Tuesday, February 11, 2014


When Searches Fail

Karen Kelsky has a good column offering advice to a job seeker who has noticed a job reposted from the year before.  Should the candidate re-apply?  Kelsky says yes, if there has been something significantly changed in the application.

I’ll disagree slightly.  If you want the job, reapply.  Period.  Additional accomplishments and such are great, if you have them, but I wouldn’t assume that it would be futile without them.  That’s because searches fail for a whole host of reasons.  

Among the possible reasons, and this is based on experience:

- The funding gets pulled one year, only to appear again the following year.  

- The college couldn’t come to terms with the top candidate or two, and the department didn’t want anyone else.  

- The person whose retirement created the opening rescinded the retirement at the last minute.

- The committee was deeply divided.  This year features a different committee.

- The “winning” candidate took another job two months later, leaving the department in the lurch.

- Someone else retired, and now the department has a greater sense of urgency.

- Something went wrong procedurally with the earlier search, and it got cancelled to prevent a tainted process.  This could be a confidentiality breach, a failure to recuse, or any number of things.

- Enrollments have shifted.

- Subfield preferences have shifted.

- The committee fell into the “nothing less than a purple unicorn will do” trap last year, and learned its lesson the hard way.

The list is far from exhaustive.  Very few of those should preclude a qualified and interested person from applying for a reposted position, even with a portfolio substantially the same as the previous year.

Most academic departments don’t do searches terribly often, so they’re usually in the high-effort, low-productivity part of the learning curve.  A candidate applying to dozens of jobs across the country may start to
despair for the profession upon seeing rookie mistakes made repeatedly, but that’s because the searches aren’t coordinated with each other.  The fact that a college in another state ran a search last month that appealed to you means absolutely nothing on my own campus.  

None of this changes the facts that the market sucks, that some great people are frozen out or badly underemployed, and that when you need a job, you need a job.  But I hope it conveys the message that in the vast majority of cases, it’s not about you.  Don’t forego applying for something you really want out of a misplaced sense of self-blame.  If you want it, take the shot.  

From the outside, search committees can seem like evil conspiracies, or well-oiled machines designed for maximum exploitation.  And yes, some of them sometimes step in it.  But most of the time, failed searches aren’t about bad behavior, conspiracies, lack of a talent pool, or bitter political infighting.  The causes are more pedestrian than that.

Keep it simple.  If you want the job, apply for it.  And if it comes up again and you still want it, apply again.  Don’t rule yourself out; chances are, it wasn’t about you.

Just a confirmatory story. I applied for a position, interviewed on campus, didn't get it. Two (not one) year later, the school was searching for what appeared to be the same position (same fields, etc.). I applied, got the job (the only difference being I presented new research), and spent the rest of my career there. (This is confirmatory evidence with an N=1, so it's worth a little, not a lot.)
I'll second what Dean Dad said, particulary as it pertains to the COMMUNITY COLLEGE market.

Beware of category errors, particularly with job searches!

I've seen some of the things he listed and heard of a few others. (Maybe you came in second and will be first the next time around, albeit in better times.) But at the R1 or top regional level, you might have to add something to make the grade.

One thing I'll add might explain doc's experience described above. Each college has its own history that is impossible for outsiders (even insiders) to discern. What I've seen is "repeat success, don't repeat mistakes". Maybe the place hired a superstar who left for greener pastures at the end of a year or even a semester (where it could still take a year to do a new search), and that good candidate is back looks REALLY interested in being here and staying here? That could tip the balance.
This reminds me of a mathematics class where the teacher took some time to talk about the many reasons one might not have been accepted to a particular grad school.

Its so easy when rejected (in anyway) to take it personally; forgetting that there are many reasons in any aspect of life one might not be chosen.
Many years ago, I interviewed for one of two very similar, tenure-track positions (both in the same department) at a community college in a metropolitan area. Didn't get the job -- which, based on things I later learned about that department, was for the best. However, I learned about their lack of further interest via a letter (typed name of the department chair at the bottom, no signature) in which a nice passive voice construction was used: Something along the lines of, "We have met our staffing needs at this time, and thank you for participating in our search." Notice they didn't say they had hired anyone, but they certainly implied that. A week later, both positions were reposted. It took me all of ten seconds to decide that I did not want to waste my time on those folks. (A year later, I got a better position at another school, a much healthier work environment as it turns out.)
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