A Perspective From the Hiring Committee (A Guest Post)

This is a guest post, volunteered by a tenured reader.  Also check out her previous post.

I and my fellow committee members work in a somewhat technical field at a mid-tier state university. While every institution and department is different, there are some things that are common to all tenure-track hires.  Frankly many of these things should be obvious, but apparently they aren’t, at least judging by many of the applications we’ve received.

Understand the other side: It’s tempting to blame the committee for the awful job market and seemingly byzantine hiring process. But take a moment to understand what it is like to be on a hiring committee. We are typically recently promoted Full Professors or Associate Professors and are juggling this assignment along with our regular teaching and research load. This type of service takes a lot more time and effort than what most of colleagues get away with, such as membership on the “Task Force to Re-craft the Mission Statement”, but we undertake this effort because it’s crucial to our future and, frankly, because somebody has to. Remember how you as a student used to think that your professors enjoyed giving hard midterms until you actually got stuck grading 200 essay exams? Perhaps we aren’t reading all 200 applications the same weekend, but it’s similar.

We aren’t asking for sympathy, just some empathy, evidenced by you making your application easy to parse. An additional bonus to demonstrating empathy is that we will assume you can apply this talent with your future colleagues and students.

Tailor your application to the position. Yes, we know that we aren’t your one true love, and we expect- indeed hope- that you are applying many other places. But spend at least 15 minutes convincing us that your attempt to land a position with us is more targeted than an oyster’s broadcast spawning. At a bare minimum, put the position, department and school in the cover letter, and if an actual person’s name is provided, address your letter appropriately. If we are asking for 3 letters of reference, either include them (if at all possible) or provide your recommenders’ contact information and explicitly mention that the letters will arrive under separate cover. Our professors both need to teach and do research, so failing to mention either duty in your cover letter would be a fatal flaw.

Don’t dump: Yes, we know that different committees ask for different materials. But if we didn’t request a teaching statement, a research statement or a writing sample (which we didn’t), don’t send it. We aren’t going to read it, and it just makes you seem like you didn’t read our advertisement closely. Sending in a manuscript not yet even conditionally accepted in a journal smacks of desperation. One applicant sent us 9 pages of raw computer-generated teaching scores with no explanation of the scale. If you have an article in a prestigious journal or have been the subject of a glowing report in a relevant trade publication, feel free to mention it in your cover letter and offer to provide it on request, but let us ask for it first. When we see 13+ attachments that we have to download, we tend to get cranky.

Anticipate objections: Perhaps you are applying to a department outside of your doctoral study or perhaps you have never taught students before. Provide evidence of why our concerns are unwarranted, and if you can’t provide such evidence, at least find a way to acknowledge them in your cover letter. For example:  “While my school does not provide graduate students the opportunity to undertake sole teaching responsibility for classes, I have served as the primary TA for class X….” Don’t think we won’t notice, and you don’t want our one comment on the spreadsheet by your name to be “Not a good fit.” If you are trying to switch from a tenure track job at another school to us, we are naturally going to wonder why (and also if you’d bail on us after a year or two), unless you tell us that you are attempting to relocate due to a better fit with your research needs, geographic preferences or another plausible reason. For those of you still ABD who are looking to start in our fall term, the term “expected to defend in Summer 2015” raises concerns when our next academic year starts in the middle of August. Lock in that date in and, if at all possible, make it before July!

Streamline/simplify your CV: As Dr. Karen says, don’t shop at Costco. If you put too much filler in, we might not notice the good stuff. Here’s what we are looking for:

Research: Ideally, we’d like you to list publications in reverse chronological order. You can include acceptances and even “accepted pending minor revisions” as long as they are identified as such, but listing “submitted to Journal X” or “targeted for Journal Y” under “publications” is misleading and instead belongs under a “Work in Progress” section. We’d rather see 1 publication and evidence of a healthy research pipeline than see 3 journal publications dating back to 2011 with no evidence of new research in progress. Furthermore, we get accreditation kudos (and you get credits toward tenure) for articles that are published after you start working for us. So, in a perverse way, we would prefer an “accepted pending minor revisions” over an outright publication, once you have at least one relevant intellectual contribution in print.

