They say the path to the provost’s office – or that of another senior administrator – is through a professorship. While this is true, many people often feel like they have to take a big leap forward when making the transition from professor to full-time administrator, and the decision to take this path requires careful consideration. It’s a major lifestyle change for faculty members who have spent years using summers for focused research and regular sabbaticals and become accustomed to the pace of working with different students each term. .
Plus, once you’ve made the decision to explore administration full-time, how do you seek out and then land such a position? Often faculty members don’t really know where to start. Many have asked me over the years, what is the hiring process like and what can I expect?
Appointing provosts, presidents, deans, and others to senior administrative positions differs significantly from faculty search processes. With the exception of some internal promotions, searches at this level usually involve hiring a recruitment firm. And for many faculty members, their first experience working with a research consultant differs significantly from the standards they expect in faculty research, which can be shocking.
Most professors considering a full-time administrative position have been engaged in faculty searches for years—as candidates, committee members, or department chairs overseeing those searches. Faculty searches have a set of conventions that may differ slightly from institution to institution, but they share some basic characteristics that most readers of Inside Higher Education will recognize – documents that are initially submitted in the format of first-round interviews and subsequent campus visits. To minimize bias, committee members generally do not speak with research applicants outside of these established interview times, even if they are known colleagues of the committee members, as often happens due to areas of shared research or in the case of internal candidates.
While the process of hiring a provost, dean, or other senior administrative position shares a number of these characteristics, including a first-round interview followed by a campus visit, other aspects diverge considerably. To get started, a request from a search consultant often initiates the process rather than your submission of a cover letter and resume. Unlike a faculty search, you will have many conversations with this consultant at every stage: before an initial interview, in preparation for the campus visit, and during debriefings after each engagement with the search committee. Also, if you move forward until you receive an offer, the consultant is sometimes engaged in the negotiation process.
So, as a candidate, what is your relationship with the consultant? Are they a trusted ally you can talk to honestly, or are they just an extension of the search committee? The answer is a bit of both. To explain why this is so, let’s review the different stages of this process.
Typically, you can start by responding to an email from the consultant asking if you would be interested in a conversation about a particular opportunity. What can you expect from this first call? Is it an interview? On the one hand, this is not an interview but simply an initial exploration. On the other hand, every interaction you have with the consultant will shape their impression of you, not only for the opportunity at hand, but also for future opportunities.
It is important to understand who this consultant is and what they were hired for. Research consultants are hired by the recruiting institution. Although their level of commitment to research may vary, they are most often hired to develop the pool of candidates. To do this, they will rely on a number of sources. They will contact incumbent deans, provosts and presidents; they will send explosive emails to various lists; and they will interview campus leaders, including search committee members, and ask for recommendations.
They will also draw from their own records of candidates from previous searches. (It should be noted here that their contracts usually state that they cannot contact someone they have placed within a recent period of time, usually around three years. They can, however, contact that person if their application has been recommended to them by someone another.). The search firm will then make initial inquiry calls with potential candidates to find out more about their potential interest in the position, as well as to get to know the candidates, whom they may not have met before.
The consultant will then present a candidate brief to the search committee, which will include review of profile highlights, resumes, and, if they spoke to the candidates by phone or video, their notes from that initial call. What you can take from this is that the initial presentation of your application by the consultant is a key moment, and if you have spoken to this consultant, your potential for advancement will largely depend on how the consultant characterizes his conversation with you at the committee members.
Following this meeting with the committee, the consultant will let you know if you are invited for a first-round interview, and they will probably want to speak with you to prepare for this round. If they offer a prep call as an option, it’s always best to accept. (In fact, any additional engagement with the research consultant offered to you can be invaluable, so you should always embrace this opportunity.) In this conversation, they will share details about who will be on the call, how long meeting and so on. They can also give you an indication of the questions the committee will ask. Take notes during this call! You can learn a lot about what the committee likes about your application, as well as what questions they will ask you. During this call, you can also ask the consultant to share with you what the committee saw as both the strengths and challenges of your application, which will help shape your responses during the interview.
After the first-round interview, the committee will meet again and narrow the pool, much like in a search for professors, to a short list of finalists, whom they will invite to campus. If you are on this list, the consultant will probably prepare you again for the campus visit, providing you with details of the meetings to be held, the presentation you will make, etc. At this point, I’ve seen a wide range of approaches from search consultants. In some cases, a consultant gave me hints as to who the other finalists were (which, frankly, felt a bit unethical, but was strategically helpful); in other cases, they won’t talk about it at all.
I have also worked with consultants who described very explicitly how the committee responded to my initial interview. In one instance, a research consultant I worked with offered detailed advice on how to handle a campus visit to the point that he felt like my personal career coach. I was very grateful and passed this knowledge on to other interviews and passed it on to the people I mentored. But at that time, I was also very aware that if the consultant supported my candidacy, he was surely also supporting the candidature of the other finalists.
What should be remembered here are the objectives of the research consultant. They want a search to run smoothly and close quickly, for the hiring institution to land their first-choice candidate, and to appoint someone who will be successful in their role. To that end, they want to groom all finalists to shine, which in turn makes them feel good. This does not mean that their support for you individually is dishonest. But at the end of the day, while a search consultant is in many ways a matchmaker, always remember that the hiring institution is paying for their services.
Let’s say you’re moving through the process and the institution has decided they’d like to offer you the job. At this point, the search consultant will call you and let you know that you are the best candidate. They will often tell you as they contact your references. They may also indicate that they will go “off the list” for references – for example – contacting people you have worked with but whose names you have not provided. Additionally, the search firm will perform a credential check, criminal background check, and possibly a credit check. All of these indicate that an offer is imminent, whether the consultant says so explicitly or not.
Just before an offer is made, the consultant will ask a question like, “Is there anything in particular that you would ask for, if the position were offered to you, that I can know in advance?” More strongly, they might ask, “Is there an element of an offer that, if not part of the package, would cause you to decline this offer?” »
In my experience, this is the busiest and trickiest time in your interaction with the consultant. How you answer this question is tricky. As stated, the consultant wants the search to complete successfully. But as a candidate, if you reveal too much here, it can put too much bargaining power in the hands of the hiring institution.
If this is your first experience working with a consultant, you may feel at this point that they are on your side, which they are, but only up to a point. You may also really want to clinch the offer and feel pressured to cite things that, if not included, would really be non-starters, like hiring tenure or funding for the research. If the consultant asks a question like this, my advice is to be polite but firm by saying something like, “I’m genuinely interested in this role, and if an offer is made, I’m confident I can come to conditions agreed with the institution. If you avoid saying anything concrete until you have an actual offer in hand, it will position you better once you’ve negotiated the terms.
Remember, again, that the hiring institution pays the research consultant. At the same time, however, know that your relationship with this consultant does not have to end with this search. Even if you land this role, you could end up working with the consultant years later when you search for your next job or hire them to help you with a search.
More immediately, you are now in that consultant’s Rolodex (an obsolete object, but still relevant as a metaphor), and he will contact you, or refer you to another consultant in his firm, for future opportunities. So while it’s helpful to understand the consultant’s priorities in current research, it’s also wise to treat each interaction with them as the start of an ongoing relationship, one that can often be invaluable to your career goals. long-term and worth cultivating.