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?