Publication Date

November 1, 1996

It is needless to say that for an academic department every search is crucial. Searches involve significant effort and expense, and, far more important, each candidate must be evaluated for his or her ability to play a major role in shaping the department. It is commonplace knowledge that every search is stressful for all involved: overworked members of search committees can attest to how much work, worry, and effort are involved in a properly conducted search, and applicants (especially in a tight job market) know all too well the anxiety associated with every position applied for.

Too often, search committees add to this anxiety by the ways in which they treat applicants. Most faculty members can recall being treated in a less than professional manner by some search committee or department chair—it's an experience one is not likely to forget. Unpleasant search experiences usually are less a result of indifference by those conducting the search than of search procedures that are not well organized and carefully thought out. While searches inevitably involve stress, anxiety, and disappointment for most applicants, hiring departments can minimize the unpleasantness by conducting searches that show due regard for the difficult and vulnerable position applicants generally find themselves in. It is both professionally wise and humane to do so. A well-conducted search is most likely to result in the hiring of the applicant who will best fit the department's needs; it also should leave unsuccessful applicants feeling good about the process and their not-to-be colleagues.

The history department at Indiana University of Pennsylvania has conducted several successful searches over the past few years—4 of our 18 full-time faculty have been hired since 1993, and 8 since 1989. Like many departments, ours is in a period of transition as historians hired in 1960s and 1970s reach retirement, and it is reasonable to expect that we will conduct a search every year or so for the next several years. Clearly, this is a crucial period for the department, as we try to maintain the collegial, supportive environment our senior members created while adding new colleagues who will fill our curricular mission and keep us abreast of current developments in the field.

One benefit of these frequent searches has been the opportunity to refine our search procedures from year to year and to develop a substantial amount of search experience within the department. Our recent searches have brought excellent new faculty into the department and, if we are to believe many comments from those who were not offered positions, they have generally been positive experiences for applicants. While there is no single best way to run a search, we believe that we have developed procedures that are effective in identifying strong candidates and that treat applicants with the consideration and respect they deserve.

The principles guiding the department's searches are quite simple and commonsensical. We attempt to maximize faculty involvement in searches, communicate frequently with applicants, carefully manage paperwork, and set up search schedules that permit time for the job to be done right. We set out to achieve these goals during our most recent search, which took place in 1995-96, when we sought to fill a position in early modern European history.

A Sample Search

Approval to fill the opening, which resulted from a retirement, came at the beginning of fall semester 1995. This is about as late as we like to begin a search: if position advertisements and a search plan cannot be developed and submitted for administrative approval in September, we try to delay the search for a year. A four-person committee was appointed at the beginning of the semester. It was made up of Larry Miller, a senior faculty member who had chaired two previous search committees and developed many of our procedures; Wang Xi, who was starting his second year in the department; Tamara Whited, who was beginning her first year; and me. I was in my seventh year at the time, and I served as chair. The committee composition reflected our practice of involving both senior and newer faculty in searches to bring different perspectives and experiences to the process; senior faculty are more familiar with the university, departmental culture, tenure and promotion practices, and so on, while newer faculty, who are more in touch with applicants' concerns and anxieties, can tell applicants what it is like to join the faculty at IUP. Newer faculty also can learn much about how the department and university work by participating in searches and-as our senior colleagues were quick to remind us—it's the newer faculty who are most likely to work longest with whomever we hire. As it happened, three of the committee members were American historians and only one a European historian. While we normally would probably try to have two European specialists on a committee for a European position, we did not find the composition to be a problem, in part because all members of the department have ample opportunity to bring their disciplinary perspectives to bear at some point in the search.

The committee developed a timeline that called for advertising the position in October (in the Chronicle of Higher Education and on H-Net) and November (in Perspectives), with a December 1 deadline for receipt of materials. Like many departments, we planned to interview a short list of about 10 at the AHA annual meeting, and this deadline provided time for us to develop our short list, contact those on it, and schedule meetings before the holidays intervened. Had we received earlier approval for the search, however, we probably would have tried to move the schedule up a couple of weeks so the deadline could be November 15. Plowing through about 150 applications in early December, while the semester was concluding, was no easy task. Our goal was to be in a position to recommend a candidate to our administration in early February.

