95. Why Is This Job Open?
There are three basic reasons for an academic job being open. First, the department is expanding in some way and no one has ever held the position before. Second, a perfectly acceptable or even much loved faculty member has left. And third, the person who previously held the position was a problem.
One of the awkward unknowns of the job market relates to the job opening itself. The potential employer provides a statement of the qualifications they are seeking. This statement may not be accurate. Sometimes it’s just a wish list, sometimes it’s created hurriedly without the full input of the search committee. And never will it state the qualities they are hoping to avoid.
Unless you ask, no one will volunteer this information and it may well govern the course of your interview.
In the first situation, expansion, the department is either adding a new hand to lighten the known workload for the existing faculty or adding a new area of expertise unfamiliar to the committee. In the first case, they’ll want a cheerful team player willing to adapt to “our department’s approach to the subject.” In the second case, they’ll want a calm masterful person who can start from scratch and has all the answers. As a new person in a new position many members of the committee will be expecting the worst and be somewhat hostile to your specialty. Knowing relatively little about your field, their questions may also be a little “odd” or uninformed. They will hire the person whose answers frighten them the least.
What frightens them? You may never get to know that fully enough.
In the second situation, if they’ve lost a saint, through death, retirement or job shift, they will be looking to replace the saint. They want more of the same successful experience. You may not seem to bear much resemblance to an elderly saint. Ask about that person’s career. Find out what they were like early on. Remind the committee that the saint once looked like you even if you currently don’t much look like the saint.
And lastly, if the school is getting rid of a problem they will not hire anyone who in any way resembles the problem.
I was on a committee to replace a fellow who had been dating a little too clumsily among his students. It was a small town college and single professors didn’t have much access there to a truly appropriate singles scene.
So, one of the candidates brought in to be interviewed pretty much flunked the process in the first fifteen minutes. I felt like telling him, but I didn’t have the heart. He was a single guy, with a rakehell moustache and an eye for the women walking by. He was the same as the guy the department had just, painfully, gotten rid of. He had no chance. Further, we knew he had an East Coast degree. That, in itself, was fine. However, he made it clear that he was also of an East Coast psychology and would be viewing life in central Iowa as a novelty or an exile and nothing more than a stepping stone to something better. Some positions are set up to be that way, this one was not.
For any of these situations, you may not know the facts until you are dangerously close to the interview. If someone meets you at the airport, interview them on the drive to the school. Give yourself your best chance at fitting in with the people who you wish to become your colleagues for years to come.
They know that choosing badly will be awkward and painful for the school, the department, the students and the faculty. They want to like you, or you wouldn’t have been invited to interview. Learn what you can of their fears and try not to resemble what they dread.
As a final depressing note, you have no way of fully understanding the diverse elements of the search committee. It is quite possible for it to be so poorly organized and so poorly behaved that they couldn’t agree on the color of an orange. Not being hired by such a group at such an institution might well be a blessing. Enjoy your interview trip as much as you can, smile a lot, think of it as practice for future interviews at better institutions, and be happy for your freedom. Some jobs are punishments. As with everything else, it’s up to you to protect yourself.
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