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

Most university recruiting is pretty dull and ineffective! It takes little to no creativity or imagination to concentrate nearly 100% of a college recruiting effort on the events and activities formally sanctioned by university career centers. While the career event approach has primarily been the modus operandi for decades, it’s an approach seriously out of touch with how students study, live, and play today. In 1950 the best students would line up for nearly any opportunity to wow a potential employer in hopes of securing one of only a few choice jobs, but for students today the opportunities are many and diverse.

You can no longer expect the very best students to be found through career-center-sanctioned activities because the universities and the technographics of their student populations have changed. The increasing popularity of non-traditional academic programs like online degrees, night programs, weekend programs, and international programs, coupled with the fact that many students are now older and working full-time, means that many students just don’t have the opportunity to physically use the career center or even participate in career center events. In addition, the growth of Internet job boards and online career advice websites have eliminated the need for students to work through a tightly controlled process to reach employers who want them.

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 Usually these efforts work through the bureaucracy of campus career centers — an out-of-date resource that all but the most desperate of students learned to avoid decades ago.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.

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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.

Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact talent management solutions.

He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website and on He lives in Pacifica, California.



6 Comments on “Building Relationships With Professors To Gain A Recruiting Edge (Part 1 of 2)

  1. Sounds great ….IN THEORY – but have any of you actually tried to operationalize this? particularly at a large state school? unless your campus recruiters went to that school and have close relationships with everyone from career services to the faculty GOOD LUCK…..schools do not want to engage in any behavior that could be perceived as DISCRIMMINATORY

    so naturally the next thought is “well, lets use our first year hires to tell us about the students below them that they remember” – ok, also sounds good, but do you really want to put that much trust in a first year who may have an old ax to grind?

    In my 14 years of campus recruiting with several large, prestigous global brands we encountered tons of resistance trying to make this happen. During the peak of the “Dot Com Boom” we even had a school that “brokered” this kind of access – they outright told us “You wanna play? You gotta pay” and gave direct access to the highest bidder. The firms that donated the most to the school got that level of access. It was simply outrageous coming from “the ivory tower”

  2. With 20+ years of experience on both the corporate recruiting as well as academic sides of the house (at a large state-related school), I COMPLETLY agree with K. Fallon’s comments. The implementation of such as strategy can be extremely challenging especially when dealing with a large number of “target” schools and limited human resources.

    The notion that campus career centers are an “out-of-date resource that all but the most desperate of students learned to avoid decades ago” clearly demonstrates a lack of understanding of many of today’s campus career centers, especially those who are housed within an academic unit as well as those with robust cyber services. Contrary to the article, some of the most savvy student job seekers are taking advantages of the multitude of resources provided by top-notch university career centers. Many of these organizations actually facilitate the connection between corporate recruiters and the faculty, as well as student professional organizations.

    Before you dismiss these career centers as an “out of touch approach,” I strongly you check out their latest initiatives…you may be pleasantly surprised how they can maximize your recruiting efforts by developing a customized campus recruiting strategy for your organization!

  3. Aside from your advice teetering on the legal edge of student privacy law as well as employment laws, spitting in the face of career services offices is not very professional.

    The best career services offices work WITH faculty for the benefit of students, graduates, and employers. I suggest you find a few of those examples to profile and save your disparaging comments for your diary.

  4. Dr. Sullivan is right on (again). The answer to the above responses is to do both selectively. At our lab we’ll attend the obligatory career fair, but schedule a day prior/following the event to do the true recruiting. We’ve had much more success working directly with adivors/faculty. However, the branding at a career fair should not be forgotten. There’s something to be said to at least get your employment brand out there. But if you’re looking to actual hires, the faculty relationship is the way to go. We’ve even bypassed the career fair altogether in many cases.

    Keep in mind, it’s not discrimination if you have specific openings. You’ll be successful if you’re targeted. You can’t go in and be all things. Focus on a specific amount of openings.

    P.S. Dr. Sullivan, thanks again for a great article.

  5. I think its a great article. It points to a direction that is often unknowingly ingnored. Yes, faculties can be an incredible source of recruiting some solid candidates but its not an easy approach. We have successfully used this strategy with employees who have connected us to the faculties of the schools they have gone to. We followed the process backwards i.e. have the employee (ex-student) connnect us to the department chair – then to the faculty and then to the career center. We have had success with this model and we are now looking into participating in a mentor program with a local school. We hope this will give us mileage in terms of connecting us with faculties, staff and other students.
    All things considered – this is a great article. Thanks Dr. Sullivan.

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