Hiring season

The Ad
First we secured the line. Then we wrote the job ad. Like most things decided by committee, it ended up a miscellany of priorities and desires—a cross between an eHarmony mash note and a letter to Santa Claus. Please, Santa, bring me the perfect colleague, someone who can teach competently in several incompatible areas, who digs underprepared students and committee work, who’s a brilliant scholar willing to live with the low paycheck, who’s cheerful and sane, who will help us all be better at our jobs. Amen.

Then we placed the ad and waited to see what would happen. Would anyone want to come to our tiny, underendowed college? Yes, it’s on a gorgeous campus in a funky college town, but really? Us? We collaborate for survival, sharing not enough space and limited resources. Sometimes I feel like I live on a boat with a hundred slightly batty fellow sailors, shipping out every August for a feverish nine-month hitch. Only in mid-May do we see dry land.

But, as inevitably as the tide, the applications came rolling in. Human Resources archived the letters and CVs more quickly than I could read them. In the end, I gave reasoned, careful consideration to over 350 hopeful Ph.D.s. One-tenth of them made the first cut.

It’s strange to be on the other side of this process, because although this is the third search committee I’ve served on since coming off the market myself, the trauma of applying for jobs remains freshly vivid in my mind. The elaborate sets of index cards to keep track of all the deadlines. The painstakingly customized self-introductions. The almost daily crushing defeat of rejection letters on pretty letterhead stationery. Oh, the stomachaches and sleepless nights. My heart hurts for each one of these bright, hopeful, folks.

The next batch of cuts presented a tougher set of decisions. It was obvious that every application in the pile represented someone who could ably fill our position. You don’t get to the second round of a search for a tenure-track job in the humanities anymore without bringing ample teaching, promising research, publications, and a killer job letter to the party. So what were we looking for? All that and a bag of chips, pretty much. And as of today, we got her.

The conference
But that’s getting ahead of the story. After a humdinger of a committee meeting, in which each one of us had to compromise and give up on someone we were championing, we settled on a list of a dozen names for in-person interviews at the MLA convention. (Making those phone calls to set up the meets is one of the only happy parts in the months-long process.) During semester break I flew across the country, setting up camp in a hotel room with a view of the rooftop pool and the L.A. Public Library. Then, for two straight days, at one-hour intervals the candidates arrived, from all over the U.S. and Canada, at great personal expense, for one of the most stressful conversations of their lives.

This time, it felt like a cross between Russian roulette and speed dating. We had only a few minutes to derive impressions of one another, but the stakes were way too high. For them: a toehold into the profession they’d been training in for probably close to a decade. For us: a daily working relationship that could last twenty, thirty years. Practically a marriage. Who can decide based on a few adrenaline-drenched moments in a hotel room? My department chair, an older, cigar-smoking guy named Joe, started having difficulty telling the candidates apart, even with his copious notes. “Tell me something,” he said wearily over drinks after the first day of interviews. “Do they all buy their suits at the same place?”

“Yeah, they do,” I said. “It’s a store called Ann Taylor.”

Unlike past years, nobody crashed and burned⎯no tears, blurted outbursts, or frank confessions of mental illness. Everyone came highly prepped, buffed to charismatic perfection. And yet a few easily rose to the top of our list. Personality-wise, they were so different from one another that only afterward did I realize what shared characteristics helped them ace the interview:

    1. Being able to discuss one’s interests and strengths without sounding overly rehearsed. (Harder than you may think. Prepared-yet-spontaneous is a tough sell.)
    2. The ability to seem confident without projecting arrogance or defensiveness. (Nearly impossible! Everyone felt nervous, but the best candidates seemed to diffuse the tension in the room, rather than amplify it.)
    3. Expressing curiosity and some foreknowledge about our institution and our students. (You’d think this one would be a gimme, wouldn’t you? Nope.)
    4. Relating to us as human beings, potential colleagues rather than inquisitors. (Kind of unfair, when you think about the crazy power differential between us. But it meant they were already thinking like professors, not as grad students.)

