"In many disciplines, for the majority of graduates, the Ph.D. indicates the logical conclusion of an academic career." Marc Bousquet

Thursday, June 21, 2012

My Successor Hired

In case you were all waiting on pins and needles ...

After a great response (though, alas, from very few post-academics) to our ad, we narrowed it down to five we wanted to interview in person. We interviewed them this past Monday and Tuesday. Of the five, three turned out to be not quite as good in person as they seemed on paper and on the phone (alas, among these was the only post-ac who made it to the interview stage), and two were really great. Between those two, it was a difficult decision because they had acquired their qualifications in very different environments, brought different "enhancements" to the position that went above and beyond the requirements (e.g. firsthand experience running a small business vs. outstanding MS Office proficiency and industry knowledge), and had extremely different personalities. Ultimately, it came down to who New Think Tank President and Other Colleague felt they could best deal with personality-wise on a day-to-day basis. Even then, it was a tie, and even though I am leaving and won't have to deal with this person on a day-to-day basis, I ended up weighing in to break the tie.

Perhaps fittingly, the person who will replace me as New Think Tank Operations Director spent exactly the same seven years (2003-2010) I spent working on my PhD owning and operating hir own independent bookstore. Like many independent bookstores, hir business suffered a lot first from the increasing sales of online retailers like Amazon and then from the explosive popularity of e-readers. Despite heroic efforts, ze had to close the store and move on. Similar market forces to the supply/demand problem for academic labor? Maybe ... but, no, not really. In book sales, consumers ultimately did express preferences for the ways they wanted to browse, buy, and read books. Suppliers either adjusted to meet their demands or went (sadly, since I do still love bookstores) out of business. Contrastingly, in academe the same parties control both supply (graduate students entering the profession) and demand (number of crappy contingent positions vs. decent tenure-track ones). In book retail, the market kinda sorta works, but in academe, the "market" (why do we still call it that?) really is broken ...

But I digress.

Some general (and maybe more specific) things about being on the other side of the hiring process that struck me:

A lot of people are looking for work. Seriously, I don't know if this is the norm or not, but we got way too many applications. Well over 100, I'd say, within barely a week of posting the ad. For an admin job.

A great many of these were from people who were probably applying for every single similar job, of which (fortunately for those people), there are plenty. However, many of them simply did not qualify for New Think Tank Operations Director for any number of reasons. For starters, we said we wanted someone smart and described what we meant by that. On this qualification, misnaming a school you attended doesn't help your credibility -- especially when the person reading your application, whose job you would be taking over, happened to teach at that very same school WHILE YOU WERE GOING THERE! If you learned nothing else, one would hope you would at least have learned the NAME of the school you went to. What would happen if you were editing a press release at New Think Tank and misnamed the organization you were working for? And I'm talking misnaming, too, not merely misspelling, although we had plenty of applications with spelling and basic grammar errors, too.

Then there were the etiquette errors. In 2012, does anyone ever still address a cover letter to "Miss" anybody? Yes, apparently, and it sends their application straight to the trash. I'm not asking for "Dr." It's not appropriate in a lot of nonacademic situations and I certainly don't require it, although addressing me that way would have been one way to show you had at least visited New Think Tank's website (and quite a few people had). But, "Miss"? Please. Maybe you are from another country where that's appropriate -- I don't know -- but your resume indicates you went to an American university and an American law school (yes, we did get several applications from law school graduates, some who had actually had practiced law -- but apparently the job market's not great for them, either). AND you're not so old that you grew up when "Miss" was still commonplace ... It's "Ms.," OK? You have no idea whether I'm married or not. Okay??? Do you get why??????

OK, enough about the crappy applications. After eliminating those, we were left with about roughly 20% that could have taken the job and done at least reasonably well at it. How to narrow it down? You have to look at more than simply base qualifications at this point, especially given that for this type of job one could acquire those qualifications in any number of different ways. And those ways themselves become important in what they tell you about a person -- about their interests, their work ethic, whether they are pushed from one job to another (not so good) or pulled from job to job (good).

Several post-acs made it to this stage, and New Think Tank President did phone interviews with at least three of them. What differentiated the one who made it to the in-person interview from the other two? Hard to say since I didn't talk with them myself. One simply rubbed New Think Tank President "the wrong way," ze said. The other, although a PhD from one of the top schools in the country, New Think Tank President felt didn't have enough "real world" work experience to comfortably assume the responsibilities of the position, which include managing the expenses for what we expect to be an annual operating budget of close to a million dollars. While someone who had no other paid work experience besides part-time teaching certainly could do this job, the issue of work experience turned out to be a deciding factor. The post-ac we brought in for the in-person had lots of teaching experience but also experience as a bank teller and a few years of almost full-time experience as an assistant retail store manager.

