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« A job-market dilemma: teaching and having an affiliation, or publishing in a non-academic job? | Main | How many papers do you abandon? »

10/20/2021

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Matt Weiner

I think that research-heavy departments should request a writing sample and also make an effort to have someone read the writing sample. If you're hiring based on the quality of someone's research, even a cursory look at the research itself will tell you more about that than reference letters (or, I will say controversially, publication lists, which just mean outsourcing the quality judgments to journal reviewers).

This may be prohibitively difficult with 400 applicants, but committees should also write more narrowly tailored ads, so they don't get 400 applicants who are plausible fits for the advertised positions.

postduck

Speaking as a perennial applicant, I don't find requests for any of the "standard" materials - research statements, letters, DEI statements, teaching dossier, etc. - to be much of an inconvenience. Once you've put these materials together once, they're easy to send off again. So the "less work for job applicants" thing doesn't seem like that big of a deal. But if search committees don't need them, and reading them only delays the search process, then I'd be equally happy to send them later on, after making the first cut (which would have the added benefit of actually letting applicants know whether they've advanced in the search process).
By far, greatest kind of inconvenience I've encountered on the market as a job candidate involves requests for customized materials that explain your unique fit with the program, propose new courses, or that ask you to make a nonstandard version of one of the standard documents, like a research statement that's maximum 500 words. Requests for peculiar combinations of documents - like a collated research statement and CV - are also tedious, though less so.

so many job applications

I strongly agree with postduck above, and particularly the second paragraph. Search committees put a significant burden on applicants by asking for non-standard and customized documents like a description of how they fit into some unique aspect of their program, or asking applicants to do significant work to tailor their material to their specifications.

I don't see a problem with asking for such documents in a later stage of the process, like after longlisting. But committees should not give first-round applicants so much work to apply for jobs for which they will likely not even be getting an interview. And this practice is fairly common, I'd say, leading to much unnecessary and frankly demeaning work.

So maybe standardizing first-round, pre-longlist applications to include *only* some combination of CV, letter, research statement, teaching portfolio, writing sample, and diversity statement is worth considering.

Guy Crain

If you already have at least a few pubs, why should the hiring institution need a writing sample (honestly asking)?

applicant

I do find jobs that only require CV and writing sample to be much easier to apply to, since there is always some element of customization for the other documents depending on the research area of the search, the type of school, etc. So I'd definitely vote for a second round for the extra materials.

Bill Vanderburgh

Two comments, really. First, candidates who find it burdensome to describe how they fit the job, probably don't fit the job well and shouldn't be applying anyway. I don't know if 400 applications is common anywhere, but even my middling-ish teaching-focused department tends to get 200 applications for our ads, even when they are fairly narrow. A big part of the problem is people applying for jobs they don't fit. Longshots don't get hired, so save yourself the trouble.

Second, we tried this year to not bother with letters of reference at the initial stages, but were told by HR late in the process (after the ad was already published) that we had to request and receive the letters for ALL candidates before we could evaluate any of them. (Some of this rigamarole is not up to departments, in other words.) I don't find letters useful until late in the process (if at all), so I would have been happy with just cv and letter at the initial stage. I do think a letter is important since then the candidate can explain or highlight things that aren't obvious on a cv that might be fully relevant to our job. As someone already said, since every job requires a teaching statement, research statement, writing sample and diversity statement, having those ready is part of preparing for the job season so they aren't a burden to candidates. (You might want two versions of the first two, for teaching- and research-focused ads.)

To Guy Crain: Send a pub as your writing sample, that's fine (excellent, even). Committees just don't have time to go looking for your work.

david

I am finding the "diversity statement" thing somewhat tiresome and overdetermined at this point. Some schools seem to care about this element of one's application even more than one's academic credentials, and they are requiring increasingly complicated and involved statements. While I generally empathize with the goals of this initiative, I am beginning to wonder if it is not in some cases used as some sort of litmus test for one's political beliefs (applicants with insufficiently "woke" views need not apply, etc.)....

another applicant

To Bill Vanderburgh: I appreciate hearing your experience serving on committees, but I've seen it happen multiple times that an applicant who "doesn't fit the job well" is ultimately hired, so I don't think it's good advice to applicants to tell them not to apply to such jobs, and I don't think your own institution's stance is generalizable. Many times there are also competing interests in any given department vying over what is actually wanted, and your sense as a committee member of what the right fit would be is likely to be much more determinate than what the applicant will be able to perceive.

Revising and uploading each of these documents every year is burdensome -- there's a huge difference between having to take several weeks from year to year to make sure 6 documents reflect current teaching experience, current projects, etc., and taking a couple days to revise 2 documents (as when I apply to British jobs that just request CV and cover letter). Even just having to iteratively upload each of these documents, including with their idiosyncratic requirements (some ask for teaching dossier with everything included, some for separate documents for diversity statement, syllabi, and teaching statement...), takes time, just to make sure you're uploading the right version of these things. In any case, I'd argue that anything that reduces the burden to applicants, even slightly, is a good we should try to accommodate.

so many applications again

Right, I agree with another applicant in response to Bill Vanderburgh above, as this “shouldn’t be applying” claim to me seems entirely misleading. To be clear, my point doesn’t concern customized cover letters, obviously. It concerns any other customized documents beyond the cover letter.

