This post continues our series, The Smart Scholar, on three tips for candidates working with search firms.

As many of you are preparing for the upcoming semester, you (or colleagues you know) may begin to get calls from search firms about their interest in applying for faculty or administrative positions. I’ve had experience with search firms as a candidate and as a member of a search committee, so I want to focus my advice on engaging in search-firm-lead hiring processes. While I do not highlight each step of the process in this post, I share a few insights to consider as you all are on an upward career trajectory and may work with search firms.

Getting on a search firm’s radar

If a search firm is involved in hiring, they handle the initial screening of applicants. I have found that there are two possible routes to get on the shortlist for a potential position:

  1. Apply formally via the application submission portal
  2. Exist on a search firm’s vetted list of potential candidates

The first route is self-explanatory and just requires you to keep abreast of where jobs in your field are posted, as I described in a previous Smart Scholar post. The second route, however, is also important because some positions may not be widely advertised. Having a relationship with a search firm is advantageous to getting on a shortlist for positions.

In my experience, I have found that individuals can get on the radar of a search firm through various ways: 

  • Reach out to a firm via email, provide your resume/CV, and set up a time to talk with a representative from the firm.
  • Talk with your peers! You can be referred to the search firm by either a colleague already on their radar or the university search committee. 

While being referred by someone else presents you as a warm(er) lead, I am not opposed to reaching out to search firms directly and building relationships with their associates. This may not be immediately fruitful, but down the line, opportunities may come to you that would not have previously.

Develop your list of references early

If you are contacted by a search firm and decide to apply for a position, it’s critical to begin lining up your references. This may seem early in the process, but you want to get your list set up because when you are considered a finalist for a position, the search firm—in conjunction with the university search committee—will begin to engage your recommendation list. An important question, therefore, is: who should I list as a reference? 

While the committee itself will give (or likely suggest) this information, I’ve found that it’s good to have the following types of individuals prepared to serve as a reference:

  • A current supervisor
  • A former supervisor
  • A colleague or research collaborator—typically I’ve seen this for faculty or research center positions
  • A direct report— an individual who has reported to you in some capacity—if applicable
Clean up your social media

Now that you have developed a rapport with a search committee and prepared your references, you may well find yourself at the final stage in the hiring process. At this point, it’s likely that the search committee will do a formal background check—along with an informal background check, which includes searching through your social media.

We are in a social media age where sharing much of what happens in our lives is common. It is important, prior to applying for a search, to assess what your social media profiles say about you. My suggestion here would be to:

  • Do a Google search on your name and see what shows up 
  • Then clean up anything that would not represent you in a positive way

Unfortunately, I have heard from colleagues and have experienced as a committee member how a great candidate could lose a potential offer due to what a search firm and committee would deem a “problematic” social media post and/or image. Interpreting social media is subjective and often adversely impacts candidates of color. I believe doing a clean of your social media is beneficial to securing a future position. 

Have you had experiences with search firms? Please reach out to me on Twitter to continue the conversation!

Author Bio: Dr. Ramon B. Goings is an assistant professor of educational leadership at Loyola University Maryland. His research examines gifted/high-achieving Black male academic success PreK-PhD, diversifying the teacher and school leader workforce, and the student experience and contributions of historically Black colleges and universities to the higher education landscape. Dr. Goings is also the founder of The Done Dissertation Coaching Program which provides individual and group dissertation coaching for doctoral students. For more information about Dr. Goings’ research please visit his website and follow him on Twitter (@ramongoings) and for more information about The Done Dissertation Coaching Program visit