Building Relationships With Professors To Gain A Recruiting Edge (Part 1 of 2)

Today, if you want to identify, build your brand, and “pre-sell” the best students on employment opportunities with your organization, you need to go beyond the career center and build relationships with the faculty who know and have the ability to influence the decisions of college students.


The most common reason that college recruiting programs fail to attract the very best is focusing the recruiting effort on activities that have no chance of influencing or even reaching the very best. Usually these efforts work through the bureaucracy of campus career centers — an out-of-date resource that all but the most desperate of students learned to avoid decades ago. The informal name given to corporate recruiters who spend all of their time and resources at the career center by faculty is “seagulls,” because like the bird, these recruiters “fly in once or twice a year, drop a load of BS about caring, and then fly away.” Career centers are not academic program providers, so working solely with them can isolate you from the faculty and the academic programs. This isolated approach is okay if you’re targeting below-average students, but it won’t work if you want the top students from the high-demand academic programs.

Building a Competitive Advantage Requires a “Different” Approach

The very best recruiting programs, be they targeted at students or experienced hires, provide their firm with a distinct competitive advantage. Building that competitive advantage is difficult because almost all universities take an equal treatment approach to college recruiters, believing that every company and every student should have an equal opportunity. On the other hand, directors of college recruiting programs need to develop plans and approaches that provide them with better information and superior access compared to other firms.

One of the best ways to get an “inside track” on who’s who is to build long-term relationships directly with faculty. Close relationships with faculty are critical, because they, rather than departmental management or career center personnel, are the ones who really know and have relationships with the best students. Having taught at a university for more than 30 years, I can give you some insight into what it takes to get the attention of and to build lasting relationships with university faculty. I urge you to avoid the temptation of becoming just another “seagull” and instead, integrate yourself so that you eventually become part of the academic team.

The Advantages of Close Faculty Relationships

It takes sophisticated plans and a significant period of time to build close relationships with faculty, but the benefits that can accrue from these relationships are many and often include:

Insights on top students. Because faculty teach, advise, and interact with students on an almost daily basis, they are more aware than most anyone about the skill levels and capabilities of potential recruits. They are likely to know whether a student has the competencies that you are seeking and especially whether they are innovators and team players.
Ability to convince skeptical students. Because faculty members also serve as advisers, students often ask them for advice concerning which companies they should interview at and what job offers they should take. Establishing a relationship with faculty provides you with the ability to more accurately inform them about realities and influence what they may say.
Recruit interns early. The career center works primarily with graduating seniors; however, faculty work with sophomores and juniors, so they can be beneficial in identifying and “selling” exceptional students early on as potential interns at your firm.
Push employment branding messages through trusted channels. When faculty know about your firm and its best practices, they are more likely to use it as an example during class lectures, something that can have a profound impact on employment branding program success. Having credible faculty cite your firm during lectures and in assigned articles helps build your name awareness and positive employment brand image in a way that students have said affects them.
Access to diversity. Diverse faculty (often with international backgrounds) have long been a support system for diverse students. Because they cultivate many relationships with such students, they are an excellent resource for providing advice on the best way to identify, recruit, and manage diverse and international students.
Influencing the curriculum. When dealing with companies that recruit a great number of students, it is not uncommon to hear someone groan that college students today know nothing. While that isn’t entirely true, given the pace of change, it is entirely possible that students graduate with knowledge and skills that are slightly dated. Strong relationships with faculty provide corporations with an opportunity to influence curriculum and course topics. While you cannot force faculty to change what they teach, you can use the relationship to help them better understand where industry is now and where it is going to be. Most faculty want their students to do well in the business world, so they often consciously try to focus their teaching on the skills, competencies, and problems that graduates will likely face in industry.
Garner research ideas. Building relationships with key research faculty can help to advance your firm’s own research and development work. Firms can learn from their existing research or build relationships with them, so that they target their research on your areas of need.
Hiring faculty. Building relationships with faculty increases the likelihood that they might, at some point in their career, consider working for you. Employment possibilities might include working on a full-time basis, during a sabbatical, or during summer breaks.

Focusing on Academic Schools and Departments

When you decide to build relationships beyond the career center, some recruiting organizations make the mistake of targeting high-level university administrators. While it’s important to recognize that there are a few high-level administrators who really get to know students and their abilities, most are strong believers in “equal treatment” and will not offer additional help in recruiting no matter how much you may donate.

As a result, the best relationship building efforts should begin much lower in the individual colleges and academic programs. If you want a great electrical engineer, you need to focus on the College of Engineering and more specifically the Department of Electrical Engineering. There are some important exceptions, however, where you might have to look at several academic disciplines. If you’re looking for web designers or even programmers, you might find them in the engineering department but you could also find them in Arts, Broadcasting, or Communications programs. HR recruits will most likely be found in the HR program in the business school, but they might also be found in the psychology program.

Understanding Which Type Of Faculty To Target

Before you begin any program designed to build relationships with faculty it’s important that you understand the different groupings or classifications of faculty. This is because not all faculty members have the same interest and capability of helping you in your recruiting efforts. It’s a painful experience to spend significant time building a relationship with a faculty member, only later to find out that they have little first-hand knowledge of the type of students who you’re looking for. The first step in selecting faculty and others to target for relationship building is understanding the different groupings of faculty and what each group can provide. Some of the faculty groups and subgroups that you need to be aware of include:

Research vs. teaching faculty. Research faculty tend to be better known, and they are generally more senior in rank. They are often the “principal investigators” on research grants, which are usually listed on the university’s website. If you’re looking to recruit research staff for your firm, obviously you should start here, but be aware that their student contact is often limited to a few graduate and Ph.D. students. On the other hand, faculty who focus on teaching can teach as many as 10 times more students each semester. Teaching faculty also spend more time advising students, so they also have more opportunities to influence student decision-making when it comes to choosing a career. So if you’re looking for undergrads or master’s students, you should focus a significant period of time building relationships with teaching faculty. Identifying “teaching faculty” is relatively easy because they obviously teach more classes. Scanning the semester’s course offerings in the online “course schedule” and talking to teaching assistants (who can help you identify teaching faculty) are the two best ways to identify teaching faculty. Teaching faculty can also be separated into two groups. The first teaches primarily using lectures and textbooks, while the second group provides more projects, cases, and team problem-solving. This latter group of faculty are likely to be more aware of which students are leaders, good problem-solvers, and team players.

