Sunday, September 18, 2016

RYS Flashback: 7 Years Ago Today, For Those Folks On the Job Market.

Lex From Lakeland Doesn't Want to Know More About Your Shitty College Than You Want to Know About Him!

There's no fuzziness at all.
What is Cal smoking?
Is everyone out of their ever-loving minds? Are these people seriously expecting job candidates--most of whom are finishing dissertations, teaching 2 or more classes, trying to publish articles, in addition to living their lives--to conduct in-depth research on 20, 30, 40, or more schools before they even write their application materials? You're getting 200 applications, from which you'll interview, what, 10 people, and yet with those odds you believe that investing untold hours of research into hiring departments represents a wise use of the applicants' time?

Can you honestly say that your department's website accurately reflects the culture of your department and your institution? That its list of faculty and courses is up to date? How many times have I seen application letters that go on and on about how wonderful it would be to be the colleague of a professor who died in the last year (or left--hence the job opening) or about how it's always been their dream to teach a course we no longer offer or that is the sole property of one professor, who frankly is not interested in hiring his own competition for said course. Our department website makes us look like something we're not, and anyone who applies to us with a letter about how much they embrace interdisciplinary cooperation or want a close, collegial faculty, or want to be part of a highly visible research university--all things they might glean from what we say about ourselves online--will be terribly disappointed to find that none of these things are to be found here. Tailoring a letter to that online profile is the surest way to get your application put into the "no" pile, because the search committee knows you'll be desperately unhappy with the job.

Here's an idea: I'll agree to research your institution and tailor my letter to your online self-representation if you agree to give my letter and CV more than 3 minutes' perusal, agree not to discard my application because you find one typo, or because you don't like my dissertation topic, or because my pedigree (i.e. letterhead) isn't impressive enough. Do you promise me that you're running a legitimate search and not just putting up a screen so you can hire your inside candidate? Do you promise you won't discard my application because I'm white and male and your department is under pressure to "diversify"? Do you promise you won't end the search because funding for the line runs out? You understand I'll need some assurances before I invest so much time and energy in tailoring my application to suit your Highness's requirements.

I'll research your institution fully if you'll research me: read every word I've published, look over every syllabus I've constructed, read my teaching evaluations, writing sample, and letters of recommendation from start to finish. Look at the website I've put together, talk to folks who have heard my papers at conferences. What's that you say? You don't have time for all that? Well, neither do I have the time to flatter your ego, kiss your ass, and make you think that you are the world's bestest department and the center of my existence.

Cover letters are generic. Get over it. This isn't a romance novel, full of protestations of adoration and suitability. It is a job search: the candidate tells the committee about him/herself and the committee decides if that profile fits what they're looking for. Half the time committees don't even know what they want until the applications come streaming in, so don't expect job candidates a thousand miles away to read your minds. Anyone who crafts the perfectly tailored letter based on hours of research into your department and hitting absolutely every one of your criteria is probably someone you don't want to hire: s/he either has entirely too much free time (is not doing the work s/he should be doing) or is an eager-beaver stalker (see the film Election. You want Tracy to be your colleague?).


  1. Not to mention that the marketing and branding bullshit that applicants will find on our website was admin-driven, developed by highly-paid outside consultants with limited understanding of higher ed, bears little resemblance to what actually happens on the ground, and is mercilessly ridiculed by faculty.

    1. Our ridicule has at least some mercy, as we know that whitewashing the sad truth must require more repressing of cognitive dissonance than we could personally muster.

      We look favorably at a candidate's regurgitation of something from our website, however fanciful that something is: at least they cared enough to go through the motion. It's more than we sometimes get from our students.

  2. In our latest search for an assistant proffie, we rarely held a cover letter against a candidate, not even one that still had our nearest competitor's name buried in one of the more generic paragraphs. Are we so full of ourselves that we'd demand candidates to apply to only us? For someone looking for a first TT appointment, that would be a silly strategy, and we'd rightfully count it against them. So we looked beyond this probable failure to copy/paste, as we did minor grammatical flubs in other letters. We reserved our scorn over perceived poor attention to detail for more substantive areas of the portfolio.

    1. Yes, cover letters get a lot more (unfavorable) attention when they say that the candidate refuses to teach a class that is central to the position they are applying for.

    2. My department campus-interviewed someone who had addressed the cover letter to our nearest competitor (up top, not somewhere far down). If I'm remembering correctly, that candidate was ultimately offered the job, and turned us down.

      So no, that particular error is not an irrecoverable one. But entirely dismissing a whole teaching area (or, these days, platform/mode) can be fatal to a candidacy.

  3. The one that kills me every time is 'Why do you want to work here?'

    Hmmm... let's see.

    1. Eating and paying rent are nice.

    2. You're one of the few places hiring in my field and one the even fewer that showed any interest.

    3. The last cult murders in your little town were over a decade ago!

    This one isn't admin's fault. Search committees love that question, even though they should know better...

    1. What we're actually asking when we ask that question isn't why you want to work here, but how do we know that you won't leave here in two or three years once you find an opening at a place where you really do want to work. We actually had a candidate say something along the lines of he wanted to work for us because it would be good experience. That's not exactly heartening, since it means we'll have to do the search over again in a few years.

      And no, I don't think that you sell your soul when you come to work somewhere, but we are fishing for some sort of commitment, even if it's not eternal. If you're already looking for greener grass and we haven't even hired you yet, then . . . maybe we'd all be happier if you started elsewhere.

      Actually, the way things are now, you'd be happier if you ended up elsewhere anyway. I wanted to lean over the shoulder of the last candidate and whisper "run, run now -- they're all quite mad!"

    2. And in many places these days, the good outcome to someone leaving (for greener pastures, or as the result of retirement, death, dismemberment, or other means) is having to do the search over again. The decidedly less-good but increasingly common outcome is that the line disappears, or is parceled out among 3 adjuncts.

      So, although it's an absurd question from the candidate's point of view, it's also a reasonable one. Although the "take any job and write your way out" philosophy that was prevalent in my grad department does sometimes work out for individual Ph.D.s, it can also leave chaos in its wake, and may well cheat both the hiring department and a candidate other than the one hired of a what could be a productive longterm relationship.

      I know it's easy in some ways for me to say, but I really don't think candidates should apply to jobs they can't see themselves keeping at least through tenure. Of course sometimes one can't tell how bad a fit is until you get there, but applying with the intention of leaving as soon as possible strikes me as a bad idea (not least because that kind of attitude tends to show through, and can eventually lead to adverse tenure decisions if the original plan doesn't work out).

    3. We ask this question before inviting candidates out, only because if we didn't we'd just end up subsidizing peoples' Hawaiian vacations.

  4. May I jump in please? Our problems is that too many candidates seem to have ONE and only one generic letter--for the "top" positions at the "top" universities. We don't mind a generic letter--we try to be fair and kind. But a generic letter that details in great detail research projects without a balance of teaching experience signals to us that our position may not be a good fit for the candidate.

    Is it too much to ask for a generic letter that fits our type of job? 3/3, service, and publications for tenure?