If you’re new to academic librarianship–or to librarianship in general–you may be gearing up for a job search in the near(ish) future. There are lots of terrific guides out there to help you write your resume, prepare for your interview, and follow up afterward, and yes, you should do all of those things.
But it may also help you to know some of what goes on behind the scenes in an academic library position search. If nothing else, it may help to explain why searches take so long, and why they can move along so…unpredictably, shall we say? Here are some notes from my own experience of being on the hiring side in an academic librarian search.
Caveat: I’ve worked in academic libraries for nine years, been on many search committees, and hired lots of people. Still, Your (Institution’s) Mileage May Vary. Local hiring practices are different everywhere, I’m not an HR specialist, and I’m not trying to be completist here. These are notes on what I’ve seen to be usual practices for an entry- or mid-level academic librarian hire–a subject specialist position, say, or a systems job. Upper level administration is different, as are union or student positions. So take everything I say with a grain of salt, and use your common sense.
Step One: A position becomes vacant. Someone leaves a job, or a new job is created. If someone leaves a job, there’s no guarantee that the institution will rehire the same position, or that they’ll rehire at all. Institutions often take advantage of the opportunity created by a vacancy to re-examine workflow, departmental structure, and staffing levels. If budget is tight, the core duties of a vacant position may be distributed to other staff, and the position may go unfilled. But sometimes the job does get filled, either with the same duties or new ones. And sometimes a new job gets created. Hooray!
Step Two: After administration approves a recruitment, a job description is written up. This may be drafted by the position’s supervisor, redrafted by upper administrators, returned to the supervisor for edits, passed by the position’s work colleagues for their feedback, returned to administration…you get the picture. When it’s as good as it can be, it’s usually sent up the line to campus administration for review by multiple sets of eyes–affirmative action/equal opportunity, academic affairs, etc. That can take some time.
Step Three: After everyone agrees on the job description, the job is posted. Usually the institution’s HR office does this. Jobs may go out on discussion lists, websites, in print and online publications, and so on. Often institutions have requirements for the minimum amount of time that a position may be posted. This could be two weeks, three weeks, a month…you’re starting to see why this process takes some time, right?
Step Three A: The institution usually appoints a search committee to start preparing to review applications. Usually the position’s supervisor is on the committee (often as chair.) The committee often also has someone from outside the position’s direct department, and someone from outside units that would work closely with the position. This can make for interesting scheduling challenges, especially if there’s a teaching faculty member in the group. If the chair is lucky, s/he has some administrative help. If not, it’s Doodle Tetris, and a lot of emails.
Step Four: Applications come in! The search committee starts reviewing them, using whatever file sharing process the institution has to offer. Again, if the committee includes someone from outside the direct hiring unit (the library, in this case) file sharing can get tricky. A full-time tenure-track position posting can generate hundreds of applications, and they all have to be reviewed by the whole committee. (Here’s where you should be reading those guides to writing up your cover letter and CV, because you want to be one of the few that make it to the top of the pile.)
Step Four A: The committee needs some way to review all these applications fairly. This means a rubric of some kind–something that helps them “grade” each application according to how well it fits with the position’s required and desired qualifications. At some institutions this may be created and provided by HR; in my experience, it’s the lucky chair who gets to write up a rubric, distribute it to all the committee members, and ask everyone to keep score as they review. All. Those. Applications.
Step Five: Application reviewing. It’s extremely rare for members of a search committee to get release time from other responsibilities to do the work of the search. So…it takes time.
Step Six: The committee meets to discuss, in epic roundtable fashion, the applications. Often there will be a fair number of applications that clearly don’t meet the bar–the wishful thinkers, the fundamentally unqualified, the radically out of touch. Then there will be a few golden applications–people who have all the qualifications, who have excellent cover letters and clear, straightforward, relevant resumes. In between are the tricky ones–the folks who have potential, but don’t quite meet the standard for “golden.” The committee will spend one or two (or more) meetings hashing all this out, until they have a ranking.
Step Seven: The committee starts crafting interview questions and schedules for the candidates. Often there are a few questions for phone interviews, and more for in-person interviews–not usually the same set. (So, two sets.) For in-person interviews, candidates often visit the campus for somewhere between half a day and two days. A schedule is drafted in rough, including presentations, sit-down interviews, tours, introductions to other staff, face time with administrators, etc.
Step Eight: The committee may seek administrative confirmation or approval of their picks, or they may go ahead and conduct phone interviews at this point. Often more people are interviewed by phone than in person. Phone interviews may be done by a solo committee member or a few on conference call. (More scheduling!) Notes are taken. Another meeting is scheduled to discuss the outcomes of the phone interviews.
Step Nine: The committee narrows the list to (usually no more than three) final candidates who will come for an in-person interview. This list may be sent to administration for review, or the committee may steam ahead. Often with help from HR, arrangements are made for the candidates’ travel and lodging, meals, and sometimes a few friendly social opportunities, like a tour of the city. (Remember, if you’re the applicant, you’re still interviewing during this time.)
Step Ten: Interviews! Usually the institution tries to group all candidates close together, for the fastest and fairest process. After each candidate interviews, the committee solicits feedback from everyone who had contact with the candidate. There’s often a window of opportunity for others in the library to send feedback to HR or the search committee about the candidate’s presentation, small-group interviews, resume, etc.
Step Eleven: The committee meets to discuss all candidates. If they’re lucky, there’s a stand-out leader who’s a good fit for the institution. If not, they talk it through and make the best choice possible. Usually they call references around this time, too. This takes time as well, since referee schedules /=/ committee schedules.
Step Twelve: The committee forwards a recommendation to the institutional administration. The administration reviews it, and either approves or doesn’t. If the recommendation is approved, an offer is made to the candidate. The candidate should be appropriately excited and delighted, but should also take some time to think it over and probably come back with some negotiation points. (A side note for job seekers reading this. Ahem.) The administration returns with their own negotiation…and so on until an agreement is reached. (Unless it’s not reached, in which case the committee goes back to their final pool and makes another recommendation.)
Step Thirteen: You thought we were done, didn’t you? No! Hiring creates a lot of paperwork. A contract is written and sent out. The administration sets a start date with the candidate, and HR starts setting up payroll, benefits, start-up training, etc. The campus or library creates user accounts for the new employee–email, phone, computer systems, ID number and photo, key cards, etc. A work station is set up, if it doesn’t already exist. Accounts are created on servers, with the correct permissions. And so on, and so on.
Step Fourteen: The search committee winds down its activity with more documentation. Members must show why they declined all the applications that were not selected, and how they ranked applicants. Notes from all stages of the process may be sent to HR for retention. The search committee chair typically composes a document that summarizes the process for administration. If there’s ever any question about how the search was conducted, or–heavens forbid–if the selected candidate doesn’t work out or declines the job at the last moment or moves to to the Mongolian Altai, the paper trail will be vital. Even though, of course, the search will be officially closed by that time…and will have to start over again.
In short, have patience during the search process. A long search doesn’t mean the committee doesn’t like you, or that they’re incompetent. Chances are they’re doing the best they can to move things along as quickly as possible. There are all kinds of other things that can cause searches to slow down, stall out, or even close–and they’re frustrating for everyone.
Remember that however the search finally pans out, the application process is an opportunity to make a good impression on these folks. Libraries are a small world, so even if you don’t get the job, that’s still a valuable thing.