Over the past two decades I have been involved not only with my own personal job searches, but have also been a participant in university search committees and have have hired full-time staff myself as a supervisor. In that time I have witnessed, personally experienced, and have had friends and colleagues deal with many unscrupulous and, in many cases, misleading hiring practices in student affairs, particularly because an institution already has a candidate in mind.
Below are some “Tricks and Traps” in Student Affairs hiring practices that you should be on the lookout for. Disclaimer: Please keep in mind that a school could still be running a legit search even if they display some of the following methods. “If it looks like a duck and smells like a duck, most likely it’s a duck. But it could be a goose.”
Suspicious Position Description – Be weary of position descriptions requirements that are out of the norm and seem to be crafted for a specific individual or do not properly align with the norm for that position nationally. Generally there is a standard by which various requirements align with corresponding positions. For example, an entry level resident director at a public institution typically needs 1 – 3 years of experience with a degree in student affairs, counseling, higher education or closely related field. So if you see requirements for an RD position listing a degree in business management, accounting, nursing or something else unfitting, don’t get your heart set on it. Or, more simply, steer clear of this position. Granted, if the position is related to a particular academic college / department and / or specific living-learning community you could see requirements that are out of the norm.
Position Inflation – Recently a colleague shared a personal example in which he applied for an assistant director position at a brand name institution. When having an initial phone interview, it was revealed that the institution was paying $24,000 for the position, which was totally unexpected considering that it was “master’s preferred” and two years experience. As someone once told me, position titles come cheap. It doesn’t cost an institution anything to change a title and make it sound more prestigious or higher up in the organizational food change even though it doesn’t pay much and / or have any broad supervisory authority.
Fishy Application Timeline - Application and interview timelines can give a clue whether or not a college or university is serious about hiring someone from outside the institution. A public posting that has an application deadline of less than 14 days (and especially in cases of only 7 days or less) should raise suspicion. Additionally, an institution that only posts a position on their own human resources website, but not in nationally-recognized venues, such as the Chronicle of Higher Education, Higheredjobs.com, and / or regional publications is probably a strong indication that they are only hiring internally.
No Response - Worse than getting a “no” is getting zero response from a college or university. After putting the time and effort into crafting a cover letter and possibly a lengthy online application process, the least they could do is give you the boilerplate “Thanks, but no thanks” email or letter. With the economy being what it is, it’s an employer’s market so colleges and universities can pretty much handle searches how they like (without doing anything grossly illegal of course). Right, wrong, or indifferent, you need to be able to stay resilient and move forward with any offers that do come your way. Don’t wait around for something that may ultimately end up in a failed search or a hire that they simply didn’t inform all applicants of.
Internal Candidates - There’s nothing more unnerving than finding out that someone on the search committee is also candidate for the job or was a candidate that was recently rejected. Not only is this clearly unethical, but causes an unfair and biased opinion against your candidacy for the opening. I’ve also heard colleagues share stories of being interviewed by a search committee with an internal candidate who was clearly adversarial during the interview process by asking over-the-top questions and being generally unfriendly. If you experience this, don’t take it personally. Be prepared, give your best effort, and stay professional. If there is a nasty internal candidate, don’t engage them. Remain calm, answer their questions, and proceed with grace.
Artificial Community Visits – While it’s typically customary for a campus host to give you a tour of campus, there is also the possibility that you may be invited to dinner or evening events with some of the members of the search committee. Additionally, depending upon the culture of the institution’s search protocols, you may be given a tour of the local community to get an idea of what the surrounding area looks like, which becomes particularly important if they offer you the position. However, don’t put too much credence into this process because it does not necessarily mean they are going to give you the job. Unfortunately, this can simply be an exercise to kill time rather than having you sit in the hotel (or whatever accommodations they may give you) or to keep you occupied while they interview another candidate they have there the same day. During one campus interview a few years ago, a university actually had a real estate agent take me on a tour of the community and show me various houses in their market that were for sale. Unfortunately it ended up being a waste of time, particularly for the real estate agent, because not only did they not offer me the position, but they didn’t offer it to any of the candidates interviewed, but rather offered it to someone on the search committee. (Yes…that’s a true story!)
While going through a student affairs search process may be a daunting process, don’t lose hope. Keep applying and making yourself more marketable by expanding your skills and experience. While there are some dirty tricks out there related to the hiring process, there are also many other institutions that run a fair and ethical search looking for the best candidate.