Admin 101: How to ‘Read’ a Job Candidate’s CV

Full vitae wn0arc

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By David D. Perlmutter

The curriculum vitae is the nearest thing to a gold standard we have in academe. Which is why job candidates — whatever else they submit in an application to a four-year college or research university — are always asked for their CV. But just because that document is ubiquitous in faculty hiring doesn’t mean administrators and search committees always know what they’re looking for on a CV, and how to find it.

The pandemic has certainly disrupted the traditional faculty-hiring process in 2020-21 (and very likely beyond), with virtual recruiting taking the place of in-person interviews and campus visits, and some fields not recruiting much at all.

Yet for those departments that are hiring, the endgame remains the same: Administrators and search-committee members are seeking “the one” — the ideal future colleague who fulfills the required qualifications and a good number of the preferred ones. Meanwhile, candidates want to feel secure that they are joining the right people, at the right time, with the right support to fulfill at least part of their early career goals.

In the Admin 101 series on higher-education leadership, I’ve been doing a deep dive lately on faculty recruiting. Every component of a faculty search is a crucial part of an interlocking system. For hiring administrators, the CV provides a universal early indicator that a candidate is right for an opening — if you understand how to “read” that document.

Here are all the ways that CVs can show you what you need to know.

Use the CV to rank how the candidate meets the required and preferred qualifications. You typically have a matrix to rate candidates on required (must-haves to even be considered) and preferred (“it would also be nice if you had these”) qualifications for every faculty position. This is fair to both the hiring program and the candidate because it encourages a systematic review of the document. Candidates can assist in this process by making clear — organizationally and even typographically — which parts of the CV deal with which qualifications.

Without question, the faculty search process is more complex, labor-intensive, and time-consuming — from the point of view of both the department and the candidates — than it used to be, even in the recent past. I defend some of this expansion of bureaucracy because, in most cases, the intentions have been to instill fairness and some degree of objectivity in what used to be a purely personal, subjective, and, yes, favoritism-fraught process. Formal scoring matrices are a good example of that shift.

While a CV is not the only indicator of whether a candidate has the right mix of qualifications, it is the one that enumerates them most comprehensively. Has the candidate, for instance, taught a course that you expect the new hire to teach for you? How many of the applicant’s grant proposals are still under review, and at which agencies or foundations? What types of laboratories and equipment are they experienced in working in and with? Who is on their dissertation committee? The CV is where you can, at least preliminarily, find out.

Ranking CV items on the required/preferred matrix can give you an early portrait of a candidate’s comparative strengths. For example, a regional state university sought an assistant professor of Romance languages to cover quite a few teaching areas in the curriculum. Through their CVs, the languages department was able to score applicants’ claims about which languages they had fluency and proficiency in, as well as whether they’d taught particular courses and spent time abroad in certain countries. The greater the number of rich instances of relevant experience and work, the higher the score in the appropriate matrix box.

The vita can reveal a candidate’s priorities. CVs are windows, not just into what educators and scholars are doing and how, but also into what is of greatest importance to them within the full scope of their work.

I spoke with a department chair at an urban public university that was hiring a new assistant professor. The department was looking for candidates who would be truly interested in the department’s mission to broaden its community outreach. While the job ad cited “engaging constituencies outside the university,” the chair found it revealing to look at the volunteerism section of the candidates’ CVs. Did applicants seem genuinely committed to translating their research and teaching to reach out beyond the campus?

Quantitatively, you can use CVs to get a sense of how candidates are spending their time in relation to the focus of your open position. In my own field of communications, there is sort of a shorthand that “the dissertation title should include the job position title.” So, for example, if we are hiring a faculty member in “health and science communication,” we certainly hope that candidates’ dissertation titles include those words or topics, cases, or themes related to those keywords.

A great fear of hiring committees and administrators is that we might hire someone who is not fully committed to the area in which we are hiring. The CV can reveal what matters to academics at this stage of their career — whether you are hiring an assistant professor or an endowed chair.

The CV gives you a sense of the candidate’s progress. Is this person moving forward? That question might arise in particular for applicants who are A.B.D., but it can apply to any level of hire.

