Karen Kelsky

Founder and President at The Professor Is In

The Professor Is In: Help! I’m on a Search

Full poppins

Could you talk about how to serve on your first search committee as a new faculty member? I am on one now, and I’m taken aback by all the politics with more senior professors. Suddenly I find myself incredibly conflicted about being in this position at all.

After a few years on the faculty, you will likely become a seasoned veteran of search-committee service. But for new assistant professors — especially those in small, all-hands-on-deck departments — being on the other side of the hiring table can be a strange transition. One year you are interviewing for multiple jobs, the next you are interviewing multiple people to potentially become your colleague.

In my work consulting with job candidates and tenure applicants, I am known for insisting that Ph.D.s dispense with emotionalism in job documents and professional settings. Yet I believe it’s important to acknowledge emotions that come up during the job search — and to process them appropriately — rather than bringing them into the hiring process on either side of the table.

I mention that because serving on a search committee in your first or second year on the job can bring up a range of complicated emotions. You might experience a retroactive feeling of disempowerment at witnessing up close how random (and by random, I mean contingent on departmental politics) a job search can be. You might feel intimidated and experience a variation of the impostor syndrome ("Who am I to interview these people and make these judgments?").

You even might feel like you are on a bit of a power trip. Suddenly you are one of the gatekeepers for something so many people desperately want, and you may well know some of the applicants. You may feel survivor’s guilt, or shame, at having attained the precious status that so many hundreds of other Ph.D.s will never reach.

Please do yourself, and the applicants in the search pool, a favor, and sit with those emotions a while. Process them before you start dealing with job applications — and certainly before you start dealing with the human beings behind those applications — because if you don’t, it will add to the already fraught hiring process for you, your colleagues, and the applicants alike.

In practical terms, here are some things you can do to be a good search-committee member:

Be informed. By that, I mean two things.

  • First, be informed about the rules of the search process at your institution. It’s all too easy to do something that goes against either common sense or Kafkaesque HR rules — things like Facebook friending the candidate before the interview or asking applicants their age or marital status. Such errors can lead to serious consequences, including the department having to restart the search or the administration pulling the faculty line entirely. All of this really boils down to: "Be professional." And know what being "professional" means in your context.
  • Second, be informed about what the department needs, and keep your eye on them as the search progresses. That may seem obvious — and also like something the committee should have hashed out while drafting the job ad — but things are not always so straightforward. You might end up with a broad/generalist ad, but serve on the search committee with a lonely medievalist who feels underappreciated and alienated in a department dominated by contemporary-lit people. This medievalist really wants another medievalist to talk Chaucer with, even if the student demand is not there. Being a good committee member in this case means managing those politics — acknowledging your medievalist colleague’s wishes in a collegial and sensitive way, while trying to steer the search in the right direction. (This is especially important if you are serving on a search committee outside your department. The best you can do in those cases is check your ego, put aside your own ideas informed by your own discipline and its vision, and defer to the department members’ explanation of what they are looking for.)

Be a decent human being to visiting candidates. The campus interview is a grueling process (at least in North America), as you should remember from your own experiences. It is kind and advisable to go an extra step to make sure that visitors are comfortable.

Job seekers (especially women) are often so terrified of appearing high-maintenance that they may not bring up the fact that they have been scheduled to meet with eight faculty members, one after another, without a bathroom break built in, or that they had to skip lunch because of some logistical issue with transportation. I know of someone who fainted from low blood sugar during a campus visit because she was too anxious of appearing unprofessional to mention that she needed a quick pause for a snack.

So do run interference during meals. Be the colleague who says, "OK, enough questions now, everyone! Let her eat!" Try to remember small considerations — like offering the candidates their own office space to prep for the job talk. And try to be mindful of individual needs — if they are disabled and need certain accommodations on campus; if they are nursing mothers who need time (and private space) to pump. Checking in and asking, "How are you doing? Do you need anything?," a couple of times during the day goes a long way.

Be alert to internal prejudice and combat it. Look out for biases that left their imprint on you, one way or another, during your professionalization in academia — biases that often mirror society at large with its structures of inequality and prejudice. Whatever boilerplate your institution uses about hiring preferences for underrepresented groups, when all other (merit-related) factors are equal, take that language seriously.

Don’t be afraid to be the noisy conscience of the search committee with lines like:

  • "I notice that everyone on this list is male."
  • "I notice everyone on this list is white, although 20 percent of our applicant pool was not."
  • "I think we need to revisit our choices with equity issues in mind. We do want to be leaders in that regard, don’t we?"

Yes, you want to hire the best candidate, and sometimes the best candidate will be the young white man from Harvard. But my point is: Don’t be seduced by the whiteness, maleness, and Harvardness of a candidate into automatically assuming he will be the best for the job. You may well be the committee member most likely to resist that siren song.

You can’t win them all. Just because you speak up doesn’t of course mean you will win the point. As the most junior member of the search committee, you may not have the heft to force an outcome. Faculty politics are what they are, and the senior folks — if they are operating as a bloc — may well have their way. You do have to navigate the terrain. That doesn’t mean being a silent doormat. Make sure your views are known, and shared, with a forceful set of substantiating arguments. But also understand that no faculty member wins every battle, and that departmental relationships are long. Preserve collegiality as best you can as the search proceeds to its conclusion.

Resist the urge to predict how the story will end. To help you preserve your long-term relationships with colleagues — especially if you really disagree with the final decision of the search — please remember what I learned to recognize as a sure-fire rule of faculty hiring: It’s utterly unpredictable. When I was a professor, the hires I fought hardest for sometimes turned out to be rather disappointing, while the hires I was least interested in sometimes turned out to be superb colleagues and scholars.

The fact is, the hiring process, even when executed with enormous care and integrity, is an inexact art. No matter how strongly you feel, you cannot actually know for certain how your future colleague will turn out. So fight your best fight. But once the hire is made, rest in the knowledge that the unexpected can be expected.

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