Thursday, December 08, 2011
almost none of the applications we have received have come from people who have the qualifications to teach in the specialty for which we are searching. And none of them address this in their cover letters. In fact, reading their cover letters makes it clear that these letters have not been written specifically to us, and that the applicants have done no—zero—research on who we are or what we do (google is your friend—or should be).
It’s becoming obvious that new Ph.D.s are being told (or are assuming) that they should just apply for every position in the broader field. Indeed, I am hearing that graduate programs are even paying the postage for their letters (although, since we accept only on-line applications, that’s not an issue). In effect, for these applicants, the costs of applying are very low. So they apply for anything and everything.
He goes on to vent some spleen at a couple of graduate programs that sent several candidates apiece, each with nearly identical letters.
It’s a real issue, though it would be easy for someone who has been looking unsuccessfully for years to mutter some oaths at the very thought. “So what do you want from me?” I imagine the frustrated candidate asking. But this isn’t really about the candidates; it’s really about internal screening processes. Like it or not, search committee members’ time is valuable, and after people have gone through the wringer a few times, even finding people to serve on committees can be a major challenge. Given the importance of getting good people to pay serious attention to the most plausible candidates, it’s important for the institution to minimize the time spent on the ones who don’t have a realistic shot.
(When those unrealistic ones are internal -- long-serving adjuncts, say, or trailing spouses -- the “courtesy interview” rears its ugly head. Some people believe that certain candidates are automatically or ethically entitled to courtesy interviews, even if they have no shot. I don’t subscribe to that perspective; to my mind, if they have no shot, the interview just gives false hope and wastes everyone’s time. But I know that view isn’t universally held.)
The most successful (and legally defensible) strategy I’ve seen is to divide the screen into a few steps. The first step can often be delegated to HR. Draw up a clear, short list of “must haves” for a candidate to be considered. (You should already have this in the job description and/or posting.) Instruct HR that any application that’s a clear miss on the required minima doesn’t even make it to the committee. If you require a doctorate in hand, for example, anyone who tops out at a Master’s or ABD doesn’t even get past HR.
Then have a separate grid for the committee. Assign numerical scores to each of several desiderata. (That’s where knowledge of subfields comes in handy.) Depending on the clarity of the criteria and the level of trust, you may be able to delegate this to the committee chair.
Ideally, this should mean that the other members only bother with the candidates who meet the basic plausibility test. Yes, there will still be issues with cookie-cutter letters, and with candidates who just don’t match in person what they promise on paper, but at least you’ll be able to whittle down the time commitment.
The other advantage of breaking it down into steps is that it makes the implementation of affirmative action easier. It would go after the second step. The way we do it at my college, anyone from underrepresented groups who clears the second step is offered an interview. That way there’s no issue of unqualified applicants getting interviews.
The usable tip for candidates here, I think, is to make it obvious when you match the criteria, and to address it upfront if you don’t.
Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a reasonably efficient and fair way to winnow down the pile to manageable size?
I don't know if that is the case with your reader but perhaps some of the problem can be remedied with better job listings.
Our ads always state the absolute minimum requirement, preferred degree area, and the topical areas that would be taught. To follow the example raised by Anonymous, we would list the generic humanities instructor requirement but then state that the person will be teaching, say, art history. DD offers good advice that everyone should do this.
My advice to the original writer is to take that justifiable frustration to the chair of the department that sent multiple unqualified candidates your way. Tell them that the prof advising X, Y, and Z is not doing their job to advise students on seeking jobs and hurting the reputation of the entire department by having a non-Abelian algebrist try for an applied math job.
That said, some university departments change their mind to hire a "star" that happens to apply in an unrelated field, which is why students should cast a wide net if they are that star. However, they need to make that case in the cover letter.
As an alternative, if your department has a trusted and competent admin or other staff member, that person can certainly be tapped for this. I've served this role a few times and quite enjoy it. Obviously I do not have anywhere near the qualifications to sit on a faculty search committee. But I can certainly grasp the "must haves," and it benefits us all to keep the process in-house.
Also, applicants, if the committee did request your dossier, PLEASE do not hammer the SCC with "so when is my interview?" follow-up emails and/or "why did you request my dossier and then not interview me?" complaints. Though I'm tempted to reply with simply "QED," the actual answer is very much common sense: other applicants had a combination of: qualifications most closely aligned with the position (they wrote dissertations about X; you just took a couple of courses in X) more teaching experience teaching a wider variety of courses, more publications, better publications, or more (or better) administrative experience.
I suspect they thought there was something in the dossier that was a deal-breaker, like use of the wrong font or something, and they wanted me to tell them what they did "wrong" that blew their chance. That's an attitude I can't stand among job-seekers -- assuming the job is theirs unless/until they do something to screw it up. That's got to fall under one of the cognitive distortions. The job doesn't belong to anyone until there's an offer extended!
On the plus side, the best letters probably indicate a real level of interest and commitment and not just a marketing strategy . . . .
And I would agree with everybody who says that handing off the initial screening to HR is a bad idea.
It helped that our announcement specifically mentioned "econometrics" rather than "general economics" or "any field."
I will pay attention to applicants who have tailored their cover letter to out job description and goes out of their way to explain how their degree and experience pertain to our position. This is one reason not to let some HR staffer make any screening decision. On the other hand, it should be easy to screen out 'generic' cover letters that accompany marginal applications.
I wish I could say I was exaggerating.
All of these hoops would be fine if one only needed to apply to maybe three jobs in order to get a job for the rest of your career, but when you have to apply to 10-20 schools a year and then get to do it over again the next year (since the most recently hired are always the first laid off) it gets unreasonable fast.
I guess I was naive when I was looking for a job. I thought the point was to impress the search committee favorably.
Sorry, but whether a committee asks for only a CV and a cover letter or lots more, screening applications does't take that much time: Just make three stacks of applications, for-sures, maybes, and absolutely-nots. If you're planning on interviewing a dozen candidates, and your for-sure stack has 15 or 20 applications, then you can forget about the maybes. If you've got only a few for-sures, then you'll need to take a closer look at the maybes.
It ain't rocket science.
Applicants should understand that hiring committees will not favorably regard generic applications. After all you're applying for an English comp job at MY school in MY department, not just any and all English comp jobs.
And hiring committees should never, ever let HR do the initial screening.