Monday, December 09, 2013

Making less Misery?

One of my facebook friends commented about some job market stuff, and it got me thinking about what we can do to make the job search a better experience for everyone, or perhaps a less miserable experience.  And what we can't do.

Let's face it, short of all quitting our jobs, faculty folks can't make the job market suddenly and magically open up.  Nor can we move our midwestern schools to places with less brutal winters, or move them closer to places with good jobs for spouses in specific industries.

What we can do?  Here's what I'm thinking about the early stages of the search:

Think really carefully about asking for materials up front, and where possible, ask for electronic submissions to ease mailing costs.

On the search committee side of the market, I think it makes a lot of sense to ask for letters of reference up front, though I recognize that getting people to write letters of recommendation can be hell, and getting people to write them in time is sometimes a worse hell.  (Those problems are with letter writers, and not with search committees or the market, though.)  I've looked at interfolio, but I'd be interested in hearing more about it.  It gives one price for a year (and other prices for 3 or 5 years), but it's not clear to me if there are also additional charges for sending out portfolios or letters of recommendation.

I'm less convinced either way about asking for writing samples up front.  I don't tend to use them for the "first read through" of a set of applications, but I do by the second, and if there's not much time between, I might want them up front.  Having them up front means that the committee can work from one cut to the next a bit more quickly.  Whether they actually do or not, that's a different question.

I've been on several searches that have used phone interviews for the first round, and I've found it at least as good as conference interviews.  For one thing, I had pretty horrible experiences at MLA, so I have no urge to ever go back.  And for those who say that grad students should go to conferences, that's great, but let's be realistic about which conferences are likely to be useful, and which not.  For me, MLA was useful when I was on the market because I was on the market.  It was useful at other times because I was giving a paper and able to go see and hear papers.  But those two never happened at the same time.  Market years were simply to miserable to go see and hear papers meaningfully.  More local or area-focused conferences probably make more sense in terms of budget and networking for most grad students.  Talking to friends, my sense is that some smaller or poorer schools really prefer phone interviews, and have for some time.

I don't have a lot of experience with Skype, but I prefer phone, I think.  That preference is based on watching students Skype when I was overseas, and on an old photography article I read once about taking baby pictures.  Here's the baby picture article in short:  if you're taking pictures for the parents of a baby, then you get really close to the baby's face, so that it's like a parent being right up close to the baby.  If you're taking pictures for non-parents, then you take the picture a bit further off, because non-parents aren't usually as comfortable with the extreme closeness that parents are used to.  People may not articulate their discomfort, but they'll choose photos that way.  The connection to Skype is that most people do it sitting pretty darned close to their computer, and the social distance feels awkward to me, like we're too close.  Just me?  Maybe.  How about you?

Timing.  It takes a huge lot of time to read job applications.  Even if you read fast for the first cut and spend ten minutes per, if you've got a hundred to get through, you're looking at a lot of time.  And if you've got 200, a lot more time.  Then there are all the discussions, rereading, preparing for the next step.  All this is done, in my experience, as an add on to the rest of the job.  I know it's hard to wait for an interview call, of course.  My suggestion is that when the department sends an acknowledgement, it should include a realistic timeline for hearing about interviews.  And at each step thereafter, candidates should get realistic information about the timeline.  At the same time, we all know searches where the first two or three campus visits didn't pan out well, and the third or fourth person was asked late, but turned out to be just the right hire.  So for those on the receiving end, try not to take late calls as bad news or as personal issues.

What else should we on the search committee side to to make our searches as humane as possible?


  1. This is great. The thing that most seems to freak candidates out is not knowing what's going on, so I agree about giving approximate timelines for each stage. If I were heading a committee (or were department chair), I'd also try to be transparent about the *reasons* certain phases might take longer than anticipated. E.g., "once the search committee decides on a list of finalists, it has to be approved by the chair, then the dean, then HR. Usually this can be done in 48hrs, but with so many stages it sometimes takes longer." What I see on the Wiki and on blogs suggests that candidates often really can't imagine a reason why a department would be "delaying."

    I have mixed feelings about Interfolio, which I've used only on the candidate end. It does indeed charge per delivery, and the charge is more than mailing would cost. On the other hand, it gets there virtually immediately, and it's centralized and in a candidate's control. But often there's no acknowledgement of receipt, and I gather there can be malfunctions that aren't apparent or communicated to either the sender or the recipient.

