Monday, July 07, 2008
Ask and Ye Shall Receive...
- Respect the unknowability of the process. Several commenters noted the alchemical reactions that occur in committees, and sometimes at levels to which those committees report (hi!). In grad school I recall both faculty and students speaking with great knowingness about “the real story” behind this or that search. Having been on this side of the desk for a while, I can attest that much of the time, even the folks involved don't know the “real story.” (In my faculty days, I was on committees that, in retrospect, I couldn't explain on a bet.) While that can lead to a certain fatalism -- “doesn't anybody here know how to play this game?” -- it can also lead to a certain freedom. Since there's no set template for What Committees Really Want, you're well advised to be yourself. Be on your good behavior, yes, but be a recognizable version of yourself. Over the long term, you're likelier to succeed at a job that found your actual personality a good fit. If you fake your way into a job, you may work your way right out of it.
- Have good questions to ask. This means reading the website and any supporting materials they send you in advance, and not asking questions that you could/should have been able to answer there. It also means not leading with “So, what does it pay?” Multiple commenters noted this one, and I couldn't agree more.
- Don't come in with Attitude. Yes, a community college gig may not be what you had in mind when you signed up for grad school. But projecting that is the kiss of death. Even people who routinely bash their own employers often think quite highly of the work they themselves do. If you honestly believe that a given job is beneath you, don't apply for it.
- Pitch at the right level. If you're applying for a faculty gig at an R1, it's all about research. At a community college (or a proprietary college), it's really about teaching. At this level, candidates who can't stop talking about their research are regarded with skepticism. Yes, it's good to remain in touch with your field, but at the end of the day, what we're paying you for is good teaching. (I'd imagine this advice is trickier at those midtier four-year schools that think they can have it all. It's probably also trickier at institutions with distinctive religious or ethnic identities, when the candidates don't fit those identities. Readers with knowledge of those are invited to comment.)
- The Waiter Test. I once heard a bigwig say that he uses the Waiter Test to judge every candidate. At the lunch or dinner, how did the candidate treat the waiter? (This also applies to administrative assistants, student aides, or anybody on the lower rungs of the local hierarchy.) This is a way to spot the “kiss up, kick down” personality, which is toxic. Treat everybody you meet with at least basic courtesy.
- Listen, listen, listen. You can pick up amazing things by listening between the lines. Listen for the pauses, the hesitations, and the garbled constructions. I've seen wonderfully intelligent and well-spoken people fail this basic test. At one college at which I applied for an administrative gig several years ago, I kept hearing deeply messed-up stuff between the lines. I decided not to take the gig, if offered. (It wasn't.) Within a year, both the President and the Academic VP had left, each under a cloud. I've also seen candidates so intent on hitting their talking points that they didn't register when the group had mentally moved on. This did not bode well for their teaching.
- Kait had an interesting suggestion that I actually tried once, to awful effect. She suggested “At the end of the interview, when they ask you if you have any questions, ask them: "Do you have any reservations about hiring me that I can address?"” I actually tried that once. My questioner recoiled, the temperature in the room dropped several degrees, and she replied that she didn't think it would be ethical to share the committee's inner workings with a candidate. I retreated to “is there anything in my materials that you'd like me to clarify?”, but by then, the damage was done. If you try this, pick your moment carefully.
- Finally, and this is easier said than done, don't take it personally. It's Not About You. I know that's cold comfort when you need a job, and counterintuitive when you're the one being scrutinized, but it's true. I've seen wonderful candidates do nothing wrong, impress all who met them, and still walk away disappointed, just because there was someone else who solved the college's need a little better. Sometimes I think the old jingle “Weebles wobble but they don't fall down” is the most profound piece of philosophy ever smuggled into a children's toy commercial.
Wise and worldly readers – anything to add?
Good luck to all.
What I and my colleagues want to see is someone who is passionate about bringing their area of specialization to students who are not necessarily the best prepared or the smartest but who really do want to learn. It's not about publishing or perishing so much as it's about being an active scholar who can then use that to engage students and to show them how to become scholars themselves.
I don't think that's necessarily a negative, or that schools like mine are trying to have it all in a negative way. I think this approach at my own undergrad institution probably accounts for the fact that I went on to grad school. No, the research that happens at this kind of school will most probably never have the kind of impact that research at top research universities has. And no, the teaching that happens isn't the same kind of teaching that one gets at a community college, where teaching has traditionally been the only focus. But I think the mix at mid-tier 4-years is just different - not necessarily or always a bad thing - for faculty or, more importantly, for students.
Let me expand this for everybody applying for any job. Don't apply for any job you don't want to take! It will save everybody a lot of time and effort!
As for geography, that is a good point made by anonymous, but I think an open mind cuts both ways: don't assume anything about places in the US you no nothing about: don't fall prey to stereotypes, don't listen to your adviser or other colleagues. I really loved some places people said would not be for me. As for those who think the candidate doesn't really want to leave, e.g. the east coast, give said candidate a break, or at least a tour. I've seen people really make a home for themselves after the initial culture shock wears off. My two cents...
So my advice to job seekers is to keep an open mind. If you don't meet the qualifications for the position, don't apply. If you do, and would consider an offer seriously even if you aren't excited about the location, go ahead. It's up to the school to recruit the best faculty it can, so give your prospective department chair a chance to convince you that you could thrive there.
The advice about having good questions to ask is key.
But that just goes to show that there will be differences across campus as well as across types of institutions. The boundary is probably drawn where a minimum amount of annual externally funded research money is a requirement for tenure in addition to the usual publication record with international impact.
What Dr. Crazy describes for her institution appears typical of what my friends had to do at similar 4-yr or MS institutions. Lead authorship is less important, but active involvement in research (especially by undergrads) is essential.
To summarize: know your market and prepare accordingly.
I strongly recommend reading everything ever written by "The Two-Year Track" and many of the columns by "Ms. Mentor" if you are looking for a CC job, and others offer insight into the seldom-discussed mid-tier universities that came up in this discussion.
It is not the job of the applicant to protect the use of resources for the search. I realize academic searches are pretty intensive, but part of being grown up about HR is to recognize that part of the process is that some people won't accept positions... mostly responsibly.