Academic hiring processes

If you are involved in the faculty hiring process in higher education—whether at the department, college, or university level—and you are preparing to move that process online in the wake of COVID-19, here are a few pointers to help it succeed in the short term.

First, we want to acknowledge that it is a challenging time for everyone, which no one could have been fully prepared for. 

Here, our advice is focused more on navigating an unanticipated (but necessary) shift to online faculty hiring this spring. 

And to be most practical, we are really speaking of active hires that may be going on right now—not searches so far out that you might postpone them altogether.

We will note, however, that COVID-19 is hardly the first time that colleges and universities have needed to seek an effective online method for academic recruitment. Interfolio has helped hundreds of academic institutions of all sizes and types move their faculty hiring online in the short and the long term. 

The tips are:

  1. Enforce a single online storage location
  2. If you are still accepting applications, ask for PDFs 
  3. Consider pausing recommendations until really needed (unless already automated)
  4. Establish explicit criteria and collect quantitative ratings

But first: what is success?

When we say “make it successful,” we are talking not just about reaching any hiring decision, and making some offer that is accepted.

Even if you are moving to a new online hiring process that’s unfamiliar to your committees and staff, the integrity, inclusivity, and care of your academic recruitment practices do not have to be compromised.

Whether tenure-track or not, your faculty members are the engine of the academic mission. You want to get faculty hiring right.

Tip 1: Enforce a single online storage location as the only system for this spring’s searches

You want to get organized from this point on, so that you don’t make last-minute discoveries of missing application materials or skipped steps that delay the closing out of a search. 

(This was a significant factor in our work with San Diego State University and The University of Texas at Austin, among many others.)

Whatever system you choose in the short term—whether it’s a technology specifically meant for faculty hiring, or an HR or applicant tracking system, or a free file-sharing system—someone should set aside time to get all applications you have already received into it. Create an organized folder structure. 

If you allow application materials for the same search to remain stored across multiple locations (or even for multiple searches in, say, the same academic division), you actually will spend a lot more time, between now and the end of the search, retrieving documents. 

Whatever up-front time it requires to pull applications into a single location is going to save you more time in the remainder of the searches.

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Tip 2: If you are still accepting applications, update language to require PDF format for all text documents

This is just an easy thing you can do to (hopefully) reduce file type issues, especially for your department staff. Trying to get files to open, convert, or “Save As” eats up a surprising amount of time in the preparation of files for the committee to review. 

As a favor to applicants (and to lower the bar so everyone will do this), consider even linking out to a set of common PDF conversion instructions, as part of your faculty job posting. Your IT office might have one.

To be sure, disciplines that rely heavily on multimedia, such as arts, architecture, and computer science, will still be accepting other file types. Those committees may well have their own professional opinions about which file types are the best practice for their field.

But when it comes to any text documents such as CVs, publications, personal statements, teaching evaluations, and confidential letters of recommendation, PDF is the way to go.

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Tip 3: If confidential recommendation letters aren’t automated already, just pause them until actively needed

The practice of soliciting confidential letters of recommendation is, of course, widely regarded as invaluable to hiring new faculty members that you feel confident about.

However, handling letters of recommendation in an efficient and responsible way is one of the biggest sources of administrative time around faculty hiring for a college or university.

Depending upon where your open positions are at the moment, ask yourself: “What is the latest possible stage in the hiring process where we could require recommendation letters and still meaningfully incorporate them into the decision process?”

If your department or committee does not already have in place, today, a streamlined mechanism for:

  • requesting the letters,
  • receiving them,
  • verifying them,
  • confirming to the sender and the applicant that you got them,
  • adding them into the application,
  • and distributing them to the members of the committee…

… this is one area likely to eat up a lot of logistical time in the coming weeks.

The smaller the pool for which you require letters, the more feasible that coordination is going to be for your staff.

There continues to be abundant healthy debate in higher education about the right way for academic hiring committees to incorporate confidential recommendation letters—in a way that is both valuable for the decision process and humane to the candidates (who are likely applying to many, many positions). 

That’s for the academic community to work out. All we can tell you is, for our many institutions that we’ve worked with for hiring (and the many that are regularly joining), confidential letters are a major pain point, and a big relief when automated or reduced.

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Tip 4: Establish explicit criteria and collect quantitative ratings (alongside qualitative feedback)

Established criteria and a standardized rating system are common enough that your committee or institution may already have a precedent in place. 

When it comes to your committee reaching a good decision in a timely fashion, and reducing the role of implicit bias in that decision, it is a best practice to introduce a standard rating on criteria. (See, for example, Columbia University’s Guide to Best Practices in Faculty Search and Hiring, p. 19.)

Your committee should agree on what the criteria for all applicants should be—for a really basic example, this might be “Teaching,” “Research,” “Service,” and something like, “Professional Growth.” And, if you can manage it, consider writing down some examples for all committees of what you expect to earn a “lowest,” “middle,” and “highest” ranking. 

Then require each committee member to score each applicant with a ranking on each criterion. 

Of course this is not the only or most important aspect of any application. But it is a point of reference to clarify who the real contenders are, and keep the committee focused on the final outcome, which is: “Which of these candidates, if any, will we hire this spring?”

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Interfolio is committed to helping the global faculty affairs community and academic leadership continue to play their pivotal role throughout these changing circumstances. 

If you have questions about moving higher education operations online or business continuity in these trying times, we welcome inquiries or conversation at