Academic Job Hunts From Hell: The Fake Search

How do you recognize when the favored candidate has been predetermined?

October 04, 2015

In an ideal world, every academic job search would be efficiently, faithfully, and sensitively planned and executed and every candidate treated with respect. In reality, the quality of a search depends entirely on the competence, attention span, ethics, and intentions of those who run it and thus varies considerably. The sad fact is that, starting when you are a graduate student fresh on the market, you are going to suffer searches that are badly run, disingenuously staged, or even spiked with hostility.

So, in a series of essays, I will look at different kinds of “search fails” and detail not only how to survive them but also how to gain insights that might help you be a better candidate for the searches that could actually bear fruit.

Let’s begin with how to recognize a fake search — the one for which the “winner” has been predetermined. Other candidates exist simply to fulfill procedural and legal requirements. By definition the fake academic search is secret, although the other candidates may be the only ones unaware that it’s fake.

My introduction to the fake search came when I was looking for my first faculty job. I was exhilarated to be a finalist for a tenure-track position. On interview day, everyone I met on the campus was cordial and professional — and then I got my one-hour meeting with the college’s dean. He proceeded to regale me with his achievements, radiating a palpable lack of interest in mine. I found the “interview” strange and disconcerting.

I was not offered the job. Further, the head of the search committee, with whom I became much better acquainted in later years, apologized ex post facto. He declared, “I swear I didn’t know the fix was in.” The eventual pick was a doctoral protégé of the provost. The search itself was a dog-and-pony show to bluff through the HR protocols and crown the prince-in-waiting.

My experience was not that bad — nice meals and pleasant people compensated for the futility of the pursuit. However, fake searches can be miserable and demeaning as well as a waste of time. A friend described a nightmare visit to a college where not a single faculty member or administrator bothered to meet him. He was abandoned in a grubby motel room, eating crackers and cheese for two days. The reimbursement for his travel took more than a year to wrest from the host department.

Realizing that you are caught in a fake search is useful, thus, because: (a) you have a choice as to whether to participate at all and (b) it salvages your self-respect to know that your rejection had nothing to do with you.

So what are the common tells of a fake search that may be either consensual (that is, everyone from those in administration to the faculty to the front desk clerk at the hotel are part of the scam) or top-down (where only a few campus leaders such as the dean or the chair of the search committee are in on the game)?

The job ad is unusually specific or obscure. Another friend described being on a search committee where it was obvious that several of his colleagues desperately wanted to hire one of the program’s doctoral grads — let’s call him “Murray” — who had gotten his first job at another university but wanted to “come home.” In crafting an ad for the new position, the Murray partisans insisted on required and preferred qualifications that exactly fit the anointed one. Those on the committee who questioned the fine granularity of the criteria — e.g., “must be able to teach classes in the foreign-policy rhetoric of Leonid Brezhnev” and “must have written a book on Russia’s relations with Ecuador” — were fiercely opposed by the Murrayites.

Some job ads do indeed suspiciously read as if someone, whether committee members or an administrator, had a specific person in mind when it was written. Where it really gets fishy is when — in contact with the search committee, perhaps during an initial phone interview — the partisans seem dismissive when you bring up reasonable analogs to what they claim they are looking for. In the somewhat exaggerated example above, had a candidate claimed to have studied the foreign-policy speechmaking of Russian Communist-era leaders in general and the rejoinder was, “Too bad, we were hoping for a Brezhnev specialist,” it would have been a strong sign that they had one particular specialist already in mind.

A related tactic is when departments post a job ad for a very limited time in obscure venues. If the position announcement is live for only 10 days in a regional association’s job board, then maybe the department is purposely trying to prevent a wide pool of candidates from noticing the opening.

The timetable is rushed or compressed. Hiring, firing, and turnover can occur rapidly in the business world. In academe, we operate in much more deliberative and long-term ways. As a faculty member, changing jobs may mean giving your employer a notice of 10 months rather than two weeks.

So it is a little dubious when a faculty job opening appears with the minimum HR-mandated deadline, phone interviews begin right away, and candidates are invited to campus in a flash. You might suspect that one of the finalists has already been told to “be ready by October 1 to interview.” Another clue: The search chair is unwilling to budge on the dates of your visit, as in, “The only slot we have for you is the day after Thanksgiving. Take it or leave it.”

They seem uninterested in you. In the first fake search I experienced, it was clear that the dean had no questions about my background, my research plans, or my impressions of the department. The one time I tried to mention my research agenda he interrupted to tell me more about his work. It’s a telling sign when people keep focusing on anything but you during your interview. That usually means they are just going through the motions and you are just there for show.

Sometimes, the revelation can come from a noncampus source. A colleague told me about a fake search in which the real-estate agent admitted that he had no hope of selling the job candidate a house in town because he knew she was not going to be joining them.

The itinerary differs from candidate to candidate. One of the sacred rules of faculty searches is that, although there is no guarantee that every candidate will be treated the same, their overall agendas on the campus visit must be equivalent. For example, one finalist must not be allowed to give a teaching presentation while the other gives none. (I tend to obsess over parity: Our search committees cannot Skype one candidate for a semifinalist interview and only talk over the phone with another.)

Fake searches will often get lax on such details — especially if several administrators are collaborating in setting up one candidate for success and the rest for failure. Another friend described a campus visit where, in order to paste on the barest fig leaf of fairness, the host department created a “joint research, teaching, general faculty Q&A, and meeting with the dean” event for the candidate. In contrast, the favorite (and eventual hire) enjoyed separate events for each of those segments.

Sometimes no one even bothers to set up much of a schedule at all. But worst of all is when you encounter folks who are openly hostile because you are not the chosen one. If all you observe at your research presentation is a sea of scowls, then maybe you ruffled feathers somehow. More likely, they did not want you to visit in the first place.

Besides being unethical, a fake search is, as a university lawyer I know put it, “a minefield of legal issues.” For example, a true fix-is-in search may violate affirmative-action policies and/or equal-opportunity laws.

In addition, fake searches can be unproductive for the hiring department. As for any horse race in which one particular thoroughbred is an odds-on favorite, you never actually know what will happen until the race is run. Candidates other than the previously identified darling may prove to be superior in qualifications and even fit for a given program. Moreover, fake searches can harm the reputation of the preselected candidate, especially if the choice is based on favoritism, not excellence.

Yet even if you spot the fakery early there is a case to be made for soldiering on.

First, being an unchosen one in a fake search is not necessarily useless or even unpleasant. A Ph.D. student I know said he realized at the beginning of a campus visit that the search was fake. He took a Zen attitude to the experience, remaining relaxed through all the presentations and meetings. He felt he gained confidence and experience for future, legitimate searches. This one was a sort of trial run with no pressure.

Second, it is possible that even the fakers might be impressed with you. And you never know whether the fix might fall through. In one search I know of, a group of faculty who very much wanted to throw the contest to an anointed friend was eventually outvoted by a majority of the faculty who decided another candidate had shone much brighter. It didn’t help that the favorite came in cocky and overconfident and did not seem to be well prepared.

And, after all, it’s good practice for academic life to remain composed, genial, and professional in adverse circumstances.

Sometimes fake searches are fairly self-revealing. But sometimes it is hard to tell whether a search is bogus, incompetently run, doomed by outside factors, or divisively executed — the subjects of future essays in this series.

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 & Tenure Confidential, was published by Harvard University Press in 2010.

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