For teaching experience we’d like to see classes listed in chronological order, indicating role (sole or co-instructor, or TA?) and any teaching evaluation scores with relevant scale and context, such as “Overall evaluation: 4.5 out of 5(best) where the departmental average for this class is 4.2.” Not including evaluations for classes that should have them or merely providing a few cherry picked student quotations suggests you are hiding something.  We know firsthand the common pitfalls that occur the first time a class is taught, so we won’t hold a few bad evaluations against you- honest!

Service: You should certainly list relevant activities outside of research and teaching:  pertinent industry experience, membership in relevant organizations, (especially any leadership roles), reviews for respected journals in your field. But as this is the least important section (sorry- it just is!) for most schools please keep it to the point: do we really need to know you were team captain of your college trivia club?

If you can master these basics and have done some decent work, you dramatically increase your chances of being noticed by us and our peers in the other schools you are applying to.

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A Perspective From the Hiring Committee (A Guest Post) — 10 Comments

  1. Thanks for the post! I am assuming that the one exception to the “don’t include if we don’t ask for it” rule is a cover letter. I have seen a handful of job ads in my field ask for a CV, research statement, and teaching statement and neglect to mention the cover letter, but I can’t imagine submitting a job application without one.

  2. “We’d rather see 1 publication and evidence of a healthy research pipeline than see 3 journal publications dating back to 2011 with no evidence of new research in progress.”

    This may be true in a field in which publication is all done in the form of articles, but in my field “3 journal publications dating back to 2011” (just 4 years ago!), plus a book manuscript in progress (which you should work on full time, putting aside most articles) would be much more impressive than 1 publication and several titles of grad school papers allegedly being revised for publication. 3 publications is pretty good.

  3. I appreciate members of search committees taking the time to tell it from their side. I also hope they stop to consider the amount of time/work it takes to apply to jobs/postdocs, especially when they each want different things, in different amounts, in different orders. With some schools wanting a teaching portfolio with a statement, evals, syllabi, and sample assignments, and others wanting only some of the parts and each in their own special snowflake order, well, it takes time — that 15 minutes spent reshuffling pdfs x 40 applications adds up. And is 15 minutes we don’t have to spend on tailoring the cover letter or CV to each job (or 15 minutes taken away from teaching and research).

    As a faculty member at my current postdoc says, the burden should fall on the committee since we have jobs. That said, the process could be improved for *everyone* by really standardizing some of the documents (how about a set 2K research statement, instead of 1500, 2000, or 3000 words)? How about disciplines decide on a reasonable length writing sample for the discipline and keep to that? How about the profession decide what a teaching portfolio needs to include and everyone get the same thing? Or how about a cover letter + CV be enough for round 1 of any job? Sure, this would take some adjustment by committees who are used to being able to specify exactly what they want, but it would help everyone — lessen the insane amount of time candidates are spending on every application and let committees know they’re getting everything in a set form. Any reader can skip over some pages of material they don’t use in their process, and the time I save not making it meet the desires of each committee will let me apply that time to cover letters or my manuscript or teaching….the real work all of us should be doing.

    At this point, there should be a common application that each professional organization works out. Every applicant submits their docs to the database. Schools enter jobs, candidates tick off the ones they want to apply for (perhaps getting 1 paragraph to make the case for why they really fit the job), committees get those dossiers, read, interview, make decisions… It should and could be much simpler for everyone.

    • While it would be great there was a centralized, standardized application process that all search committees in all departments in all universities in all parts of the world could agree upon, I put this under the list of “Things that Should Be, But Aren’t.” Sure the process could be streamlined, but the devil is in the details. I could imagine a truly short application which consisted of the following:

      1) List the school, department and year where you earned Ph.D.
      2) Provide up to 3 citations for your best publications.
      3) Indicate if/how you would allow us to check off a diversity requirement.

      Departments would providing:
      1) Salary and benefits package
      2) Teaching load
      3) Expected research requirements for earning tenure.

      Then we just use a computer algorithm to match everyone up, based on ranked preferences by each set of players. But I can’t imagine anyone really being happy with that process!

