The View From the Search Committee's Side of the Table
Wednesday, December 5, 2001
by Margaret Gibelman

Personal experiences on the job market

Job seekers in academe often call the hiring process scary, intimidating, humbling, and even demeaning. But, as in most areas of human interaction, there is another side to the story.

Recently, I chaired a search committee charged with filling five faculty vacancies in our school of social work. Many of the more than 400 social-work programs around the country are conducting searches of similar magnitude as they replace a large cohort of retiring faculty members.

Recruiting and hiring five faculty members is an enormous task, particularly if one seeks to do it "right." And that's particularly important in a field like social work that is guided by a code of ethics, reflecting the values and principles of the profession. Under the code, social workers are obligated to treat colleagues with respect, courtesy, fairness, and good faith. Applied to the hiring process, this ethical code suggests a number of imperatives, from formally acknowledging each and every application to informing rejected candidates in writing with some degree of sensitivity. Adherence to the code during faculty searches is a relative matter, ranging from total disregard to close, if not full, compliance.

Of course I have been a job applicant myself, and my experiences on the market influenced how I approached my role as head of the search committee. One experience that particularly stands out was when I applied for a senior faculty position, was brought in for an interview over the course of a full day with professors, students, and administrators, and simply never heard anything again. Not a letter or a phone call. Needless to say, past experience guided me on what not to do.

As chair, I had the first look at the applications and screened out only those who did not meet our stated requirements. For example, our ad specified that applicants have both a master's of social work and a Ph.D. in social work or a related field (some ads say ABDs will be considered; ours did not). About 20 percent failed to meet one or the other of those requirements, and we notified those applicants early on that they had been excluded, and why. Any university would be on shaky legal ground if it hired a candidate who did not meet the stated requirements when there was a pool of candidates who did meet them.

I distributed the remaining applications to the five other members of the search committee. We then met to decide whom to interview, dividing the applications into three piles -- "no," "maybe," and "yes." The "maybe" pile ended up being the largest because we gave candidates the benefit of the doubt. If, for example, a candidate did not have a record of successful grant writing -- something we had listed in our ad as a preferred qualification-- but met all of the other criteria, the application went into the "maybe" pile. Nevertheless, we agreed to interview those in the "yes" column first.

Although not part four initial screening criteria, "good sense" surfaced as an important quality in prospective applicants. A curriculum vitae is a calling card -- the first introduction that a search committee has to an applicant. Readers who may have seen the summer fluff movie Legally Blonde might recall the lead character's scented résumé printed on hot pink paper. While such a résumé is likely to gain attention, it is probably not in the desired direction.

Our committee received no scented CV's, but there were many negative calling cards. Some looked like coffee had been spilled on them. Quite a number had misspellings or grammatical errors. Similarly, an investment in a good printer will help create a more professional, attractive CV. Using an old dot-matrix printer with the ink running out makes an impression -- but not a good one.

It was also notable how frequently applicants misspelled the name of the school in their cover letters. While "Yeshiva University, Wurzweiler School of Social Work" is admittedly not user-friendly, one would at least expect an applicant to copy the name correctly from the ad. A few cover letters began with a sentence like "I wish to apply to your school." The failure to include the name of the school suggested that the applicant did not even take the time to customize the letter. And several CV's arrived without cover letters at all.

Then there was the other extreme -- cover letters that proclaimed the candidates' undeniable superiority. "Look no further," wrote one applicant. "You've found the right person." There may be different reactions to such proclamations, but personally, I'd rather reach that conclusion by myself. Although "humility" is not part of the ethical code, it is a good guiding principle.

One of the applications we reviewed was from a candidate I had met before and knew a little about. But a few items on her CV caught my eye, and I thought them to be an exaggeration, or at the least, misleading. The specifics concerned volunteer leadership roles that the candidate had held with two professional associations. As it happens, I had worked for one of the organizations and knew that the applicant had not been the chair, but rather a member of a committee. Moral: Do not claim to be more than you are or to have done more than you actually did. The professional world, particularly within academic circles, can be quite small, and the risk of getting caught in an exaggeration, or an outright lie, is substantial. In my field, such "fudging" is also a violation of our code of ethics.

