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Academic Job Applications

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Above: And should include no more

This post is probably only of interest to academics, but then that probably describes half the readership. Increasingly, universities are asking for ridiculous amounts of material for job applications. It needs to stop. It’s unfair to the job applicants, who are already subject to all sorts of unfair and exploitative practices, most egregiously having to spend over $1000 to go to a big conference for what is often a single first-round interview. David Perry calls for a simplified application process:

California State University-Channel Islands is hiring a premodern European historian. The online job ad requires all the usual documents: CV, cover letter, teaching statement, and syllabi examples. Midway through the application process, however, surprises lurk.

First, there’s a spot to upload a writing sample, even though no writing sample is required. The university wants scanned teaching evaluations, but allows only up to 2 megabytes of data. Worst of all, as a candidate works through the online application, nine mini-essay questions with text boxes pop up with no warning. If you want to be considered as a candidate for this job — one of a relatively small number of positions open for a pre-1848 Europeanist — you’d better get writing.

We all know the supply of Ph.D.s looking for full-time work vastly outstrips the available pool of full-time jobs, and academia is struggling for solutions to that macro problem. But one thing we could do: Make the process of locating, applying for, and tracking jobs far more humane. I’ve already advocated that we put an end to costly in-person first-round interviews, move the date on which governing boards vote on an appointment to earlier in the hiring cycle, and formalize the hiring of adjuncts in order to treat them like the professionals they are.

The Cal State job ad points to yet another solvable problem: hyperspecificity in the application requirements.

Mind you, this is all for a 4-4 job that won’t pay you enough to live decently in southern California. Certainly not enough to own a home. What are the essays they make candidates answer?

What do you think about the CSUCI mission statement?

If you are a new Ph.D., briefly describe the topic, significance, and publication plans of your dissertation.

If you are not a new Ph.D., describe your current research project(s), significance, and plans for publication.

Please list those courses you would like to teach at CSUCI in the future.

What makes you a good candidate to work at a young university with plans for rapid growth?

Please explain how your career exemplifies the teacher-scholar model.

Describe one innovative idea that you implemented that enhanced student learning or success, and why you think it was so successful.

Please describe your experience with and commitment to interdisciplinarity including what it means to you.

Please describe your commitment to working with diverse populations, including how you would define “diversity.”

This is totally ridiculous. First, there’s no good reason to ask these questions. Second, the search committee is highly unlikely to read the answer. For a premodern Europe job like this, Perry suggests perhaps 300 applicants. That seems reasonable. That means 2700 short essays for the search committee, which probably consists of 3 people, to read. You know what the chances of them reading those 2700 essays are? 0%. Maybe when they cut it to a short list they would get to it. But it’s not actually possible to read 2700 essays, in addition to all the other material requested. This does nothing more than exploit people already desperate for work in an extreme buyers’ market. CSU-Channel Islands should be ashamed.

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  • Honoré De Ballsack

    CSU-Channel Islands should be ashamed.

    Especially for having a name that misleadingly suggests the institution is located on the Channel Islands, when in fact it is well inland.

    • Lee Rudolph

      in fact it is well inland.

      Eh? Did they change their original plans, or have I misremembered, or both? I thought it was going to be built on the site of (I think) an old loonie bin in Ventura (or Oxnard?), high up with a gorgeous view out over the Channel Islands.

      And with plenty of highway underpasses down the hill, Mr. Smarty-Pants “live decently” Loomis.

      • Vance Maverick

        Camarillo, known to Charlie Parker fans. It didn’t occur to me that it might be the same site, but sure enough.

      • Honoré De Ballsack

        I thought it was going to be built on the site of (I think) an old loonie bin in Ventura (or Oxnard?)

        You remember correctly. Is it unreasonable to feel the school should properly be named CSU Oxnard?

        • Richard Hershberger

          There was some SF story set, IIRC, in California in a post-apocalyptic future, with a reference to “ancient, decadent Oxnard.” I remember nothing else about the story.

