David D. Perlmutter. “Why Search Committees Go Radio Silent.” Chronicle of Higher Education, May 16, 2014.
Author’s note: This essay focusses on searches conducted by faculty committee without professional search firm involvement.
Practically everyone who has ever suffered through being a candidate in an academic job search has made a variation of the same vow. “One day, when I am signed and sealed in a position, I will send this notification to the search committees who never got back to me: I’m sorry to inform you that I withdraw my candidacy…”
In my case, some 20 years ago when I was ABD and on the job market for the first time, I applied for a particular tenure-track position … and I still have not heard back. Every once in a while I am tempted to “inquire about the status of the search” or formally withdraw. Maybe after I retire.
Searching for an academic position is hard and stressful. It was so for me back then, and it remains so according to all my informants who are currently looking. Exactly which part of the search is most painful—crafting a teaching philosophy, say, or giving a research presentation—is subject to personal distaste. But a perennial favorite in the misery sweepstakes is the lack of information you get about the status of a search. Has somebody already been picked? Or is the department about to call you and ask you to visit?
I recently explained (but did not excuse) why searches can drag out so long. Technically, the notification game is a separate issue. A search may take a long time but the search chair may offer candidates timely bulletins; sometimes, though, dilly-dallying in the broader search may be a sign of an unengaged committee that won’t pay attention to details like updating candidates.
Here I want to cite some reasons why a committee may not be notifying you. Some are practical and others are due to following university HR policies, but some undoubtedly are the result of plain forgetfulness or even lack of interest.
But first some perspective. In today’s social media era you don’t always need to wait for a committee to formally notify you that “candidates have been invited to campus.” As I noted in my regular “Careers” column for The Chronicle, job wikis and even Facebook can be (mostly) reliable sources of information. Also, it’s bad for your mental health to get too anxious. To be blunt: If they want you, they will find a way to tell you.
An awkward phone call to a search chair that results in a stammering “Um, well actually, we just hired someone else” will not add any joy to the search experience.
That said, when you are not being told, it’s probably for one or more of these reasons:
The search is dragging on and there is nothing to report. No news is simply no news from a search committee perspective. They are not going to send out a bulletin to say, for example, “Because of travel schedules, we have not yet met to review applications.”
They don’t actually know the status of the search themselves. A higher-level administrator may be considering the candidates, or funding may suddenly be in limbo. Sometimes a committee may decide that kind of situation is worth providing an update, sometimes not.
Silence is prescribed by institutional rules or protocols. Sometimes a search is silent because that’s the way the university works. For example, HR needs to approve candidates for campus visits. In other instances the silence may be culturally driven: Many search chairs think giving too-frequent or too-detailed updates will raise false hopes among the many to-be-unselected candidates.
The silence is tactical. In many cases, once an offer has been extended to a finalist, silence locks in. If the negotiations don’t work out, departments want to be able to go to another candidate “fresh,” not as the public “second choice.” After signing, if there is still some concern about a dreaded pull-out—somebody takes another offer, which is unethical but not unknown—then the silence might remain policy.
The search is deadlocked. Just because a department published a hiring profile of the “ideal candidate” doesn’t mean every faculty member agrees with it. A dean once described a search committee that, despite almost a dozen meetings, could not even agree on whom to conduct a phone interview with; the search was eventually suspended. No one bothered to tell any of the candidates.
The search has been bungled. Everything went south for one reason or another. Confusion has set in. Nobody has agreed on what to do next. They are not updating because they don’t want to admit failure.
They forgot. Academia is full of very bright and competent people … in one or even several domains. Transferring those talents to other domains may be more challenging. This happens far too often, particularly in searches that end near the close of an academic year. In the frenzied rush to negotiate with the intended hire and seal the deal, the committee chair, unit head (or whoever is now in charge) just lets everything else go. Nowadays you might still get a “search completed” auto-notice from the HR software—but nothing personal.
They don’t care. Most people don’t serve on search committees to find an outlet for their cruelty. But sometimes that’s the outcome. Maybe they don’t update because they didn’t think about how important it is to do so, or maybe the mental well-being of hundreds of job applicants just doesn’t matter to them. After all, they have jobs, they are busy, and so on.
Updating applicants about academic job searches should be serious business. You do have the right to know, for instance, that candidates have been asked to campus or that somebody else has been hired. But what is right for you may not be what is seen as ideal for the search itself. In an instance like that I can offer no solace; it is what it is. But you can pledge that when you find yourself on a search committee one day, you’ll treat candidates with as much kindness as possible.