by Maggie Gover
I do a lot of hiring every year, mostly in academic administration, but I sit on other searches as well. Partially this is because the majority of my staff are graduate students on academic year contracts, so those positions are opened every year for new applicants. Partially this is because I am well-connected on campus and am often asked to sit on hiring committees for other departments. Much of my knowledge about how the hiring process works is based on my experience as a reviewer of applications. I am often asked what happens to applications before the interview process. I thought I would share some of that here, with several caveats. The first is that every job posting is unique, so I am speaking in broad generalities that encapsulate commonalities between many of the hiring processes I have experienced. The second is that these are my own observations and thoughts. Every hiring manager is different, and the process will slightly differ in the way they approach the hiring process. The third is that all of my direct experience is limited to academic administration. While I have networked with HR professionals and can say that our anecdotal accounts lead me to believe that my experiences are common in other fields, I can only speak to administrative hiring in higher education. Having outlined the limitations of my observations, I hope you will find a brief insight to my hiring process helpful.
The first thing that I do when on a hiring committee is an internal evaluation. This begins with my knowledge of the position, the departmental needs, and the job posting. Generally, the hiring committee will get together to discuss the job posting so that everyone is on the same page. Often times the qualifications are divided into two categories, those that are necessary and those that would be bonuses. This is often worded as “minimum” and “preferred” or “qualifications” and “the ideal candidate will…” Many times the preferred qualifications will be listed in order of importance. If they are not, I will number them myself. I will then think about what the position does, day-to-day, and think about the kinds of experiences that might lend one to be successful in the position. Only after a careful and extensive review of the internal position, do I begin actually looking at the candidates who have applied.
My review of the applicants begins with the resume and the basic qualifications. By this time I have been approved to review the applicant pool by our HR department. I look to see if the basic qualifications match their resumes, but those who don’t fit those minimums aren’t automatically eliminated if there is an alternative. For example, if our basic qualification is that the applicant has a master’s degree, and the applicant doesn’t, often times there will be a caveat that the applicant can have “equivalent experience.” Another minimum qualification might be that they have two years experience, and this applicant has ten years experience, the surplus experience may take care of both of these minimums. However, if several of the basic qualifications are not met or if I find it difficult to locate the information on the resume or application in fifteen seconds or less, that applicant is put to the bottom of my pile.
Generally, I have seen anywhere from 60-200 applicants for a full-time admin position. By the time I have made a pile of those who have made it through the “basic application” stage, I usually still have a very healthy stack. I then do a second review of the resumes based on the ranked “preferred” qualifications. Those who have the most important “preferred” qualifications rise to the top of my list. During both of my reviews of the resumes, I have made notes about questions I have about this applicant.
Then I move onto the cover letters. I am looking to see if the questions I have written on the resume are answered in the cover letter. I might be wondering why this person, who already has an awesome job, is applying for this job. I might be wondering how this person’s experience as a volunteer for a non-profit will help them be successful in this job. I might be wondering if this applicant is willing to relocate so that they can work here. At that point, after I know as much as I can about an applicant from their application materials, I complete a ranked list of those who I think it would be good to interview.
At this point in the review process, I join the committee. Everyone has made his/her own ranked lists of applicants, and we compare notes. Generally, as we have already met once to discuss the actual job we are looking to fill, our lists are very similar. They might have two or three variations, but not many. After we have discussed each applicant and why we individually thought to interview them, we create our initial interview short list to send to HR. HR reviews the list and tells us if we are cleared to interview. So, that is what happens on my end before I begin the interview process.
Common Questions I Have Been Asked:
Does the institution that granted my degree matter as much as in tenure-track and other academic applications?
No. When I am looking at applications I am looking for experiences that indicate that the applicant can be successful in the job for which they are applying. If the position requires a degree that means that it requires the knowledge and skills generally obtained in earning that degree. If the field for the degree is not specified, those skills might be things like analytical reasoning, clear written and oral communication, etc. If the field is specified, that also might include technical and theoretical knowledge. How well the applicant has a grasp on that knowledge will be tested in interviews or practical skills components of the application process, such as writing samples, managerial assessments, or prepared presentations. As I work at a large state institution, experience at a similar institution might be an asset, but so would experience in a very similar job at a very different type of institution. Additionally, having a degree granted from a large state institution is not enough to show me that you have the type of experience there that we are seeking.
Can I ask for feedback on the application?
