Thursday, June 29, 2006


Ask the Administrator: Informal Pre-Interviews

A West Coast correspondent writes:

I have sent out about 20 job applications for positions in student affairs or academic affairs. Many of the positions are at universities on the East Coast (because I would like to move) and I currently live on the West Coast. I am a little worried about getting interviews since I'm so far away (I chose NOT to talk about my desire to move across the country in my cover letter). When I scheduled a trip to one town near my top choice university (where I applied to for two jobs) I emailed the chairs of two different search committees and told them I'd be in town if they'd like to meet and talk about the position. I haven't heard anything from these committees officially, so when I sent the emails I was not sure what stage of the application review process they are actually in. One person responded and told me that she can't interview anyone until they get official permission from HR or someone, but she offered to meet with me informally if I wanted.

My questions are: 1) Was contacting the search committees a smart thing for me to do or was that pushy (eg. should it be avoided in the future?) and 2) Should I actually meet with this woman? Can it hurt my real chances at an interview if I meet with her informally? I'm unsure what would happen in this meeting -- I suppose I could ask questions about the position (I've got a few).

I’ve been on my share of search committees, for both faculty and administrative positions, and I’ve never heard of a committee chair or member just meeting an external candidate informally. (With internal candidates, it’s pretty much unavoidable.) I don’t think you did anything wrong in telling the committees that you’d be around – if anything, it might have saved them some travel reimbursement money, if they were going to interview you anyway – but I’d wonder about the wisdom of the committee chair offering to meet with you offline.

Admittedly, the market for administrative positions is often less glutted with applicants than the market for faculty, so some of the folks doing the searches may be less process-conscious than you’d expect on the faculty side. Still, they’re bound by the same open-search, non-discrimination rules as anybody else. It’s not unusual for first formal interviews (i.e. group interviews) to consist of prewritten questions that are the same for each candidate, specifically to ensure that everybody is treated equitably. An informal interview, granted out of convenience and prior to the naming of a list of interview candidates, could be viewed as an unfair advantage.

With the chair who offered you an informal interview, you’re in an awkward position. The interview really shouldn’t exist in the first place, but since the offer is hanging out there, if you walk away from it, it might be interpreted as a lack of interest in the position. I’d say the chair made a mistake, not you, and it’s not your responsibility to do the chair’s job for her. If she offered you a shot, you’re within your rights to take it. The fact that she dropped the ball by making the offer at all is her problem, not yours. (Don’t be surprised, though, if she backs off when you follow up and try to set a day and time. In her shoes, I would. If that happens, it’s not a reflection on you; it’s just a belated recognition on her part that she goofed.)

I’d recommend treating the interview as an opportunity for you to investigate both the university and the job. Ask LOTS of questions about both. (Example: does the job have a set end date? Many lower-level admin jobs in larger universities have a three-years-and-out rule; you'd want to know that sort of thing.) To the extent that you’re information-gathering, rather than auditioning, it’s harder to find fault. It could also give you a sense as to whether you’d want to work at either position at that university; if you decide you don’t like the community, or the housing prices are out of line, that’s useful information. Since you’re applying to another job at that same university, any community info you pick up will be relevant to both.

More broadly, it’s always hard to know how much enthusiasm (or projected enthusiasm) is too much, and a lot depends on the personalities on the committee. My personal preference is in favor of folks who follow the process as outlined, and reserve the energy for the actual interviews (and the subsequent thank-you notes). But that’s me. I was on a faculty search committee seven or eight years ago when one candidate – who was eventually chosen and turned out to be a rising star – nearly tanked her candidacy with too much initial pestering. Depending on how you read that, it’s either a cautionary tale, or the key word is ‘nearly.’

(One exception to the ‘respect the process’ rule: generally, beat submission deadlines by a comfortable margin. For reasons I’ll never understand, committees jumping the gun on their own deadlines is weirdly common. If the ad appears in mid-September with an application deadline of Nov. 15, get the application in by early October. At my previous college, deadline-jumping was almost standard procedure, and colleagues elsewhere have told me the same thing about their schools. My current one doesn’t, but it seems to be the exception.)

Wise and generous readers: what do you think?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

I don' t think it is a problem to ask for a few mintues while you are in town -- but I agree with Dean Dad that the chair shouldn't have given them to you.

On the other hand, we had a successful out of state candidate who turned in his application in person because he was going to be in the area. He stopped by and visited us in the department just to get a feel for the place. We showed him around and generally acted as if we were trying to convince him to teach for us -- and we would have done the same for any candidate who made a similar effort. Perhaps this is what the chair was thinking??
I don't know that I agree with the "unfair advantage" aspect. If the person stopped by your office, would you turn them away with the idea that speaking to them would give them an unfair advantage? An out of town candidate who takes the initiative to visit while in the area gets a few minutes. Professional courtesy is just that.

If that candidate is invited to join the process, disclosure makes certain that any unfair advantage is removed at the outset. If the candidate is not invited back, they have to understand that 'business is business', and a few minutes of discussion is not the golden ticket.
A similar situation happened to me when I was on the market. I had turned in my application electronically, and an hour later the search chair sent me an email--he was going to be passing through the city in which I was living, and wanted to meet me for coffee. At the time, I didn't think there was anything improper or weird about it. I guess I classified it in the same category as, say, someone's dissertation advisor who happens to know someone on the search committee--just a source of additional information about someone's application. (And maybe this is even somewhat in the same category as googling candidates to find their web pages, if they have them--again, just trying to get a fuller picture of the candidate.) Sure, not everyone had the opportunity to have coffee with the search chair, but there is always inherently some bias in the selection process--it is impossible to be completely objective when all you have to begin with is a limited picture of the candidate. In retrospect, I can see how this could be problematic, and I think at the very least care should be taken to use the extra information appropriately. (What exactly that entails, I don't know. Tough question!)
Although I understand your points, I disagree with those who say that the chair should not meet with the candidate. In our last search, I served on our search committee. I met with a couple candidates who happened to be at a conference I was attending. I provided them with information about the programs, as I would have with anyone who approached me and asked about our positions. I also sought out a meeting with a candidate in whom the committee was quite interested. We talked a little about his research, his career plans, and what kinds of things our program had to offer. Each of these persons still had to go through our process (vitae and cover letter review, conference interview, campus visit, etc.). I don't see it as an issue of unfair advantage, because it is about access, and everyone has it if they choose to use it.
Generally, I don't have a problem with it. We've done this for years at FIU (fallen Ivy U), and it is helpful since the candidate gets a feel for the school and department and we can get a quick if imperfect understanding of the potential job candidate. It won't "seal" the deal on anyone, but this informal chit-chat has helped to weed out the candidates who fail the "sandbox test" (do you play well with others?)
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