What are they looking for?

Nov 01 2012 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Anytime I have been in a department with a job search going on, I have gotten emails from perspective applicants asking what the committee is looking for. Applicants assume that there is some secret agenda that the committee didn't want to come out and say in the job ad. I can only presume that people believe committee members desperately want to sort through dozens of irrelevant application packets, as well as waste the time of hundreds of others (applicants + letter writers).

In fact, academic job ads are often as specific or as vague as the search committee wants them to be. There's certainly too vague, IMO. But if the committee is multi-disciplinary it would not be surprising for an ad to be somewhat vague to cast a wide net. What potential applicants should be aware of is that the "committee" doesn't want anything. Each person on that committee has an idea of what they are looking for, but those desires might be conflicting or directly opposed to those of other committee members. Again, IME, the more focused ads reflect a stronger agreement by the committee (and possibly department) with regard to what they are looking for.

All you can do is read the ad and put your best foot forward. A lot will come down to whether there is someone on the committee willing to go to bat for you to make the short list. If the job is departmentally centered then the within department members will have a lot more say as to who gets an invite than the outside members. If you are in a position to gather information, it might be useful to find out what the department feels it is missing, but maybe not. There is no secret plan or desire to draw in the most applications, only the hope that the search yields a solid pool of interviewees that the committee can evaluate and fight about.

6 responses so far

  • Dr_WIS says:

    Thanks for this, PLS.

    I feel like you are responding to here might turn out to be an academic urban legend, because I certainly could have been one of those emailers. I could have sworn I heard several stories about people who applied for academic positions but were told later they didn't get the job or make the short-list because the department was "really" looking for something more specific than was in the ad (e.g. the ad said ecology and evolutionary biology, but they were "really" looking for was an ecologist). I think a lot of people have stories like this in their head, I certainly do.

    However, I think there are two other issues at work, which are more real. One, is that people always tell you [another urban legend?] that the way to get an academic job is not just to be smart, prolific, and well-funded, but you have to be a good fit for the position. That "fit" I think is what a lot of these inquiries trying to suss out. Also, and this I know from actual experience, there is the issue of the targeted search. For my PhD I went to a school that did this a few times, knowing all along who they wanted and would hire, but I guess for political reasons they had to have an "open" search, which included a shortlist, job talks, the whole bit. I was recently advised not to apply to a position that turned out to be a targeted search, the way it was (diplomatically) told to me? "You're not really what we are looking for."

  • studyzone says:

    The job ad for the tenure-track SLAC position I now hold was the most broadly-written job ad I had ever seen. It was so broad, I hesitated to apply since I wasn't sure what they were looking for, or how to write my cover letter and statements to show how I could fill these unknown needs of the dept. I bit the bullet and applied, and am very glad I did - I love this job. At a recent faculty meeting, I made a comment about the ad in relation to another topic, and learned that the dept. felt they had so many needs that they decided to throw the widest net and see what they caught. In any event, your advice that "All you can do is read the ad and put your best foot forward" is spot-on.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I could have sworn I heard several stories about people who applied for academic positions but were told later they didn't get the job or make the short-list because the department was "really" looking for something more specific than was in the ad (e.g. the ad said ecology and evolutionary biology, but they were "really" looking for was an ecologist).

    Smells like post hoc stock justification to me. This way the candidate feels like they are competitive, just not for that particular search because there was a secret agenda!

    That "fit" I think is what a lot of these inquiries trying to suss out.

    This is a different issue and one that can't really be dealt with prior to a candidate's visit. It comes down to whether the committee members feel like this is someone they want to interact with for the next 20+ years. This is also, as has been pointed out, dangerous ground for exclusion of non-majority candidates based on arbitrary and personal criteria.

    Also, and this I know from actual experience, there is the issue of the targeted search.

    In 15 years of being involved in searches, I've never been part of a department that did this so I can't really comment here. I think it is far more rare that candidates believe, however.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I made a comment about the ad in relation to another topic, and learned that the dept. felt they had so many needs that they decided to throw the widest net and see what they caught.

    I am personally not a fan of this strategy, but I know lots of departments use it. I think it's a HUGE waste of most people's time and a shitty way to operate, but you'll hear different opinions from others.

  • Alex says:

    In small, teaching-oriented departments, everybody has to wear multiple hats and teach across a broad range of fields, so I see a plausible argument for advertising broadly. Still, I think it's better to take a strategic approach to your resources and potential collaborations and write an ad that says "We are interested in a person whose research is in [something where you have resources that the new person could do something with] but can teach a broad range of courses including [stuff besides that]."

    And I have seen a situation where, for screwed up reasons, everybody knew what they wanted but couldn't bring themselves to admit that they were going to focus, so they wrote an unnecessarily broad ad that wasted everybody's time. It wasn't post hoc, they really did know all along what they wanted, but there was weird psychology about not just admitting it.

  • [...] lot of educated guesses. What are departments looking for? How good a fit am I for this position? How long until they make the short list? Will there be [...]

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