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Should You Reach Out to Potential Colleagues Before the Campus Interview?

Written by: Karen Kelsky
Published on: Jun 5, 2018

Question: I have a campus interview scheduled, and I’ve been thinking about touching base in advance with members of the department who aren’t on the search committee. It seems like talking with them would be a good way to get to know the culture of my potential department, and to get information about the campus and the area. Would doing that be expected and encouraged, or a faux pas?

With all the usual caveats — yes, campus culture varies from place to place, and sure, your department might be different — I strongly recommend that candidates refrain from doing anything that might suggest a breach of propriety in any way, shape, or form.

Some colleges and universities go about hiring in ways that might be described as loosey-goosey or just plain disorganized. Others proceed carefully, terrified that any accusations of preferential treatment or nepotism might lead to lawsuits. In turn, departments are terrified of getting their tenure-track positions pulled by HR because of an appearance of irregularities or improprieties in the search. As a result, many places tend to stick very strictly to the HR boilerplate for the hiring process. Any deviations can be cause to disqualify a candidate.

Even though refraining from communicating with potential colleagues may seem like a cold and sterile way of going about things, in some ways it makes sense. Think of it this way: You don’t know what the intradepartmental hiring process is. Maybe the search committee, in conjunction with the dean, decides everything. But maybe the whole department has to vote on either the finalists or on how to rank them. Maybe a majority vote or even a consensus of the whole department is necessary before it will offer you the job.

In that scenario, someone who has had additional face time or even just warm email exchanges with department members — a colleague’s name dropped here, a quote in a signature line of the email eliciting a chuckle there — might benefit when the department comes together to vote.

It is impossible to control for all personal connections that might precede the hiring process. Especially in small fields, people will know one another from conferences or from their graduate programs. An inside candidate who taught in the hiring department as an adjunct or a visiting faculty member will obviously know its faculty members.

But the point of HR-supervised hiring protocols is to avoid irregularities — so that even if professors in the department or on the search committee happen to know one of the candidates, the hiring process is identical, and everyone is afforded the same treatment. If, while your application is under consideration, you are setting up coffee dates with department members — and other applicants are not — then you are interfering with the standard order of operations.

The other risk here is that your decision to reach out could just feel wrong or somehow inappropriate to the faculty members you contact. They might read your inquiry as a kind of spying mission or end run around the authority of the department head or search-committee chair. I am in no way assuming that this would be your agenda, but I can imagine contexts in which it would look that way to people in the department.

Am I being overly paranoid on your behalf there? Perhaps. But my advice is influenced by own experience as a faculty job candidate. When a graduate student in my field who knew my work discovered that I was on the shortlist for a position in her department, she spontaneously contacted me and asked if we could meet. I agreed. Trying to be conscientious, I asked the search-committee chair if I could have a 30-minute slot on the campus-visit schedule to speak with the student My request was met with open disapproval — and that was an instance when the request was made candidly, with no appearance of evasiveness.

Of course, there’s a chance this kind of unauthorized, off-schedule outreach to the department could have no effect on your candidacy. But you won’t know until it’s too late if it will cost you the job. I heard about a case with just that outcome this year.

The benefits of establishing a rapport with a few potential colleagues is not worth the risk. If you do get a job offer, in (functional) departments you will hear from many of your future colleagues at that point. The department chair or the head of the search committee will encourage faculty members to woo you, sending you warm, enthusiastic emails about joining the department and offering to answer questions about local real estate, schools, child-care options, and such.

So while fortune usually favors the brave, the HR rules favor staying in your lane and not overreaching. A conservative strategy is a good one in this circumstance. Buck the hiring rules and expectations at your own risk.

Karen Kelsky is founder and president of The Professor Is In , which offers advice and consulting services on the academic job search and on all aspects of the academic and postacademic career. She is a former tenured professor at two universities Browse an archive of Kelsky’s previous advice columns here .