On the Academic Job Market

Some weeks ago, trapped in a car by my sleeping child (I am responsible for the child; it isn’t just immovably heavy or something), I thumbed some thoughts on the academic job market into my phonespecifically, thoughts from the perspective of a seasoned applicant directed at hiring committees and HR departments. I then shared them with the Twitterverse, where they seemed to resonate, having garnered some 24,000 views as of this date.

I’ve decided to consolidate those thoughts here. While the advice given is pretty niche, and the number of potential beneficiaries small, its practical purpose seems sufficiently in the spirit of this blog.

Here’s the original thread’s opening tweet, for those who care to look or share:

The (philosophy) job market is dire. Securing an interview, let alone a job, requires most applicants to apply for tens if not hundreds of jobs per year. This is costlyin time, money, and energy. Here are some ways hiring committees and HR departments can make the lives of aspiring philosophers, and perhaps academics and job seekers more broadly, a little easier.

Universities looking to hire (‘hirers’) should make sure, if finances permit, to pay for application handling services such as Interfolio and academicjobsonline up front. They should not pawn this expense off on applicants. Cumulatively, these often mandatory services can cost an applicant a small fortune. If it seems finances don’t permit then, first, hirers should bear in mind that any fees will be a fraction (one hopes!) of whatever salary they end up paying the successful candidate. Second, they should consider whether they really need the only documents that typically require these services: letters of recommendation. Could they do without them? If so, they should go for it.

More generally, hiring committees should think about which documents and pieces of information will figure materially in their decision-making process and how significantly. A standard dossier might have a cover letter, CV, teaching portfolio, research statement, and writing sample. Some job advertisements ask for statements on student support or diversity. Each of these documents takes time to write, craft, and then later find and upload. Do hirers really need to request every such document? If not, the burden of both applicants and the hiring committee, tasked with heroically reading reams of material, can easily be lightened.

Perhaps the most significant way to lighten this burden would be for hirers to decide they don’t need each of these documents from every applicant. Could they, for instance, eliminate some applicants, perhaps even many, using just a CV or research statement? If so, then instead of asking for everything at once, hiring committes might request documents in increasingly more targeted rounds. For example, in the opening round, candidates could be invited to merely submit a CV; in the second round, they could submit a research statement; in the third round, a writing sample. Doing this would collectively save the most vulnerable members of our profession thousands of hours of totally pointless labour. Any hiring committee implementing such a strategy would be celebrated as bona fide heroes.

Indeed, Ethan Bueno de Mesquita, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, recently tweeted…

…an approach that University of Michigan philosopher Brian Weatherson noted could work for philosophy searches too. I agree that this may be a good way to conduct searches, capturing some of the spirit of what I’m recommending here. But I notice that while Bueno de Mesquita’s hiring committees use these abstracts to cut 90% (!!) of applicants out of the search, they still demand all the materials from 100% of applicants. Unless job applications in political science work very differently to philosophy, this seems at best inconsiderate. Asking every applicant for their job market paper abstract before asking the remaining 10% for everything else would make a lot more sense and be very simple to implement.

Perhaps the cardinal sin of hiring is requiring applicants to produce a bespoke document addressing some idiosyncratic desire of the committee or university. This should be avoided or minimized if at all possible. But there are other sins competing for top spot.

One is mandating that documents be sent as separate files, or one file, or separate files with the teaching portfolio and research statement as one file, or according to some other arbitrary combination of formatting demands. Hiring committees should figure out how to handle PDFs at their end and then deal with them as they come.

Another is asking applicants to add some specific information to an existing, heavily formatted document, such as a CV. These documents are often aesthetically and structurally fragile creatures, the merest slither of extra information might be all that is needed for one to fully disintegrate. Before hirers have every applicant battling the obstreperous programming of Microsoft Word or mastering new code in LaTeX, they should consider other more convenient ways to obtain what are almost always very simple fragments of information: it’s easy enough to have applicants enter them as plain text in the applicant portal, or to tick online boxes.

Another is setting word counts. The motivation behind such a constraint is obvious. However, it ignores the fact that job market materials take time and effort to write. Hirers should figure out other ways of saving labour (see above) that don’t require asking potentially hundreds of people to waste precious time gutting something they’ve carefully crafted.

Letters of recommendation, as already noted, bring with them a number of burdens for applicants. Some of these are totally unnecessary. No-one needs to know the physical address of someone writing a letter of reference. And if they did, they could certainly obtain this information at a later stage, or just by themselves. So hirers shouldn’t ask for it. It’s usually time-consuming to find and enter, even with the most efficient system set up. And in any case, it’s almost always right there atop the letter. Much the same goes for the letter-writer’s title, institutional affiliation, phone number, and relationship to the applicant, all of which are regularly solicited gratuitously from applicants.

Hirers should also make clear exactly how they plan to obtain such letters. Is the application portal sending an automatic request or is a human being emailing the reference writer personally? Depending on which answer is correct, the applicant will have to enter a different email address, either the letter-writer’s email address, or the address assigned to a letter by a handling service like Interfolio. It’s often unclear which address is appropriate.

Hirers might also consider giving applicants advice about which kinds of letters are desirable for the position. Whether the hiring committee would prefer to see, for instance, a teaching over a research letter or a research over a service letter isn’t always transparent. But it could make the difference to an applicant’s chances when the number of letters permitted, or read, is limited.

Many applications must be submitted through applicant portals that seem to have been conceived by Hitler and Satan during post-coital conversation. In my experience, UK universities set the gold standard for soul-crushing application systems. Perhaps the worst crime here is requiring applicants to enter information, often in ways so restricted that the information cannot be usefully entered, that a five year old could glean from an applicant’s CV. Often this information is just annoyingly duplicative, such as the year an applicant’s PhD was awarded, or her current employer, etc. Sometimes it’s supremely frustrating, as when a portal requires the precise date an applicant started a job, or the address and phone number of an old employer. Hirers should avoid such systems and such questions where they can.

Members of search committees might object that they don’t design these portals; HR departments do. That’s fair. Though, this post is meant as much for HR departments as it is for hiring committees. A simple suggestion to the latter is to boycott unjust portals. But if civil disobedience isn’t the committee’s cup of tea, they might consider pressuring HR to improve the portal. Alternatively, hiring committees could just go through the HR motions, signalling to applicants which things are HR mandates to which they will pay no heed (and thus which applicants can safely skip or perfunctorily answer) and which aren’t.

Another understandable objection is that many hiring committees are already overburdened, working in professional environments with few resources to spare. This too is important to remember; not every recommendation will be feasible to implement for everyone. That said, it’s worth also remembering that some of the more important recommendations I’ve made would decrease, not increase, this burden.

Since I have only ever been involved in academic hiring at the tail end of the process and am, like anyone else, socialized and positioned in particular ways, there are countervailing considerations and further recommendations to which I am oblivious. So, this advice should be treated as serious but non-exhaustive and defeasible. Still, insofar as it seems helpful, I invite readers to share it with anyone they know on a hiring committee or working in a relevant part of an HR department.

In summary: Hiring universities! Think about how your hiring protocols impact already overburdened applicants. A few hours of conscientious planning at your end might save thousands of hours at theirs.


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