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First time SC member here (and recent veteran of the market), so I have only limited experience with the process from the “other side.” There’s not a ready case I can think of when discussing candidates with any faculty member where a standard like “perfection” was implicitly or explicitly used. My sense is if someone brought up a small slip up or trivial issue of a candidate’s “polish” that would almost be disqualifying of that faculty member’s judgement. That being said, while some folks might like candidate over another, these sentiments percolate through judgements (whether sound or charitable or not) about their submitted documents or job talk (eg cvs writing samples and the like). Ultimately, without having inside knowledge about a department it’s easy to pick out and pin near-misses on instances where you feel like you have some measure of control (e.g. my nails were too long, or I ordered the wrong thing, or my talk went 3 mins too long), when deciding factors are almost always entirely out of your control.

Cecil Burrow

I just don't think it's true that search committees require perfection, and I have no idea what evidence the poster has for thinking so. Sure, you can have very high standards when you have 300 applications every time to advertise a position. That's different from demanding perfection, and the original poster gives us no reason to think perfection is being demanded.

so many ways to get it wrong

I'm speaking up in support of the OP here. I would phrase the point slightly differently: I don't like the word "perfect" or the notion of perfection (I find it to be conceptually misleading), but I nevertheless strongly empathize with the OP's sentiment here. It just feels like there are so very many ways to slip up in the interview process, and only one (very elusive) way to get it right.

Last year, I narrowly lost a VAP, which turned into a TT position for the person who got it this year. A committee member with whom I'm friendly told me at a conference this year that my informal, jokey demeanor during the Zoom interview was a big reason why the committee ultimately went with the other top candidate. This year, during a first-round interview, I was having technical trouble with the online platform (which I'm pretty sure was not my fault), and I could tell that one committee member was clearly getting very annoyed with me. Sure enough, I did not get a second-round interview, though my CV is *very* similar to that of the person they ultimately hired.

So the frustration is that there are so very many minor ways to go astray, at least some of which are out of our control as interviewees. I don't think this the fault of the search committee, since they are in the difficult position of choosing "the best" applicant out of dozens or hundreds of highly qualified applicants and have no choice but to use things like minor irritation to adjudicate. But given the unyielding shellacking to self-esteem that the interview process yields, I fully support the OP's venting of this kind of frustration here.


I actually think the poster is basically right--precisely because most jobs receive hundreds of applications. That's just not the case in the real world. But in our world, it means that you can hold applications and applicants to a very high standard indeed. Is it perfection? Maybe not technically, but I think it's often close enough as makes no difference. Especially for the files, rather than the interviews. I'm sure committees regularly forgive interview flubs. But when deciding who gets an interview, I suspect the standards are close enough as to make no difference.

In particular, the standards for applicants with low-status AOSes or lower pedigrees are, I think, basically perfection. Like, "that's a luxury hire and they don't have a pub in PhilReview or Nous (which almost never publish in that subfield)/didn't go to Harvard" sort of deal.

Anecdotally, we hired for a NTT part-time position a couple years ago. We were basically just looking for a warm local body, and the position was not widely advertised. But the dean was required to participate in all interviewing, and _he_ was looking for someone with "that spark of genius". (rolleyes) So, even if we weren't looking for perfection, he was, and his vote counted for a lot more than ours. (Again: for a part-time NTT position not widely advertised...)

Trevor Hedberg

I think it's fairly clear that "perfection" is not the expected standard that committee members use to evaluate candidates. However, I think the spirit of the OP's remarks is that a single slip-up (or just something that committee members perceive as a slip-up) is enough to sink your candidacy. I think that general idea is true: in the 30 interviews first round interviews I've done, there were some instances where I interviewed well and still came up short in advancing or getting the offer. But in every instance where I made a clear mistake or misstep (e.g., a joke that didn't land, needing to rephrase something I said initially, being caught off-guard by a bizarre question), I did not advance to the next stage. The margin for error for candidates in an interview is extraordinarily low since the differences between the quality of candidates that make it to the interview stage will be almost imperceptible. Committee members are looking for reasons to eliminate candidates -- a way to differentiate between them. Having an average or below-average interview (even if no big blunders are made) will almost always result in them picking another candidate.

Bill Vanderburgh

My experience on search committees matches Marcus's. We've had several occasions to say, "Well, there were real problems with that job talk/teaching demo/interview answer, but those things are coachable if we hire them, so given the other factors in play that wasn't disqualifying."

This assumes that the area is a match and other qualifications are high. For marginal fit/qualifications, a significant interview mistake *is* probably at deathknell for that candidacy.

Maybe this is the way to put it:

On one hand, for candidates who are judged marginal on fit or qualifications, a first-round interview is an opportunity to prove the committee wrong and shine. In that context, a mistake in the interview certainly isn't going to help, but the candidate probably wasn't going to advance anyway. On the other hand, for candidates who have high committee enthusiasm, interview mistakes can be explained away, balanced by other considerations, etc.

Given the huge number of well-prepared candidates who apply to every opening, competition is fierce. Many deserving people get rejected at every level of the process, for reasons that may be hard to fully justify or even discern. Sometimes committee members feel like Buridan's ass, trying to choose between piles of hay that are essentially equally good, all things considered. (No, I'm not saying candidates are piles of hay!) In that sort of case, very small things can tip the decision. Yes, that is in some sense unfair, but what else could a committee do in such a case?

uk hires

UK context, quite different:
we make the shortlist (= flyouts) based on the written applications alone. And very often, the department meets after the job talks but before the interviews, and basically makes a decision about whom we want to hire. Very rarely, the preferences can change after the interview, but only if the interview is exceptionally good or exceptionally bad.
In other words, the interview doesn't count much really. The admin makes us do it, so we do it, but usually things turn on the job talk and the written material.

Mike Titelbaum

Perhaps one useful point is that not all mistakes are equal—it depends what the mistake shows on a deeper level about the candidate. If, for instance, we are already worried that a candidate won’t be able to connect well with our students in the classroom, then when they’re unable to explain their research in an understandable fashion in the interview that can sink them. But I can think of plenty of other cases where a candidate flubbed an interview or job talk (especially the Q&A!) in a way that seems more attributable to inexperience or nerves. We have gone on to hire such folks.

John Basl

I'll speak to the issue of on the job training: I've been on lots of search committees. We often consider whether and how we might mentor and continue to train potential junior colleagues and whether we think that we have the background resources and connections to help ensure their growth in the profession. I don't know that that's standard for committees to consider (our mentoring program is relatively robust), but, at least in my experience, there are lots of discussions that take the form: 'Well, they didn't show in the interview that they had that down, but that is ok, we can teach them; they'll learn'. (Though, I echo Mike above in that it does depend on the particular mistake or misstep and other contextual factors.)

Daniel A Kaufman

I have chaired more search committees than I can remember and been Dept. Head through even more.

We certainly never looked for perfection.

That said, as several people have pointed out, the absurd number of applicants -- for our unrated, undergraduate-only dept., at a common-as-all-hell State Uni, we would get between 150 and 250 applicants for a single job posting -- puts the hirer in a position to be exceedingly picky. That said, we often passed on obvious rock-star/flight-risk applicants and hired people with strong teaching records, whom we also thought would be good with relatively unsophisticated undergraduates.

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