Searching thoughts

Collin recently posted a very handy, realistic, and informative hand-out for PhD students in Syracuse’s Composition and Cultural Rhetoric program. It’s great advice, and considering the fact I chaired a search here this last school year and we hired soon-to-be Syracuse graduate Derek Mueller, I thought I’d offer some thoughts from the hiring side of things, though for obvious reasons, I have to remain vague on some aspects of all this.

  • Getting a line at places like EMU (that is, regional, public institutions that are traditionally under-funded) is not a matter of a phone call and a form to academic HR. It can take years to get a search, even if the need is obvious and acute. I don’t know if this is something that candidates need to worry about much or not, other than the fact that the stakes for these positions are often high and often involve a history that is a lot longer than one job cycle.
  • I thought the call for applications we had for this position was pretty good: not so specific to describe an ideal candidate that doesn’t really exist, and not so vague as to clearly represent a fishing expedition. I don’t know if I should say how many applications we received on this here or not, but we had a really strong pool of candidates.
  • And as an aside: I think that the climate that candidates are in and the advice that candidates are receiving have changed in recent years because all but a handful of the applications we received for this job were in the ball park of composition, rhetoric, and/or technology. When I was first on the market in the mid 1990s, it was very common advice– especially in literature– to apply for any job that moved. Perhaps this was because it used to be if a committee was searching for a comp/rhet person but the pool received an application from a really stellar Victorianist, then maybe they might change the intention of the search just to hire that really good person. I don’t think that happens much anymore. Or maybe it doesn’t happen at places like EMU with very distinct programs and searches. If that makes sense.
  • Along the way to narrow down a pool for phone interviews (and this is where I start to get increasingly vague), we had to deal with the academic HR people to make sure that our ranking system was fair, that there was some sense of “points” being assigned to candidates, etc., etc. This was nothing overly intrusive from the administration, but I guess my point is there isn’t a lot of room in our process here to hire someone (or not hire someone) based on what I would describe as some sort of whim of the committee.
  • We did phone interviews, and while my literature colleagues in particular are still believers in the face-to-face MLA interview, I think the pros of the phone interview mightily outweigh the cons of the MLA interview. I have a colleague/friend of mine (in literature, incidentally) who thinks that phone interviews are terrible and who has argued with me that if it is a matter of saving money, why not skip the interview process entirely and just hire someone based only on the CV? But the flip-side of this is also true: if the idea is we want to interview at MLA to get more of a “sense” of the candidates, why don’t we invite each finalist to campus for a month? You know, put them up some place, have them give a series of presentations, socialize with faculty, etc. The answer to that is obvious: it’d take way too much time and cost way too much money.

    Well, what’s the justification for the time and expense of MLA again?

    I do think that phone interviews to require a different approach on both the interviewers and the interviewees because the communication channels isn’t as “rich” as a face to face conversation. As an interviewer– or really, in our case, as an interviewing team– you have to have a set of questions that you want to ask. You can’t just “wing it” for a phone interview and kind of go with the flow. And you have to give auditory cues because the candidate can’t see you nodding yes if you want them to keep going in a particular vein.
  • A lot of the process– who you phone interview, who you bring to campus, etc.– has much to do with this magical and vague thing referred to as “fit,” which I guess I would define as what is the combination of things a candidate brings to the table. Again, I have to be vague here, but we didn’t phone interview and also didn’t bring to campus some really REALLY good candidates only because we sensed that they didn’t quite fit right for the search we were doing.
  • Being the chair of a search is a lot of work, and it has more elements of being an event planner/cruise director than I was anticipating.
  • It’s worth repeating to candidates one of the main pieces of advice that Collin offers again and again in his handout: finish your dissertation, or at least have it well under control/underway so you know you’ll finish before taking the job. To use poker language for a moment: I think most candidates who exaggerate the progress diss to a hiring committee have a lot of easy to read tells.
  • In the end, I think our search went smoothly and was successful because the committee was pretty much on the same page, because we had a plan, and because we had fantastic applicants. Especially that last one. We had fantastic candidates, in part I’m sure because of the many canceled searches last year, but I also like to think it’s a good job.

5 thoughts on “Searching thoughts”

  1. Great post, Steve. Your aside above (3rd point) is a good one, and something that I think has changed as well. The amount of flexibility in a hire has a lot to do with the economic climate–when times are tough, hiring departments are that much more likely to have to demonstrate “need” in order to get a hire. If they claim need in one area, but end up hiring in another, they run the risk of losing a lot of credibility with the administration, and being that much less likely to get subsequent “need” hires…

    I’ve got some thoughts on the phone/MLA quandary as well, but I need to sort through them–maybe I’ll post em over at cgbvb in the next day or so…


  2. I’m very much looking forward to serving on a hiring committee in 2 or 3 years, just so that I can gain some perspective on everything I went through this winter. :-)

  3. Really excellent tips here Steve. We did something fairly new on the two search committees I was on here at ODU–we conducted the interviews via Skype video. There was only one candidate out of about 40 that we interviewed who wasn’t able to participate via Skype. Since MLA was out of the question this provided us with a cost-effective way of interviewing and both parties could see each other and read body language. It also helped when it came time to pick up candidates at the airport since we already knew what we all looked like. I think it really worked out as a solution that gave us the best of both worlds (i.e., cheap and in person).

  4. The Skype thing is interesting, Kathie. We contemplated this briefly, and given the nature of the position, it might have been a good basic screening test: if you can’t make video conferencing work, maybe you should be applying for job in computers and writing (says the guy who basically doesn’t do video conferencing…). But we were worried about technical issues and decided ultimately it was easier to keep it simple. Maybe next time.

  5. Yeah, skyping is easy and fun. After all, teens do it so we can do it too. Good post, Steve. You did a great job as search committee chair, and we rocked as a committee.

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