Typically in my field, for example, we expect new assistant professors on the tenure track to have a completed dissertation — that is, registered with a graduate school as finished — by the time they officially report for duty in the fall. As a hiring administrator you can look to the CV for evidence that the candidate’s Ph.D. will be in hand, and adept applicants will make sure their CV lists the completion date right underneath their dissertation title. (Their cover letters and references may shed more light on the viability of the claim.)

In some disciplines, another way to get a sense that a candidate’s career has momentum (in line with your job opening) is a simple indicator: the number of conference presentations listed versus the number of actual manuscripts under submission, under review, or even published. Among the signs that applicants are not completion-oriented: They have a lot of conference papers, but don’t seem to be wrapping them up to submit for publication, or they have a lot of conference presentations that are obviously reworkings of the same title, and possibly the same paper.

It can identify synergies with your program. As you read a candidate’s CV, try to connect the dots between the person — whom you may have yet to meet and don’t know anything about — and the ambitions you have for this position. Look for keywords, phrases, areas, and concepts that resonate.

A chair of a chemistry department related how, of the 100 people who applied for a faculty position, only about a dozen stood out as a match for the program’s research, budget, and lab space. The ones who did were doing work in similar types of labs that already existed on the campus, at a time when funding did not allow for ambitious new lab construction. Obviously, it would be a mistake for a science department to hire Ph.D.s who could not get their work done in a particular location or within a current budget situation. It would be an unhappy landing for the candidate as well.

You might also discover links on someone’s CV to topics of interest or relevance to your city or region. A faculty member serving on a search committee at a geographically isolated university cited an instance of a candidate’s CV “striking locally.” The candidate’s dissertation research was on a group of people — although their location was 1,000 miles away — who fell into the same demographics as a population near the hiring university. It was a match that boded well for the hire’s future work and for the department’s ability to keep this person engaged and productive after hiring.

Detect examples of flexibility and agility in thought and practice. I recently worked with other deans to lead a workshop for doctoral students in my field. One of the students asked an insightful question: “What advice would you give to people on the job market right now that you would have not given probably a year ago or would have given differently?”

My answer: Every industry and area of practice today, whether a nonprofit, corporation, government agency, or academic department, appreciates more than ever that flexibility and resilience are incredibly important to survival and success — for the organization and the individual. Obviously, we want to hire people who have demonstrated their agility in these dark days.

As an example, I noted how I was particularly impressed by many of our program’s doctoral students who — whether as instructors of record, TAs, RAs, or lab managers — greatly assisted faculty and staff members in the emergency shift to virtual classrooms in spring 2020, and again in the gradual shift to hybrid and more face-to-face instruction going on now. I encouraged graduate students to put such “crisis” experience on their CVs somewhere, bring it up in their cover letters, and make sure that their references talked about it in their recommendation letters. Deans, chairs, and faculty members reading CVs will (and should) take note of such skills and agility in the years ahead.

Read the CV to generate follow-up questions. In faculty hiring, you are gauging candidates’ knowledge, skills, and training, but you’re also seeking an intellectual capacity and a set of ideas that will help (and yes, challenge) you.

A community-college dean gave me a good example: In a recent faculty search, he read a list of courses taught on a candidate’s CV and spotted several that — while not specifically connected to the requirements of the job opening — had some innovative aspects in their titles. That generated intriguing questions about new ideas that this potential colleague might bring to the curriculum. As the dean described, “Those CV items led to a really thoughtful conversation about directions we had not considered before.”

In short, while a CV is full of factual (trust but verify) information, it can also elicit deeper engagement with candidates.

In my now 30-year career in higher education I have participated as a candidate in dozens of searches, and I have overseen or been the final hiring authority in hundreds of others. I can speak from both sides of the process in urging all parties to make fairness, humanity, decency, efficiency, and integrity the meta-goals of the hiring process. A CV should not be the end-all, be-all of anyone’s candidacy. Learn from the document; don’t be hypnotized by it.

David D. Perlmutter is a professor and dean of the College of Media & Communication at Texas Tech University. He writes the Admin 101 column for The Chronicle. His book on promotion and tenure was published by Harvard University Press in 2010.

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