          • Lee Rudolph

            I remember nothing else about the story.

            That’ll come along in Fallout V, I suppose. With extra Cthulhu!

          • Redwood Rhiadra

            The only thing I know about Oxnard is that it has a Fabulous Ladies’ Night Club featuring renowned male stripper Xander Harris…

          • meelar

            Post-apocalyptic California? You might be thinking of Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Wild Shore, which is part of a trilogy he wrote about possible futures for Orange County. They’re probably a little dated by now–I read them when I was in high school 15 years ago–but I remember enjoying them and KSR is a good writer in general.

        • Is it unreasonable to feel the school should properly be named CSU Oxnard?

          Next up, you’ll be telling us that CSU Monterey Bay should be called CSU Seaside or CSU Marina.

    • Vance Maverick

      There’s a satellite campus for students who happen to be sea lions or abalone.

      • Joseph Slater

        I would love to write an essay on why I would be happy to teach sea lions and abalone.

        • ChrisTS

          Well, who wouldn’t, Hon?

    • Linnaeus

      he institution is located on the Channel Islands

      The Fighting Guernseys!

  • J. Otto Pohl

    Dr. Loomis and I completely agree on something. This Sunday’s sermon was correct. We are living in the “End Times.”

  • SP

    “The university wants scanned teaching evaluations, but allows only up to 2 megabytes of data.”
    Maybe it’s actually a CompSci position with a focus on data compression algorithms.

  • Linnaeus

    It’s ridiculous and more evidence in support of my choice not to look for an academic job.

  • Malaclypse

    There are days I miss being an academic. Today is not one of those days.

    • Steve LaBonne

      I can count the days when I miss being an academic on the fingers of no hands.

      • mds

        Hey, I warned you not to abandon academia for farm work.

        • Steve LaBonne

          But Loomis wasn’t around back then to warn me.

  • jim, some guy in iowa

    “dance, puppets, dance”

  • yet_another_lawyer

    What do you think about the CSUCI mission statement?

    http://www.csuci.edu/about/mission.htm

    Placing students at the center of the educational experience, California State University Channel Islands provides undergraduate and graduate education that facilitates learning within and across disciplines through integrative approaches, emphasizes experiential and service learning, and graduates students with multicultural and international perspectives.

    Ah. Well, since you asked, I think it’s empty gibberish. I find it utterly impossible to believe that a non-trivial number of your employees can recite it, let alone have a meaningful opinion on it. I cannot conceive of any possible situation in which two or more courses of action seem viable, and referencing the mission statement resolves the situation.

    • postmodulator

      I cannot conceive of any possible situation in which two or more courses of action seem viable, and referencing the mission statement resolves the situation.

      “Should we, or should we not, vivisect the consultants who were paid a sacrilegious amount of money to write the mission statement?”

      “Dunno. Read it to me again?…Yeah, I’ll get the scalpels out.”

      • yet_another_lawyer

        Now *there’s* a lateral thinker. Have you thought about becoming a dean?

        • postmodulator

          I’m not an academic, I’ve been university administrative staff my whole career. So director of something or other is my actual career path, but probably not dean.

    • CD

      well…

      “facilitates learning within and across disciplines through integrative approaches, emphasizes experiential and service learning”

      has *some* content. Plenty of institutions don’t do these things.

      But “What do you think about the CSUCI mission statement?” is a pretty stupid question. Apart from it’s utter vagueness it sounds like an invitation to pledge loyalty to the creed, and fuck that. You’re hiring people for what they can do, not for their beliefs.

  • ploeg

    As you might guess by the “mission statement” question, this is not being done just to academics. Some private employers will do this also. I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that the short essays are machine scanned and evaluated rather than read by actual humans.

    For whatever other rationales that are intended for such a process, it seems like in the end this measures the desperation of the candidate above all else.

