Monday, October 07, 2013

What the Committee is Really Looking For

Last week, Rebecca Schuman did a wonderful meditation on a job ad from Sewanee that touched off quite a discussion, including here.  This week, Cheryl Ball offered a more global how-to on reading faculty job postings.  The trend of reading job ads as texts strikes me as positive, and someday -- when I’m feeling a little braver -- I may do the same for some administrative postings.  But in the meantime, I was struck by some of the commentary to Ball’s piece in which various readers claimed that it’s possible, by this phrase or that one, to know what a committee is really looking for.

Color me skeptical.  At least if we use a robust interpretation of “looking for.”

Having been lucky enough to be on the hiring side of the desk for a while now -- and I’m always acutely aware that there but for the grace of God go I -- I can attest that it rarely works like that.

The first issue is that faculty job postings are rarely the product of a single author, or even of a single committee.  They’re usually multiply edited pastiches of phrases from various sources, which explains why some of them read they way they do.  Start with the standard institutional self-description.  Add some departmentally-specific language phrased in ways that pass muster with HR. (For example: “minimum” qualifications are mandatory.  “Preferred” qualifications are not.) Throw in the AA/EO phrasing and something about processes and deadlines.  Whether any given search will hinge on affirmative action or similar considerations is usually impossible to predict.  In my experience, it’s neither as dominant as conservative critics often suggest, nor as hollow as some liberal critics suggest.  It’s a factor among others.

Then comes the part that isn’t always obvious from the applicant’s perspective, but it’s real.  Different people on the same committee will sometimes have different ideas of what they want.  They may not even realize it until they’re confronted with actual candidates.  A demo that struck one person as “dynamic” struck another as “domineering.”  One person’s “thoughtful” is another person’s “distant,” and so on.

From a candidate’s perspective, that can be maddening and contradictory.  But it’s the way committees work.  

And it doesn’t stop there.  The candidates who make it past the first round have a second round, in which still more variables come into play.  In the second round, it’s even harder to rely on preconceptions, if only because you have so few candidates among whom to choose.  It comes down to the actual people in front of you, with all of their three-dimensional quirks.  

In other words, beyond a certain point, parsing job ads to try to suss out what the committee is really looking for falls somewhere between kremlinology and astrology.  Most of the time, the committee doesn’t even know, at least with a useful level of specificity.  

For what it’s worth, job candidates can actually use that perspective to their advantage.  

Instead of trying to guess what a given committee really wants, and contorting yourself into a pretzel to resemble it, I’d advise spending that time on gaining some self-awareness.  Who are you as an academic?  As a teacher?  Be that.  Bring your game, whatever that is.  You have a better shot at controlling what you do than what a committee thinks, and you’ll probably do a better job of presenting yourself when you aren’t compensating for something, hiding something, or pretending to be something you’re not.  Even better, you stand a better chance of being successful in the job over time if you present the best honest version of who you actually are then if you get the job under false pretenses.  If the department really wants a flaming extrovert, and you’re a card-carrying introvert, you might be able to fake it through an interview.  But if you succeed, you’ll quickly hate your life.  Life is too short for that.

None of this addresses the pure shortage of positions; I get that.  That’s a much larger issue.  But in the short term, I’d advise candidates to spend less time parsing the tea leaves, and more time figuring out what’s uniquely them.  The search is frustrating enough without trying to read the unreadable.