How We Did It

Chronicle of Higher Education
Tuesday, April 4, 2006
By Zelda Rifkin

My department just successfully concluded our largest search ever, with more than 300 applicants for a tenure-track position in the sciences. As head of the department and a member of the search committee, I thought it might be helpful to share how we made our decision -- where candidates went wrong and what we learned.

Our goal was to find a dedicated teacher and active researcher who really wanted to be at a liberal-arts college. That meant weeding out all those candidates who saw our type of institution as a backup, in case they couldn't get a job at a research university.

Because most of our students (and faculty members) are female, we also wanted someone who respected women as scientists. That meant vetoing candidates who addressed their cover letters "Dear Sir." Still, we were not concerned with the gender of our hire. Some students (outside of our department) demanded that we hire a person of color, a suggestion the committee ignored as illegal and unethical. We felt our students -- of whatever ethnicity -- would be best served by our hiring the strongest candidate.

Our first task was to narrow the applicant pool to 50 people, whom we planned to briefly interview either locally or at the major conference in the discipline.

As I pored over the applications, I found the most important parts to be the cover letter, the teaching statement, and the letters of recommendation. While I looked at publication lists and research statements, I knew that many of them were too far from my area of expertise for me to accurately judge their quality. I was happy to short list candidates without publications whose advisers attested that one or more excellent papers would come out of their dissertations.

I tried to discern the applicant's level of interest in liberal-arts colleges in general and in ours in particular. That was often evident in the cover letter -- if, for example, it mentioned the fine graduate students at our "university." (We don't have graduate students in my discipline at the college, just undergraduate majors.)

At the other extreme were letters that showed some positive interest in our college by making a reference to our mission, our geographic location, or the applicant's own experience at a liberal-arts college. That interest never made up for an applicant's weaknesses in teaching or research. But it did help narrow the pool, as we saw far too many applicants with teaching awards who were "top young scientists" in their specialty for us to meet with them all.

In one case, we received an unexpected clue as to the applicant's level of interest in our college. Attached to one of her letters of reference was a note stating: "Due to physical limitations, Professor X is unable to readily sign the very large number of reference letters requested by Job Candidate Y."

That kind of note is a job candidate's nightmare. Although it provided us with useful information -- clearly she was casting a wide net in her search and was not singularly interested in liberal-arts colleges -- the note seemed unfairly prejudicial so I removed it from the application packet. I also e-mailed an administrator I knew at the candidate's institution, suggesting that the note be removed from the letter of reference in the future. I know from my own graduate school days that support staff members (the ones who make all the copies of reference letters) sometimes hold grudges against graduate students and sabotage them wherever possible. This seemed as likely an explanation as any for the note.

We were surprised to find two applicants with suspiciously similar teaching statements. Both had posted their version of the statement on their Web sites. I suspected that its original author was the more experienced teacher, a postdoctoral fellow at a top university, and that the plagiarist was the less-experienced graduate student.

I emailed the adviser of the less-experienced applicant, pointing out the two teaching statements and suggesting that whether her advisee or the other applicant did the copying, she should be aware of the situation. The adviser soon replied that she had spoken with her student, who had admitted "borrowing" from the other teaching statement the passages that he felt applied to him, too.

Had we not already independently ruled out the applicant, I would have done so at that point. The odds were against our even detecting the plagiarism, since each committee member read an alphabetical subset of applications. By coincidence, the two applicants shared the same last initial. If I ever write a guide for wrongdoers, I will advise copying from people far from oneself in the alphabet.

Based on past experience, we decided not to waste any of our precious on-campus interviews on anyone who had not been first personally vetted by a committee member. When told that, one strong applicant who had not planned on attending our discipline's annual conference drove several hours for a 30-minute interview.

Another candidate flew a long distance to our campus, at his own expense, to meet with the head of the search committee. Both of those applicants went on to receive on-campus interviews.

The committee head also interviewed a number of local candidates and invited them to sit in on a class. One applicant read a newspaper during the class; he did not get invited for a full interview.

In the end, the provost gave us permission to invite seven candidates to campus. Each candidate met with the provost, guest lectured in a class, gave a research seminar, met with students, was interviewed by the committee en masse, and had lunch and dinner with available committee members.

One mistake that several candidates made during the interview was pretending to be perfect (or perhaps they believed that they were). For example, one candidate's cover letter praised our department for its breadth and depth of course offerings. At his interview, I pointed out that our small program did not match that description and asked if he really meant what he wrote or if it had been a form letter, remarking that I myself had applied to more than 100 institutions in my first job search. He insisted that he really thought that of our department. I would not have minded carelessness in a form letter, but I did object to his disingenuousness and became distrustful of other things he said.

Candidates were particularly unwilling to admit mistakes in the classroom. In my first college interviews, I had been acutely aware of my weakness as a teacher: When a search committee member praised my performance at the end of a class where I had guest lectured, I recall expressing surprise and skepticism. Fortunately, my desire to be a better teacher apparently trumped my inexperience.

Not so our candidates, many of whom had years of teaching experience and had won awards. During one guest lecture, a candidate declined a student's suggestion for simplifying an equation. The student was right. So I asked the candidate after class whether, in hindsight, he would have done anything differently, expecting him to say that he should have taken the student's suggestion or to express some other regret. Instead, he expressed complete satisfaction. I've been teaching for longer than he has and still rarely make it through a lecture without mistakes.

Intrigued, I asked whether he had received any criticisms from students on his teaching evaluations. (I was trying to tell whether he was responsive to constructive feedback.) He said that he had never received any criticism, except from a disgruntled student who was failing the course, or complaints about the material covered. I hid my incredulity.

We had dinner at the end of the interview with every candidate. In general, that meeting was purely social, but some candidates managed to use it to lower our opinions of them. One was unable to carry on a conversation and showed little interest in what anyone else had to say. At first he earned points with me by discussing how he had encouraged his middle-school daughter in mathematics, but that turned into concern when he said that nothing in life, including having friends, was more important to her than earning A+'s in math.

We did use the dinners to try to determine the candidate's level of interest in our college. Most candidates were coy, but one told us straight out that he would accept an offer from us.

We did not know how to interpret another candidate's remark that he aimed to be at a "world-class, liberal-arts college." We were unsure whether he was flattering our institution (which is prestigious but not world class) or expressing a desire to use us as a steppingstone.

At the end of our interviews, two candidates stood out above the rest. One was a more skilled teacher, the other a stronger researcher, although both were well qualified in all areas.

While we hoped to get the best possible candidate, our biggest fear was not that we would wind up with our second or third choice, but that we would not hire anyone. Not only did we dread the idea of repeating all of our effort, but also we were unsure whether the administration would approve another search. (Our previous attempt to fill this position failed after we let our favored candidate string us along for weeks while she waited to hear from her first-choice department, and we had struggled for years to get our current search approved.)

The stronger researcher was the candidate who had told us we were his top choice; the other candidate had hemmed and hawed before admitting we were not at the top of his list. Furthermore, the researcher already had another offer. A few days before it expired, we asked the provost to make him an offer, which he has accepted, to our delight.

We will do everything we can to make him successful not just for his benefit and that of our students but because we do not want to perform another search.

Zelda Rifkin is the pseudonym of a science-department head at a liberal-arts college in the West.