Archive for: January, 2012

Must-Have Letter

Over in FSP a few weeks ago, readers and I obsessed about many different aspects of Cover Letters. And yet, there are still aspects of this topic that remain unexplored. Here is another interesting one from a reader:

I have a letter of reference question that I haven't seen addressed on your blogs, but (to me) seems like a fairly serious, and not uncommon, one.  I did not have a particularly close relationship with my thesis advisor, a prominent figure in my discipline.  Instead, another a postdoc in his research group was my de facto advisor.  While I suspect his reference letters for me are largely positive, I know that there are others who would willingly write letters that more accurately reflect my abilities.  I have had minimal communication with my advisor since completing my PhD several years ago.

I am currently in a non-tenure-track research professor job, and am contemplating applying for jobs with a short-track to tenure.  My question is: Would my application be discarded or flagged as suspicious if it does NOT include a letter from my thesis advisor?  Would it be sufficient to list him as an additional reference?

I think you should list the advisor unless there is some extreme reason not to do so. In that case, you need to try to have another letter writer address why there is no letter from your advisor (not your fault etc.). If your relationship was overall good, just not close, you should still list your advisor as a reference. Even if the advisor's letter is perfunctory, it is better than no letter. A really positive letter from a postdoc won't make up for a missing advisor-letter.

Also, I would make an effort to get back in touch with the advisor, especially if you are going to be asking for letters. Bring him up to date on your work, send him your CV, and explain about your upcoming applications.

Does anyone disagree with this? I did not have a close relationship with my advisor, so I can relate to this issue, but I still asked for a letter from him. Did anyone make the opposite decision, and live to tell the tale?

8 responses so far

The Ask

Here is an interesting question from a reader:

I was wondering, how to ask the faculty search chair, "why was I not invited for an interview?" and if this is a reasonable thing to ask ?

First, the second question: Is this a reasonable question to ask? My first reaction is: sure, go ahead and ask. It is not an unreasonable question in the sense of being unprofessional, strange, or obnoxious; it is a perfectly natural question, and I don't think search chairs will be annoyed by being asked this.

Correct me if I am wrong, search chairs of the world. Certainly no one would want to get 300 of these questions, but most applicants don't ask, so it doesn't seem like a problem to me if a few do ask.

In terms of how to ask, just do it, and keep it simple, without any long, sad explanations about why you want to know. That is, just a "I was wondering if you could give me any information.." kind of question; concise and polite.

In my opinion, however, the real question is whether you are going to get any useful information from this query. In fact, I rather doubt it. Some searches involve so many applications, even if every one is given due consideration, the search chair might not be able to give you an answer. Then there is the issue of what a search chair can say, not to mention will say.

I tried to think of all the possible answers I might give someone if I were asked this question. Note that I have never been asked this question by an applicant who was not interviewed, so I am just imagining what I might say. I have been asked a similar question by unsuccessful interviewees, wondering why they were not offered the job, but that situation is only semi-analogous.

We can classify possible answers into categories: reasons you might actually be told, and reasons you are unlikely to be told.

In the likely category, I think you might well get the vague answer "We had many excellent applicants and could only invite n to interview, so we had to make some tough choices." That could well be a completely honest answer, and it might make you feel better, if you believe it. If, however, you are looking for some magic answer to help you improve your application, it's not so useful.

It is very unlikely that a search committee chair is going to say something specific like "You might want to ditch Professor X as a reference; you will never get an interview with a letter like that" or "We are all still laughing about your absurd and pathetic research statement" (or a more polite equivalent of that comment).

It is also unlikely that you are going be told something specific like "We all hated the fact that you mentioned that your favorite hobby is fishing. We think that is a boring and anti-intellectual hobby, and we would never consider hiring anyone who considers fishing an acceptable leisure pursuit."

Likely or unlikely?: Would a search committee chair tell you that you don't have enough publications (in top-tier journals) or you don't have as much postdoctoral/teaching/whatever experience compared to other candidates? Maybe, but these seem like obvious things you should know or infer about your record compared to your peers. These are questions you could ask an advisor or mentor before asking a search committee chair. Maybe you can find out the interview slate and the identity of the person offered the job and compare your record to theirs; then you will know the answer to some basic questions about how your record stacks up.

