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.