Why We Said No

Timothy Larsen answers the top questions he hears, as a member of a faculty search committee, from those who don't get the job.
February 16, 2011

My department has run a search for at least one faculty member every year for the last 10 years. I literally cannot remember how many search committees I have served on, let alone how many candidates I have interviewed. A few years ago I was the chair of a single search committee that hired four tenure-track professors at the assistant or associate level. This year we have two separate search committees going.

Institutions and departments have different policies and cultures, so I certainly cannot speak for search committees everywhere, but I have personally received or indirectly heard a lot of frustrated queries from applicants so I thought it might be helpful to try to demystify the process a bit for them. Here is how I would answer four of the most common questions.

Given how eminently well qualified I am for this position, how can you possibly justify eliminating me so early in the process?

We announced one entry-level position this year and garnered 176 candidates. That number is a little high, but not far off from what has been a typical yield for the last five years or more. There are a handful of cranks and dreamers in the pack with a diploma-mill Ph.D. or the like, but tossing them out makes no real dent in the pile. In other words, there were at least 150 scholars who were all completely qualified and suitable. In our system, these are technically people who have expressed interest in the position. We then invite some of them to submit the full application.

This ticks people off. We probably need to find some new nomenclature. "I was not even allowed to fill out the application!" is a grievance against us that job-seekers shout to one another across hotel lobbies at annual meetings. The truth is that the full app is a pain. We demand that candidates write a whole series of thoughtful essays on topics such as their personal research trajectory and their understanding of the meaning of a liberal arts education. It seems cruel to make people who have no statistically significant chance of being offered the position spend days of their lives doing this. (Not to mention making their referees send in letters.) Of the 176 who expressed interest we sent the full application to 37. This was almost certainly too many. From our perspective, it means that the bottom 7 needed 30 apparently better candidates to somehow self-destruct or melt away before they would really be in the running. A few of these 37 undoubtedly made it through this stage simply because we did not want to give them the right to go run into friends at the book tables and blurt out,

"And they did not even allow me to apply!"

I know I was eliminated over a month ago, so why have you not had the decency to tell me so?

This is to a certain extent the inverse complaint of question one – annoyance that you have been officially left in the search process too long. Your cousin's piano student's mother was right: Another candidate was scheduled for a phone interview. Nevertheless, the truth is you have not been eliminated. If you had, you would have been informed promptly. What has happened is that you have failed to make it to the top of the next round. You have been held in reserve so if the seemingly best candidates disappoint, the committee can plunge deeper into the pool. This can produce long periods of silence from us. If you made it all the way through to a full department interview, then it is actually more probable than not that the department has voted to offer you the position if another candidate declines it. Far from having been eliminated, you have been accepted in principle. The other candidate, however, already has a position at a lackluster institution. The candidate’s spouse works for Caterpillar and is currently scrambling to see whether or not a transfer to this area is possible. Departments are loath to tell someone that might end up being a colleague – and who, in turn, might need wooing to agree to sign the contract – that he or she is a back-up candidate.

How in the world can you expect someone applying for an entry-level position to already have a handful of research articles in major peer-reviewed journals and a book contract with a leading university press?

We don’t expect this. It is just that an awful lot of applicants wildly exceed our expectations. We need some reasonably fair way to make an unwieldy heap of applicants manageable. "She has three articles in hand, while he is still waiting to hear back about his first one" seems, in an imperfect world where dorks sometimes become deans, somewhat defensible. The alternative of interviewing scores upon scores of people to see which of them wows us with his or her adroit rhapsody of theory is simply not feasible. Nor does a committee want to give itself over too self-indulgently to following whims, hunches, and instincts about who might have hidden potential. It is true that someone with a much more modest CV would be fully qualified to be awarded this position, but the reality is that we are trying to distinguish between candidates.

What did I do wrong?

Probably nothing. Candidates sometimes do make mistakes. (For advice on this see, for example, “Fumbled Interview Questions".) Most of the time, however, your application and indeed your entire educational and career path looks admirable, even highly impressive to us. In fact, you often exacerbate our impostor’s syndrome. (Woody Allen once quipped that the worst thing that should ever happen to someone is survivor’s guilt and I can hear the chorus of candidates moaning that the worst thing that should ever happen to them is imposter’s syndrome.)

Believe me, we know that we could not get our current jobs now with the CVs we had then. In some ways you have already outperformed us for life. We will never have degrees from institutions as prestigious as yours. We will never know as many languages as you. We can’t tell amusing anecdotes about mistaking the meaning of an invitation to tea when a Rhodes scholar. We honestly think you would fill this position wonderfully well and we would be delighted to have you as a colleague.

The vast majority of candidates are eliminated because of a departmental discussion about the optimal specialization to fill out the team. This conversation is usually an ongoing, fluid one rather than one that has been determined in advance. In one meeting someone will seem to convince most people that a certain expertise would overlap too much with the research interests of existing members of the department, but at the next one someone might sway the room with a passionate speech about how we could become widely known for particular strength in that subfield. You ended up getting cut because at a crucial moment in the search the logic of "we need someone with a non-Western focus" did or did not win out.

None of this, of course, is of any real help or comfort. But a lot of you seem to want to know.


Timothy Larsen teaches at Wheaton College, in Illinois. His most recent monograph has just appeared from Oxford University Press: A People of One Book: The Bible and the Victorians.


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