Even with the best of intentions, the process of screening applications takes time -- usually more than initially envisioned. If a time frame has been communicated to applicants in the letter acknowledging receipt of their applications, a second communication might be in order to let them know about the delay. In our case, we got back to those candidates in our "yes" pile within a relatively short period of time. We were not as diligent about contacting those in the "maybe" category. No excuses. We should have done better.

Next up was the interview process, and we immediately confronted an unexpected hurdle. A category not on our original criteria for the positions emerged -- geography. We had decided to conduct short interviews with 12 to 14 candidates and then invite back those we thought were serious contenders for daylong interviews. But what about the out-of-town applicants? We did not have a budget that allowed us to bring in people from distant states for an initial interview. And ruling out potentially good candidates on the basis of where they lived also didn't make sense. We were, after all, conducting a national search. We were fortunate that two of the out-of-town applicants were planning to be in New York. In hindsight, we probably reviewed applications from candidates in distant states with a more critical eye, since accessibility had inadvertently slipped into the criteria. In terms of the ethical mandate to treat colleagues fairly, we no doubt lost some points here.

The initial interviews served the intended purpose of paring the candidate list. A lot can be learned about people in a short period of time. Several candidates asked questions that they should have known the answers to had they read the materials we mailed them. Similarly, a few of the applicants arrived late. They apologized, saying it took longer to get all the way uptown than they thought. But we had allocated only one hour for each interview. The candidates were flustered, we were annoyed, and there was insufficient time to get a real sense of the person.

Other fast impressions were formed on the basis of what social workers would call "presentation of self." Although the professional school in which I work has a diverse student body and a somewhat less diverse faculty, the university itself is under religious auspices. Two of the female candidates we interviewed came dressed in slacks. In Orthodox Judaism, women do not wear slacks. Some members of the search committee -- both of them rabbis -- may have been offended; at a minimum, they took notice.

Although the university has no formal dress code, and female faculty members and students do, on occasion, wear pants, candidates sensitive to the university's religious affiliation might have exercised cautious conservatism about their attire. If you are interviewing at a sectarian university, be sensitive to its customs. The code of ethics again provides guidelines: "Social workers should obtain education about and seek to understand the nature of social diversity." Clearly, cultural sensitivity should be practiced and evident among applicants as well as among the search committee's members.

Some of the seemingly obvious questions we asked appeared to be unanticipated by some candidates, such as, "Why do you want to work here?" "What do you have to offer?" "What are your research plans?" "What is your teaching philosophy?" The failure of candidates to anticipate such basic questions resulted in a lot of "hmmms," hedging, and inadequate responses.

At the end of the initial interview, time is usually allotted to ask the candidate if he or she has any questions. One person asked, "Do I get a course reduction to allow me time to write?" When a department is searching for faculty members to fill vacancies, the suggestion that a candidate may want to be less available to teach rather than more available may raise some eyebrows. In addition, questions about salaries and benefits, at least during a preliminary interview, might better be saved for a later date. The initial interview is a time to present who you are, not what you want.

This story has a happy ending. We hired five good people of diverse backgrounds, experiences, and styles. And we gained a lot of experience on the hiring process that will come in handy this year as we search for two new faculty members. Among the lessons learned: Members of the search committee need to have patience with the hiring process and establish an esprit de corps based on courtesy and respect. The same respect must be extended to all candidates who deserve to know where they stand. Demonstrating the values and the ethics of the profession in the search process is probably the best way to interest candidates in our school.

Margaret Gibelman is a professor and director of the doctoral program in social welfare at Yeshiva University's Wurzweiler School of Social Work.