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When Searches Fail
February 11, 2014 - 9:45pm

Karen Kelsky has a good column offering advice to a job seeker who has noticed a job reposted from the year before. Should the candidate re-apply? Kelsky says yes, if there has been something significantly changed in the application.

I’ll disagree slightly. If you want the job, reapply. Period. Additional accomplishments and such are great, if you have them, but I wouldn’t assume that it would be futile without them.  That’s because searches fail for a whole host of reasons. 

Among the possible reasons, and this is based on experience:

  • The funding gets pulled one year, only to appear again the following year. 
  • The college couldn’t come to terms with the top candidate or two, and the department didn’t want anyone else. 
  • The person whose retirement created the opening rescinded the retirement at the last minute.
  • The committee was deeply divided. This year features a different committee.
  • The “winning” candidate took another job two months later, leaving the department in the lurch.
  • Someone else retired, and now the department has a greater sense of urgency.
  • Something went wrong procedurally with the earlier search, and it got cancelled to prevent a tainted process.  This could be a confidentiality breach, a failure to recuse, or any number of things.
  • Enrollments have shifted.
  • Subfield preferences have shifted.
  • The committee fell into the “nothing less than a purple unicorn will do” trap last year, and learned its lesson the hard way.

The list is far from exhaustive. Very few of those should preclude a qualified and interested person from applying for a reposted position, even with a portfolio substantially the same as the previous year.

Most academic departments don’t do searches terribly often, so they’re usually in the high-effort, low-productivity part of the learning curve. A candidate applying to dozens of jobs across the country may start to despair for the profession upon seeing rookie mistakes made repeatedly, but that’s because the searches aren’t coordinated with each other. The fact that a college in another state ran a search last month that appealed to you means absolutely nothing on my own campus. 

None of this changes the facts that the market sucks, that some great people are frozen out or badly underemployed, and that when you need a job, you need a job. But I hope it conveys the message that in the vast majority of cases, it’s not about you.  Don’t forego applying for something you really want out of a misplaced sense of self-blame. If you want it, take the shot. 

From the outside, search committees can seem like evil conspiracies, or well-oiled machines designed for maximum exploitation. And yes, some of them sometimes step in it. But most of the time, failed searches aren’t about bad behavior, conspiracies, lack of a talent pool, or bitter political infighting. The causes are more pedestrian than that.

Keep it simple. If you want the job, apply for it. And if it comes up again and you still want it, apply again.  Don’t rule yourself out; chances are, it wasn’t about you.

 

 

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