Tenured vs. tenure-track faculty. Professors who are early in their career are usually designated as “tenure-track” assistant professors. They are working toward tenure and as a result they have less time to focus on advising and teaching. Their laser focus on “getting tenure” also means that they are less likely to have any interest in talking to recruiters. Tenured faculty who are generally at the associate and full professor rank have been with the university at least five years and have lifetime job security. As a result, there is less pressure on them to focus exclusively on their research. Because tenured professors have more control over their time, they are generally the best to target for help in recruiting. You can identify an individual faculty member’s tenure status and rank in the faculty listing found in the university’s online bulletin, catalog, or website.

Part-time vs. full-time faculty. Between 40% and 60% of all faculty are full-time tenured or tenure-track. The remaining individuals who teach are known as lecturers or adjuncts, who generally teach part-time. Because lecturers cannot get tenure, they are often ignored by recruiters. Failing to build relationships with lecturers would be a major mistake, because at some universities, nearly half of the teaching is done by lecturers. Because of their high teaching load, their student contact is often among the highest of any faculty group. Because they work part-time, lecturers generally have full-time jobs in industry or have retired from industry. Lecturers do little research, so they have more time and interest in helping individual students. Also, as part-timers, they are often more willing to provide help closer to the outer “limits” of what universities will allow in the area of recruiting. You can find lecturers in the course schedule (they often teach at night) and sometimes they are also listed on the department’s website. Lecturers who are allowed to teach courses with relatively “high” course numbers are almost always among the best.

Honors vs. regular faculty. Some academic departments and programs have designated honors programs designed specifically for the very best undergraduate students. Often faculty who teach honors classes are specifically selected by the department chair because of their higher level of teaching rigor. Outsiders can’t always get a list of honors students before graduation, but faculty who teach honors classes automatically know them and their capabilities long before they graduate. If you’re looking for bright and driven students, it is critical that you identify and then build relationships with these key faculty.

Service-oriented faculty. Faculty are generally rewarded for excellence in three areas: research, teaching, and service. While most faculty focus primarily on research and/or teaching, up to 25% of full-time faculty really enjoy what are known as “service activities.” These service activities might include being a faculty advisor for a student organization or professional fraternity, running the internship or mentor program, coordinating “college-level” career or alumni programs, coordinating diversity/inclusion programs, or coordinating the tutor program. All of these service responsibilities involve significant student contact, so these individuals should become prime targets because of their broad exposure to the best students and their ability to influence them.

Deans. Many recruiting programs that are wise enough to target individual colleges within the university began their relationship building efforts with an attempt to get on the good side of the dean of the targeted college. Unfortunately, many college deans are too “detached” from day-to-day teaching to be able to offer very much help in the recruiting area. And because a significant part of their job is often fundraising, any help that they might provide will likely be provided with the expectation of a donation. In many cases, the most that you can expect to get from a dean are a few names and maybe an introduction to a few faculty members who might be around that day. As a result, I recommend that you spend little time with “the Dean” and instead focus on influencing the faculty and staff who work under them. You don’t want to get on their bad side, but you certainly shouldn’t expect them to be of much direct help when it comes to identifying and recruiting top students.

Department chairs. Department chairs are part administrators and part faculty. They shouldn’t be ignored even though their ability to provide direct recruiting help may be limited. In some cases, chairs teach few courses and do no major research and as a result, they can do little more than direct you to key faculty. However, in some cases, and especially in smaller departments, they are well aware of the names of the best students because they select them for scholarships, awards, honors, and for grad and student assistant positions.

“Non-Faculty” To Target

In addition to faculty members, other individuals who you should also consider targeting within the academic community include:

Grad and teaching assistants. At many larger universities, a significant portion of the undergraduate teaching load is handled by graduate students. They might be called research assistants, teaching assistants, or grad assistants. Some actually teach entire sections, while others merely assist professors who technically “own” the class. Although their time at the university might be limited to a few years, they should be prime relationship-building targets, because they see and work directly with students almost as much as some faculty members. Their relationships with students are particularly close because there is little age difference between them and their students. Not only do they know the best students grade-wise but quite often they know which students are the best team players and innovators. Incidentally, grad assistants, tutors, peer mentors, and professional club officers are often superstars themselves, so they should be prime recruiting targets. You can find the names of teaching assistants by looking in the course schedule. Other grad assistants can be identified by asking departmental secretaries or other grad assistants.

Administrative staff versus faculty. There are numerous program directors, managers, secretaries, and even student assistants who help academic colleges and departments operate. Most are extremely helpful, especially during academic breaks and during the summer. Some individuals like lab managers, IT managers, MBA coordinators, tutoring coordinators, and research directors are not only aware of the very best students, but in addition, they also have the capability of influencing them.

Coming Next Week in Part 2: Approaches and tips for building lasting relationships with individual faculty.

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

Check Also

Hiring Innovators – The Highest Impact Action In Talent Management (Highlighting the benefits from hiring innovators)

Hiring has the highest bus. impact in HR, and innovators produce the highest impact of …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *