Do Your Homework! A Live Report From a Job Search

Sometimes readers send me “reports from the front” of the job searches in their departments.  Last week I got this report from a former client who wanted to tell me about how a young ABD candidate prevailed over a much more experienced Rising Superstar candidate by, among other things, doing her homework and showing real knowledge of the department, particularly, the graduate students.  The reader kindly gave me permission to share her story on the blog.  Read and learn!
We had a wonderful job candidate- an ABD from a top notch humanities program on campus this past week.  She was competing with a Rising Superstar close to getting a tenure.  Some of the more savvy students (like myself) saw right through the Rising Superstar- she was in it for fame and honestly did not mind having the graduate student discussion revolve around her and her research when she was supposed to try to focus on us.  So she ultimately did not learn a thing about us and our program.  The ABD, on the contrary, wanted to know EVERYTHING about our program from the exams to advising system to course offerings to language requirements.  She was so humble- she made comparisons only on the basis of understanding the differences and liabilities of our programs, not suggesting in any way that her program was superior to ours.
The most impressive part was that she DID her homework!  In the morning session with graduate students, when I introduced myself and specialized field, the ABD asked if my adviser was X.  I was amazed (and so were others).  Then I described my project to her briefly.  Later, at the job talk, I asked a question about attracting students from fields outside of her own for her courses.  In front of about 30 or so faculty members and students, including my adviser, she used my research project- and got the place and subject correct- as an example in her response.  She looked so comfortable and confident in her answer.  You could hear the audience gasp and I saw one of my committee members turning to my adviser to whisper excitedly, as if the candidate just won the lottery.   My adviser later wrote how the candidate was so sensitive to her environment and impressive.
I wrote her a very strong recommendation because she wanted to be here and work with us and I could see her as my ally among other reasons.
The SC is nominating her for the position and I have been asked to contribute my further thoughts.
I’m sure there are other factors but this is just one of the smallest ways a job candidate can stand out from the rest.  Listen to the graduate students!
Addendum:  After reading the SC’s report last night, the candidate’s preparation and attention to details won over the department.

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Do Your Homework! A Live Report From a Job Search — 11 Comments

  1. Great story, but is this kind of thing common in the humanities? Although I’ve heard of candidates being introduced to the grad students as part of the interview, I’ve never once heard of the hiring committee giving a rat’s ass what the grad students think, let alone actually soliciting their opinions.

    • I was the student representative on a hiring committee and voiced my concerns over a candidate’s appearance/actions/discourse as ‘glorified grad student’ rather than someone who could guide me towards the next step in academia.
      The committee was reluctant to heed my recommendations but did so. Several months later a much stronger candidate was hired.

    • In my department, students not only join the search committee, they also get two votes in the decision. This has been decisive when the faculty are divided.

  2. My department solicits grad student feedback (which is often more thoughtful than faculty responses) but sadly rarely listens to it, despite often perceptive observations.

  3. Nice perspective on the job search from the grad student’s end. My department is actually hiring this year (research-intensive, apparently looking for a rising superstar/publishing machine). As a grad student not part of the hiring committee, but who will meet with the final candidates and be asked for feedback, what might some good questions/approaches to conversation to take with candidates? Obviously the ABD in this report went out of her way to demonstrate that she kicked ass. For less obvious instances, are there any diplomatic ways to sort the contenders from the pretenders, for the health of the department and to encourage further strong hires?

  4. Yes, this story provides an account of a savvy candidate — not sure if I’d use the word for the grad students, though. I bet this same savvy leads the candidate to drop the attitude described when hired and become singularly focused on her research in order to earn tenure. The poster should reread the account to realize her similarities to the Rising Star. She criticizes the first candidate for being too self-involved in her own research whereas the second one smartly acted involved in the poster’s research. (Who is fame and attention hungry?) It’s really so easy to interview well once you realize that making the interviewers feel good about themselves and their research is a huge part of the process.
    This post strikes a nerve because I know I get ahead in academia for doing a lot of the above and like the poster, most people can’t see that it’s all an act. When it comes to hiring, promotion, tenure meetings, I feel like a con artist.
    This post justifies those feelings.
    Yes, job candidates, make the grad students an ally no matter how silly and self-important they seem.

  5. I have a question related to “doing your homework” but in relation to also the search committee interview, not just the job talk/presentation.

    I’ve heard the recommendation to contact the department admin assistant to get clarification on who will be in the interview (which would include those faculty members who will be at the job talk too). This advice made me think? Is this perhaps minutiae that I shouldn’t bother the search committee chair with? Or is it strategic to contact admin assistant too so as to gather information?

    Which brings me to a larger question: How/what to ask the committee chair regarding what they are expecting to see in the presentation without coming across as insecure? There is surely a line between being conscientious and mindful of their needs and being amateurish.

    In my case, the search committee chair has been very friendly and personal. Told me to contact him with any questions.

  6. I was wondering if anyone had any insight with regard to personal lives being brought up during the visit. I know that candidates should not be asked about their personal lives but what about when faculty members volunteer their own personal information: kids, spouses, etc. how are we supposed to respond, especially if we also have kids and spouses?

    • Generally it is expected that you’ll share a bit about your personal life in those cases, but how much is totally up to you. They are trying to connect with you at a human level, which is the point of the campus visit.

  7. At what point does doing your homework go too far? Is it creepy or desperate if you know too much about the faculty and their research and their interests. I remember making a comment to an interviewer about a very specific research interest of his that was listed on his university bio and he seemed a bit freaked out.

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