Explaining one’s fit for one department is not burdensome in itself. Describing one’s fit for thirty, forty, eighty, 100+ departments taken together and over separate statement documents in each case *is* burdensome, particularly when one considers that that might lead to (say) two or three interviews. That’s a lot of saying “here’s a developed document describing why you people specifically should think I’m great” with very little validation. So it is time consuming and depressing.

My sense is that search committee members are out of touch with the application process and how many applications each applicant needs to fill before they get a job. In any case, demonstrating one’s fit for a department in a cover letter is fine, but if departments demand more customized material from first-round applicants, they are asking for too much.

Anon

Regarding David’s comment, DEI Statements are outrageous. You shouldn’t have to pledge allegiance to an ideology, even if you agree with it. If anyone doubts that diversity statements are an ideological pledge, I welcome them to write about treating people as individuals and color-blindness in their statement. Hell, just right about equality instead of equity. Granted, not every hiring committee and administration pair would hold such a statement against you; however, it’s very hard to know when that’s the case. So, it’s prudent to make the ideological pledge in all cases, which is a feature of institutional capture; it can sustain itself without much support so long as public dissent is sufficiently discouraged. Departments should stand up against administration-mandated DEI statements, but, of course, that’s risking the ire of the administration, which controls tenure lines. So, everyone just goes along. Ultimately, it’s a collective action problem.

Peter

It’s simply not hard to send an email to 40 people from whom you’d like to see more. This can be readily automated using pretty basic tech.

I suspect (strongly) that doing things this way (generic cover letter and cv) would give committees fewer reasons to succumb to bias. It would also give applicants more feedback about how competitive they are.

At the end of the day, it the differences between an academic search and a private sector search are striking. People are busy. The people with the most time to tailor their applications to specific opportunities are probably the people least likely to be worth actually hiring. Be careful what you select for.

But knock yourselves out, committees. I’ll be gone soon enough.

on the market

Just want to express my agreement about letters of recommendation. I think many use Interfolio. Personally, I appreciate departments that don't request the letters until a later stage. This is because there are like 50 "deliveries," and beyond that one has to pay additional (to the yearly subscription fee). I also appreciate departments that ask letters to be sent to a dedicated email address, instead of asking for each email separately. It's like 1 vs 3-5 deliveries. I think this is a small step that makes no difference to committees at all but one that can save some money for some applicants.

Daniel Weltman

Marcus, I agree with all of your thoughts, except for the implicit assumption that the roulette wheel is not an acceptable method for picking candidates. Given the state of the job market, every job gets more than enough qualified candidates. A roulette wheel is one of the fairest ways to narrow down the list, If anyone has any better ways, they are welcome to use them, but "rank by quality" is something of a fool's errand when you have in front of you a bunch of people who are obviously qualified. At that level candidates differ in ways that either admit of no rankings, or admit of rankings that are subjective enough that you might as well use any other equally good subjective ranking, so go with the wheel! This will save the hiring committee quite a bit of time, too.

big_dawg

Marcus you write:

" it seems to me that cover letters are probably unnecessary work for candidates (since they either repeat stuff in the CV or engage in pro forma discussion trying to show that the candidate knows stuff about the institution)."

I find this statement puzzling.
Why is doing research about the institution and then discussing it in the cover letter 'pro forma?'

Why is this, not instead, evidence of a sincere interest to work at the institution because it shows a sincere effort to learn about the university and how you think could fit in?

This seemingly goes against all the advice I have heard about cover letters.

Cover letters are your chance to explain why you might be the all elusive **fit*** that is so desired among hiring committees.

Marcus Arvan

big_dawg: That's a good point. Here is what I had in mind when I wrote "pro forma."

In my experience, hiring committees *do* take cover letters to be important, viz. demonstrating interest in and fit with the institution. So, I agree: as long as cover letters are a thing, then candidates should put a lot of time and careful effort into them.

But here's the problem. Setting aside how hiring committees treat them, how useful are cover letters *really* (viz. all of the time it takes candidates to write them for dozens--if not 100--jobs each year)? Consider two possible types of candidates:

(1) Candidates who write detailed cover letters who *really are* sincerely interested in the institution.

(2) Candidates who write letters like these who *aren't* really that interested in the institution (i.e. they don't even really want to be at a teaching institution) but merely do all of the research and write letters to make it appear that way (i.e. "going through the motions", as it were, to make themselves look like a good fit).

Now, of course, I know that job-candidates are desperate for jobs, but that's sort of my point: *everyone* has incentives to write detailed cover letters whether they are a "good fit" or not. And, since everyone has reasons to write them (even candidates who are "not a good fit"), at least a non-negligible number of such letters will, in effect, be "pro forma" (or just writing a detailed letter "for the sake of writing a detailed letter"). Which is arguably a huge waste of candidates' time, and hence (perhaps) a reason to stop requiring cover letters.

Maybe I'm wrong about this--but speaking as someone who was a candidate for 8 years (one ABD and 7 post-PhD), I spent countless hours on cover letters for jobs that I had no chance for. My life would have been far better not wasting all of that time or energy, at least if I could have gotten a job merely submitting my CV, teaching portfolio, and research statement.

Anyway, this is sort of my thinking now. I'm not *sure* of it, by any means, but I wonder now whether requiring cover letters from candidates may be more trouble (particularly for candidates) than the are worth. I'm curious what everyone else thinks, though, including you!

Trystan Goetze

An alternative solution: train an AI to look for markers of quality in candidate dossiers, and make a shortlist on that basis! HR departments and search committees will love it!

(I kid. That would be disastrous.)

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