From the Other Side of the Table: Academic Search Committee from the Inside

This guest post comes to us from Ruth Monnier, who is an Assistant Professor and Learning Outreach Librarian at Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg, Kansas. She provides reference and instruction services and engages with the greater campus and community.

Last year, I was job hunting and, like many others, was worried about CVs, resumes, cover letters, tracking jobs, and application deadlines. Recently, I served on the other side of the table as a search committee member. In books, blogs, and Twitter feeds, everyone has advice to offer to the job seeker, and most of the advice is good. However, just because advice is given, does not mean the advice is taken. After being on the other side of the table, here are six pieces of advice I offer for anyone who is job searching.

  1. Reading Truly Matters

It seems obvious based on our profession’s stereotype, but it bears stating again: reading carefully truly matters. We, as a society, are trained to skim any text (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/aug/25/skim-reading-new-normal-maryanne-wolf). The committee can tell who is skimming the job posting, and particularly the job description. The job description lays out the expectations for the role and is the guiding document of the search. The committee uses the job description as a template for interview questions and to create a rubric for evaluating each candidate’s response. You should directly answer every job duty raised in the job description via CV or cover letter, especially if there are any unusual or nontraditional job duties. By directly addressing the listed duties, you eliminate any doubt committee members might have on your ability to complete job-related functions. The more uncertainty committee members have about a candidate, the less likely it is for the candidate to move on in the search process.

If you are a job seeker, take time to review your application documents and ask someone else to review them as well, especially if you are using a base template to apply for multiple positions. Do your cover letter and CV address every duty in the job description? Did you spell the institution’s name correctly? Does the job title match? Is your contact information correct?

  1. Selection of the Committee

Honestly, when I was a job seeker, I did not think about how individuals became a part of the search committee. However, understanding the search committee’s composition can assist you in the process. At my institution, per department policies, it is required that there be at least one staff person and three faculty members elected to the committee. The search committee makeup and the process will vary by institution. The important takeaways are to recognize that not all committee members will have a master’s degree in the field nor know all of the position’s day-to-day tasks. With your knowledge of the search committee composition, you can better understand their overall perspective on the institution and library department, terminology and acronym usage, and whom some of your questions should be directed towards. Be mindful of who is on the other side of the table throughout the interview process.

  1. Little Things Matter

Time and care should be taken to craft the initial interview documents, such as your cover letter, and to the interview process as a whole. Search committee members are interviewing multiple candidates back-to-back. Even with taking notes, candidates’ information can run together, which makes the little things stand out. Being prepared can help you stand out.

If you are interviewed, have questions ready to ask the search committee and for a campus interview, have questions to ask anyone. Also, feel free to re-ask previous questions from earlier stages in the interview to different individuals.Before the phone interview, write out key points and activities that you want to highlight to the committee, particularly for those commonly asked questions.It is easy to freeze up or stumble if you are nervous or not used to the technology. If possible, practice a phone/video interview with a friend or Career Services and use what you plan on having for the actual interview. During the phone interview, take notes on the questions asked and your responses as well as ask for time to process a question as needed. As the interview process changes due to budget constraints and a global pandemic, be prepared and familiarize yourself with multiple technology platforms. If you go for a campus visit, remember that you, as the candidate, are always being interviewed unless you are left completely alone. Your conversations in the car, at meals and breaks, and walking on campus are all being used to evaluate you, just as you are evaluating the position, committee, and institution.

  1. Take a Break

If you have an itinerary, check it. Are there breaks for you? Do you need to ask for anything to ensure a smoother interview? Whether participating in a phone interview, multi-hour video call, or visiting in-person, ensure breaks for yourself. For a phone interview, this might simply mean having water to drink while the committee is asking questions. For a longer interview process, advocating for a couple of quick breaks by yourself allows you to recharge. If you are given the opportunity for a break, take it. Breaks also allow search committee members an opportunity to check their email or complete other quick tasks. Depending on the candidate’s schedule, the search committee can feel fatigued too. Breaks benefit all involved to process information, relax, and recharge for the next portion of the day.

  1. Expenses

Typically, your expenses are paid if a search committee brings you physically to the campus. Frequently your expenses are reimbursed after the fact versus at the point of purchase. Before you arrive on campus, ask for clarification on the expense process (reimbursement or otherwise), including who is responsible for meals, receipts needed for reimbursement, and any other questions you have. If it is a financial burden for you to travel to campus and any of the related expenses, talk to the search committee’s chair. There may be ways to ease the up-front financial burden depending on the institution.

Be an advocate for yourself and communicate with the committee. Remember you are interviewing the committee as much as they are interviewing you, and no one wants an awkward or uncomfortable situation.

  1. Thank you

Common advice for any job seeker is to send a thank you note. The typical advice given is to send a handwritten note, but if a handwritten note will not arrive in time an email is also acceptable.

By being on the other side of the table, I was surprised at how few thank you emails and notes were sent. Thank you notes reiterate your interest in the position, provide an additional opportunity to clarify an answer to an interview question you may have not answered to the best of your ability, and can make you stand out to the committee. It is one more time that the committee is seeing your name and interest in the position.

Each institution is different, but being prepared and following through gives you the best opportunity of landing the position. Good luck!

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