The prospect of making that next career move can be a significant challenge for deans, associate provosts, and other university leaders. When is the right time for you to consider such a change? What positions should you examine? Who should you inform (if anyone) regarding your efforts? What might the impact be on your current job if news of an active search becomes public? Few of us have good mentors who are readily available to answer such questions. As a result, what could be an engaging and exciting exploration can be fraught with feelings of frustration and isolation.
There are a variety of resources online for such examinations. Web sites from the Chronicle to Inside Higher Ed and, of course, HigherEdJobs and The ACAD Leader, feature articles and position advertisements that can be quite helpful. Search firms often post useful, brief articles about interviewing techniques, although some of them may not apply to academic positions. There are also a variety of conferences that feature employment panels, workshops, and other helpful events. ACAD’s distinctive Dean’s Institute is a day-long event scheduled during the AAC&U annual meeting that provides opportunities for networking with colleagues and exploring career opportunities. The event includes a series of roundtable discussions that provide participants with opportunities for interaction regarding a variety of topics. During the 2019 Dean’s Institute I led a session related to the administrative job search that was among the first of the roundtables to fill up with registrants. I led three discussions with three different groups of professionals; all of the participants had similar questions about the job search, the application process, interview techniques, and confidentiality.
Before I engage in the risky practice of making overly broad generalizations about the job search, I should provide a few basic qualifiers. These will allow me to be more straightforward and will, to some extent, provide me with some basic “cover” should I make statements that are not fully accurate (which may be likely). First, the job search process is not a science; there are multiple pathways to decide what positions to apply for, ways to complete applications, and methods for success in the interview process. Second, my expressed opinions here reflect my own experiences and may or may not be generalizable to anyone else. I do not claim to be an expert regarding all institutions, all positions, or all application processes. However, I have been on the job market recently and I have done a significant amount of research in my own career journey. I have experienced many clear failures and have learned from those mistakes. For example, after submitting too many cover letters and receiving just as many rejections, I developed an approach to the written application that significantly increased my success rate and produced more interview opportunities than I could capably manage. I also learned that job interviews, when done well, are fully engaging and thoroughly exhausting. I feel fortunate that I landed an excellent position at an outstanding institution with a fantastic set of colleagues and a supportive supervisor. In my current job I do a great deal of hiring and have, therefore, seen the search process from multiple angles in a relatively short period of time. I offer the following suggestions and comments as one person’s thoughtful consideration of some of the key questions involved in the job search.
There is much critical intellectual and personal work to be done in the preparation phase. Is this the right time for you to look for a new position? What positions should you consider? The answers depend on a variety of variables including the extent to which you are satisfied in your current role, your financial goals, your future interests, and your long-term career plan. Personal and family considerations are also critical as you decide whether to remain in your current job, explore opportunities that are close by, or consider a position that would involve a significant move. Securing wise, confidential mentorship is, for me, a vital element of this phase of the job search. I have found that trusted colleagues at other institutions and in professional associations can provide important support and dialogue regarding your concerns and questions. I contacted a variety of colleagues who were working in similar leadership positions and interviewed them to get a clear idea of the challenges that might await me in the years ahead if I took that next step.
One of the concerns that came up repeatedly during the Dean’s Institute roundtable discussions at ACAD last year relates to both confidentiality (What should I share with my current employer regarding my job search?) and the consequences of disclosure (What impact will the information have on my current position?). I am not a legal expert in this area, so I can only answer from my own experience and values. Assuming your job search activities do not negatively impact the duties of your current position, I don’t think it is necessary to inform your supervisor or your employer that you are submitting applications and interviewing for other jobs. It is not unusual or unethical to explore other career opportunities. I was always careful, of course, not to use any of my current employer’s resources in my job search. I never used school letterhead, never used my current employer’s photocopier, never used my school email address, and certainly never conducted a Skype interview using the office provided by my current employer. My job search was accomplished using my own resources, my own laptop computer, my own vacation time. While I think it is ideal to have a trustworthy supervisor who can advise you and keep your job search confidential, this ideal is not always realized in practice. When you have a written offer for another job in hand and you intend to accept it, I think it is your professional responsibility to share the news with your current employer. You should also observe any policies regarding notice dates for your current employer.