    I've never interviewed or been interviewed on Skype, though I've both given and received phone interviews. But I agree: I don't love phone interviews, but as a candidate Skype would make me much, much more anxious--about technical problems, about the cats sticking their butts in the camera, about looking down at the screen rather than up at the camera, about a wardrobe malfunction. And I think you're right that the potential for shallow decisions is greater (greater even than an in-person interview, in fact, because all you've got is a face and there's nowhere else to look).

  2. Anonymous4:48 PM

    I really really wish people would quit requiring rec letters for the first cut. It is, as you've noted, total hell. Require a list of references, and if you make the short list, call them and chat. (Calls can be recorded so the whole committee can listen.)

    Getting rec letters is the worst ever!

  3. Yes, this is a great list. (And even if we all quit, there wouldn't be jobs enough for everyone.)

    I wish that Interfolio could hold onto the writing samples so that we wouldn't have to go back to the candidates to get them. Do they do that? The problem with asking for things in stages is that it takes a while to get back to candidates, get the materials, etc.. Also, it takes someone else's time (hint: probably the search committee chair's time) to craft emails, look up addresses, etc. for the <30-40> or so writing samples that committee members need to see. I get why it's an encumbrance to send them, but I see why committees do it.

  4. Eileen4:52 PM

    For interfolio, from the applicant's side, there's the up-front sign up cost, but there's also a charge for each letter sent out unless the search committee is covering costs (which is usually impossible to know until you submit the request to have them send the letter). I actually rather like Interfolio because I can be sure that my recommenders' letters go out on time, but I applied to about 50 jobs this year, and with each letter sent costing 4-6USD . . . it kind of adds up (it also costs more for a rush delivery). I've heard that some grad programs cover the cost of signup, individual letter fees, or both, but mine is not one of those programs. And I sometimes wonder if search committees don't get put off by what must obviously be a form letter of rec, since the way Interfolio works is the recommender uploads a letter and the candidate sends it out to where ever it needs to go. Electronic submissions definitely make life easier with not having to pay postage and get things off to the post office, but Interfolio seems determined to make up the difference.

    It's also interesting to hear that you prefer phone to skype interviews; I've found I'm much less nervous in skype and in-person interviews than on phone interviews, just because it feels more natural. Especially with the disappearance of landlines (I literally could not get access ot a landline this year if I had to), phone is sort of stressful with reception issues.

    The only thing I could add is that I wish, as someone on the applicant side, that committees would send out notices early if one hasn't made the cut. The wondering and speculation is what keeps the jobs wiki going, and there's always a certain point every year where things turn really nassty over there. It sucks getting the news from the committee, but it sucks a lot worse having to wade through all the drama over there to find out.

  5. I'll be another vote for Skype. I can find a private place with guaranteed internet connection much more easily than I can find a place to take a call. I do not have a land line, and my cell phone does not get great reception either at my home or on campus. If I have to do a phone interview, I actually route my calls to Google Voice because my internet/wifi is much more reliable.

    And Interfolio is incredibly expensive. MLA membership actually covers the initial fee of 20 bucks per year. But Interfolio charges 6 dollars to send an e-mail of your materials unless the school is using Interfolio By Committee. It you apply to more than just a few jobs, that really adds up if they ask for letters. (I adore schools that use By Committee, because it displaces the vast majority of the costs to the school from the applicants.)

    And yes, it would be really useful if a school actually notified applicants of their status at reasonable points. It can go disastrously wrong, I know, but I didn't get rejection letters even from some of the schools I interviewed at face to face last year, much less schools where I was asked for more materials or the ones where I didn't make the first cut.

    1. There are two issues to the no rejection news. The first is outright rudeness. At some point, you should get an email or a letter. Absolutely. The timing of it, however, is difficult for search folks because things sometimes go crazy. We've had people back out of signed contracts (only once that I know of), and had people want a couple of weeks to decide, and so on. But certainly, candidates should hear news.

  6. I also am not crazy about Skype as my laptop is old and slow, and I have to use a loaner iPad, which was iffy soundwise/receptionwise. I also really dislike not being able to make real eye contact, and worrying about background, lighting, etc. I'm weird though in that I've never minded phone interviews -- I like being able to have notes in front of me, and to be able to take notes without worrying about where I'm looking.