The campus visit
It’s a tightly choreographed dance, one you learn via folk wisdom and tripping over your own feet. In our case: airport, hotel, group dinner, overnight. Out for breakfast. On campus: meeting with president, meeting with academic dean, meeting with HR, lunch with students, job talk, group interview, teaching demonstration, tour of campus, driving tour of city, airport.

(The best advice anyone gave me about campus visits: pack granola bars in your bookbag. Eat them in the bathroom, or you’ll bonk halfway through the day. Anytime they offer you coffee, say yes.)

A typical flyback lasts about a day and a half, though I’ve witnessed both extremes. One school flew me in and out on the same sixteen-hour death march, expressing consternation that I expected to be fed a meal. Another kept me for three sybaritic nights of artisanal cuisine, house parties, and cocktail hours. My college errs on the side of abstemiousness, but we still try to show the candidate a good time. We’ve been so busy judging her; now it’s her turn to judge us. We glance around our offices and classrooms, hoping they don’t look shabby to someone accustomed to research university digs. We pick the nicest restaurants we can afford. We dress up. We set aside our conflicts and present a unified front. We hope that the bumbling president doesn’t ask her a dumbass question like, “Do you want kids?” We think, Please love us too.

Three visits, boom-boom-boom. While she’s there, each one is our favorite. It’s hard to decide. But in the end, there’s only one job. And one candidate who turns out to be everything on our wish list.

The offer
What’s that saying? ‘You can’t polish a turd?’ In this case, the turd is the starting salary. But the market is so bad that all tenure-track jobs are looking pretty good right now. That and our desirable location give this little college some serious drawing power. So we put the number out there and hope.

She calls me on my cell phone and we talk city neighborhoods for nearly an hour. This is a good sign, right?

The MLA suggests that a candidate should have two weeks to decide, but with each day that passes, I feel her slipping away. At this point I’m so emotionally invested (perhaps irrationally so) that if she rejects us, it will actually sting. But in practical terms, you know exactly what we’ll do? Move to number two on the list and make the same offer.

Eleven days into negotiations, word comes down from the dean: she said yes. Thank god. I was a nervous wreck.

So welcome aboard, new colleague. Nothing’s official until the contract comes back signed. But I think our hiring season is finally over.

7 responses to “Hiring season”

  1. LP says:

    Wow. Sers. I feel exhausted just reading this. So glad it’s finally over, with a happy resolution – whew!

  2. Tim says:

    Stress of academic hiring — on all those involved — confirmed. Glad to know it looks like things have turned out well. I hope she really comes to your school and turns out to be the colleague of your dreams!

  3. swells says:

    I am SO envious that you’re hiring. I feel like we’ll never be there again. Congrats on your new match! I’ve been on both sides of this negotiation as well, and actually found the hiring process (when I wasn’t BEING interviewed, which is predictably dreadful) to be exhilarating and also inspiring, as I picked up so many interesting teaching perspectives from their demos. So much potential, so much wondering about our future together–it is certainly like a marriage. I hope you live happily ever after.

    (and it was great to get to steal a minute with you after all those interviews you did, too!)

  4. AWB says:

    Glad to hear your search went well! I am all too familiar with the wait for a phone call (which still hasn’t come) and the growing certainty that you will lose what you’ve worked so hard to get. I wish there were a way for hiring to happen without all the awful waiting, spending, and anxiety on both sides.

  5. LHD says:

    Thanks, everyone. It’s quite a saga. I have to agree with you, Swells, that meeting the candidates and getting excited about their ideas is one of the best parts. Lots has been written about how the hiring system is broken, but the human beings within it are as delightful as ever.

  6. AWB says:

    I finally got my rejection letter! I didn’t think I could go through another week of waiting for that thing to get here.

  7. Tim says:

    Sorry to hear it, AWB.