    Martin: Good morning. I’ve been in touch with you about the, er, life insurance…
    Feldman: Ah yes, did you bring the um … the specimen of your um … and so on, and so on?
    Martin: Yes I did. It’s in the car. There’s rather a lot.
    Feldman: Good, good.
    Martin: Do you really need twelve gallons?
    Feldman: No, no, not really.
    Martin: Do you test it?
    Feldman: No.
    Martin: Well, why do you want it?
    Feldman: Well, we do it to make sure that you’re serious about wanting insurance, I mean, if you’re not, you won’t spend a couple of months filling up that enormous churn with mmm, so on and so on…
    Martin: Shall I bring it in?
    Feldman: Good Lord no. Throw it away.

    • Richard Hershberger

      Some private employers will do this also.

      It provides useful information to the applicant: is this a place I want to work? If I am desperate for a job–any job!–then I churn out a paragraph of blather in response. If I am just testing the waters, I know not to expend any more mental energy considering this employer.

      • Ahuitzotl

        and thus it has achieved its purpose – weed out all the time-wasters who are going to be difficult and demand more than minimum wage.

      • rdennist

        Exactly. One quickly learns that a job application process at a desirable employer has a certain form to it, one that you see at good places to work. Seeing this, I’d have immediately ditched it.

  • Woodrowfan

    when I went through being part of a search panel last year what did I look through, the CV , that’s it the first time through. Did they have their degree in hand or were at least very, very close. Was it in the field we wanted? Have they taught the basic classes we all have to teach here? How much teaching experience do they have and in how many courses? Any interesting publications? Once I eliminated the first group, THEN I looked at cover letters. It was the interviews that made the difference. I can’t imagine looking at hundreds of essays full of boilerplate about empowering students or whathaveyou.

    • DAS

      We did ask for the research plan and teaching statement up front on the search committees I’ve been on. But yep … we didn’t really read through a lot of stuff until we knew from the CV that the candidate had a specialty that we were looking for, etc. That being said, we had so many applications, we still had to read through > 75 teaching statements/research plans per search.

      Actually some of those questions are good questions; but that is what the first round of interviews are for. And why require candidates to interview at a conference? We do our first round of interviews via Skype. In the first search I chaired, we still had some sexist dinosaurs in our department: it was really fun to see them when they found out that a candidate they liked (and whose application did nothing to reveal that candidate’s gender; her name being Chinese and unfamiliar to the dinosaurs) was a woman.

  • drwormphd

    When I started interviewing for academic jobs, all the way back in 2010, most places wanted only a CV and cover letter, and they’d request other materials if they liked you. This was good for the applicant (who knew they were still under consideration) and the dept (who didn’t have to sort through a pile of materials for every candidate at the first stage). This year every job I looked at but one wanted everything up front. I’m also on a search committee this semester where we requested everything up front, and, because of our university’s antiquated system for job applications, it’s been difficult putting complete files together. The old way was better, I think.

    Also, this may be tilting at windmills to suggest, but Universities need to stop holding interviews at conferences. It’s a system that favors the privileged students who can travel across the country for one interview. This is starting to happen, but probably because, like my institution, some universities are becoming reluctant to pay to ship 3-4 faculty to the BIg Conference to hold interviews.

  • mombrava

    This has to be some sort of silly HR mandate, right? I can’t imagine any self-respecting search committee asking such questions, or even caring what the answers are. I’ve certainly been asked to submit applications that ran to 100+ pages (letter, cv, two writing samples, teaching statement, syllabi, etc) but never anything this specific. Another example of corporate governance making universities dumb.

    • Steve LaBonne

      Another example of corporate governance making universities dumb.

      Well, it has finished its job of making corporations dumb, so why not offer the same service to other organizations?

    • Jestak

      This has to be some sort of silly HR mandate, right?

      Based on my experience, that is entirely possible. The HR office in my community college district has some absolutely ridiculous requirements for screening committees to adhere to, including requiring that a bunch of completely inane questions be asked in interviews.

