second, that the search committee will differ sharply in its opinion from the majority of faculty members in the department. In the first case, the difference in opinion will usually consist of one dissenting committee member who is ultimately persuaded to go along with the recommendation of the other members. If the committee is seriously divided among one or more candidates, the opinions of other departmental faculty members can serve as a guide to how the committee should shape its recommendation. If, however, both the search committee and the department at large are seriously divided, the search committee may elect to ask the candidates to clarify or elaborate on portions of their dossiers about which there is uncertainty.

Many veteran academics would claim that the search committee should at all costs present a united front to the department at large so that the “case” they make to the department is as strong as possible. However, there is a persuasive argument to be made for keeping the entire process as transparent as possible for the good of both the candidates and the department. That is to say, a dissenting committee member’s objections to a certain candidate or preference for another candidate should be aired before the entire department in the interest of transparency. It may be preferable for such issues, difficult as they are, to be confronted before a hire is made rather than having suppressed resentments fester and perhaps surface at some inopportune later moment—for example, just when the eventual hire is approaching a tenure review.

An arguably thornier situation occurs when the search committee finds itself at odds with the department as a whole. We can justifiably ask what the search committee’s proper role is in such circumstances: to serve as a clearinghouse for faculty opinion, or actively to shape faculty opinion? This is a question that faculty members in individual history departments would do well to discuss openly. If, however, the faculty have been briefed on the nature of the candidates’ field, as suggested above, have read the dossiers for themselves, and have interacted with the candidates and heard their research presentations, it seems to me that they are perfectly capable of making informed decisions for themselves. Indeed, the search committee should treat their opinions seriously since they can often offer fresh perspectives on the candidates’ strengths and weaknesses. Similarly, for the search committee to help shape opinion by educating colleagues about the field of the search is not only acceptable but desirable. For individual search committee members to take it upon themselves to lobby colleagues in favor of or against one or another candidate is, however, unethical. The search committee chair should move to stop such behavior immediately.

The Hire

Once the lucky candidate formally accepts the offer, a search committee chair naturally notifies all other applicants. However, a strong argument can be made for notifying them informally even before formal letters of offer have been mailed and a formal written acceptance received. This will alleviate a great deal of anxiety, even though it is not good news for the also-rans, and may generate good will toward the department for its honesty and consideration. The same argument applies if negotiations between the favorite candidate and the department drag out, as they often do, particularly in the case of senior searches. Unsuccessful applicants—the vast majority, after all—should come away from the search with a good impression of the hiring department, even if they are inevitably disappointed with the outcome.

As for the successful candidate, search committee members and other department faculty members will inevitably contact him or her while s/he is still considering the offer. At this delicate stage, it is appropriate to express hope that the candidate will accept. It is inappropriate, however, to pressure the candidate by, for example, predicting dire consequences for a particular program if the candidate does not come. More than one e-mail or phone call per search committee member to the candidate while s/he is still deciding is probably inadvisable.

Once the candidate has accepted, all members of the search committee should contact him or her. Other faculty members will no doubt do so, as well. In general, transparency, responsiveness, prompt delivery of information, and due courtesy are the watchwords of a successful job search. They will help to ensure that the hiring department makes the best impression possible on all applicants. A host of good impressions is the gratifying result of a well-conducted search—a result that may yield unanticipated rewards in the future.

— Jane Hathaway is professor of history at Ohio State University. She is a member of the AHA’s Professional Division.

Note

1. Mary Lindemann, “Best Practices for Interviewers,” Perspectives 44:7 (October 2006), 52–55; Jane Hathaway, “The Pitfalls and Opportunities of Hiring in Non-Western History,” Perspectives 45:2 (February 2007): 26–30. The articles are also available online at www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2006/0610/0610pro1.cfm and www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2007/0702/0702pro1.cfm respectively.