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They say the path to the provost’s office—or that of another senior administrator—goes through a faculty position. While that is true, many people often feel they must make a big leap at the point of moving from professor to full-time administrator, and the decision to go this route requires significant consideration. It’s a major lifestyle change for faculty members who have spent years using summers for focused research and regular sabbaticals and who have become accustomed to the cadence of working with different students each term.
Moreover, once you’ve made the decision to explore full-time administration, how do you go about seeking—and then landing—such a position? Faculty members often don’t really know where to start. Many have asked me over the years, what is the hiring process like, and what can I expect?
The appointment of provosts, presidents, deans and others in senior administrative roles differs in significant ways from faculty search processes. With the exception of some internal promotions, searches at this level typically entail the engagement of a search firm. And for many faculty members, their first experience working with a search consultant varies significantly from the norms they’ve come to expect in a faculty search, which can be jarring.
Most faculty who are considering a full-time administrative position have engaged in faculty searches for years—as candidates, committee members or department chairs overseeing such searches. Faculty searches have a set of conventions that may differ slightly from one institution to another, but they share basic characteristics that most readers of Inside Higher Ed will recognize—from the materials that are submitted initially to the format for first-round interviews and subsequent campus visits. To minimize bias, committee members generally do not speak with candidates about the search outside such established interview moments—even if they are colleagues known to the committee members, as often happens due to shared areas of research or in the case of internal candidates.
Although the hiring process for a provost, dean or other senior administrative position shares a number of these features—notably a first-round interview followed by a campus visit—other aspects diverge significantly. For starters, an inquiry from a search consultant often initiates the process rather than your submission of a cover letter and CV. Unlike in a faculty search, you will have many conversations with that consultant at every stage: before a first-round interview, in preparation for the campus visit and during debriefs after each engagement with the search committee. In addition, if you advance to receiving an offer, the consultant is sometimes engaged in the negotiation process.
So, as a candidate, what is your relationship to the consultant? Are they a trusted ally to whom you can speak completely openly, or are they simply an extension of the search committee? The answer is a bit of both. To explain why this is so, let’s walk through the various stages of this process.
Typically, you might begin by responding to an email from the consultant inquiring if you would have interest in a conversation about a particular opportunity. What can you expect from that initial call? Is it an interview? On the one hand, it is not an interview but simply an initial exploration. On the other hand, every interaction you have with the consultant will shape their impression of you—and not only for the opportunity at hand but for future opportunities, as well.
It’s important to understand who this consultant is and what they’ve been hired to do. Search consultants are contracted by the hiring institution. Although their level of engagement with the search can vary, they are most often hired to develop the pool of candidates. To do so, they will draw on a number of sources. They will contact sitting deans, provosts and presidents; they will send blast emails to various lists; and they will interview campus leaders, including members of the search committee, and ask for recommendations.
They will also draw on their own files of candidates from past searches. (It’s worth noting here that their contracts typically stipulate that they cannot reach out to someone whom they have placed within some recent time frame, typically about three years. They can, however, contact that person if their candidacy was recommended to them by someone else). The search firm will then conduct initial inquiry calls with potential candidates to learn more about their potential interest in the position, as well as to get to know the candidates, whom they may not have met previously.
The consultant will then present a dossier of candidates to the search committee, which will include reviewing profile highlights, CVs and, if they have spoken to the candidates by phone or video, their notes from that initial call. What you can glean from this is that the consultant’s initial presentation of your candidacy is a key moment, and if you have spoken to that consultant, your potential to advance will depend to a great degree on how the consultant characterizes their conversation with you to the committee members.
Following that meeting with the committee, the consultant will let you know if you are invited for a first-round interview, and they will probably want to speak with you to prep for this round. If they offer a prep call as an option, it’s always best to accept. (In fact, any additional engagement with the search consultant that is offered can be quite valuable, so you should always accept that opportunity.) In this conversation, they will share details about who will be on the call, the length of the meeting and so forth. They may also give you an indication of the questions that the committee will be asking. Take notes during this call! You can learn a lot about what the committee values in your candidacy, as well as what questions they will ask you. On this call, you can also ask the consultant to share with you what the committee saw as both the strengths and challenges of your candidacy, which will help you shape your responses in the interview.
After the first-round interview, the committee will meet again and narrow the pool, much like in a faculty search, to a short list of finalists, whom it will invite to the campus. If you are on that list, the consultant will probably again prep you for the campus visit, providing details about the meetings to be held, the presentation you will give and the like. At this stage, I have seen a wide range of approaches from search consultants. In some cases, a consultant has shared some indication with me of who the other finalists were (which frankly felt a bit unethical but was helpful to me strategically); in other cases, they will not speak to this at all.
I have also worked with consultants who described very explicitly about how the committee responded to my first-round interview. In one instance, a search consultant I worked with offered me detailed advice on how to manage a campus visit to the point that they felt like my personal career coach. I was very grateful, and I have carried that knowledge to other interviews and passed it on to people I have mentored. But in that moment, I was also keenly aware that, while the consultant was supporting my candidacy, they were surely also supporting the candidacy of the other finalists.
What’s worth remembering here are the goals of the search consultant. They want a search to run smoothly and conclude quickly, for the hiring institution to land their first-choice candidate, and to see the hiring institution appoint someone who will be successful in their role. To that end, they want to prepare all finalists to shine, which in turn reflects well on them. That does not mean that their support for you individually is disingenuous. But at the end of the day, while a search consultant is in many ways a matchmaker, always remember that the hiring institution is paying for their services.
Let’s say you move ahead in the process, and the institution has decided that they’d like to offer you the position. At that point, the search consultant will call you and give you some indication that you are the top candidate. They will often tell you then that they are contacting your references. They may also indicate that they will go “off-list” for references—for instance—contacting people with whom you have worked but whose names you did not provide. In addition, the search firm will run a degree verification, a criminal background check and perhaps a credit check. All of these are indications that an offer is imminent, whether the consultant says that explicitly or not.
Just before an offer being made, the consultant will ask a question like, “Is there anything in particular you would be asking for, were you to be offered the position, that I can know in advance?” More strongly, they might ask, “Is there any element of an offer that, were it not part of the package, would lead you to decline this offer?”
In my experience, this is the most fraught, and delicate, moment of your interaction with the consultant. How you answer that question is tricky. As stated, the consultant wants the search to conclude successfully. But as a candidate, if you reveal too much here, it can put too much negotiating power in the hands of the hiring institution.
If this is your first experience working with a consultant, you may have come to feel at this point as though they are on your side—which they are, but only to a point. You may also really want to land the offer and feel pressured to cite elements that, if they were not included in it, would truly be nonstarters—such as tenure upon hire or research funding. If the consultant asks a question like this, my advice is to be polite but firm in saying something to the effect of, “I am sincerely interested in this role, and should an offer be made, I am confident I will be able to come to agreeable terms with the institution.” If you avoid saying anything concrete before having an actual offer in hand, it will position you better once you are negotiating the terms.
Remember, yet again, that the hiring institution is paying the search consultant. At the same time, though, be aware that your relationship with that consultant need not end with this search. Even if you land this role, you might end up working with the consultant years down the line when you seek your next position or hiring them to assist you with a search.
More immediately, you are now in that consultant’s Rolodex (an outdated object, but still relevant as a metaphor), and they will contact you, or refer you to another consultant in their firm, for future opportunities. So while it’s useful to understand the consultant’s priorities in the current search, it’s also wise to treat every interaction with them as the start of a continuing relationship—one that often can be invaluable to your long-term career goals and worth cultivating.