Timing Is Everything

Written by: David D. Perlmutter
Published on: Jan 10, 2016

January brought one faculty job candidate the happy news that she had five campus interviews. Then came the not-so-happy details: Two of the departments insisted she visit on the same day. A third let her choose a date, only to ask her to switch to one that conflicted with another interview. And the fourth department could only bring her in on one date — the day of her parents’ 30th wedding anniversary party.

In this series on the worse-case scenario aspects of job hunting, we have surveyed how to spot a “fake search,” how to detect a bad fit, and how to deal with inappropriate or hostile interview questions.

Next up are the challenges you may face with the “when” and “how long” factors of the job search. The sheer time it takes to be on the market while doing other work (a day job, a postdoc, a dissertation) and living a semi-normal life can be overwhelming. You have to craft endless job letters and be ready to find a flight on short notice. Search committees will dawdle, campus visit dates will be switched, and planes will be delayed.

Still, certain strategies will help you prepare for the worst temporal issues to come (besides the obvious strategy of reminding yourself how good it feels to get an interview).

Prepare mentally for a period of change and confusion. On the academic job hunt, nothing happens when it is most convenient. Consider the experiences of one candidate for an assistant professorship at our college last year. Winter weather caused a plane delay, then another, then she had to switch planes … from another airport. She ended up arriving a day late and past midnight. It was Friday at the end of the fall semester; we could not postpone until the next week when final exams started so she prepped for an 8 a.m. teaching presentation — in a course other than the one for which she had originally prepared. And there was more to come: A snowstorm built up until the university let out early so we had to switch her research presentation to Saturday morning (believe it or not, her talk was well attended by faculty).

To her immeasurable credit, she was terrific at every step. Her presentations were on point. We all noted how she handled each new setback with good cheer and aplomb. She, in turn, appreciated our college’s can-do and optimistic culture. To paraphrase a line from Pacific Rim, a movie that has proved popular among our young faculty, the neural handshake between us was positive.

I wasn’t surprised when the faculty rated her very highly nor when she accepted my job offer. She started this fall as a new assistant professor in our college.

Prepare logistically. Advice columnists who write about higher education often repeat what should be an obvious dictum: Your application materials — including most prominently the cover letter but even the CV — must be tailored for the particular position and department. Search committees want to be proposed to personally so that they feel the applicant knows a lot about not only their required and preferred qualifications but also about their aspirations and other characteristics. The more generic your application, the less likely the search committee will fall in love with it.

That’s a tough reality of the market. In terms of timing, getting bogged down tailoring one application can slow you to the point where you miss other deadlines.

You can, however, lessen some of the pain by doing some advance prep work. The first and primary task is to build a core or boilerplate set of materials — your standard items. Write a generic letter of application that attests to some of your basic accomplishments that probably won’t change that much from one tailored letter to another. For example, have you won any awards or, relevant in some fields, have professional experience? Likewise, there are certain phrases that will fit almost any position. Do you have evidence, in terms of research, of how you have been collaborative or that you are precociously involved in seeking external funding?

The point is to always have a standard set of materials that you can tinker with from the beginning.

Keep track, and update often. When I was first on the faculty market in 1995, applying for 12 positions was considered to be a grievous burden. Now Ph.D. students in many fields might prepare 100 applications or more. Invariably, not only do the application deadlines differ for each position, but so will the dates on which departments will begin reviewing applications and making decisions. I recently heard a doctoral student in the humanities list all of the deadlines he was facing — for more than 40 different positions — that fell on or around October 15. His language for how stressed he felt is not printable here.

Assistance is available in the form of many apps that can help you manage your schedule via your smartphone or your computer. Alternately, a regular old spreadsheet will do. The technology is less important than making sure you have recorded all the necessary boxes to check: each application material, every succeeding deadline, each interview schedule, and so on. Make sure, no matter how tiring it is, to consistently update your master chart with whatever has happened of late.

Clear your calendar of extracurriculars. Your biggest timing challenges is likely to be in scheduling interviews and campus visits. Consequently, if possible, they should be the only extracurricular activities on your schedule during the interview months.

Some years ago I invited a job candidate for a campus visit; he said he couldn’t come on a particular date because it was his birthday. Honestly, my reaction, “Celebrate some other time,” was probably the same as would be that of most search committee chairs. As a candidate, you don’t want to inconvenience the people you are petitioning for employment. I have also come across job candidates who have scheduled family vacations, qualifying exams, and other “important” events in likely periods of conflict with possible campus visit windows.

In a word, don’t. You are either 100 percent serious about finding an academic job or you are not. Anything less than total commitment will send out bad vibes to search committees.

Be ready to drop everything at a moment’s notice. Logistics also means having a ready-to-travel kit for those last-minute emails and phone calls. If a search committee called you on a Friday for a Monday visit, would you be prepped with:

  • Your presentations, polished and proofread?
  • Your best interview clothes, cleaned and pressed?
  • Child/pet/elder care set up with relatives or friends for last-minute exits?

Many job candidates believe search committees go out of their way to be cruel. Indeed, if horror stories did not abound I would not be writing this series of essays. But even the kindest, most gently disposed group of academics today finds the search committee duty to be increasingly onerous and complicated. While HR protocols, including federal requirements and the increasing complexity of campus hiring software, have made searches more fair, they undoubtedly also make them much more work.

At the same time, while in my field an open tenure-track position might draw no more than 40 or 50 applicants because we are in a hiring “boom,” in fields where the job market is tight like history and mathematics, a search committee might be faced with hundreds of applicants in the queue.

Finally, searches may be rushed for many reasons — from concern about money for the position drying up to a desire to hire early to get the best possible pool of candidates. Those reasons often combine to make the timing of interviews and campus visits pressed and inflexible. The “I know it’s last minute but can you come to campus on Tuesday?” phone call is not meant to torpedo your life; it often can’t be helped. Unless you are undergoing vital surgery or flying to Stockholm to accept a Nobel Prize, say “yes” — a tough but useful red pill to swallow.

The vagaries of the job market do not mean that who gets hired (and who doesn’t) is all just a matter of luck. Bad timing can screw things up; a good attitude can brew lemonade from those lemons. On the other hand, the top tier of candidates in many fields is usually very strong, so that minor variations and qualities may drive the final selection. That is why — while you cannot create luck in your favor — with adequate foresight and some steely self-discipline you can try to reduce the odds that an exigency of time or timing will trip you up.

A version of this article appeared in the January 29, 2016, issue.

David D. Perlmutter is a professor in and dean of the College of Media & Communication at Texas Tech University. He writes the "Career Confidential" advice column for The Chronicle. His book, Promotion and Tenure Confidential, was published by Harvard University Press in 2010.