  • apropos

    Talk about First World Problems.

    There is “no good reason” to ask an aspiring professor what courses they want to teach? Their current research? Their view on how they fit into this particular university’s culture? For an example of when they did something interesting and effective in a classroom?

    Are the schools allowed to ask you for any information before they’re forced to hire you and pay you enough to buy a house in Southern California? And once hired, let’s not even fathom the possibility that the school might have the power to fire you.

    • Linnaeus

      When I was on a hiring panel some years ago, we dealt with these kinds of questions mostly in the interview. What we asked for up front was the CV, writing samples, syllabi of courses taught, and letters of recommendation.

    • Lee Rudolph

      Talk about First World Problems.

      I’m fairly sure Otto has already covered Eric’s flank on this one.

      Their current research?

      That is, the subject(s) which, given the 4/4 teaching load and the inescapable summer teaching (unless they take the overpass alternative for housing), they will never be able to work on again as long as they are employed at CSU–CI?

      • J. Otto Pohl

        Yes, it is definitely not a First World problem. If anything things like having interviews at conferences in the US are greater burdens for people applying for those jobs from the Third World. I had to forgo an interview for a position at Sewanee: The University of the South in 2008 because they insisted on having it at the MENSA (Middle East and North Africa Studies Association) Conference in Washington DC at a time when I couldn’t fly back from Kyrgyzstan. They were unwilling to interview me at their campus a few months later when I would have been able to fly out from California. So yes every obstacle to applying to academic jobs for First World people is far worse for Second and Third World people.

    • Manny Kant

      Any passable cover letter will talk about all those things.

      More broadly, there’s no reason to ask for much more than a cover letter and CV at first pass. They have 300 applicants. They’re almost certainly going to eliminate the vast majority without looking at much of anything they wrote, just for the sake of their own sanity.

      Given that, what they’re doing is asking at least 250 people to do something completely useless just to save themselves the mild hassle of asking the candidates they’re actually interested in for more materials.

      • djw

        Any passable cover letter will talk about all those things.

        Yes, this. The last time I went through an absurd process like this there were like four different places I needed to talk about my teaching approach/philosophy, with ever so slightly differently worded prompts.

    • janitor_of_lunacy

      This is for the first screening, before a phone interview even. The stage in applications when every opening has a hundred applicants, and every applicant applies to perhaps fifty openings. It seems very onerous on the search committee (if they were actually to look at this stuff), and certainly on the applicant.

    • NonyNony

      There is “no good reason” to ask an aspiring professor what courses they want to teach?

      Likely already covered by the Teaching Philosophy statement they had to submit, or at least it should have been.

      Their current research?

      It’s in their CV. And their cover letter. And given that this is in Humanities who have super-specific job postings, likely also covered by the very fact that they’re applying for the very specific position that you posted.

      Their view on how they fit into this particular university’s culture?

      Cover. Letter.

      For an example of when they did something interesting and effective in a classroom?

      Teaching philosophy. Also something you ask in the actual interview.

      In fact, all of these look like questions that you would ask of the short list candidates in the interview, not things that anyone would care about – or even look at – until you get to the short list.

  • Joe Bob the III

    Absurdly involved application processes are in no way unique to academia. I think it has evolved from a need to administratively cover one’s ass in the event that a hire turns out to be bad. If that comes to pass then the people who made the hiring decisions can point back and say, But we did 5 interviews and 9 essay questions!! With all of that no one could have known this would happen!

  • Fake Irishman

    Amen, Erik. As a person who has applied for 100 jobs in Political Science over the past several years, this is my lived nightmare.

