Some thoughts on the job market

I’m interviewing this spring to find my next gig after this postdoc, which is a convenient way for me to excuse my lack of posting. Applying for jobs is in a way a job in itself, with attendant time sinks and things popping up, etc. One thing that struck me is the sheer inefficiency of the process. This is my third time applying, and I think I sent in about 60 applications (most of which I had no chance for, in retrospect) for academic and research lab positions. Most of my comments here relate to the academic market.

Different places want different things. Some schools don’t want a cover letter. Some do. Some want you to email the application as a single PDF. Some want you to fill out half the information on your CV into a web form and then also submit your CV. Some schools want a combined two-page research and teaching statement, and some want them separately (or with page requirements for each). Some don’t want any teaching statement. Some schools want letters sent directly, some will email a link to your recommenders, some want hardcopy letters, and some will request letters only from a few applicants. Some want 3 letters, some 5, and some up to 8. Some places have a common interface like AJO. Many schools use the same software package (like RAPS at Columbia).

The bewildering variety of formats makes it hard for applicants to keep their recommenders (who are busy people) informed. I sent my recommenders endless emails with lists of which schools wanted what, which schools they should have heard from, and which schools will only contact them if I made the first cut (in which case, could they let me know for my own records?). What if your application somewhere is rejected because they sent an automated email to your letter writers without informing you and it was eaten by their spam filter? This would hardly be fair, but I imagine that it does happen. I’m not sure what is to be done, but it seems like moving to a common format like the AMS Coversheet may not be a bad move, or using some kind of letter warehousing service.

Another related factor which contributes to inefficiency and psychological distress is the lack of feedback regarding the status of one’s application. I got a rejection letter from last year’s job search in October of this year. Did they really made the decision only then, or were they just flushing their buffer? I’d prefer a form rejection letter early to the ambiguity even from the place that wants a “mixed-signal circuit” expert but welcomes “excellent candidates in all areas.” Just getting an email saying “sorry, you’re not a good fit” can help refocus the applicant’s attention on those openings which are still “open.” It’s a buyers market — there are 300 applicants for each open position, so perhaps departments don’t have time to send all of those letters. But emails are cheap!

There’s no real way to make the application process less time-consuming, but I think it can be made less confusing and less draining. The question is how, and what is the incentive for employers?

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8 thoughts on “Some thoughts on the job market

  1. Schools have no incentive to be nice to the applicants. This is because the people running the searches are faculty who made it on the other side and now they don’t really care for people who are still behind the “great wall”. The only hope is if the HR could force the search committees to comply to certain rules. But then the HR has no incentive for doing that since its performance in universities is never tied to these kinds of things.

    By the way, I had a campus interview last year and I still have to hear back from them. Try matching this 🙂

    • I don’t think it’s a matter of incentives, but I see your point. A friend of mine also didn’t hear back from the on-campus interview and had to infer their rejection from the announcement of a new faculty member on the dept. website. However, I do think it behooves applicants to ping their hosts periodically for updates…

  2. Anand, I got a position on my third try, so hopefully you’ll have the same luck. Best wishes on your search.

    I’ve been on a hiring committee. HR departments can and do force hiring committees to follow procedures, because there is applicable law that must be followed. However, HR’s enforcement mechanism is the blunt tool of cancelling the search, which seems a bit extreme if the committee’s sin is to not send rejection letters in a timely matter.

    The broader problem is not that committee members don’t care, it is that — much like applicants — faculty are busy people, and wading through 100-odd applications for a single tenure track position is a lot of work. Having said that, I completely agree that committees generally do a terrible job of following best practices and keeping their applicants informed.

    • 🙂 With all due respect Prof. Eckford, I think what you just expressed is an indication that search committees find their actions to be justifiable. Saying that someone is too busy to do his/her job is not a valid excuse in my opinion. Yes, we are all busy, but then we prioritize things and it is clear that search committees don’t think getting back to applicants in a timely manner (or at all) is a top priority.

      @Anand: I did contact the search committee repeatedly and they kept on telling me “a few more weeks”. Then I finally saw on their website additions of two new assistant professors and I got my answer, so I never cared to contact them again. The committee (or chair) found time to indicate to the webmaster to add these new names but did not find time to write a short response?

      Sorry if I sound cynical but it is about incentives. When a program manager asks something of faculty, they all somehow manage to find time out of their busy schedules to respond to those queries. But when it comes to applicants, all faculty become immensely busy to write a one-line reply at the end of the day. What a culture!

      • I hear you on the “few more weeks” thing, but what can you do? Many of my rejections come from a dept. admin, and I think that’s fine. Why not just give them a list of emails and say “send the form rejection letter to these people.” It would take an hour maybe.

        Or get an undergrad to do it. Ha.

    • Thanks for the well-wishes! We’ll see what happens. I think your explanation of sort of benign neglect is probably right, but given that there are many more applications for graduate studies (who often do get rejection letters), it’s a bit weird to see it not happen at the hiring level.

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