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Investing in the Search Process

Doing what we know we should to attract the best candidates.
By Alan R. Shoho

Every year universities and colleges gear up to recruit new colleagues, and applicants religiously search the Chronicle of Higher Education,, and Inside Higher Ed. While there are abundant resources for applicants, relatively few resources beyond institutional dos and don’ts exist to guide search committees. Recently, I have noticed a lack of proactivity on both sides of the search process. In the case of universities, the predominant attitude appears to be: Place an ad in the Chronicle of Higher Education and people will apply—a version of “If you build it, they will come.” But who will come?

With the exception of a handful of elite institutions and their networks, I don’t believe higher education institutions can afford to sit back and take a wait-and-see approach to who applies. Whether at a flagship or small liberal arts institution or community college, being proactive in encouraging qualified applicants is the best way to ensure a high quality applicant pool. By “proactive” I don’t mean sending form e-mails to institutions or associations. When I refer to affirmative steps, I mean taking a personal approach, contacting colleagues individually, informing them of the position and encouraging them or their graduating doctoral students to apply. This means creating a network of colleagues through professional organizations within your academic discipline. It also means making personal calls, sending individualized e-mail messages, and taking the steps needed to make the person feel as if you are truly interested. Is this extra work? Yes, but work now will save work later and increase the likelihood that the search won’t be closed unsuccessfully.

As one senior colleague once told me, “The best way to ensure a positive tenure decision is at the hiring stage.” If you hire good people and support them in the pre-tenure years, they earn tenure. Speaking from personal experience, I can say that one of the most uncomfortable experiences for a faculty member is being unable to support the promotion of a colleague. The ounce of prevention is proactivity during the search process. In recruiting senior faculty, being proactive is the single most important step since, in general, senior faculty are not searching for new positions. Most senior faculty members are like abalone: You have to pry them away from their rock of security. This is particularly true for the most sought-after scholars. In general, it is largely through proactive contact that senior faculty members become aware of new positions at other institutions.

In recruiting for a full professorship a number of years ago, I made more than fifty telephone and e-mail contacts to gauge interest. In the end, I attracted five great candidates. Was I successful? Well, attracting five out of fifty senior faculty is not bad. And according to an executive director of the leading organization in the field, our search finalists represented one of the best applicant pools in the country that year.

Having served on numerous search committees over the past twenty years, I have come to the conclusion that most faculty and administrators don’t take on the same level of responsibility toward hiring new colleagues, or succession planning to replace retiring colleagues, or filling the position of someone who is leaving for greener pastures as they would when reviewing journal manuscripts, revising their own manuscripts, or evaluating colleagues. As Chris Argyris of Harvard University and Donald Schon of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology mentioned in their 1974 book Theory in Practice: Increasing Professional Effectiveness, there is a lack of alignment between espoused theories and theories in use. While many people acknowledge the importance of hiring good people, there is often a disconnect between the importance people attach to search committees and their actual conduct in the search process. This lack of commitment, a shortsighted perspective, creates longer-term problems. Yes, search committee work can be mundane and time-consuming; most scholars would rather be preparing their next journal or book manuscript, collecting and analyzing data, engaging in a meaningful dialogue where the conceptualization of a new idea is germinated, preparing to teach their courses, or any other stimulating scholarly activity.

Many on faculty search committees need to rethink the way they view the process. It should be perceived as a professional investment opportunity. Like any investment, the investor or group of investors—that is, the applicant or search committee—must be willing to do a thorough job of researching their potential investments if a high rate of return is to materialize.

It has been my experience that the outcome of the search process depends on the quality of the commitment displayed by all stakeholders. If you invest minimal effort into the process (for example, by using form letters or e-mails and taking a wait-and-see approach), you are likely to receive little in return. Even when you invest huge amounts of energy, the outcome is uncertain, but at least you have the satisfaction of knowing you did all you could. Search committees that perform like amateur investors, unwilling to do the necessary prerequisite work, are unlikely to achieve the desired results. Apathetic search committees are analogous to lottery players; they invest a little and receive little or no return.

On the other side, it’s amazing how many candidates blindly apply for positions unsuited to their talents or come to an interview knowing little or nothing about the institution, program, or faculty. In putting together an application packet, the applicant should read the position announcement carefully and write a custom letter of application that addresses required and preferred qualifications and why he or she is most suited for consideration. It is amazing how many letters of application (the first thing a committee reviews) are written without care. By doing homework on the institution and mentioning how the institution fits his or her profile, the applicant demonstrates an atypical level of commitment. When reviewing hundreds of applications, it is readily apparent when an applicant sends a mass letter. In their desire to be efficient, applicants often resort to a one-size-fits-all method in hopes of winning the lottery. Unfortunately, this method often produces lottery-like results: lots of losers.

For the search process to be mutually satisfying, it is of utmost importance that search committees and applicants strive to treat each other with empathy, dignity, respect, and understanding. Interview arrangements should be developed in a mutually satisfactory manner. Search committees and candidates must be flexible. For either party to demand unreasonable conditions at the interview stage will almost certainly end the process for that candidate. I was once a part of a search where a candidate demanded to travel only on a certain airline and wanted to travel first class. This was a clue that this candidate might be high maintenance and difficult to work with. When the search chair informed the candidate that this could not be done, he withdrew, a blessing.

Another surprise has been how few questions candidates ask of search committees. The interview process is bilateral; being able to ask search committees specific questions is an opportunity that should not be wasted. All candidates should draw up a list of questions after reviewing information on the institution, program, and faculty. Similar to the investment analogy for search committees, prospective applicants should invest in the application and interview process if they want their search to be successful.

