From 30 to 1: The Job Search Resolves

28Jan10

As I discussed in my two previous posts about Middlebury’s search for a new media studies faculty member, I’m trying to conduct this search with as much openness and transparency as possible. Unfortunately, as the search has progressed and the field has narrowed, it has become much more difficult to write about the process without comments becoming more tied to individuals, a line I do not want to cross. So this post will be somewhat vague in outlining how we came to make our offer – and to spoil the end, I will not publicly announce the name of our new colleague until she does so herself [update – she has]. Instead, I’ll discuss the sausage-making process by which the hiring proceeded, hopefully to shine some light on what happens in a search for those readers who find themselves outside the black box. In November, we reduced the field to 30 candidates whose files interested at least one of the three “first-read” committee members enough to request additional information. For faculty running future searches, I highly recommend this tiered model of asking for a “thin file” upfront (CV, letter, statement of interests, reference letters) and only asking for teaching and research materials from people who make the first cut. It saves time and money for candidates, huge amounts of time for the search committee and administrative staff, and reduces needless waste of paper and shipping fuel.

The “thick dossiers” from our round of 30 were read through by the entire department (6 faculty) and one outside member from another department, a tradition in search protocol at Middlebury. We met in early December to generate a list of candidates to interview via video Skype. It was interesting to see how each of us read the files differently – some were primarily looking at the teaching materials (syllabi, evaluations, statements of approach/interests), while others were focused on research accomplishments and promise. Most of us were primarily interested in identifying the “footprint” that each candidate would have on our curriculum – what courses would they likely be able to offer to both expand what is on the books now, and cover existing areas that need additional faculty. And since the position was conceived largely as adding to our digital media offerings, the degree to which candidates focused on digital matters was a top concern.

I asked every member of the search committee to send me their (unranked) top ten candidates, and I tabulated the votes – 10 received no votes, and looking back at that list, most were either more tangentially tied to our department’s disciplinary allegiances, less tied to digital media, or less advanced in their ABD progress. Of the remaining 20, the top 6 were easy to identify, found on the majority of the committee’s list – but interestingly, only one candidate was on everybody’s list. We spent most of the two-hour meeting discussing the remaining 14 candidates, with the goal of interviewing 4 of them. While 10 is an arbitrary target number, we felt like it was a good balance of enough to offer a range of options, but not so many to overwhelm us.

In the end, we moved forward with candidates who had advocates from a number of faculty, and seemed most likely to add something new to the program. There were a few impressive candidates who were too far along down the tenure track to be considered, as the administration had not authorized hiring at the advanced assistant level. And some candidates were quite interesting to us, but had not sufficiently explained on paper how they’d mesh with the department’s curriculum. I found that strong letters of recommendation played an important role, especially when hiring a new area for the department – colleagues seeing glowing praise written by known faculty in the field could be reassured that they would be likely to fit our program. And I’m sure there were a couple of toss-up choices that were made because of less tangible rationales, such as one faculty member being a stronger advocate than another. But in the end we came to a consensus list of 10 candidates that we felt offered the strongest case for filling our needs and succeeding at Middlebury.

Film & Media Studies is not a field with a tradition of conference interviewing – some departments do interview at MLA, but not many, while a very organized search can interview at NCA in November. But most job searches I’ve been involved in (on both sides) do the first round of interviews via phone, a practice that is much more cost-effective and simple than conference interviewing. This was my first time adding video to the interview, and I’d highly recommend it – out of 10 interviews, only one had any technical difficulties requiring us to switch to conventional phone. The ability to see body language and gestures on both ends made the process more personable and responsive – and for a visual media position, it was interesting to see how each candidate composed their mise-en-scène!

In the aftermath of this year’s MLA, Brian Croxall’s post about the economics of adjuncting, interviewing, and conferences has been broadly discussed as a reminder of the structural inequalities within the academic job search, and Tim Burke has an interesting discussion on possible alternatives to the conference interview funding structure. As I said in Tim’s comments, I find the Skype practice sufficiently effective to abandon the conference interview model, and hope that many faculty in fields more used to conference interviewing follow that lead.

But I think the important question is what do you hope to accomplish with the conference or phone/video interview? We could have chosen 3 candidates to bring to campus without doing the Skype interviews, but I feel confident in saying that only one of those three would have matched our actual invite list. The Skype interviews gave us a sense of each candidate’s ability to articulate themselves and make us excited and interested about their research and teaching. In a small department at a small college, faculty need to feel comfortable with colleagues’ abilities to communicate with each other, students, other departments, and the field at large. Is it fair to judge somebody’s communication abilities solely by how they perform in a 45 minute video interview (or an in-person hotel room interview either)? No – but the nature of the job search is that there are so many candidates who are strong on paper that you need to find ways to distinguish between them beyond the CV.

