Modest Requests From a Pair of Job Seekers

Brian Taylor

August 28, 2013

Both of us were on the job market in English a year before the Modern Language Association announced a partnership with Interfolio aimed at helping candidates defray the costs of job hunting. We had each applied for about 100 jobs and spent hundreds of dollars sending out application materials to departments. Our savings from the MLA's new effort would have amounted to $19, the cost of a now-waived Interfolio annual membership fee.

It's a good sign that the disciplinary societies want to help candidates streamline the process of finding an academic job, but meaningful change will occur only if we improve the procedures of hiring departments.

If potential employers were to more carefully consider the documents they request, they could save job seekers a lot of time and money. The Interfolio deal, for example, can lend itself to substantial savings with electronic submissions of a CV and cover letter, which are free. However, electronic materials beyond the CV and the cover letter incur a flat fee of $6 each, and paper applications begin at $6 but quickly rise when a user exceeds the page limit or needs faster delivery.

Expecting applicants to incur heavy expenses during the first round of an application process—when one is often in a pool of hundreds, and materials may receive only abbreviated attention—puts a burden on the most underprivileged groups in the academy: graduate students, adjuncts, and untenured lecturers. Requiring fewer documents in the initial application packet would also reduce the burden on departmental staff members—another less privileged group in the academy—who are often responsible for sorting through hundreds of files on behalf of the hiring committee.

In countless conversations with job seekers at our own institution, at conferences, and online, we have repeatedly heard from exhausted job seekers who feel betrayed by the system but powerless to change it. While we were fortunate enough to obtain full-time (although not with traditional tenure) positions, the expense and frustration of the job market was often disheartening and dehumanizing, especially while we were completing graduate work or employed as contingent faculty members.

With those concerns in mind, we offer the following list of recommendations. These small changes would substantially improve our ability to be the best candidates we can be, while still meeting and exceeding our teaching and research obligations.

Make the first round free. Departments should request only those application materials that can be made available at little or no cost to the candidate.

For example, official transcripts in the first round of the search often require a payment of $5 to $10 for each one, in addition to the charge from Interfolio for gathering and mailing the materials. For those applying to scores of academic jobs from September to April, the process of ordering transcripts is cumbersome. Departments can safe-check the CVs of those few candidates who make it to the shortlist rather than require all of the applicants to send in transcripts. And if a department is truly interested in the academic record of every applicant, instead of the official transcript it could ask applicants to send a list of the courses they took, which not only would allow them to arrange and group classes in a more coherent fashion, but is also a document they could reuse for multiple applications.

Letters of recommendation, too, are an additional cost to applicants. It seems reasonable to allow us as candidates to make a case for our employment first—to argue our own merits and qualifications—before relying on the word of an outside reviewer. Again, those letters can be requested of candidates who make it to the second round of the hiring process. Requesting letters from those of us who made the shortlist would also alert us of our success and would mark a significant personal accomplishment in what can be a very anonymous process.

Bypass HR systems. Understandably, some colleges and universities, following guidelines handed down from on high, require applicants to upload their materials via the institution's own human-resources site. But entering information separately into boxes takes a great deal of time for each application—time that takes away from our teaching and research obligations, which are the areas most important to potential employers.

These lengthy, often generic online HR forms are poorly suited for an academic job search. (For example, on several of our job applications, we had to indicate on the online HR form whether or not we could lift 25 pounds.) In addition, many HR systems do not allow applicants to bypass irrelevant boxes on the form without filling them out.

Departments should make it a top priority to ensure the expediency of the online hiring process. For example, many of us would rather apply to a position with an early deadline, and then be asked to provide additional documents to satisfy the HR department after the hiring committee has come up with a shortlist of candidates. But for applicants who still must apply within flawed systems, we offer two tips. First, fill in the irrelevant boxes with "See CV." We did and still received interviews at those institutions. And second, use the Google Chrome Web browser, which has an autofill feature for common categories like name, address, and phone number.

Stick to standard documents. Applicants create countless versions of cover letters, CVs, teaching-philosophy statements, and writing samples in order to best present ourselves for your department's job. The first round of a job search is, in fact, fairly standardized, allowing us to have a wheelhouse of highly polished documents that we can adjust to the specific needs and concerns of individual departments, their students, and their research requirements.

However, in our experience with the job search, some departments also required documents that were not part of a candidate's working portfolio. They included "diversity statements," a "statement of future research agenda," a "narrative of a typical class," and a "statement on advising philosophy."

While such documents can be informative for both applicant and department, requiring them in the initial hiring stage is frustrating, especially since we often have not had the opportunity to speak with a member of the hiring committee to find out exactly what is expected. Asking for those documents in later rounds of the search allows us to devote to them the time and attention they deserve, and can provide another source of feedback and contact in a process that is all too often discouraging.

Kindly reply. During the interview stages—telephone, Skype, conference, or campus—prompt alerts of the status of one's candidacy would go far toward relaxing the anxieties of a job candidate. Quick "no" answers free up the mental energy spent envisioning one's life at a certain institution.

Several rejection letters came to us in the summer—nine months after we had applied for the jobs. Departments probably should not waste paper and postage on such a delayed response, but a quick e-mail or posting on a department Web site at each stage of winnowing would help candidates keep track of the status of a search. At some institutions, departments are bound by policies preventing them from sending out rejection notices until the hire is finalized. Those departments should reconsider the practicality and the necessity of such policies in a highly competitive job market.

When replying by e-mail, departments should avoid creating a mass list of e-mail addresses in the "To" field, which can then be viewed by everyone receiving the rejection letter. (Yes, that happened to us.) There are many good reasons why candidates may not want it known that they are seeking employment at a given moment.

Timely notification would also prevent the dreaded conference-trip-with-no-interviews that many candidates endure. At our graduate institution, an urban myth circulated every fall: the story of the student who had received a request for an MLA interview a day before the conference. Cautious students felt forced to make travel arrangements to attend the conference, "just in case," without knowing whether they would secure an interview or not. Many became "early buyers," who would shop for a good deal and hope for the best; others were the holdouts, who would wait for an interview and chance high costs and bad hotels.

Both approaches are ill-suited to the challenge, because the level on which these problems could better be resolved is the hiring committee. In the job application, including a deadline by which candidates should expect to hear whether they have been invited to a conference interview would help lower both costs and pressures.

Finally, two of our most amusing rejection anecdotes:

Anne-Marie: A university sent a rejection letter three months after I had been offered the job and turned it down. I declined it because the search chair said the department wanted to offer me the job but would not officially do so until I had indicated that I would accept—thus,circumventing the standard two-week period that candidates are usually given to make a decision.

Rebecca: An institution sent a mass rejection e-mail with no return address and no identifying information. I figured who the e-mail was from only when someone mentioned it on Twitter and we narrowed down the list of suspects we had in common.

Polite, timely rejections are much appreciated. The quicker and more painless the process, the more enthusiastic applicants will be about the jobs we are right for and that are right for us.

Anne-Marie Womack is a postdoctoral fellow at Tulane University. Rebecca L. Harris is a faculty member in English on the Charlotte County, Fla., campus of Edison State College.