Search Committee Etiquette

Mikita Brottman offers six tips for those interviewing faculty members in this challenging year.

February 12, 2010

Campus interview season is upon us again, and for those searching for a position in the humanities, the prospect looks daunting. The American Historical Association’s job listings are down 15 percent, and Modern Language Association listings are down 21 percent -- the steepest annual decline the organization has ever recorded. Those in the know have suggested humanities jobs may be down 40 percent by the end of this academic year, which would be a terrible blow to an already desperate situation.

Those on the market can be forgiven for thinking that members of search committees have it easy, though it would be wrong to think of these positions -- committee member and candidate -- as fixed binaries, since search committees often include faculty in temporary positions, who may well be on the market again themselves within a year or two.

The ordeal of the search committee is certainly an easier one than that of the job seeker, but it is not to be taken lightly. This year’s search committees in particular will bear huge responsibilities, including the monumental task of reading through hundreds of application packets in search of the perfect candidate (and even then, budget lines may well be cut before the hire is made). Plus, there are plenty if things the committee has no control over, including -- often -- the precise working of the job ad, the dishearteningly impersonal and generic application process, and, of course, the depressing number of unemployed Ph.D.'s.

As a seven-year veteran of the job market and -- since then -- a member of four search committees, I have six tips for those hosting campus interviews in the humanities this year.

(1) Always remember that it is simply a matter of serendipity that you are an interviewer, rather than an applicant. Would you be hired again now, if you had to compete in the current market? For most of us, the honest answer is: probably not.

Do not, therefore, assume you are more experienced or capable than the candidate. These days, it is perfectly common to receive applications for entry-level positions from senior candidates with an impressive array of publications -- candidates who may very well have been on many search committees themselves. There are all kinds of reasons why a senior academic may be on the market -- to accompany a relocating spouse, for one -- and no candidate should be dismissed simply because members of the search committee cannot understand why they are applying for an entry-level position “at their age.”

(2) Remember that interview candidates have, in many cases, flown great distances to your campus, and this may not be their only campus interview in a tight space of time. It is emotionally and physically draining to stay smart, perky and enthusiastic for days on end. Do not cram your candidates’ schedules. Always leave them lots of downtime. And if they turn down an invitation to go bowling or visit the local apple-butter factory, this should not be counted against them. Maybe they just need to catch up on their sleep.

(3) If a candidate does not seem fascinated by the history of your institution, the quality of your library and the achievements of your students, it does not mean they do not want the job. In my case, after visiting so many beautiful campuses, I developed a strong defense against getting too excited about a place I might never see again. Stoical detachment is sometimes the best form of self-preservation. You don’t want to fall in love if there’s a chance the relationship could turn out to be a one-night stand.

(4) However many candidates you’ve had to campus, however many job talks and meals you’ve had to sit through, remember -- this is part of the search process, not a faculty get-together. The candidate has already spent hundreds of their own dollars to attend AHA or MLA, and if you invite them to your campus, you should show them some respect. I will never forget the time I was taken to dinner by two members of a search committee who spent the whole evening in a furious debate about French Canadian politics until one of them stormed out in a rage.

(5) It may sound obvious, but make sure you have read the candidate’s resume and made yourself familiar with his or her work. When you’ve been reading hundreds of files, it can be easy to get candidates confused, and -- for the applicant -- little can be more disheartening. Even if the human resources department insists that you ask the same questions of all candidates, show them you are interested in them as unique individuals. If they’ve written books or articles, read them. If they have a Web site, check it out. Nothing is more depressing than a search committee that seems to have no idea who you are.

(6) Finally, above all else, call your candidates within two weeks of the campus visit to let them know their status. Call, don’t e-mail. You may have offered the job to someone else and be waiting on a decision; you may be waiting to hear from the dean about funding; you may be negotiating for a spousal hire. Whatever’s happening, let your candidates know. Even if you’re forbidden to release any information, drop them a line to let them know why you haven’t called. For the candidate, taking a new academic job is a life-changing experience; it may involve taking children out of school, selling a home, even moving to another country. There is so much at stake. To keep a candidate waiting or uninformed is the height of arrogance, but unfortunately, it is the norm, not the exception.

As a matter of fact, I’m still waiting to hear back from a campus interview I had in 1999.


Mikita Brottman is chair of the humanities program at Pacifica Graduate Institute.


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