5 Things I’ve Learned Serving on Search Committees

By Bradley Woodruff, Head Editor, INALJ Wisconsin

5 Things I’ve Learned Serving on Search Committees

bradleywoodruffIf you’re given a chance to serve on a search committee, do it. Do it for the free meals. Do it for the cross-campus connections you’ll make. But most of all, do it because you’ll learn about life on the other side of the interview table. Here are five things I was surprised to learn while serving on academic searches.

1. We consider every single applicant. 
I don’t know how I thought this process worked. Intelligent software maybe? Tossing the applications in the air and choosing the ones that land a certain way? At my institution, every single applicant is considered. If 100 people apply, 100 applications are reviewed. Often, that means every member of the committee looks at 100 applications. This reinforces how important it is to convey why you’re perfect for the position. You have your MLIS? That’s nice, so do all these other people (except that one applicant who seemed confused about what job they were applying for). What’s going to make us want to bring you to our campus?

2. Generic cover letters really stand out (in a bad way).
I heard this often when I was applying for jobs. “But how will they know?” I wondered. “What if I write a really a-MA-zing generic letter?” As it turns out, it really is apparent. After reading 50 letters that name the institution, the position, and discuss specific traits called for in the posting, the reviewer is going to be unimpressed when you come at them with a vaguery like “I would be an excellent candidate for the position at your institution” and go on to talk about qualities you have that only tangentially relate to what the position asks for. In the Hierarchy of Cover Letter Impressiveness, generic letters rank lower than letters addressed to the wrong school.

3. Sometimes the search committee doesn’t agree on what is important.
Not all members of the committee agree on what qualifications matter most, or even how to interpret a person’s qualifications. As an example, imagine a posting that calls for two years of experience. Some might insist that two years of experience means two years of experience, even arguing that two years’ worth of part time work equates to one year of actual experience. Other members may count student involvement or volunteer work as valid experience, while others feel that “years of experience” is more of a preference than a requirement.

4. Candidates occasionally forget they are being interviewed.
I had been told this happens, but I assumed it was rare. It’s actually quite common though, so here is a reminder. You are being interviewed from the moment you arrive until the moment you leave. Just because dinner is more casual doesn’t mean it’s time to share information you wouldn’t share during your formal interview. It’s draining, but stay on point for your whole visit. I’ve seen a candidate drop out of consideration because of the way they behaved between meetings in an all-day interview.

5. The committee makes a recommendation, but the director makes the final decision.
After reading 100 applications, spending weeks discussing candidates, conducting phone interviews, bringing interviewees to campus, and talking about the position until we’re experts in the area we’re hiring for, the committee makes a recommendation to the director. And that’s it. It’s just a recommendation. The director can decide to go with whichever candidate they want, or none of them. So, while you’re there trying to impress the search committee, don’t forget to connect with the decision maker(s) as well.

What about you? Have you learned anything from searches you have been on or interviewed in front of? Share them in the comments below.

  9 comments for “5 Things I’ve Learned Serving on Search Committees

  1. Anna Lawrence
    July 10, 2014 at 9:26 pm

    A difficulty I have with writing cover letters is that I have never read the difference between a generic and non-generic letter. I personally write all of mine without the use of a template, but somehow they still use similar language and structure because I feel compelled to use the common language of (what I perceive as) the hiring process. Can professionalism be confused with being generic?

    • July 10, 2014 at 10:32 pm

      I think generic means not addressing the specific job requirements, not the language you use. Generic cover letters read like the candidate did not read the job ad and did not address each point

  2. Michelle
    June 16, 2014 at 10:05 am

    I’ve been on a few committees since I started my work, and each has been a unique experience. I am at an institution where we are required to adhere to a matrix system by which we check off each required and preferred qualification on a chart/matrix as we encounter it explicitly stated in the letter or resume. So, it is very important to find a balance between “generic”, where you carefully matches experiences directly to qualifications, and “unique”, where you really make yourself stand out. I’ve also dealt with colleagues and administrators that think “2 years of experience” implies professional-level experience–paraprofessionals and student employees/interns need not apply. Lastly, one of our committees brought a candidate in for an on-campus interview who spelled, and spoke, the name of the library incorrectly, and no one on the committee noticed. May times it’s just a gamble!

    • June 16, 2014 at 5:28 pm

      We often use a matrix as well. For those it seems like people fall into one of three areas: Doesn’t meet qualification, Meets qualification, or Meets qualification in an impressive way.

      It really is a gamble! I want to tell everyone I know not to take it personally if you don’t get an interview, because search committees are a grab bag of personalities and expectations that may or may not make any sense.

  3. Ian McCullough
    June 16, 2014 at 9:06 am

    I would say every person who completes an application is considered. But if the job posting says “submit cover letter” and you do not, then you haven’t actually *finished* your application and the length of consideration will be “Oh, they didn’t submit a cover letter.”

    • June 16, 2014 at 5:13 pm

      Yes, that is true. Not submitting a cover letter is pretty much a kiss of death.
      Not submitting enough references along with your application, though, is sometimes forgiven (but I wouldn’t recommend it).

  4. June 16, 2014 at 8:44 am

    I just noticed a crucial error. There should be an “or” somewhere in “The director can decide to go with whichever candidate they want, none of them.”

    I laughed uproariously as I read it with this new, unintended phrasing.
    Whoopsie…

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