Thursday, December 08, 2011


Filtering Applications

A longtime reader wrote me a mini-rant occasioned by frustration at an overwhelming pile of applications for a faculty position at his university. As he characterized it, the vast majority of the applications weren’t even vaguely appropriate for the position, and he resented the loss of time in filtering through them all. As he put it,

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 certainly understand your long time readers frustration. Yet, as someone who reads these job listings regularly, I'm absolutely shocked how poorly written a significant number of them are. I fairly regularly see things listed as "Humanities Instructor" with no particular explanation as to what is wanted or required.

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.
We don't even trust HR to get our paycheck calculations correct, so we would definitely not trust them to judge anything more than the existence of a degree and total hours of grad credit or that the application is complete. We do what you describe, with a grid, and stop reading when a core requirement (like grad hours in appropriate area) has not been met. It was easier before we went electronic, because then we could flag a folder for a particular problem, but this is always the first pass in the process.

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.
I share CCPhysicist's objection to handing the initial screening process off to HR. Far too great a chance of error, at least at my institution, and it sure won't get done quickly.

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.
I'm chairing my third search committee this year. As SCC, I've learned the hard way to keep the list of dossier requests SHORT. Absolutely NO courtesy dossier requests or requesting dossiers just because one or two of the committee members are curious to learn more about the person. We keep to a grid.

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!
Too few graduate institutions prepare their students to write a good letter for a SLAC, let alone a CC, a private high school, etc. For most universities, R1 hires are all that count, and as long as that's the case, bad letters are the result.

On the plus side, the best letters probably indicate a real level of interest and commitment and not just a marketing strategy . . . .
I am on the job market and I have a degree that at first blush might look like I don't qualify for things that I do (it's an interdisciplinary degree). Could people here make concrete suggestions about what I should say in my letters? And how exactly is one "up front" about not meeting the criteria without looking like an ass? Because I really don't want to waste people's time.
To Anon 7:43, YMMV, but it is my sense (and definitely how it works at my school) that if we ask for a degree in a particular discipline then it doesn't matter what you say in your letter, if your degree is not in that discipline. In other words, if your degree is in American Studies, and you've taken the requisite grad hours in literature courses to teach literature, but we have asked for a degree in English? Your application goes in the trash.

And I would agree with everybody who says that handing off the initial screening to HR is a bad idea.
Crazy - so let's say someone applied with a degree in Environmental Studies whose subject area was environmental literature. Would you automatically discount them? Because I know a couple of people like that, and they have jobs in English depts, and that is kind of equivalent to my situation.
If the ad asks for PhD in English (which ours do)then yes, that person would be out of the pool. Basically, to consider them would go against the criteria that we outlined in the ad. Now, if we just said in the ad that the applicant must have a PhD at the time of hire, we would have more flexibility and that Environmental Studies person could be considered. That said? The reason that we don't leave that flexibility in there is because we routinely get around 200 applications just from English folks in lit searches. We honestly don't need more to choose from.
We just finished constructing our interview list. The personnel department allows us to rule out applicants on the basis of weak research or wrong field. We received a lot of applications that were in the wrong field, and in deliberations, there were very few applications in that category that had to be considered beyond "Wrong field." "Yup." "Agreed."

It helped that our announcement specifically mentioned "econometrics" rather than "general economics" or "any field."
Hahaha! I find this one quite funny. I would urge grad students to send their letters far and wide, apply to everything, anything, even use multiple names - you never know, what Jane Smith didn't get, Taryn Al-Shiboleth might. Hahaha. Reap the world you sowed, tenureds. No sympathy for you poor, overworked privileged few here.
Ha ha, Anonymous 10:06, I agree. I would say anyone with a bachelor's or associate's degree should apply, too -- especially if they got their degree from the college they're applying to and their expensive education still hasn't gotten them a job. Inundate the tenured bastards! Kill them all with resumes!
I think that there is a big difference between individuals with a degree and/or experience that is somewhat peripheral to the job qualifications, versus applicants who are just blasting out their resumé to any job for which they are remotely plausible.

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.
On the flip side of the process, Hiring Committees should not ask for my vita, three letters of rec, a teaching philosophy, a 20 page paper, a sample syllabus, and a copy of my dissertation for the initial submission--in hard copy. The postage adds up quickly.

I wish I could say I was exaggerating.
Anon 12:14 - I wouldn't mind sending all of that, since at least it would mean I could just hit "print" on stuff I already had. What I want (in k12 hiring) is a moratorium on multiple essay questions on applications, particularly ones that require answers to be handwritten (some districts still require this, for reasons that probably made sense in the 1950s and have not been revisited since). I waste so much damn time writing these essays (which are different for every school district, so I can't usually re-use old ones without a lot of editing) and it makes me really cranky because I doubt that they're even reading all of these essays from every candidate. They're probably only reading them from the top 5 or 10 to decide which to interview, or possibly only reading them for the ones they've already decided to interview.

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 have to agree wholeheartedly with Anon 12:14 (Sorry, Anon 12:33, I don't know anything about K12 jobs). It's surpassing ridiculous to ask for anything beyond a cover letter and cv for initial screenings. I have been in admin now for 8 (!!) years, and when I think about applying for jobs, I automatically exclude anything that requires more than that. I'm just not interested in working for an institution or department that doesn't care about wasting people's time and money. For grad students or PhDs who have been looking for full-time work for a year or much more, the time and expense is beyond unreasonable.
So we ask for a cover letter (and get one with the search committee chair's name and the institution name in a different font from the rest of the letter) and the CV and nothing else and we GET those, plus four letters of recommendation plus the teaching philosophy statement plus the research agenda statement plus the job market paper. It's all free, you see, for the applicant, because we accept only on-line applications.

I guess I was naive when I was looking for a job. I thought the point was to impress the search committee favorably.
Others have said this already, but I can't emphasize it enough - search committees, BE SPECIFIC when you post job ads. If the job description says only "modern European history" but you are looking for a national subfield completely different from mine, then yes, it is a waste of everybody's time for me to apply. But I have no way of knowing that just from the ad.
Dr. Gunpowder and Anon 12:14--asking for essays and other supplemental material is one way of increasing the "cost" of applying to weed out those who are not serious about the position. Like Doc said, the point is to impress the committee, so if one is just recycling generic essays and cover letters, it becomes fairly obvious to the search committee, and we do not bother to read your entire essay or all of your application materials. From my experience, and as Dr. Crazy said, there are more than enough qualified applicants from which to choose. You have to research the institution and convey your tailored interest in the position in order to set yourself apart.
DD's post began with a "rant" from a hiring committe member who "resented the loss of time in filtering through" dozens or even hundreds of applications.

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.

This one time I was offered a tenure track job applying to a position that was not in my area. I did tailor my letter, it's true, but if I took the advice I'm frequently given not to apply to positions outside of my area, I would never have applied and I would not have been offered the position. So why don't all of you stop giving advice as if the process were actually rational when it isn't? Thanks.
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