The Job Application Process in Higher Education is Broken—and We Need to Fix It

The following is a rejection letter I recently received for a tenure-track position in English literature, which I quote at length to illustrate the current state of the academic job market from the applicant’s perspective:

Dear Christopher Stampone:

Thank you for your interest in employment with [X]. There were many highly qualified applicants who applied for the position of ASSISTANT/ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR 10 MONTHS position and our decision was very difficult. Although your background is impressive, we have selected a candidate whose qualifications most closely match our job requirements. . . . Please accept our best wishes for success in your job search endeavors.

Sincerely,

Search Committee

<department> Department

Clearly, the school’s statement about my “impressive background” is disingenuous because the “Search Committee” of the “<department> Department” failed to complete the appropriate spaces in their rejection form. I am quite convinced that they do not really think I am “impressive” since every applicant has an “impressive” background by default. The position went to someone with unspecified “qualifications” that supersede my own. I might ask questions but I doubt “Search Committee” would respond to my queries.

Such poorly-written and thoughtless rejection letters—which, as I discovered, are quite common in academia—reveal the reality of the HR-driven job application process. This process is broken—and we need to fix it.

Currently, applicants for most positions in higher-ed. undergo a draconian application process that substantially drains one’s time, bank account, and stamina. I will use my own experience as an example. First, I wade through job postings on academic job sites such as ChronicleVitae, HigherEdJobs, MLAJIL, and, perhaps most useful of them all, the user-curated AcademicJobsWiki. After selecting a handful of jobs for which I am qualified—and which seem to be a “good fit”—I begin applying. Most postings require at least an hour of typing information from my CV and cover letter into a school’s online application form. To tailor the letter to the job posting, I spend another hour—or often much longer—researching department and school missions, faculty biographies, and contact information for the department chair because postings rarely identify the search committee chair. I then re-work my letter to emphasize my strengths within the specific fields listed in the posting and explain how I am a “good fit” for the department and school. Finally, I painstakingly proofread the letter to avoid submitting sloppy materials that would send my application to the “no” pile right away.

If I am “lucky,” a school allows me to submit all of my materials through a dossier service such as ChronicleVitae or Interfolio. These services spare me the work of typing parts of my CV into a school’s web interface—but, unless the institution subscribes to the service, submitting these materials costs money. Six dollars per submission does not sound like much, but six dollars quickly becomes a few hundred when submitting five dozen dossiers. A single application often takes about one or two hours to complete; in other cases, it can eat an entire afternoon.

Applying to academic jobs has become a full time job. Rejection letters like the one from “Search Committee” of the “<department> Department” mock that effort with their laziness. To apply for a job I have to familiarize myself with a school—but that school’s hiring committee does not have to learn my name. Blaine Greteman has recently argued that we should not blame tenured academics for adjunct woes—and I am not doing that here. I do, however, take umbrage with the careless communication to which many departments default. Why expect that applicants spend hours tailoring materials if that effort will not even be meaningfully acknowledged in the rejection?

Departments could save applicants—and hiring committees—countless hours of work by rethinking the way it searches for job candidates. I believe that we need a new digital ecosystem, one similar to Interfolio or LinkedIn, that would allow applicants in every phase of their careers to upload typical job materials: CV, cover letter explaining the applicant’s expertise in particular fields, sample syllabi, confidential letters of recommendation, writing sample, and teaching philosophy and portfolio. The applicant would then have the ability to tag each document with terms that search committees commonly include in job posts: Pre-1865 American, ecocriticism, transnational, women and gender studies, postcolonial studies, Native American literature, etc. Tagging documents, especially a CV and cover letter, would enable perspective employers to search for candidates based on fields of expertise that they desire for an open position. Tags would also allow employers to expand or contract a pool at will. Perhaps a Pre-1865 Americanist who also does ecocriticism and Native American literature only yields two hits—but removing ecocriticism yields 50.

Such a site could also allow potential employers to run searches that are truly blind. In addition to supplying materials using their school’s letterhead, applicants could, if they wished, upload materials with minimal identifying information required by federal law. An employer could then choose to run a search with or without knowing a candidate’s institution. Schools supplementing—or replacing—traditional searches with blind ones would consider highly qualified applicants they might otherwise have ignored. This would lead to honoring one of higher education’s chief values: merit.

As is the case with a professional, for-profit site such as Academia.edu, updating materials could be as simple as replacing an outdated CV with a new one. And like Academia.edu, such a site could notify people when a school views their materials, as well as list which of them—down to the individual page—have been viewed by search committees. In fact, such as site—supported and controlled by academics—could easily eclipse the seemingly problematic for-profit company on which Ellen Wexler has reported. The academy could develop a transparent digital ecosystem that enables universities, colleges, and community colleges to select perspective candidates who match their search criteria, rather than, as they do now, sift through hundreds of applications from applicants who might not meet essential requirements. This system would also mean the end of meaningless rejection letters from the likes of “Search Committee” at “<department> Department.”

Why not do this? Such a process would save applicants hundreds of hours preparing materials for jobs they will never get. It would also save hiring committees countless hours spent poring over materials for candidates who might not have the necessary qualifications. A streamlined application process like this would bring the academic job market into the twenty-first century. A.W. Strouse might want to transcend the job market—but I want to survive it. To do that, the powers that be, such as MLA, should reconsider the ways in which people apply for jobs, and schools should update how they search for employees. That way, notifications from “<department> Department” would be a thing of the past.

2 thoughts on “The Job Application Process in Higher Education is Broken—and We Need to Fix It”

  1. Great ideas, Chris. And that’s just the application process. I think we also need to talk about dispensing with the MLA interview, which many schools are doing, and with graduate programs funding job travel for their graduate students as well as providing time and support for this onerous application process.

    I don’t know how the blind review thing would work or if many schools would think that this is desireable. It is unfortunate that name brand on someone’s degree actually counts, but it does count also for students applying to schools, so it is conceivably a part of merit in terms of attracting prospective students.

  2. Thank you for this post! As another veteran of the job market — 6 years and counting — I just want to second everything you’ve said about the time and expense on the applicant’s side, and the often disappointingly impersonal and even thoughtless treatment from many search committees. I love this suggestion for how a different, not-for-profit system might work — AcademicJobsOnline.org might be another model already in existence.

    An even easier fix in the short term would simply be to ask for fewer things from candidates in the first round and to bypass University hiring sites where possible — asking for only a cover letter and CV to the committee or chair’s email. Letters of recommendation really don’t seem so necessary when you’re fielding up to 500 applications at the first round, and especially when you weigh the potential benefit (for some committee members who bother to flip that far into an application) against the cost and trouble multiplied by all those applicants who will likely hear nothing until April or May — when the University’s HR sends one of those terribly inept form rejection letters. And if committees want more materials up front, they could ask for things that applicants can send on their own without being charged — like a dissertation abstract, teaching statement, writing sample, etc.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


*