Inside Look

Chanon Adsanatham explains what a graduate student can learn from serving on a search committee for a faculty opening.

February 6, 2015
A faculty search committee

Last fall, as I was finishing my doctorate and applying to tenure-track jobs outside my institution, I served on a search committee for assistant professor openings at my doctoral institution in my areas of study with my dissertation mentors. All of whom are senior scholars. Although I could have declined the service, I recognized that being on the committee would help me gain insights that could improve my own job search. I also wanted to contribute to the department. Overall, being involved in the search was a positive, helpful experience. Yet I felt much anxiety and fear about my own job prospects throughout the process.

The search began in September, as I was revising my dossier. For the first meeting, we met with the university’s human resources specialists about the legality and equity guidelines of hiring. We learned about candidates’ legal rights (e.g., how they can request search records), illegal interview questions and examples of fair/unfair practices -- important information every job seeker should know but may not.    

In the subsequent meetings, we shared what each of us wanted to see in candidates, many of which focused on their likelihood to achieve tenure and their commitment to student mentoring. I carefully listened to the committee’s remarks while wondering how I could strengthen my own application.

As a committee, we collaboratively developed interview questions. Most of them were typical (e.g., tell me about your research; what classes might you teach?) But I was also encouraged to design my own, ones that addressed what I specifically wanted to know about the candidates: What are their methods and philosophy for mentoring students? If they could choose to be an animal, what would they become? These questions allowed me to go beyond research and teaching to gauge each candidate’s personality and attitude toward students.

As we refined the questions and discussed the interview procedure, the search chair emphasized that he wanted the interviews to be like a friendly conversation, rather than a rigid, intimidating questioning session. This, he stressed, was important for creating a positive first impression about the department. He reminded us: we were trying to impress the candidates as much as they wanted to impress us; we wanted them to choose us first over other schools.  

As a first-time job candidate, seeing what kinds of interview questions might be asked was incredibly helpful. But although I now had an insider’s perspective about the search process, I remained apprehensive about my performance as a job candidate. Ironically, the more I learned from watching the search unfold, the more stressed I got. I wondered how I would best answer similar questions other institutions might ask. How tenurable was I? How did I compare to others? Nonetheless, I continued sending out my applications with fingers crossed while reviewing hundreds of applications my department received.

As I evaluated the incoming dossiers, I couldn’t help but judge myself. I saw that some candidates had published more; some had taught interesting advanced courses; many already had their doctorates. The comparison blunted my confidence. At one point, I doubted whether I would land a job and whether I should pursue a nonacademic career. My mentors had assured me that I, too, was a strong candidate and that my prospects looked bright. Still I worried.  

Then as we started the interviews, I began realizing an insight that slightly uplifted my confidence: whether one got an interview or not wasn’t necessarily a reflection of one’s intelligence, so don’t take rejection personally. Search committee members bring their own subjective lens into the review process, impacting what kind of scholarship they’ll find more appealing. Although my mentors had told me this before, it didn’t register until I began evaluating candidates’ dossiers. I saw firsthand how my own scholarly leanings influenced how I read applications and what areas of research I found more interesting. Certain projects resonated with me more, but those that didn’t weren’t necessarily of lesser quality.

In the end, to my surprise, many candidates who I thought were more accomplished than I -- those with published books and grants -- were some of the early people to be eliminated. What’s more, several A.B.D. candidates outperformed the lateral movers in interviews. Their scholarships and teaching interests were more dynamic, too. Departmental fit was the key to success.

From seeing how the search committee evaluated fit, I gained insights about how to cultivate effective interview answers:

  • First, demonstrate depth in one’s research agenda and variations in one’s teaching ability. Strong candidates articulate a well-defined, cutting-edge scholarship trajectory and show that they can teach disparate classes beyond their research interests.
  • Second, discuss innovative courses that complement and expand the department’s curriculum. Strong candidates know the program of studies and recent course offerings of the prospective department well and use that knowledge to propose new classes to fulfill academic gaps at the institution.
  • Third, ask insightful questions at the end of the interview. Strong candidates pose questions that are not canned but, rather, are oriented toward demonstrating what they can do for the institution rather than what the institution might do for them.

Yet, despite gaining these insights, I couldn’t shake off the anxiety about my own performance. Would I ever be as smart and eloquent as some of the applicants, I wondered.  

My stress amplified when we began deliberating about whom to invite to campus and, later on, hire. In the back of my mind, I realized that in some offices far away, a similar discussion was happening about me. Perhaps sensing my worries, the professors on the search committee reassured me about the strength of my work. I appreciated their comfort. But my uneasiness didn’t diminish. It wasn’t until I received on-campus interview invites that I began feeling some relief. My anxiety finally ended when I got job offers in January.

In retrospect, the apprehension I felt as an A.B.D. job candidate/search committee member wasn’t merely negative. Indeed, I’m grateful to have been a part of a collegial search team. The faculty actively sought my input, carefully listening to my feedback. I was treated like a colleague. Admittedly, though, my anxiety and stress were overwhelming. But they were also productive. They motivated me to develop more effective self-presentation strategies, and I learned what to do (and not do) from listening closely to the committee’s evaluations of candidates. The insights I gained, I’m convinced, were crucial for strengthening my own performance on the market.

Today, as a faculty member, I continue to benefit from my time on the search committee. I’m mentoring doctoral students who are applying for tenure track positions this fall, and I frequently draw upon my insights as a search committee member and former job candidate to coach them.

Furthermore, I have seen how to run a humane search firsthand, one that treats candidates with empathy and care, one that aims to impress the candidates about the department from the very beginning of the process. The way the search chair conducted the hiring left a positive impression, offering a model for how I might run future searches.

Given that the benefits outweigh the negatives, I encourage search committees to invite graduate students to become a crucial part of the hiring process, heeding the following points:

  • Treat the student on the committee as a colleague. Encourage her to speak up by frequently soliciting her perspectives. This is especially important if there’s a strong personality that might dominate the conversation or silence others. Further, recognize that the student may be reluctant to offer thoughts because she may worry she isn’t as qualified or knowledgeable about how to evaluate dossiers.
  • Allow the student to develop her own interview questions. Encourage her to think about what she wants to know from the candidate. Doing so will help the committee understand what issues are important from the student perspective and evaluate how well a candidate can speak to that concern.
  • Offer coaching and cultivate empathy. Understand that as the student evaluates job candidates, she’s thinking about her potential, how she will fare. Carve out some coaching time to help the student enhance her performance by helping her reflect on examples of strengths and weaknesses she observed. In short, use the search process as a unique mentoring opportunity to help the student build excellence.  
  • Share insights about effective dossier and interview practices from the recent search with graduate students on the market. Invite the student who served on the committee to be a part of this conversation.
  • Ask a human resources specialist to speak to student job candidates in your department about applicants’ rights, hiring equity and illegal/legal interview questions. Sometimes we are too focused on helping students with their dossiers, at the expense of educating them about equity and legal issues in hiring.  
  • Coach students who are going on the market to develop effective answers for potential follow-up interview questions. Candidates are often well prepared to answer standard questions, but it’s the follow-up ones based on what the candidate said that are the curveballs. Help them brainstorm strategies and good answers.

As faculty, it is our duty to help students professionalize as teachers, scholars and colleagues. Involving them in the search process by heeding the suggestions above provides a means toward that aim.


Chanon Adsanatham is an assistant professor of English at the University of Maryland at College Park, where he researches and teaches comparative rhetoric, multimodality and digital writing.


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