The content of the Skype interviews ranged from teaching to research to their career goals. I sent some questions ahead of time, specifically asking candidates to prepare to talk about how they would teach a core course in our program, and outline a new course they’d bring to the curriculum. Again, I hope readers charged with leading a search follow this lead, as all the candidates were appreciative to be able to prepare answers to these questions in advance – and it’s not like you’d ever really be asked to pitch a new course with no advanced prep! We tried to avoid asking “zinger” questions, as it would not only tell us little about the candidates, but it would reflect badly on us as potential colleagues. Overall, the conversations were less about getting the right answers, but about demonstrating their ability to communicate effectively, admit when they don’t know something, and show some promise to be innovative thinkers and teachers.

Most candidates did quite well on their Skype interviews, and thus we were faced with the task of narrowing down to three to invite to campus. In the end, we chose candidates whose interview demeanor was strong, who effectively addressed some of the concerns we had about them on paper, and who seemed to offer the best chance of success in the classroom and in their research program. We scheduled interviews for the first two weeks of January, with the goal of making a hire by the end of the month.

There’s little I can say about the campus interviews without becoming too personal, so I’ll just outline what we had candidates do and why. We had each candidate offer a research talk as well as many one-on-one sit-downs. Whenever I go to job talks, I’m reminded by what strange hybrid beasts they are, especially at a small college – we want candidates to present original research, but in a form applicable to a general audience rather than show off their cutting-edge theoretical innovations. Especially for a position like this that aims to add new areas to our curriculum, we saw lectures about topics that few in the audience know anything about, but aim to be more than introductions to the topic. And then the audience asks questions designed in part to learn more, but also to demonstrate the candidate’s ability to engage with students and colleagues. But as a colleague reminds me, we’re not hiring faculty to give job talks!

In the end, the committee was unanimous in our decision, and it turns out that the candidate to whom we offered the position to was the only one who’d previously been on everybody’s initial top ten list. I take that as a sign of a successful search process, resulting in such an excellent candidate being offered the position – and accepting the offer. And soon I’ll be happy to announce the identity of my new colleague… [update: see here]

Thanks to everyone who applied for the position – as I’ve said before, so many of the candidates whose files we read would make excellent colleagues, and I expect to come across many of your names in future conferences and publications. And thanks to the many commenters on these posts – it’s always gratifying to be able to share my experiences and feel like it’s making a difference to people looking to enter academic careers. And I hope you all find positions given the tough realities of academic job searches.



13 Responses to “From 30 to 1: The Job Search Resolves”

  1. Thanks again for blogging this process, Jason. It’s really helpful to be able to point grad students to it, given the plethora of misinformation and dangerously bad advice and presumptions that float so freely out there.

  2. 2 Mark Stewart

    I’ll add my thanks as well – I think this process is something which has been a bit of a mystery to many up until very recently. I know that at my institution (University of Auckland, New Zealand), our Film, TV & Media dept has started running the occasional seminar for PhD students (of which I am one) to try to provide some guidance as well. But to have some of the specifics you have provided has been invaluable.

  3. As a career counselor, I am always curious about how the search process goes in academia. You’ve documented a process which sounds fair and effective. You knew what skills you wanted and you found ways (skype interviews, for instance) to identify the best candidates. Thank you very much for this. I’m going to send my own readers to this posting.

  4. I think the methods you’ve described are pretty exemplary when compared to standard practices in my field. I am in a field (philosophy) that relies heavily on conference interviews. Nearly everyone who has gone through the current process (roughly, those under 40) think this is a really awful system. In addition to expense, one of the major reasons offered for abandoning the conference-interview model is the psychology literature that suggests gender bias and other forms of bias creep in more easily in interviews than off the written material. There is also the worry that information from interviews crowds out other, equally relevant, information. (See here: http://is.gd/7ikat ) While doing Skype interviews would certainly save on expensive traveling (in our case, between Christmas and New Year’s to a hotel with conferences rates of $150+/night), I’m worried it doesn’t go far enough in blocking out the other biases.

    No one method has emerged in philosophy as an alternative to shortlisting, then conference interviews, then fly-outs. Some departments are trying new tactics. One major player doesn’t do any interviews (conference or on-campus); they go only off the packet. One year my department tried abandoning conference interviews and got administrative approval to fly in extra candidates … a good idea except we were doing three junior hires and one senior hire, which made for a memorably exhausting February. Many of the small colleges can’t afford sending multiple faculty out to do conference interviews in December; in practice, this often means they pick among the leftovers who didn’t get offers by March.