Through the fall, the job mainly involved processing and filing application materials and acknowledging applications. As committee chair, I checked all materials that came in and then passed them on to our office staff, who filed them. Each file included a list of materials submitted so we could notify applicants of outstanding items as the dead line approached; this was particularly useful for informing applicants whose transcripts had not been received (transcript requests appear to be lost frequently) or whose references had not quickly followed up on their promise to send letters of recommendation. Each applicant received an acknowledgment letter informing him or her of our projected search schedule, noting what items had been received, and suggesting various types of materials they might want to consider submitting by the deadline. In mid-November we sent follow-up letters to those whose files were still incomplete, telling them which required items (c.v., letters of reference, and so forth) were missing.

After the deadline, each committee member read through the applicant files and came up with a proposed short list. In this, we were guided by a discussion at departmental meeting that had explored the department's future needs and what professional qualities faculty members considered most important in prospective colleagues. All faculty also had access to the applicant files, so those who chose to do so could comment on specific applicants. Because it was late in the semester, however, few were able to devote mu time to reviewing so many files. The committee then met to develop a list of can dates to be interviewed. As often he happens, there was substantial overlap among the individual short lists, and developing a list of interviewees proved to be relatively simple. We then notified the department of our short-list candidates and separated their files from those of the other applicants so other members of the department could review them and make comments, suggest specific areas to explore with individual applicants, and so on. By the end of the semester, we had scheduled interviews with nine candidates for the upcoming AHA annual meeting in Atlanta (a tenth candidate, who was unable to attend the convention, was interviewed by telephone). The other applicants were informed by letter that they were not on the short list.

Preparing for the First Interviews

There remained one item to handle before the in-person interviews. Over the past several searches, our committees have developed a set of materials to be sent to members of our short list, a sort of briefing packet which we've been told a number of times is very unusual. Of course, most candidates do some basic research on any institution that they plan to interview with, but they typically come up with only general, and often outdated, information. While preparing and updating materials does involve someeffort on our part, we’ve found that providing fairly extensive information on the department, university, and community greatly improves the interview process and is well worth the effort involved.

These materials enable candidates to acquire basic information before they meet with us, so less of the interview needs to be devoted to telling candidates about the size of the university and community, describing our curriculum, and so forth. Being better informed also makes candidates more comfortable: they can formulate meaningful questions, they have a better sense of what kind of department they are dealing with, and they seem to find the process on the whole less impersonal and more collegial after we've told them a bit about who we are. This, of course, also makes it more likely that we'll be able to see candidates at their best and have discussions of real substance.

Our materials include what in our classes we'd call "questions for discussion," items we'd like the candidates to think about and that can be used during the interview. These questions give candidates some insight into the types of concerns we have about our profession, as well as some hint of what may come up in the interview. While we sometimes discuss few or none of these questions in the actual interview-each interview takes on a life of its own-the questions again help candidates feel prepared and comfortable, reflect the kinds of things we hope our future colleague will have given thought to, and often lead us into quite interesting discussions.

Our information packet for this search included the following items:

  • Copies of the college catalog descriptions of the curriculum for the history major, including course descriptions, and the requirements for undergraduate liberal studies (which include a history requirement).
  • Copies of the graduate catalog descriptions of IUP's graduate school, the history M.A. curriculum, and graduate history courses.
  • A list of history faculty with their areas of concentration.
  • A document entitled "University Information" that describes tenure, promotion, and sabbatical policies; some general curricular matters; and departmental practices on offices, summer school teaching, grading, and the like.
  • A document entitled "History Department Culture," prepared by Larry Miller, which describes the departmental culture that has been created over the past generation, the core values we share, and our expectations of new faculty. This was prepared about three years ago, when our current wave of hiring started, and is gradually becoming outdated as new faculty join us, but it provides candidates with an open, honest description of the people they will be meeting and possibly working with.
  • A document describing in detail the prospective faculty member's specific teaching assignments, as well as teaching opportunities that might be developed depending on the individual's interests.
  • A handout on travel, housing, and schools that, accompanied by a copy of the local realtors' booklet of homes for sale, helps candidates think about the community of Indiana as a place to live.
  • A "Possible Questions for Interview" sheet. Again, these are not questions we feel compelled to work through, but they do provide the candidates with some concerns to focus on, give them a sense of what we are concerned with as a department, and at times lead to some fruitful conversation. For the 1995-96 search, the questions (which evolve gradually from year to year) were:
    • What do you consider the most pressing intellectual issues facing historians today, and how does your own research speak to any or some of these issues?
    • What are the most pressing pedagogical questions facing history teachers today, and how would you deal with any or some of them?
    • How do you explain the recent focus on cultural history? How can this kind of history be reconciled with the historian's traditional preoccupations with narrative structure based on chronology and with the history teacher's tendency to divide courses chronologically?
    • Many members of the IUP history department will retire soon. What should we consider when trying to construct a department for the 21st century? How should such a department compare with a "traditional" history department?
    • How did your training at a major research institution serving some of the brightest and most sophisticated students in the country prepare you for an institution that stresses teaching and that attracts the garden variety of American undergraduate? How are you preparing for the transition?

