Thursday, April 23, 2015

Brace Yourself: An Invitation to Join a Search Committee is Coming, by Erin Milanese

If you’ve been at your job for a year or more, then brace yourself: you will probably be asked to join a search committee in the near future. In May, I will hit my three year anniversary at the small liberal arts college where I work, and I am currently serving on my 5th search committee. This includes 3 search committees for librarians, 1 for a staff position, and 1 for a teaching faculty position.

Brace yourself.jpg

This post is about what to expect after you agree to be on a search committee, though your mileage will vary.  While this post is not written for job hunters, I hope that those on the market can see through this post how systematic and difficult search committee decisions can be. And, knowing more about the behind-the-scenes process can definitely help applicants.  

So. You’ve been asked to be on a search committee. Should you do it? YES!

What to expect:

  1. Meetings - so many meetings!
When the committee first forms, you will likely meet with Human Resources to go over policies and procedures. There will be meetings to write the job description (or review the old one) and discuss where it should be posted, then meetings to clarify job requirements and create a grid to rank applicants, then meetings to review candidates, then meetings to create interview questions, and finally meetings to discuss final decisions. [Editor’s note: And, if you’re very lucky, you won’t have a failed search which will necessitate doing it all over again.]

  1. Lots of waiting
Search committees vary in length - one search committee I am on has been working to hire someone for almost 18 months! Others move much more quickly. It depends on the type of library and the type of position you’re filling. Regardless, there will be lots of waiting. After the job ad is posted, you wait for applicants. After the initial review, you wait to hear who will accept invitations for phone interview. When your committee makes a job offer, you wait to hear if that offer will be accepted. Finally, you wait for the new employee’s first day of work!

  1. Grids & Lists
Not until I served on my first search committee did I realize how systematic and organized the process of hiring is. At an early meeting, the search committee will create a grid or checklist that prioritizes the qualifications the job requires. For my last librarian search committee, these qualities included education requirements (MLS), reference desk experience, instruction experience, problem solving ability, and institutional fit. This grid was used to write the job description, develop interview questions, and to rank applicants.

As you review applicants, it is helpful to create your own list, ranking the candidates and their qualifications. The search committee will do the same as a group, likely creating three piles of applications: yes, no, and maybe. In my experience, for each “no”, we had to give HR a reason. This was where the grids & lists came in very handy. Usually the reasons were things like “candidate does not meet the educational requirements” or “lacking experience in reference which is essential to the job.”

  1. The development of odd personal passions
When there are lots of applicants for a position, narrowing it down can be really tough. The grids & lists help, to an extent. However, as you look through application packets, you’ll start to develop some personal preferences and annoyances. My big pet peeve? A poorly formatted resume (come on, it is not that hard to have all your bullet points line up!). I also tend to ding candidates if they submit materials in a format other than PDF. This is why hiring is done by committee: one person’s pet peeve could be another person’s holy grail.

  1. Decisions: tough ones, easy ones
I have been on search committees where the final decision was incredibly easy: the candidate came to campus, nailed the interview, had great references, and seemed like a great institutional fit. Usually, though, the decisions are much more difficult. What if one candidate leads a great instruction session but bombs the Q & A with the search committee? Sometimes, after multiple rounds of interviews, two candidates seem equally qualified. As a committee, you’ll meet (again!) to discuss and decide who to make a final offer to.

Serving on a search committee means a fairly substantial time commitment, but it’s a valuable professional service. You will collaborate and engage with colleagues in other departments, learn a ton about the hiring process at your institution, and most importantly help shape the future of your organization. And don’t worry, if it’s your first time, people will be happy to help you through it all.

Erin Milanese is Head of Learning Technologies at Goshen College in Goshen, IN. She tweets about libraries, technology, and her super fat cats @tad_overdue.


  1. I'm intrigued - why PDF specifically? Portability?

    I'm assuming you do tell them to use that format, though, so it's just a requirement to follow. I still mostly see instructions to use Word docs only, and application systems that can't handle uploading PDFs.

    1. Shimmin - Great question. I prefer PDF format because those files can be opened from any device. Also, because PDF files aren't editable, taking the steps to covert to PDF demonstrates to me that the candidate understands some basic things about security and technology. I have never been on a committee that denied a candidate an interview based on file format - that would be crazy! - but when you have a huge pile of applicants to go through, those little details start to matter. I don't think our application instructions specify a format (I should look into that).

    2. Ah, I forgot editability, which is a good point even if it's not a likely problem in this specific case. Like you say, you're looking for the people who seem best-suited to the role, so it's not just about meeting minimum standards.

      I'm on the opposite end of things - applying for dozens of jobs, and finding so many ways that application forms can be infuriating...
      I have in fact skipped potential opportunities because the application process was too painful. Like with the PDFs, we draw inferences, and sometimes that's "I don't want to work somewhere that operates like this". Not that this has anything to do with you, I hasten to add!