    • MrMister

      I’m currently in the thick of it myself, and I say ‘here here.’ The extra materials, or requests for normal materials but in a novel form, eat up a hideous amount of time when you’re taking a few months to apply for 50-120 jobs–which are normal numbers for people in my program (I’m probably going to wind up applying to around 70 this season, but that’s because my specialization is only mid-tier marketable). Worse yet, it’s a lot of extra work for the sake of materials that are meaningless, since I have no idea what ‘innovative interdisciplinarity’ actually means at your institution let alone how I could be committed to it–any statement I write on this is going to be hot garbage. But because the academic job market is a lived nightmare, away I go writing up some hot garbage. Ia Ia, job market fhtagn!

  • Crusty

    Is this the work of Human Resources professionals?

    • Denverite

      I think it’s more of a screening mechanism. Make applications more onerous and fewer people apply. In theory at least.

      • AR

        That seems believable. In my own field, I have seen that expand. I graduated law school/passed the Bar the summer of ’07, so even though everything was falling apart, the applications still reflected assumptions from better times, for example: after passing the Bar I applied for an entry level public defender spot at a non-profit where I knew a lot of people, the application was a resume and cover letter and a five page writing sample. I ended up making it to the last round of interviews and loosing to a guy 5 years into practice who had been laid off from one of the larger firms in town during an up or out cut. In the final interview, the senior manager mentioned he was shocked at the applications, most years they got 30 applications per opening, and that year they got just over 200. Two years ago, I was back on the job market and noticed they were again posting for an entry level lawyer, but now they wanted a resume, CV, law school transcripts, 5 page writing sample, plus some mini essays about why you want to be a public defender.

        • Denverite

          Yeah, I applied for an ALJ job in the past and there was a written examination (i.e., two hypothetical questions were you had to write mock opinions). I think it mostly was to screen out applicants.

  • Dilan Esper

    Without really defending the essay questions, I suspect they are tiebreakers.

    The reason I suspect this is we have lots of experience with such essays in college entrance applictions. Again, they are generally not read or not read closely. Grades, SAT scores, and race/ethnicity are the big determinants in most admissions decisions.

    But when they are dealing with borderline cases, admissions officers might read the essays and allow them to tip the scale.

    Meanwhile, what the essays do for the institution is give them plausible deniability that the admissions process is actually mechanical even when it is. Same here.

    • There aren’t really ties in jobs for premodern Europe because there’s not objective measures by which to hire people in a field like this.

      • Lee Rudolph

        Well (speaking from a different part of academia), there can be “ties” in the sense that different members of a hiring committee can rank candidates differently, and it can happen that two candidates are “tied” in their support on the committee. No objective measures of the candidates are needed to produce such a tie.

        • Yes, but the response to those essays are far less likely to decide that tie than who has more power in the department.

    • Linnaeus

      You don’t need the tiebreakers until later in the process, when you’ve pared the list of candidates down. At that point, you can ask for additional materials, ask these questions in the interview, or both.

    • AcademicLurker

      Having served on the admissions committee for one of the post-bachelors professional programs at my university, I’ve come to the conclusion that the primary reason for requiring an essay is so we can screen out the people who plagiarize right at the beginning.

    • janitor_of_lunacy

      My experience (decades ago) was that college entrance application essays were mostly about the student, and were pretty much the same from school-to-school. I applied to eight colleges, and only one required any changes to the essay other than school name. Of course this was long enough ago that one could enroll in a college and pick one’s major Sophomore year, not on the application.

      I did pass on applying to one graduate school which wanted to know every textbook one used for every undergraduate class.

      • Lee Rudolph

        I did pass on applying to one graduate school which wanted to know every textbook one used for every undergraduate class.

        In the field in which you were applying, or in all classes? (The first would be bizarre enough; the second would pass all understanding.)

    • djw

      Without really defending the essay questions, I suspect they are tiebreakers.

      I seriously doubt it, given the way academics generally approach. Ties will be broken with gut feelings. And by the time we’re talking about the top 2 out of hundreds, people will be thinking a great deal more about the substantive parts of the candidates’ records.

      • Jackov

        I thought the tiebreaker was ‘least objectionable at 8 am.’
        Otherwise, those candidate breakfast meet and greets are really just hazing the junior faculty.