It also shouldn't go without noting how damning it is of academe and its job "market" that A) somebody with a PhD from an Ivy was even applying for this job and B) they didn't make the in-person interview cut largely because they lacked the "real world" experience academe especially discourages its most "promising" graduate students from "wasting their time" acquiring. But I digress ...

What is it about this type of experience that tips the scale? I guess it says something about a person's ability to do a job for money rather than love and/or its potential to advance their academic career and yet to nonetheless take the responsibilities of that job seriously. Also, references from nonacademic employers can answer questions academic references can't, and these answers turned out also to be important in lots of ways -- for example, explaining why someone got promoted from sales associate to assistant manager tells us more about someone's day-to-day work ethic and style of interacting with coworkers, supervisors, supervisees, and the public than does an adviser's explanation of why someone's dissertation is good.

So anyway, this post is way too long already. At the in-person interviews, we narrowed it down to the former bookstore owner and somebody who is currently working as an operations manager in another city but is relocating to Crapitol City to work on a professional master's degree part-time at Grad U. Of the three we rejected outright, one appeared much less experienced and capable in person than ze did on paper, another said negative things about a supervisor (who actually gave hir a very good reference) which reflected badly on hir as an employee and coworker, and the third seemed uninterested in the interview or the work of New Think Tank (sardonically critical would have been more acceptable because it would have demonstrated intelligent engagement). Also, all three of these people got some general, are-you-in-touch-with-the-world questions wrong, like "Who is the current attorney general?"

Ultimately, Former Bookstore Owner got the job because ze seemed the most quirky, creative, resourceful, open-minded, adaptable, independent, and self-confident. Those are the qualities the person taking this job needs in addition to the basic qualifications in order to get along with others at New Think Tank, contribute to its culture, and help it grow.

Anybody want to throw any questions my way about nonacademic hiring processes that seem mysterious to you?


  1. Interesting Post, Thanks for Sharing the Experience!

  2. Interesting! Our recent hiring process was similar in a lot of ways ... I'll have to put together a post one of these days.

    I hope Think Tank found a good person! I may not share much in common with them politically, but I'll always think they're pretty alright for their willingness to hire postacademics. :)

  3. Did you limit the short list to geographically local candidates?

  4. No, we didn't, although we did inquire about their willingness and ability to travel to the in-person interview since we would not be funding that travel. Also, the timeline for start date was important. Since we need the person to come in for training pretty much exactly two weeks from the time we made the offer and to take over full-time a week after that, we didn't have any flexibility with giving extra time for relocating. The person who got the job was local, though ze had only recently moved here.

  5. Also, I do want to thank anyone who may be reading this who applied. The whole process was harder than I thiught it would be, and we did get quite a few very good applications. I have no doubt that in the rush to get through everything, we missed a few people who it would have been great to at least have talked to. But I see now that this is an inevitable part of any hiring process. One piece of advice I would suggest for future jobs you apply to is to follow up a day or two after you apply (well, or a week or two, depending on the time frame that's given). If you don't hear anything and you feel you've been overlooked, there's no harm in inquiring. Several people did do this and, assuming the hiring manager is not a complete asshole, you never know where it might lead. For two of them it's led to informational interviews with New Think Tank President, and those types of interviews, while not directly leading to a job, do have their value, especially in a place like DC where who you know often counts quite a lot.

  6. Thank you for writing this post since it's interesting to hear about it. It's interesting to hear about the decision making process and I imagine that it would have been a series of hard decisions to make in order to whittle down the cvs. Wow about a few law school grads applying! But I’m shocked about the mistakes made in the cvs since I don’t understand why one would submit something with spelling errors and grammatical errors. I mean surely they could have use the spellchecker – I’m presuming that their applications were word processed rather than typed.

    1. Well, when I say an application with spelling and grammar errors is "crappy," I am referring to the application and not the person. Even the smartest people make mistakes. It's easy to overlook things when you're very quickly rewriting the same cover letter and resume for many different jobs. And spell checker won't pick up mistakes like using "there" instead of "their."

      Also, admin jobs clearly attract applicants whose education and skills run the gamut. A lot of these jobs, even pretty decent ones, don't require the skill set we were looking for. So, even though we did describe what we wanted, I don't blame people who applied -- gave it a shot because the ad made it sound like a job they'd want -- who weren't a good match because they lacked certain skills. Having bad grammar doesn't make someone stupid or a bad person. More than likely, it means they had a limited education.

      (Speaking of etiquette and what not: It's worth noting that outside of academe, a CV is called a resume, and there's a pretty significant different between the two. Fortunately, all of the post-ac applicants did send resumes and not CVs. A CV would have sent their application to the trash as quickly as the error-filled cover letters.)