There are few generalizations one can fairly make about the application process, although I would say that it is vital to be conscious of details and deadlines. Complete every component of the online application. Carefully check every word when you submit your vita, cover letter, reference list, and other documents. Too many applicants make critical errors at this stage and their materials don’t even make it to the search committee. Don’t apply for positions for which you are not qualified. Be careful about those distracting invitations from search consultants that arrive in your email without any clear evidence that they know who you are. If a trusted colleague nominates you for a position, consult with that colleague regarding the nature of the invitation and then make your own decision regarding an application. Choose positions that will advance your skills and leverage your strengths at institutions that fit with your experience and reflect your values. My experience has been that there are discrete sectors in the higher education marketplace; if you have no experience in a given sector, your effort to secure an interview for a position in that sector will be a significant challenge. There are, of course, some notable exceptions to this generalization (for example, if your profile is clearly noteworthy in multiple significant ways because of your education, publishing career, fellowships and awards, etc.).
People may give you very different advice about written application materials. I did not make an effort to adjust my vita for every application. However, when applying for administrative positions I did make significant adjustments to my faculty vita to adapt to the distinct concerns regarding positions in academic leadership. After studying examples of administrative vitas, I shortened my résumé and re-ordered the elements to focus on administrative work and accomplishments. I developed a long list of potential references that I used as a resource when submitting the required names in the online application. I created a basic template for my cover letters and wrote a variety of paragraphs on typical selection criteria that became a data set for constructing tailored individual letters. When composing cover letters, I focused very specifically and clearly on the language contained in job advertisements. The topic sentence for each paragraph paraphrased language from the position announcement (e.g. “Your posting indicates that you desire a collaborative leader who understands shared governance …”) and then provided multiple examples regarding my relevant past successes. It is critical that every claim you make in the letter (and in later interviews) is supported by clear and convincing evidence in the form of examples and statistics. There are no hard and fast rules about the length of cover letters, although I would imagine most effective letters are two to three pages in length. Search committees often read many letters and use a rubric to evaluate them, so do your best to make it easy for them and be cautious about overly lengthy letters.
Succeeding in the two-stage academic interview process depends a great deal on strategic rhetorical thinking, extensive preparation and study, and connecting quickly with people (among many other things). The first round interview, usually a Skype call of some sort, is typically brief. If the search committee chair previews the interview well, you will quickly realize that your answers to individual questions can only be a few minutes in length. Many people struggle to avoid giving overly long answers to questions, so keep your answers short and sweet. Even if the questions are terribly complex, provide a clear one sentence initial answer, perhaps another sentence of explanation, and a couple of sentences to provide an example of your past successes related to the question. Be gracious, thankful, and friendly throughout the interview. Remember, that while your specific experience relative to the position is important, you also want to present your best side as a potential future colleague.
The second round interview, usually a campus interview, is a completely different animal. It is time-consuming and should be accepted only if you have a significant interest in the position, the institution, and the location. While every invitation is an opportunity to hone your interviewing skills, be aware that this exercise has a high cost and can really wear you out. Once you have decided to accept an interview opportunity, do extensive work studying the institution and the unit you would be supporting in this new role. Focus on the language in the job advertisement, from which many of the interview questions will again come. You can find lists of typical interview questions online. It isn’t unusual for search committees to ask you about your interest in the position, strengths and weaknesses, leadership style, career goals, conflict management skills, curriculum development work, and your experiences with a variety of key academic issues such as shared governance, academic freedom, diversity support, assessment, budget management, fundraising, etc. Prepare a list of your past successes (both positions and projects) and be prepared to draw examples from that list when you answer questions during the interview. Be prepared to listen thoughtfully throughout the interview process, ask questions that illustrate your interest and preparation, and articulate your value as a finalist with clarity.
Obviously, I haven’t covered it all here. I haven’t addressed the etiquette of those odd meals that are typically part of academic interviews. I haven’t discussed the unique challenge involved in delivering a “What is your vision for us?” presentation assignment that is typically required of finalists for dean positions. I haven’t examined the tricky dynamics of negotiating a job offer. (These questions all reference mysteries that remain unsolved in my own mind to some extent.) However, if you want to explore those questions and others I would invite you to join us for the next Dean’s Institute at the ACAD annual meeting, request contact with an ACAD colleague through our mentoring program, or participate in the next AAC&U meeting and attend some ACAD panels—all of which provide pragmatic professional development opportunities for deans, associate provosts, and other academic leaders. I look forward to seeing you there!