  • Matt_L

    I teach at a university that also has a 4/4 teaching load. I’ve been on two history search committees in the past three years. My department has hired five people in the last ten years I have been here. We tend to ask for as little material as possible, but it does depend on what position we are hiring for. As a rule of thumb we ask applicants for Cover Letter, CV, Three references (sometimes letters, sometimes just contact info) and unofficial transcripts. (We ask for photocopies because they will have to submit the official ones before the can be hired. No sense in every candidate shelling out $60 or more for official transcripts.)

    In short, we only ask for the stuff we are willing to read.

    We draw up a short list of 6-10 candidates depending on the pool and then do phone interviews. Then we bring three finalists to campus. My school has not done conference interviews in decades. We have hired some great people using this process. So far we have tenured the people we have hired and the rest are on track to earn tenure.

    It doesn’t need to be as complicated as CSUCI makes it.

  • Murietta

    About 10 years ago I actually applied for a position in a humanities field at Cal State Channel Islands. I vividly recall getting to the upload phase only to find a bunch of stupid little boxes you had to fill in with short essays, and working on those, cursing, late into the night. The job was listed several years in a row — don’t know if they kept losing their hires, or failing the searches, but I only applied the one time. After putting me through those hoops they then neither acknowledged receipt nor sent a rejection. So yeah, fuck them.

    More broadly, I get the sense that digital applications have meant people just throw a wish list out there because what the hell, it’s not like people have to print it out and mail it or anything. But that of course blithely ignores the hours and hours people spend writing new materials, or tailoring old ones to the special mission of whatever the hell university. Insults piled on injuries.

  • M31

    My favorite from back when I was on the job market was “3 letters of reference specially written for this application

    That got a hearty “fuck you you fucking fuckers” from me.

    It was always a really shitty school, too, so maybe it was their desperation filter. Kind of like how Nigerian scammers always fill their appeals with typos and obvious scam tells. It’s their way of screening out the not-outlandishly-gullible from the pool.

    • Porlock Junior

      Good grief! That last insight about Nigerian scammers and their ilk is the most enlightening explanation I’ve seen since I first read about the Bayes theorem. Is this something everybody knew but me?

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  • paul.c.klos

    I don’t know

    “Second, the search committee is highly unlikely to read the answer.”

    That’s because in my experience the answers don’t matter – nobody in administration is going to read them they just need to be. The actual person doing the hiring already knows what 2 or 3 or 1 person they are going to hire (or interview and fail in order to one) – its just kabuki dance. I mean really if you got your PhD or MA you can’t deal an jumping through a silly application form or web site.

    The real problem is bad or indifferent or lack of advising to guide a person through the process – not annoying forms.

    • I mean really if you got your PhD or MA you can’t deal an jumping through a silly application form or web site.

      It’s a non-trivial amount of work.

      It exacerbates various negative psychological tendencies academics are prone too.

      It serves no purpose and we should resist such things (they breed!).

      The last is particularly important. I see this in conference and grant reviewing and grading and lots of other things: Escalating effort that doesn’t actually produce the nominally desired outcomes. For example, in the UK, grant committees start trying to parse differences between applications that are clearly not meaningful, or, if you believe they are meaningful, are beyond reliable discernment in the conditions given. So, they end up doing a ton of work (e.g., long meetings late into the night) for something that isn’t as good as flipping a coin (since standard biases tend to have more force in those circumstances). People put more and more effort into grant proposals that can be undone by a careless referee (e.g., I had a grant application where the reviewer complained about the costing…in particular, they knew where we could get “as good as” computer monitors for £400 rather than £600; talking about the funding was *explicitly* forbidden to the reviewers! Did this break the grant application? Hard to say! but we felt we had to deal with it.)

      • Porlock Junior

        You might even say that they are redoubling their efforts when they have forgotten their goals.

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