As I mentioned earlier, the search process can be tedious and mundane if approached from the wrong perspective. If you view the search process as an investment in the institution and your own professional development, it can be stimulating. Committees and applicants might keep in mind two of Robert Fulghum’s rules of thumb from All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten: “Share everything and play fair.” Beyond this simple advice, here are some tips for
search committees and applicants to increase the likelihood of a mutually satisfying experience.

Advice for Search Committees

  1. Recruit! Practice affirmative action by calling and e-mailing colleagues around the country to personally invite them to apply or for the names of potential applicants.
  2. Be fair. At a minimum, be consistent in your behavior toward each applicant. 
  3. Try to develop a mutually acceptable arrangement for interviewing. The heart of the interview process is the interpersonal relationships that develop.
  4. Make sure someone from the search committee picks up the candidate from the airport and personally welcomes him or her. Don’t shift this responsibility to a graduate student; don’t ask the candidate to take a taxi.
  5. If possible, try to host the candidate for a dinner at one of the search committee members’ homes. This personalizes the experience and leaves a lasting impression on candidates, creating a positive image for your institution. It also separates your institution from most other institutions that aren’t willing to provide this type of social experience.
  6. Develop an interview itinerary beforehand that gives candidates an idea of what their stay will be like. Try to organize the itinerary so that each candidate’s visit is enjoyable and the pace reasonable.
  7. Emphasize the importance of creating an inviting environment for the interview. Remember that the interview process is a two-way street—the applicant is also interviewing the search committee and assessing the institution.
  8. Make sure the committee is organized and the little details are taken care of. Ask questions that will provide you with information on the most important characteristics the search committee needs to consider.
  9. Don’t blow off the interview as a meaningless exercise. Hold all members of the search committee accountable, and use the information gathered as the capstone to further deliberations.
  10. Take the time to go to all meetings with the candidates, participate in the social intermingling, and be respectful.
  11. Be honest with the interviewees; point out the positive and the challenges.
  12. Be a good host or hostess—envision how you would like to be treated.
  13. Provide for formal and informal interactions with faculty, staff, and students.
  14. Provide information and an experience (such as a tour) of the college or university community.
  15. Be prepared to make timely offers. Delay could cost you a prized candidate.
  16. Negotiate in good faith. Treat candidates as you would like to be treated.
  17. For those applicants who didn’t make the short list, send out letters as soon as possible. No one wants to wait two to four months and then receive a letter stating the obvious. Respect their interest in your institution and they will walk away respecting your institution and process. And remember that a candidate who may not be a good fit right now may be an ideal fit somewhere down the line.

Advice for Prospective Tenure-Track Faculty Applicants

  1. Be sure you are a qualified applicant. Be explicit in addressing how you meet the required and preferred qualifications in the position announcement. Make your letter of application easy to review.
  2. Read the position announcement carefully before writing a letter of application.
  3. Have a respected colleague or mentor review your curriculum vitae.
  4. Place all publications under the right category. Separate blind peer review publications from non-blind peer review publications. Do not try to deceive reviewers with your publications in terms of type or quality. Provide full citation information and grant amounts.
  5. Use any feedback constructively to improve your application.
  6. Before the interview, do some homework on the institution and the program area. Be familiar with the people in the department or program. Look up their work in a citation index.
  7. Develop a set of general and specific questions. Don’t be afraid of tough ones like “What kind of working environment and relationships exist at this institution?” Or “What is the biggest challenge this department or institution struggles with?” Probe their answers until you are satisfied.
  8. Insist on meeting with students. Ask for their perceptions of the faculty, department, and institution.
  9. Bring examples of your work and that of your students.
  10. Have a thoughtful statement of your philosophy.
  11. Prepare a carefully worded research agenda and be able to articulate it.
  12. Develop a personal strategic plan (for pretenure years) or a five-year plan (for tenured applicants).
  13. Try to integrate your philosophy statement, research agenda, and strategic plan into the interview. Keep your responses focused.
  14. Try to answer all questions directly. Don’t be a politician and try to dodge or answer indirectly. If you don’t know the answer, say so.
  15. Don’t try to answer questions from the search committee based on what you think they want to hear.
  16. Try to avoid petty conflicts. In any disagreements, try to use a win/win approach by supporting your disagreement with evidence or foundation to support your perspective.
  17. Ask questions about how long faculty members have been there, why they came here, why they stay. . . . These questions reveal the culture of the institution and the community or lack of community among faculty.
  18. Assess whether you are a good “fit” for the institution and department. 
  19. After the interview, write a personal handwritten letter of appreciation to all committee members. E-mails are okay as well, but nowadays with so little meaningful snail mail, it is nice to get a personal handwritten note from candidates.
  20. Be patient with the search process. Depending on whether you are the first or last candidate to be interviewed, the time frame for coming to a conclusion may range from days to weeks.
  21. Exhibit “tough love” and win-win philosophies in negotiations. There are many examples of good and bad negotiations in the Chronicle and in various advice columns. Read these articles and consult trusted colleagues or mentors for advice on negotiating.

In the end, a satisfying search process depends on how the search committee and applicant conceptualize it. If viewed as a time-consuming chore, the search process is likely to produce lottery-like results. Buying a one-dollar ticket gives you a minuscule chance of winning or, in a lackluster search, of finding a good fit between applicant and institution. In contrast, if the search process is viewed as a mutual investment, it can be a positive experience for both search committee members and applicants. The key is investing the requisite amount of human capital to improve the odds.

Alan R. Shoho can be reached at Shoho is a professor of educational leadership and policy studies and associate vice provost for academic and faculty support at the University of Texas at San Antonio where he has been for the past twenty years.

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