Switching Sides of the Table
It’s different sitting on the other side of the table.
Last fall, I was on the job market for the first time. This fall, having been hired as an assistant professor, I found myself on a search committee interviewing candidates at the American Historical Association convention. For me, this was a startling turn of events. In reflecting on my experiences on both sides of the table, I am surprised by how much they differed and by how much I learned being an interviewer.
As a candidate, I grossly overestimated the amount of mental space search committee members devoted to me. I remember being certain that I was not a finalist for the job I now hold because none of the search committee members came to my presentation, the day after my conference interview. I remember thinking, “If my interview went well, surely, they will send a representative to my panel to further evaluate me.” I see now that was preposterous. As a search committee member, I didn’t even register for the conference or glance at the panel schedule. I knew I’d be inside a hotel room interviewing job candidates all day.
As a candidate, I also misjudged the level of scrutiny my application would receive, as well as the overall tenor of the conference interview. I spent hours preparing for all sorts of hard-hitting and obscure questions about my dissertation and previous experience. I was almost disappointed when the questions were never posed. As a member of a search committee, I followed the lead of my more senior colleagues and asked open-ended questions (“Tell us about your project,” “What might you bring to our university?” “What courses would you most like to teach?”) that allowed the candidates to steer the conversation and strut their stuff.
All in all, I came to view the conference interview less like an oral exam and more like a cocktail party, minus the cocktails. Sitting on the other side of the table, I actually had fun meeting the candidates. It was a treat to hear more about their fascinating projects, intriguing experiences, and hopeful plans for the future. Toward the end of our marathon day, I remarked, to the surprise of my colleagues, that I was disappointed we had only two candidates left because I was having such a good time meeting them all. A far cry from last year.
As a recent-candidate-turned-interviewer, I vacillated between advocating for the candidates and winnowing the pool on behalf of the department. Was it my role to ameliorate the process for applicants or rigorously scrutinize them to ensure the best fit for the department? To what extent did membership on a search committee make me complicit in the often absurd demands placed on job seekers? Could I do anything to make the process less grueling? This internal debate played out in the way I approached my presence on the committee. At first, I felt more allegiance with the candidates -- even when they were represented simply by folders in the file cabinet -- than with my departmental colleagues. My contributions at our initial meetings tended to translate the candidate experience for the other committee members and lobby to make the process more humane. The issue that I felt the most strongly about during our deliberations had to do with timing: I pushed to have our 30-minute conference interviews scheduled 45 minutes apart so that candidates did not have the awkward hallway run-in with other contenders for the same job, but this proved impossible due to the committee’s scheduling constraints. I settled for having tissues, throat lozenges, and water readily available, which, as a recent candidate, I knew might come in handy.
Serving on the search committee also forced me to grapple with the uncertainties and anxieties of the job market from a new perspective. Who was I to evaluate job candidates, many of whom had credentials far superior to mine, when I had so recently been in their shoes myself? To get around this dilemma, I focused on fit -- which applicants best matched the stated job criteria and which ones had specialties that would add the most to the department -- and I did my homework, carefully reading files, letters, and writing samples. In this regard, my experience on the search committee validated conventional wisdom: Most job searches are primarily about fit, not about determining who is the smartest scholar, or the best researcher, or the most engaging teacher (even if discerning these things would be possible).
When I left the hotel room after our conference interviews, I stopped by a reception hosted by my Ph.D. alma mater and ran into several friends who are currently on the job market. “What was it like to be an interviewer?” they wanted to know. And, what advice did I have for them? So, for what it is worth, I’ll share my response.
1. Do your homework about the university and the department to which you are applying. Be familiar with course offerings, faculty, programs, and major university initiatives. At some point in the interview, you’ll be invited to ask questions. Use this time to inquire about specific items of interest, rather than general questions that could be easily answered with a quick visit to the Web site. When a candidate asked about specific course sequences or opportunities to collaborate with other university centers and programs, I knew she’d carefully thought about what she might contribute to the university. Such preparation not only shows your interest, it also enables the search committee to imagine you as a colleague.
2. If there are any updates to your CV or any syllabi that you did not include in your initial application, bring printed copies to leave with the committee. This was not something I did as a candidate, but, as an interviewer, I was impressed when applicants said, “Yes, I look forward to teaching the introductory survey, and here is a sample syllabus I have developed for it;” and
3. Smile and be yourself.
These are hardly original suggestions, but, from my point of view, they made a difference.
Serving on a search committee so soon after my initial foray on the job market required some mental gymnastics. And perhaps this is why I was invited to be part of the committee in the first place – to force me to shed my graduate student skin and to facilitate the transition to professor. While my colleagues frequently solicited my opinion and enthusiastically welcomed me to the fold, my original plan was to be seen and not heard. I soon found, however, that I am constitutionally unable to keep my mouth shut, and I began voicing my opinion, including disagreeing with senior faculty members, and even making jokes (though these contributions were often followed by bouts of, “Why did I say that?”). As the semester wore on, though, I tired of trying to be on my best behavior at all times and grudgingly accepted that all I could do was be myself.
Ultimately, I am not sure what my presence added to the search committee, but I do know what serving on the search committee has meant for me. As anyone will tell you, the first year as an assistant professor is hard. Really hard. Maybe even harder than being on the job market. And, for me at least, it has been filled with lots of existential questioning, such as: Who am I? What am I doing here? Have I done the right thing? A strange thing happened during the conference interviews when candidates asked questions of me. In speaking on behalf of the university, explaining its various programs and campus culture, I actually began to feel like I belong here.
Kimberly A. Hamlin is assistant professor of American studies and history at Miami University of Ohio.