How not to hire: Lessons and challenges from one Chemistry department on redefining the interview process

Has your department ever faced a failed faculty search? ….yeah, me too. In this post, Dr. Michael Castellani talks about why and how the chemistry department at Marshall University reinvented their interview strategy. These are practical words of wisdom that your department needs!

A little more than 10 years ago, our department found itself in the position of having had years of unsuccessful faculty searches.  For nearly a decade, every faculty member to whom we made an offer declined the offer, came and left for a position elsewhere, or was denied tenure.  We undertook a major examination of our search process and made substantial changes to it.  

Out with the old…

We think that our old process was fairly traditional.  A candidate would be flown in the day before the interview.  If early enough there would be a dinner with the chair.  The following day there would be breakfast with the chair, 30 minute meetings with each member of our department and the college dean, lunch with the department, followed by a flight out at the end of the day.  One problem we believe we face is our location.  Marshall University is located in Huntington, WV, a city of just under 50 thousand people that is at least 2 hours from any significant metropolitan area.  Coupled to ae45130c8e32de702bcde517f1fecd44-marshall-university-state-universitythe stereotypes associated with West Virginia, we believed we had to tackle expectations of candidates as part of our strategy.

…In with the new

Virtually every facet of our regimen was altered.  The candidate still flies in the day before.  A colleague picks him/her up at the airport and drops them off at the hotel.  Waiting for the person is a bag which includes their itinerary (also emailed a week in advance), brochures about cultural and outdoor activities, real estate circulars, a copy of the school newspaper, and other information that we think might interest candidates and their families about both the university and surrounding community.  Finally, there a tote umbrella, snack, and souvenir, such as a coffee mug are also placed in the bag.


How to begin

We wanted to increase the amount of interaction of candidates with the people at Marshall.  Because we have 14 faculty members in our department, we expanded the interview to at least 1.5 days.

On the first morning, the department chair meets with the candidate to discuss what the interview process will be like.  In that meeting, the chair explains the basic structure of the expected start-up package. We have found this is a reasonable way to make candidates aware that any significant request in excess of the startup package takes time to arrange and negotiate, and to imply they should be up front and frank about any additional needs. This approach has allowed a candidate to voluntarily bring up the possibility of a spousal hires, for example, and helped our department make the best possible offer. Since this is the first or second interview for most applicants, discussing the process tends to set their minds at ease.

Small Groups are personal

After breakfast, each candidate meets with all faculty twice.  One time will be with a second faculty member for 45 minutes.  We believe interviewing in pairs has several advantages over individual meetings.

We believe interviewing in pairs has several advantages over individual meetings…each faculty member can spend time watching how the candidate interacts with the other faculty member and the candidate can observe how faculty at Marshall interact with each other.

First, less of the meeting time is lost to small talk, such as “How was your flight?” Second, faculty members can play off each other’s questions with follow-ups.  Third, if one of us answers a question incorrectly or asks an inappropriate/illegal question, there is a person to fix the problem immediately.  Finally, each faculty member can spend time watching how the candidate interacts with the other faculty member and the candidate can observe how faculty at Marshall interact with each other.  We think this last point is important because if the interviewee sees the interactions between our faculty as positive and collegial, that may help sway them to accept an offer from us.

Make time for the social and the un-tenured

The second meeting is in a small group (typically three faculty plus the candidate) at breakfast, lunch, or dinner.  This meeting is mostly social.  Candidates discuss housing, schools, entertainment, and other quality of life issues.  Whenever possible, faculty are paired in different groups for the two meetings.  We give time for un-tenured faculty to interact with the candidate, so at least one of those pairings will not include senior faculty.



The rest of the interview is standard.  There are individual meetings with the College and Graduate deans and, time permitting students.  They do a public presentation on their research and a private presentation on their research proposals to all chemistry faculty.  At the end of the visit, the department chair has a final discussion with the candidate and drives her/him to the airport.

Did it work?

Since implementing this strategy, we have only been turned down a handful of times…Every person who has joined our Department has been retained.

Since implementing this strategy, we have only been turned down a handful of times and almost of those were because spouses required university employment.  Every person who has joined our Department has been retained and the collegiality of the newer faculty has generated a cohesiveness to our department that has never been higher.

Mike Castellani ~ Dr. Mike Castellani is Professor and Department Chair of the Chemistry Department at Marshall University. His research with undergraduates includes the synthesis, reactivity, and physical properties of transition metal organometallic radical complexes as well as the effects large ligands have on the structure and properties of organotransition metal complexes.

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