Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Selling ourselves

The job market is overwhelmingly about selling oneself, as the yearly dust-ups over such issues as appropriate job-candidate dress and comportment reveal. (And for the record, I think the advice to "just be yourself! if they don't like the real you you're better off not working there!" is only slightly more stupid than the insistence that, if you don't wear a tie/heels and an anonymous, conservative suit, then you'll never in a million years get a job anywhere ever.) But this year, as my department is in the midst of its blitz of candidate visits, I've been thinking harder about what it means for an institution to try to sell itself to a candidate.

My first few years on the job, I was excited when we had job candidates to campus and I made an effort to meet all of them, but I was mostly interested in checking them out. I wanted a good colleague, teacher, and scholar (and possibly a friend), and though I understood myself to be performing a service for or fulfilling an obligation to my department, I didn't really think of myself as representing the department in any meaningful way: we needed bodies in the room at the candidate's talk and at dinner, and it was good for some of those bodies to belong to friendly junior faculty, but no one needed for me, specifically, to be there. I went mostly because it was fun to meet the candidates, to have a vote, and to get a fancy meal on the department's dime.

Now I'm older and busier and everything feels like work. I don't particularly want the fancy meal; I'd rather be at home in my pyjamas. I don't really need to meet the candidates; we have a talented roster, I trust my colleagues, and anyone we hire I'll wind up meeting soon enough. But I'm also on the verge of tenure, I expect to be here for a while, and somewhere along the line I decided that what I did, personally, kinda did matter. Though I still identify strongly with the job candidate, I get that she won't particularly identify with me: she'll see me as her senior (usually), and as a reflection of my department's character and personality (definitely).

So I'm rousing myself at 7.30 a.m. and driving to campus every day we have a candidate visiting, making time for each one's job talk and teaching demo and either lunch or dinner. I'm donning a suit (to communicate respect for the candidate and the general professionalism of the department), I'm asking encouraging questions, and I'm doing my damnedest, through my interactions with my colleagues, to show as well as tell our candidates that we're a happy and collegial place where friendships extend outside of the office. I want our candidates to see how intellectually engaged we are, and how interested in other people's work. I want for our students to perform well, and for Cha-Cha City to sound and look appealing, and for the campus, ideally, not to be covered in a sheet of ice.

And in fact I'm not sure why having the department come off well matters so very much to me. The job market is terrible, our list is deep, and though we don't always get our our first-choice candidate we've never had a search fail and have always wound up with someone wonderful.

But I guess I wish to extend the sort of kindness to our candidates that the department extended to me on my visit--and, more selfishly, I wish for the people whom we don't hire or who don't accept our offers (and perhaps, by extension, their colleagues and friends and advisors) to have a warm impression of our department. There's nothing bad about good press.


Withywindle said...

What did I know, what did I know / Of love's austere and lonely offices.

Flavia said...

Withy: heh.

DDB said...

I couldn't agree more. We're in the midst of a search right now, and just had the first candidate in today. Some people dither and angst over their research talk or their future directions, but the truth be told, all of the people invited are more than qualified. What I am interested in is will this person be a good colleague? Will this person fit in at Sushi Friday lunch, random faculty poker game, or get-together-at -someones-house-and-throw-all-the-kids-in-a-room-to-play-while-we-drink? Out of the 300+ applications we get, we bring maybe 5-10 to campus, and those will the ones who had the best CV's - I'll accept that as fact. I want them to like us, and us to like them. This is a long-term commitment, hopefully, and if I'm going to rely on this person to help build something greater than the sum of the parts, it helps to like them. I've seen enough departments where people don't talk to each other to know it ain't the kind of place I want to work.

Veralinda said...

I related to this completely. I want anyone who comes on campus to come away with a good opinion of my department/institution, and I also feel that anyone coming on campus themselves deserves to be treated with utmost respect. All that being said, the real reason I participate in all hiring processes that I can is that I *don't* have the total confidence in my colleagues that you luckily do! (Plus, since the senior folks only have to live with them for a short time, but I might be hiring a colleague who I'll work with for two or three decades, I'm pretty invested in the process).

Flavia said...


Well, I trust my colleagues' judgement, collectively and individually--but it's true that I have a few colleagues who don't bother to show up for candidate talks, in some cases, any of the talks. Or any of the other events. And we have a young department.

Colleagues who read my blog: I'm just sayin'.

Withywindle said...

I have mixed feelings about DDB's comments. Aside from my personal ogrishness, I'm politically conservative--and that makes it impossible to speak openly and make every member of a department feel like they'd be comfortable hiring me for a lifetime. And any sort of discretion and honesty means being awkwardly silent remarkable amounts of the time. I know DDB didn't mean it politically, but it's an attitude with disparate political impact.

Flavia said...


Well, that cuts both ways, doesn't it? I agree that political conservatives are in a real minority in humanities departments, and while obviously no one should be talking politics with a job candidate, I also know that it doesn't occur to many academics that it would be remotely offensive to, say, make a passing joke about a Republican political candidate over dinner.

However, there are other beliefs, commitments, and lifestyles that make people uncomfortable or just annoyed, some of which can be predicted and some of which can't be. (Maybe the vegan will be seen as too picky, or the pregnant lady as not focused enough on her career, or the single guy as unlikely to fit in, in a department of married child-rearers. I even know a department of well-intentioned liberals who decided not to give a campus visit to an openly gay candidate they loved--on the presumption that he wouldn't be happy at their religious institution.)