Keep in mind, though, that it's not always something obvious, like number of papers. You might have more publications than someone who was interviewed, but perhaps there was something about that other person's research and/or teaching or ideas for future research and/or teaching, that caught the interest of the committee/department. That can be hard to explain, much less infer from a list of interviewees.

If you are wondering about technical aspects of your application -- i.e., whether your application needs a bit of technical fine-tuning in terms of how you constructed your CV, statements, cover letter etc -- these are things to ask mentors or friends who have successfully navigated a job-search, not search committee chairs.

What are some other possible answers to the question of why someone was not interviewed, whether likely or unlikely to be uttered by the search chair to an applicant? Perhaps the committee/department decided to interview only people with a particular research focus or approach (different from yours), but only decided this once the applications were in? That is within the realm of possible explanations you might be told, but it is also something you could figure out by knowing the identity of the interviewees.

I am sure I am missing some possibilities here. If you are a search committee chair and have been asked this question by a non-interviewed applicant, I hope you will leave a comment based on your experience: What did you say, if anything? Similarly, if you are/were a non-interviewed applicant who asked this question, did you get a response, and if so, what was it and was it useful?


20 responses so far

Wrong and Stupid

Jan 13 2012 Published by under career issues, interviewing

A reader wonders:

Consider this hypothetical situation: two individuals (married, but with different last names) apply for the same job but do not disclose their relationship. The search committee determines that the two individuals are in fact a couple, based on similar research interests and shared academic histories.  One of the members of the academic couple is the #1 person on the short list in terms of grants, publications, and teaching experience.  However, based at least in part on this person's personal situation (e.g., we can't hire two people, we'll never get them both, we don't want them both, etc.) the committee decides not to invite one or both of them for an on-campus interview.
Is this considered discrimination? If so, what law(s) are being violated?

In the case described, the search committee/department doesn't have to invite the second member of the couple to interview, but they should invite the first one; the one identified as the 'top candidate'. There are two reasons why a department should not use a concern about a "2-body" situation to eliminate the top candidate:

1. It is wrong. Imagine putting in the job advertisement that candidates who are otherwise highly qualified for the job will be disqualified if they are married or otherwise significantly involved with any other applicant or even with anyone else in their field. If you are going to ask (just ask) for a second position, don't even apply because your application will be tossed no matter how good you are. Also, it would be best if applicants did not plan to have babies, health problems, or aged parents, and preference will be given to those who closely resemble faculty hired before 1990.

I will leave it to others to discuss legal issues, but this is an inappropriate (to say the least) criterion to use to reject a candidate who would otherwise have been invited for an interview. Probably the couple is hoping for 2 positions (and hence both applied for the job), but this is irrelevant to the early stage of the search.

The 'best' candidate should be interviewed, and, if this person is still the 'best' candidate, they should be offered the job. If there really is only one position and no possibility of a second, this person can decline or accept the offer, depending on their options and priorities.

2. It is stupid. Yes, of course I know that searches are time-consuming and expensive and it is in the interest of an institution to select a candidate who is likely to accept the position, but (even ignoring the ethical issues) there are so many variables involved in this process, there is no point in second-guessing what someone will do if given a job offer.

I have seen searches in which there was concern about the 2-body problem of a top candidate who ended up accepting the job anyway (even though there was only 1 position), and I have seen cases in which it seemed impossible at first for there to be a second position created, but then one was, and the department got their top choice candidate and a second person who ended up excelling as a faculty member. In all of these cases, it would have been unethical and unwise for the department to eliminate these candidates from consideration owing to their marital status (specifically, being married to another PhD in the same field).

Hiring committees and administrators should be advised by their institutions about what is appropriate and not appropriate to use as criteria in a search. There are ways to circumvent these 'rules' -- you can find a flaw in any applicant and say that that is the reason why they should not be interviewed or given a job offer -- but if the real reason is concern about their being a member of an academic couple, that is wrong.



67 responses so far