10 Requests for Search Committee Members

A graduate student applicant offers advice on how such committees can operate in much more productive and humane ways when it comes to their hiring practices.

September 6, 2018

As a graduate student, I realize search committees have constraints that I simply don’t understand. But I’ve long believed many could operate in much more productive and humane ways when it comes to their hiring practices. At the risk of sounding naïve, I would like to respectfully submit the following 10 requests for search committees.

No. 1. Relive the graduate student experience. Almost by definition, if you’re on a committee, you’ve been through a search on the applicant side. Before the first meeting, relive your struggle on the job market. If you are the happy exception to those of us who had angst-ridden, ego-pummeling years, ask a few other colleagues about their experiences. Request that they share the most painful, anxiety-inducing parts, and embrace their recollections.

Take that empathy to every meeting of the search committee. Ask yourself and your colleagues how many hours you spent not just writing but also worrying over the application that did finally land you a job. Remind your colleagues, gently but firmly, how even seemingly minor choices they make (e.g., putting off notification for another week) have a big effect on the lives of the people on the other side of the Interfolio interface.

No. 2. Post early. Posting in early September with a November deadline will yield the most carefully crafted cover letters and applications. The later you post, and the shorter the period before the deadline, the more hurried the applications. Postings with deadlines shorter than three weeks away may inadvertently signal an inside hire to harried applicants. Short posting periods mean qualified people may not apply. Short deadlines will also mean that you cannot expect exquisite applications specifically tailored to your institution. The chronology, not laziness, is the central driver of quality here.

No. 3. Telegraph inside hires or hidden criteria. People hold different opinions on the ethics of hidden criteria. Brian Leiter’s column on the academic ethics of such criteria is here, and Karen Kelsky’s defense of national-level searches even when there’s an inside candidate is here.

Whatever the ethics, you may be forced to pretend it’s a completely open search. To avoid a huge number of applications -- wasting the applicants’ time and yours -- telegraph these internal or predecided hires. Use and, not or:

  • “A successful candidate will be an American historian with specific knowledge of trans-Mississippi politics, and intermediate-level experience with mapping software, and three years of instructor of record experience, and drive a blue car,” rather than:
  • “We’re looking for a candidate who can teach introductory survey courses and whose research is on a topic such as American Indian/Native American history, or African American history, or African diaspora, or U.S. West, or capitalism, or gender/sexuality. Transnational approaches to history are also welcome.”

For applicants, applying for a job they cannot get is not just wasted time. It’s an unsound investment of their supply of hope in a moment when they can least afford to spend that capital stock.

No. 4. Use the wikis. In a perfect world, your committee would contact each application about their rejection or lack thereof; using the wikis should not be viewed as a substitute for timely formal communication. But a wiki update is the bare minimum you should do and a realistic shorthand. As long as there is no central North American job posting board, graduate students will be forced to rely heavily on the so-called academic wikis.

Immediately after you post the position on your institution’s website and on other sites, post it on the appropriate academic wiki. Use the wiki to give updates. Anyone can post anonymously, but postings from the search committee are, of course, much more meaningful: “The search committee has now contacted everyone who has been selected for a screening interview.” One member of the committee should be responsible for wiki updates. If your colleagues on the committee decide against posting on the academic wiki, smile and then later go rogue. Think of the hundreds of graduate students whose futures hang in the balance. Go ahead and post anonymously.

No. 5. Be consistent about requirements. It’s terrible as an applicant to assemble all the PDFs, go to the website to upload, and find that another document is required, one that the original posting did not mention. Check, double-check and cross-check that the internal hiring interface matches the ad and has an upload slot for every document you are requiring.

No. 6. Use Interfolio. Your institution’s job application interface looks like my great-uncle coded it on a late-model Atari console in 1987. What happens if the committee or human resources has not been consistent about requirements between the posting and the actual application interface? Is there an obvious person whom an applicant would contact about the interface where candidates upload documents? Is your institution’s HR department helpful? If your institution allows bypassing the  HR platform, use Interfolio. Interfolio eliminates many problems for applicants and committees. It’s a standard (and very user-friendly) upload with support for both sides of the interface.

No. 7. Ask initially for names of references, not letters. It is humiliating for us to keep asking and then nagging our references for letters when we and they both know this wouldn’t be necessary if only we had gotten a position 30 applications ago -- and that this effort is likely to be wasted, as well. A radical request: eschew using letters at all until the very final stage of interviews and applications. Otherwise, recommendation letters perpetuate hierarchies of nepotism and prestige, disproportionately hurting already disadvantaged candidates. They should confirm the committee’s decision, not be pivotal in making that decision.

The same proposal on pragmatic grounds: asking for three letters of recommendation for all first-round applicants is a colossal waste of everyone’s time -- the committee’s time, the letter writers’ time and the applicants’ time (and again, their hope). Ask for the names of three people whom your committee can contact if the candidate moves forward. If you then request letters, let the candidate know you have asked so they can remind the letter writers.

No. 8. Don’t ask for one-off documents in the first round. Asking all applicants for a document that they will never use for another application adds a burden for both the committee and the applicants. Examples include a 4,000-word writing sample, a nonstandard teaching statement describing how the applicant would teach The Prince or a “state of the field” essay. If you need this information from everyone, ask for a paragraph in the cover letter that speaks to that issue. Second-round applicants will be happy to write a one-off document for the possibility to move on in the search.

No. 9. Let us know. At every stage, let candidates know where they stand. As soon as you decide whom to give screening interviews to, let the rest of the applicants know they aren’t moving on. We will all be disappointed, but we’ll also be relieved and more able to reboot for the next applications.

You can set dates in the posting: “If you haven’t heard from us by …” If you do this, either stick to the date or post on the academic wiki that the date has changed. Even better: sort the Excel or Google document for Those Poor Souls Who Are Not Moving Forward and send a brief email. It can be short -- we won’t read past the first line. If your colleagues on the search committee insist that no one be notified until someone actually signs the contract, do the following: smile, ignore them, go rogue and post updates on the wiki. Doubts? See No. 1, then do No. 4. It’s anonymous and you will alleviate metric tons of psychic stress across the continent and globe.

No. 10. Offer interviews on Skype. If you offer us an interview, please let it be on Skype rather than at a conference. Conference interviews can often cost upward of $1,000 for graduate students who are already living on the edge, and many programs cannot provide conference funding. Again, that perpetuates inequalities among graduate programs and among students in those programs. Conference interviews cost more for departments and for interviewees.

Even though we’ve never been on a search committee, we’ve heard from our advisers how time-consuming, stressful and thankless a job it is. We appreciate the time you’re dedicating to possibly choosing us as a colleague. These suggestions are a way that this process can be a bit more humane not only for us but also for everyone involved.


Robert Dulaire (a pseudonym) is a doctoral candidate. He wrote this piece in conversation with fellow graduate students. Advice for graduate students going on the market is here.


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