    But with a glut of superbly qualified candidates (due to the fewest jobs open in at least three decades), there’s no strong incentive to motivate everyone in a department to change old habits.

  5. Thanks again for blogging this process, Jason

  6. 6 michael

    Thanks for the view into the process. It’s been extremely valuable. In addition, I hope more searches extend their updates as you have (posting on the jobs wiki, here, etc) — it’s amazing how much simple communication can reduce (although not obliterate, of course) the anxiety of the job search.

  7. 7 applicant

    Like everyone, I appreciate the openness of this search. However, I’d like to point out that no committee should receive 270 applications for a position. If you received this number, it is because the advertisement was poorly written. What is the point of drawing a larger pool than necessary? Doing so wastes most of the applicant’s time and energy. In addition, it is unbelievable that a committee will brag about its decision to limit the application to a cover letter, CV and letters of recommendation. As a reference letter writer as well as applicant, I can say that knowing that a letter that I write for a student will be one of 810 that the committee receives makes me angry. Letters take a great deal of time to write and are a major source of stress for applicants, who feel uncomfortable asking for them. Nine-tenths of the letters went directly to the trash in this case. That’s no reason to brag.

  8. 8 another applicant

    I personally didn’t feel like there was any bragging involved in Jason’s recommendation for a thin application file. Presumably applicants are applying to more than one position, and asking for one more letter isn’t really a big deal. If it is, you might do what I do and use a dossier service. Maybe Jason can chime in, but my guess is that recommendation letters are all pretty similar and thus not typically a determining factor in the decision-making process (making a general letter as effective as a specific one addressed to institution x, y, or z).

    Also, I hardly found the job ad to be poorly written or not sufficiently precise, compared to job ads with “open” specialties, for example. It’s a good job in what seems to be a cool and interesting department, during a time when jobs — even less desirable ones — are not easy to come by. I wanted this job as much as anyone, but let’s face it: it’s a buyer’s market. Furthermore, job ads reflect the different and sometimes conflicting desires of a number of faculty members and administrators… it’s the name of the game.

    If you want to be angry about something, be angry that there aren’t more good jobs in departments with personable faculty and interesting curricula, in schools with motivated students. Congratulations to whomever landed this one!

  9. Per applicant’s comments: I do think that our job ad was effective in balancing what we knew we wanted and leaving it open to enough range of areas of expertise so that we could find a strong candidate who was a good fit. Especially since this position was about adding new scope to the department, we didn’t want to pre-define exactly what those new areas would be.

    Additionally, we got many applications that didn’t fit the job call at all, including many film scholars with no real media expertise (despite the explicit media studies label). So I don’t know how to prevent people applying for jobs that they don’t fit, especially in an incredibly tight market.

    As for letters, it’s a huge question whether recommendations are a strong predictor of candidates – they are useful to see how more senior faculty perceive them, especially in terms of teaching record. But there’s huge variability among letter writers in terms of levels of hyperbole and excess, making it hard to compare across referees. I can say that each of the candidates we interviewed had at least one thing in their letters that either made us more interested in the candidate, or answered a question we’d had about their file. So they definitely served a worthwhile purpose.

  10. 10 twistofdynamite

    As a graduate student in an English department, focusing on media studies, this was immensely helpful to read. Thanks so much for taking the time to share this!

  11. 11 applicant

    Thank you for your reply and concern. I understand that it is difficult to conduct a search, if the goal is to add “scope” to a department rather than to hire a specialist to teach a specific subject. Although I cannot agree with your statement that film is not a real medium, I do understand that job announcements are written with the intention of distinguishing those who are on the committee’s side in certain debates within the field (for example, the place of film in media studies) from those who are not. I’ve been involved in hiring as an applicant, letter-writer and committee member, however, and therefore I feel that it is important for everyone involved to reflect on the ways that the “market” functions. We are losing excellent scholars. You have shown incredible openness and generosity in your willingness to blog about this search. I and the many people adding comments here appreciate it very much. Still, I believe that hiring practices everywhere need to be examined and improved for the sake of the entire field. I hope that you will continue to reflect upon the choices made in this particular search and offer sound advice to the committees of next year, which will undoubtedly look to this blog for ways to find the perfect hire.

    • Just to quickly clarify, I would never claim that film is not a medium. Rather, I think there’s a recognizable distinction between people who study film within the rubric of “cinema/film studies,” and those who study it under the guise of “media studies.” We have 3 faculty in FMMC who do the former, and were not looking to hire a 4th. Our hire treats film as a medium and includes it as part of the field of media studies (as do I). Many of our applicants seemed to be more in the cinema studies tradition that we were not looking for – but that’s a really hard distinction to make within a job advertisement!

  12. Just a quick update to note that my new colleague has made her career move public.


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