Question: I feel like I don’t really understand how decisions about hiring happen between the time when the campus visits conclude and when the favored candidate is offered the job. I had a couple of late-season campus visits, and both times the search committee said, “We’ll be in touch,” but they weren’t sure of the exact timeline, and I didn’t have a good sense of what the next steps on their end were.
We think of faculty hiring as following a particular calendar, with certain things happening at certain times of the year. But really, beyond those generalities, there is no single standardized process. If or when you serve on a search committee at your own institution, you will gain insight into how hiring is done where you are. And there are many different variations on how the search committee might narrow the short list and reach a hiring decision.
Here are some of the variations that I either experienced in my faculty career, or know about from helping clients negotiate the hiring process:
- In some departments, the search committee is charged with making the ultimate decision. It then sends the name of its pick to the dean of faculty, who essentially rubber-stamps it.
- Sometimes the search committee is charged with coming up with a ranked list of three names. That list is sent to the department chair who may endorse the ranking or dissent from it, and then all of that information is passed on to the dean.
- On some campuses, the search committee proposes a ranked list of candidates to the department, with No. 1 as its main hiring recommendation. Graduate-student viewpoints on the hire will be channeled through the student member of the committee. Faculty members of the department then discuss the list and formally vote. The committee’s recommendation must be formally supported by, or be in alignment with, either the majority of the department or the consensus (depending on the institutional culture, faculty bylaws, and such).
- The search committee solicits information from department members — including the chair, who does not have a privileged opinion but chimes in as a member of the department. In places with graduate programs, the committee may also talk with graduate students who attended the various candidates’ talks. The search committee then decides on a ranked list of candidates, and sends the list to the dean with a note that may express the consensus view of the department — for instance, that there is strong support for the No. 1 candidate.
- On some campuses, the search committee is charged with making an unranked list of three finalists, and providing a narrative overview on each of them to the chair, who then unilaterally picks from that list. (To be clear, this version of the process is really weird, and I have heard of only one institution that does it this way. But who is to say it is the only one?)
- Sometimes the search committee, in a trance, examines the entrails of the chicken oracle, plucked from the brood of chickens raised by HR for this very purpose. The auspicious candidate is selected, and the other candidates are never notified of the decision because of the fear of retaliatory sorcery.
OK, that last one might happen only in anthropology departments — but the point is, there are all kinds of byzantine arrangements that range from formal to customary, and arise out of an intersection of campus culture and the bureaucratic protocol of academic administration. It it is a union campus, the hiring process could also be affected by clauses and subclauses in the union contract.
The larger point is: You don’t know which kind of institution you are dealing with. That’s why you should always assume that everyone you meet during your campus interview will have direct substantive input into whether or not you receive an offer. I know of a department where the chair asked the departmental assistant what she thought of the candidate, and if she thought the candidate was rude or difficult in arranging the interview logistics. That weighed into the decision on the departmental level.
Question: I am a woman and an immigrant but have never, up to now, mentioned either of those things on my application materials. But at one of the jobs where I applied, someone on the search committee said I should — because it could help me get interviews. Can you suggest where I should include that sort of information?
Leaving aside the question of whether it would be helpful — because, on the one hand, you have diversity hiring initiatives and, on the other hand, academe is still a microcosm of our society, which rewards and promotes white men above all — there are several ways to do that in the cover letter.
- Mention it in the context of your research. But only if it makes sense to do so. Obviously, this will not apply to everyone. But if you are an anthropologist doing an ethnography of your own diasporic community, in the research paragraphs of your cover letter, you can signal that it is an auto-ethnography, for example.
- Mention it in the context of your teaching. This is my recommended method. You can bring it up in the section of your cover letter dedicated to teaching, so long as you avoid sounding weepy and contrived. On the academic job market today, it is both relevant and desirable to talk about inclusive teaching, and the ways that you are truly mindful of diversity in the classroom and on the campus. But the same rule applies here as with any teaching narrative in your application: Show, don’t tell. Don’t just say “as an immigrant woman I am especially sensitive and committed to diversity in higher education, and I stress that in my courses” without providing real examples of how you do so, and why. If you use your own immigration narrative to model for students how to do an oral history project, or if you bring in newspapers from your home country to teach a particular unit in social science, a vivid sketch of how learning happens in your classroom absolutely can include those details.
- Mention it in the context of service/administrative experience. Service is not the path to a tenure-track job, but there are occasions when it’s worth mentioning in your cover letter — and signaling your identity and its connection to diversifying your field is one of them. So if the time you’ve invested in, say, minority recruitment has been motivated by your own background, that is worth a mention.
- Ask your professors to mention it in their letters of reference. Of course that depends on what kind of rapport you have with your letter-writers, and how amenable they are to specific requests and instruction from you about what to put in the letter they write. But if you do have sway, ask your recommenders to emphasize those aspects of your identity and background in clear ways to hiring committees.
You definitely should mention your personal demographics somewhere high up in your cover letter if you are applying to an institution with a strong mission of diversity (like the University of California campuses, for example) — one that is specifically interested in understanding how job candidates would contribute to that. Again, avoid generic or overly dramatic statements. Instead, be able to articulate in concrete and specific terms how your identity informs your research and pedagogical commitments.
What about if you are applying for a job at a predominantly white institution, or more specifically, for an opening in a predominantly white field? In such cases, what you mention about your identity in your cover letter or other application materials depends on whether there are institutional or disciplinary initiatives under way to promote the representation of scholars like yourself among the ranks. If there are — I am thinking of something like the many well-known efforts to support women in STEM fields — definitely signal your identity.
Even in Trump’s America, most institutions at least pay lip service (for now) to the idea of diversifying their faculty. So when it’s relevant, find substantive, concrete, brief, and nondramatic ways to signal your identity in your cover letter.
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 .