Yes, but don’t expect too much. If you have made it to the interview process, it is always appropriate to ask for feedback. In this case, you can ask the leader of the interview committee for feedback. They may or may not say anything useful. If you didn’t make it that far, you likely will only be able to communicate with the HR representative about your application. At companies where the first few eliminations are made in the HR department, or where the hiring is wholly contained in the HR department, you might get some good information. You might also get the standard, “the strength of the application pool made it an especially competitive posting. We wish you luck in your future endeavors.” Don’t get discouraged by this. I think many people are conditioned to think that it is part of the process in the academic market to get little to no feedback on the 30 applications you just sent out, but really it is a pervasive problem in all markets.
Should I bother applying if I don’t have the preferred amount of experience and qualifications?
Yes! You don’t know what the applicant pool will look like and you may have the one preferred qualification that is most important for this job. You might be a better candidate for the job even if you are missing one of the preferred qualifications. Your job is to articulate in your application materials why you would be successful in this particular job.
How do I know which are the most important preferred qualifications?
Often times you won’t. I like to think that they are written in order of importance, but this is not a guarantee. You know which of the preferred qualifications you have, so try not to give yourself anxiety about the things that are our of your control. Articulate the qualifications you already have, discuss the experiences that have translatable skills, show that you have a genuine interest in the type of job and the institution to which you are applying, and then move on!
How much time do you spend with my actual application?
As you can see from my process, this is hard to calculate because I go through the application stack many times and in different orders. I imagine that on any one application I spend anywhere from fifteen seconds to four or five minutes in my initial review. If the applicant has made it to my interview list or someone else’s on the committee, we might spend an additional five minutes talking about the applicant.
Daniel Clark says
As always, thanks for all the great no-nonsense info. Question: what time of year does all of this happen for positions beginning Fall semester? For example, if I don’t get any calls by February, can I assume I’m out of the running? Basically, when do the preliminary conference interviews usually happen, and when do the on-campus interviews usually happen?
Karen Cardozo says
I’ll be curious what Maggie says: in my experience there is not as consistent a cycle as with the academic track. Some “Alt” searches drag on throughout the year and some are posted and close quickly, in part because an admin/staff member might leave at any time as opposed to around the academic calendar as most faculty do. And – many such searches don’t do conference interviews, only preliminary phone/SKYPE interviews followed by campus visits. It depends on the position and whether there’s an obvious professional association tied to it.
Karen Cardozo says
Maggie – this is excellent and offers important insights, most notably the “fifteen seconds” reminder that applicants need to do the heavy lifting of translation and explanation so reviewers aren’t left wondering about 1) whether they meet criteria and 2) why they want the job.
However, it strikes me that the group that could benefit most from this piece are… Search Committees! You’ve described a model process on the part of both committees and individual reviewers, but in my experience many fall short – from an ill-conceived job description (without a clearly conveyed sense of duties or context), to lack of agreement among committee members about hiring priorities, to poor interviewing tactics. No candidate can prepare adequately for that kind of mess, but at least you’ve made clear what candidates can do to avoid landing on the bottom of the pile, and you set the bar high for the Search Committee’s work!
“How do I know which are the most important preferred qualifications?”
There are also certain words that highlight the “need” for certain skills. Not the basic ones but the ones that set you aside. I don’t remember them anymore but they are very clear (e.g. preferred or “would be of advantage”, etc). They sound casual but they aren’t. Typically skills/experience should be addressed in the order of the job posting. And not missing a single one (except the experience time. sometimes the experience time is… a bit exagerated).
Once the search committee has requested and received the letters of recommendation, how long do they typically take to shortlist the candidate list?
Hard to say but usually no more than a month, although if the holidays intervene it will be longer.
Thank you. The wait is excruciating.
I recently learnt about sending thank you letters after interviews. I always thought that the interviewer(s) make up their mind during/after the interview and a thank you letter, though a nice gesture, will likely not sway the decision. Is this true, esp for academic phone/skype interviews? I have had phone interviews and not heard back even after 2 weeks, which is long for these quick screening-type conversations. What do you think?
Rich Bakken says
Thank you for the post! I was curious if you think it proper to reach out to the Search Committee Chair via email after submitting the academic application to HR to express interest and share that you’ve applied? Or do you let the HR process proceed on its own?
If you know the search chair, there is no harm in reaching out. Most of the times, you would not know who the chair is.