The First Interviews

The holidays (and, we hoped, the most burdensome part of the work) behind us, three committee members set off for Atlanta to meet what we knew would be an interesting group of people. We were not disappointed. The candidates were bright, enthusiastic, articulate, and professionally impressive. As we had hoped, most of the sessions felt more like hour-long conversations with colleagues than formal interviews. The expense of an interviewing suite was a small price to pay for a quiet place to talk, well removed from the tension-filled atmosphere of the job register (though the on interview we conducted there went very well). While the candidates no doubt found the interviews stressful, we got the impression that ours were among their least difficult interviews; several, in fact, told us that this was the case. By the end of the convention, we felt that we had a much better sense of who these people were and of their potential "fit” into the position. We also knew we had some difficult decisions to make.

The committee met the week following the convention to decide on three candidates to invite for on-campus interviews. We discussed each of those who had been interviewed and reached a consensus after an hour or so of discussion. A minor administrative holdup necessitated a delay of nearly two weeks in issuing invitations for on-campus interviews, so we telephoned those on the short list to inform them of this and assure them there was no problem with the search. As soon as administrative approval was given, we telephoned our list of three to confirm that they would come for interviews. At the AHA we had gone over our on-campus interview schedule with all candidates and determined which dates would work best should they be invited, so setting up dates for the interviews was relatively easy. We then telephoned the other seven candidates to let them know that they were not on the list of invitees but that they were not eliminated from the pool, pending the results of the on-campus interviews. These were uncomfortable calls, of course, particularly since our conversations with the candidates had gone so well, but all took the news well.

Campus Visits

In planning on-campus interviews, we try to maximize the opportunity for faculty to talk with candidates. We also try to bring to life a cliché of the job search: candidates often are told to remember that "they're not only interviewing you-you're also interviewing them," but unless the candidates are treated as colleagues, given the maximum opportunity to learn about the position, and allowed to present themselves at their best, it's hollow advice.

One way to make candidates at ease is to provide opportunities for them to have some time to themselves to rest, prepare, and look around the campus on their own. When possible, we house candidates in one of two small, hotel-like rooms that are available in a building (not a residence hall) on campus. While these accommodations are spartan, they're comfortable enough for a night or two. They're quiet, and they make it possible for candidates to return to their rooms during free time, explore the campus at the start or end of the day, and avoid the inconveniences of being shuttled to a local motel.

This is particularly important because our on-campus schedule is quite full. Candidates meet individually with the department chair, the deans of our college and graduate school, and, during free time between other activities, with as many faculty as possible. They also teach one class, typically a section of a first-year survey course that will be part of their regular teaching responsibilities if they are hired. Each candidate gives a research presentation, usually at a departmental luncheon; these can be formal discussions based on research papers or informal talks about research interests and goals, the choice resting with the candidate. They also dine with small groups of faculty and, if possible, meet with some of our students (with no faculty present). The last activity is a meeting with the search committee at which candidates can ask questions and we can confirm the remaining interview schedule and let them know when they should expect to hear from us. Add to this tours of the campus and community, and the one or two days we give each on-campus interview hardly seems adequate.

All three candidates presented themselves exceptionally well. Following careful discussion, a faculty vote led to an offer to one candidate, Lynn Botelho, who received her Ph.D. from Cambridge University. The other two were informed by telephone that an offer had been made and they, along with the rest of the 10 short-list candidates, also were telephoned when the offer was accepted. By the end of the process, we had a new colleague with whom we were looking forward to working, we had met several interesting people whose careers we will continue to follow, and we felt comfortable that we had treated the applicants in a considerate and professional manner. Certainly there was room for improvement, and no doubt the next time around we'll continue to refine our procedures, but those candidates who expressed thoughts on the search seemed to agree that they had been treated with respect and consideration.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.