As I said, I think the advice to "just be yourself" is foolish. "Being oneself" in an job interview always involves some strategic withholding. I've never talked about my faith commitments at a job interview, for example.

Whatsitwindle said...

Sure, it cuts lots of ways. It's one of the reasons I ultimately want to get rid of tenure--it makes for smiley-smiley conformism of the clubbable in all sorts of ways. Or, if not going rid of tenure, some other mechanism to allow us to find that golden median between snarling meetings of antipathetic jerks and the Department as Camazotz.

Historiann said...

This is a terrific post, Flavia. I respect and agree with your commitment to participating in your searches so that your department makes a decent impression on people. I have never forgotten the interview in which a faculty member fell asleep in the front row of my job talk. That was also (surprise!) the job talk in which I was taken to a bad asian restaurant (it was a small town--I get that there weren't a lot of options) and one of the senior faculty kept looking at her watch the whole time.

That's hard not to take personally. And while I get it that I'm not everyone's cup of tea, I have never been accused of being dull or a bad conversationalist.

And yet: I also have qualms about DDB's standards for who might make a good colleague. I've had colleagues who were tons of fun to hang out with and have dinner with who were also incredibly divisive. I've had colleagues with whom I don't socialize but who are responsible teachers and take on major service commitments without complaint. So, I don't think it's fair to use the standard of "potential future friend" as a measuring stick for our job candidates.

(I apologize if this is putting words in DDB's mouth or if I've misunderstood hir point.)

Flavia said...

I'll let DDB speak for himself, but I don't think that's what he meant--and it's certainly not what I meant in my parenthetical. A colleague who turns into a personal friend is a bonus, but not at all a requirement or expectation.

However, a candidate should, at a minimum, be someone with whom I could imagine enjoying chatting for a few minutes when we ran into each other at the departmental photocopier, or who would be a pleasant occasional carpool companion. All my current colleagues meet that standard, and I think each of us has at least one or two people in the department who are much closer friends than that (though our social circles and their levels of intimacy vary)--I don't hang out with all my colleagues outside the office, but I wouldn't object to the occasional meal with any of them.

Historiann said...

The carpool standard seems perfectly reasonable to me! I think these things are all very local and specific, too: it matters differently if your college or uni is in a town of 27,000, or 200,000, or 2 million people.

DDB said...

I wasn't implying that every potential hire has to be a future friend - sorry if it came off that way. In the sciences and engineering (my field), I have felt that it can be isolating - everyone is somewhat siloed in their own particular research areas and the head of their own little research group. It can be very easy to view that as the most important thing, to the exclusion of the larger business of the department.

What I look for in potential colleagues is someone who isn't focused on their own interests and research program to the exclusion of everything else. You can often catch a glimpse of this in how they interact with others during the interview process. For good or for ill, all departments have a personality and a culture, and I look for people who I think will compliment that culture. Not necessarily conform, mind you; we are shooting for diverse personalities and diverse interests (and we have some very interesting political discussions - no one takes the views personally).

I've been in a department where everyone was very personally successful - lots of grants, lots of publications, but it was impossible to get anyone to volunteer for anything. No one would go to grad student seminars unless it was their student or they were on the committee, it was impossible to get people to go out to dinner with candidates, or volunteer for open house type events. It was a miserable place to work, though from the outside, it looked successful. Where I am now is just as successful, if not more so, but with a great culture to boot. As I said, I have confidence in my colleagues on the search committee to bring in highly qualified candidates; what we use the interview process for is to see what kind of contributions, both tangible and intangible, this person can bring, as well as show off what we've built, as we are rightly proud of it.

~profgrrrrl~ said...

I think it's really important to be involved in the hiring process, and thankfully my current colleagues do as well. But 402's department is hiring now and they've barely mustered together a schedule for the candidates and no one seems to have much information. There are some circumstances that might explain this, but nonetheless it seems in poor form to me.

That said, sometimes seeing the real department is helpful. I related to Historiann's comment about the dinner at a bad asian restaurant with a senior faculty member who kept looking at her watch. I interviewed twice at one major university, and both times had weird/scattered experiences. The first time, lunch was with an adjunct and a bunch of grad students (who innocently asked a bunch of illegal questions). Dinner was with one faculty member from a totally different area and a bunch of graduate students. The next time, I think dinner might have just been me and graduate students, but I totally don't recall beyond the sense that the whole interview was kind of lame. And I got the sense that they entirely lacked community (and all that goes along with it). I pulled out of both searches to accept other offers that I already had in hand (not that I think I would have gotten offers there).

Flash forward a few years, one of my good friends is now in that department -- and basically confirmed that no one does anything (I shouldn't take it personally) because of various issues and personal life things. And I'm glad I'm not there because it just wouldn't have been a good fit.

Flavia said...

Profgrrrl, that's a good point; one awesome person (or even a couple of them) are not going to make up for, and might actively misrepresent, real problems in a department or at an institution.

I had a campus visit at a school that clearly had a lot of problems and where the English department felt itself to be under siege. Everyone in the (quite small) department was very nice, but one member of the search committee was amazing: very frank about the institution's problems, but so warm and lovely that although I had my doubts about the institution, I kept thinking, "If so-and-so is here, and is okay being here, this wouldn't be a terrible job."

I didn't get the offer, and the amazing person on the search committee left at the end of the year--precisely because things at that school really were that bad. I later learned that the person they hired felt exactly as I did (about the awesome search committee member and the hopeful things that implied about the job). But s/he wound up in a very different department after the departure of that member.