      • Sure, that’s an extreme version of the system. But medical residencies have worked out a system in which there is a fair amount of centralization that combines an algorithm (at the end) with plenty of human work (on the front end, both in terms of submitting various letters/CVs/statements and interviews). There is no reason or need to get rid of the evidence applicants supply, in the form of CVs, cover letters, teaching portfolios, research statements, and letters.

        But the point is to recognize that if these documents were standardized (at the very least in terms of length and documents to include), then the process would enable applicants to spend their time working on the best possible version of each item rather than wasting time on creating 40 versions of each, and allow committees to compare like to like. The AALS has managed this for law school hiring, which means there is a way around the pesky HR requirements and systems that seem to create the devil in the details for many of these searches. Applicants waste a lot of time on inputting data into text boxes (which one has to do every.single.time for each school, even though at least half buy the software from PeopleSoft but instead of having a database that everyone’s infor gets input into once, you do it over and over and over again. At least with Interfolio, once you’ve put in the info, you’re done). I understand why a committee would want an easy to read spreadsheet that has all this data in handy columns and rows.

        But right now that’s done at the expense of the applicant wasting an hour or so each time s/he applies to something — the time to create a username/login, copy and paste info from a CV into little boxes, etc really adds up. Or trying to figure out how to comply with the homegrown HR application system’s request for you to input confidential letters of recommendation, and a strong of emails between the applicant and HR and the search chair goes nowhere (but takes several hours over many days) because no one at the institution seems familiar with the front end of the system. These are the hurdles that get in the way of being able to put all your effort into crafting the best possible application. When the applicant dumps things, it’s probably because s/he is exhausted after spending a week’s worth of work time simply getting the application into a system that is not actually designed for faculty searches. And that might not be your school, but a different one that ate into the time that was supposed to be dedicated to application #21.

        Again, the larger point is: empathy goes both ways. I respect the time a search takes from the committee (heck, I’ve been on one), but it would be helpful if hiring committees also recognized the time going into applications — not necessarily the job documents themselves, but the work and aggravation of submitting it. Bless the departments that use Interfolio and/or a a single pdf sent to an email address.

        • Yep Rachel I agree. The process is truly insane. An hour? Try 4-6 hours. I have never spent less than four hours on a hiring package. It is maddening when you know how slim are the odds of being shortlisted. It kind of reminds me of when I worked at McDonald’s as a teen, and the shift manager would tell us to wipe the same clean counter over and over again so we “looked busy.” In other words, I don’t mind working hard, but it is demoralizing when hard work is not productive. My rant…

    • Yes!!! Standardization would help immensely, especially when it includes a “first-round review” packet limited to cover letter and CV and, perhaps, a list of references. Add to that the inefficient online applications, and the hours and hours I must spend on each application include much wasted work that would be better spent on crafting the cover letter and CV, not to mention doing my research and writing, which gets shoved aside for the job hunt ordeal.

  4. Hi there,
    I have a question related to understanding committee processes: I am a third-year postdoc who has managed 7 R01s and a DOD grant in the last 2 years. I have 13 publications (3 first authored) and have been actively involved in the grant-writing process (although an not independently-funded).

    I applied for a TT Asst Professor position at as well-known R1 state university the day the posting populated on a listserv I subscribe to. At the same time, one of my designated references (a department head and productive director of a research lab I worked in during my doctoral program) was solicited by the head of the search committee for the job I had applied to for recommendations from him for the position. He contacted me and asked if he could make a call on my behalf if I had continued interest in the position (obviously I did). On Monday he spoke with the head of the search committee and on Tuesday I received a call saying I was SHORTLISTED! They want to fly me out in two weeks for a 2-day in-person interview. From a search committee point-of-view, what do these actions mean? If I don’t screw up the in-person interview, do I have a realistic shot at the job? I don’t know what he said about me, but I know I owe my old boss a huge hug (and a gin & tonic or two) for getting me this far!

    I’m trying to not count my chickens too soon, but I feel like I’ve really got a shot at securing this spot.

    Thoughts? Advice? Thank you in advance!

  5. I have truly believed, for years, having sought after the highly coveted University teaching position in fine arts, that it IS who you know.

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