  7. I too am opposed to schools asking for letters of rec with the initial application.

    As noted above, either you have signed up for Interfolio or some such service, in which case it gets expensive for the candidate, or you have not, in which case it is a ton of trouble for both the candidate and the people she is relying on to send out letters -- and in general for jobs at which she is not going to, realistically, make the cut. The fact is Search Committees choose, out of 200 candidates, perhaps 10 or 15 to look at seriously, yes? So you've made 185 people spend money or pester their peers and superiors to spend time writing letters for no good end? Multiple that 185 times the time and money spent. It's not a good thought.

    Wait until the second cut to ask for letters. That seems much more reasonable.

  8. I think that letters of rec with the initial application is just overkill--the cover letters and CV are generally enough for me to gauge whether someone is in the general ballpark for the position.

    I chaired a search last year, and asked our dept admin to send an email to every applicant to acknowledge applications--and that included a general timeline: "We are working toward interviews at the Modern Language Association convention in January. Our first stage of review, which will likely take us into early November, has two components: evaluating the match between applications and the expectations listed in our ad, and evaluating applications so that we can request additional materials for the next stage of review. By early-to-mid December we hope to be scheduling convention interviews." Eventually I developed a combo acknowledgement/rejection letter (to cover the cases where people who are underwater basketweavers applied for our position in island flute construction). And we sent out rejection emails in waves. Before MLA I alerted the 15 candidates who didn't get an interview but who also weren't rejected about their status. It was relatively easy to manage all that communication b/c the online application system was managing all the application materials.

    It was the first time I'd run a search in 12 years, and I was pleasantly surprised by how well the online system worked from my end. It generated requests for letters of recommendation (either to interfolio or the recommenders directly) and we got those letters very promptly. Later, when we requested writing samples (by email direct to candidates) from the top 25 candidates, I had almost all of them within 12 hours! So there really wasn't much of a delay in getting materials later in the process.

  9. I'm really glad I got a job before Interfolio became the new norm.

    We are running a total sham search right now. I wrote about it earlier at my place. Apparently none of this stuff really matters if you're FB friends with the right people. Ugh.

  10. I'm on a search right now, and the reason we ask for everything up front is that we can then move really quickly from stage to stage: applications closed Nov. 15; last Monday we moved from c. 200 to 79, based primarily on cover letter and cv; by today we're down to twenty, and I think the letters become more important in that screen. We are on to writing samples now, to choose 12-15 to interview at MLA. There's no way we could work that fast if we had to ask at each stage for additional materials. Oh, and our new system should allow us, once we've got our MLA list, to send out letters to those who are no longer under consideration. Our previous system was really clunky, and that had to be done manually. Since we have few staff, it wasn't done.

    Back in the day, I always expected to send letters with an application. Interfolio is expensive though: that's what happens when campus services are outsourced. But even in the dark ages, once I'd graduated, I paid for my dossier to be mailed out.

    In terms of making things easier on the hiring end, (and it's a sufficiently fraught process that I am uneasy asking anything) it's to address the job ad/ description. We wrote it for a reason, and I hate trying to intuit whether someone fits or not.

  11. Anonymous7:10 PM

    I have been enjoying the ease and simplicity of using Naviance for all my high-schoolers' college recommendations, and cursing and growling at the variety of online systems I'm having to cope with in order to upload recs for just a few college/grad students to their grad programs. But both are making me wonder: how long until this process is automated the way student recommendations are, and a system sends Professor X a request for recs to be uploaded for a job candidate? It sounds like Susan is using one, but are they widespread yet?

  12. Our HR/job application system has the requests-for-references built in. I was a little worried about it (as I think it was invented without recognition that our discipline uses dossier services), but it turned out to be pretty easy to use. I asked that they put some text in reminding applicants that they could enter an email address for a dossier service (so they could put a departmental administrator's address or an interfolio address) rather than the actual recommender's email. And, from the recommender side, it was easy. Our system generated an auto request for the letter (all boilerplate--I didn't have to write it, and our dept admin just had to click some buttons on the HR system to generate those requests). The letter writer/dossier service got a customized link that let them just upload the document. No creating accounts or putting in more identifying info (which is what I hate about online grad school letters of reference).