Karen Kelsky

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Drowning in Application Files

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I would love to see a future column on time management for assistant professors serving on search committees in the humanities. I'm on one now and drowning in files. How do we do justice to applicants without pulling all nighters?

That question was posted on my Facebook page, and quickly inspired the following comment:

I'd love advice on this, too. My tactic was to use the CV, cover letter, and letters of recommendation to narrow things down, then look at more material from the top candidates (writing sample, teaching materials). I hated not being able to read every word of every file, knowing how much work went into it. But one can only do so much.

This struggle of the search committee is the flip side of the job-market crisis, and while the suffering of the securely employed is not, perhaps, the most urgent element in this crisis, it is worth taking a moment to consider.

The overwhelming number of application files is the reason that I begin all of my job-market workshops with this claim: “They want to reject you.” And it’s the reason that my book has a chapter, “Why They Want To Reject You,” in which I write: “They don’t love you. They aren’t excited to see your application come in. On the contrary, they dread dealing with it. But it’s not personal. It’s not you they dread, per se. It’s the search itself. The whole exercise of sifting through applications, evaluating, discussing, interviewing, inviting, and offering in this demoralized and downsized industry.”

Search committees come to love certain candidates later in the search, and generally get very invested in one or more of them — but not at the opening stages, when they are drowning in documents. Remember that, job seekers, when you are wondering whether to send in that writing sample that the committee didn’t ask for.

Anyway, back to the question. Let’s be realistic. If your search draws 300 complete applications, and you spend 4 minutes on each application, that is 1,200 minutes, or 20 hours. I repeat: 20 hours. Very few full-time faculty have 20 free hours to spend on the initial review of files for a search. That would be 4 hours a day for a solid week, or two hours a day for two weeks. (And remember, 300 is not a very large number of files, comparatively speaking, when a single English opening in some specializations can draw 900 or 1,000 applications.)

What does all of that mean? Basically it means that if you on a search committee, and you are confronting more than 100 or 150 applications, you should expect to spend less than 4 minutes reading each one of them.

I can anticipate howls of protest from readers. But, in my experience on search committees, we looked only at the cover letter and CV at the initial stage of review. The secondary documents — the research statement, teaching statement, diversity statement, and letters of recommendation — came into play only after the long shortlist of about 25 to 30 applicants was established. If a search-committee member was conflicted about several files at the initial stage of review, and then perhaps some supporting documents might be examined, very selectively. But that was the exception. The general rule was that only two documents — the CV and cover letter — played a major role at the initial stage. Some of us tended to prioritize the letter, and some of us prioritized the CV. I was one of the former, as I liked to get a sense of the candidate’s “voice” as well as that person’s record, but I had colleagues who felt the CV best delivered the most important information. Either way, the CV could be flipped through in about a minute, and a cover letter in about two. And on that basis, our long shortlists were created.

A tenured professor at a research university once posted on The Professor Is In Facebook page that he had reviewed X number of files in X minutes, spending an average of 2.73 minutes per file. Much shock and consternation ensued in the comments from job-seeking readers.Candidates find it distressing and insulting that the documents they spent untold hours crafting are read under such rushed and haphazard conditions.

It’s safe to say that nobody on any search committee feels that this is a desirable state of affairs. Pretty much everyone finds it deplorable. But there is no real alternative. In the current academy, tenured and tenure-track professors don’t have an extra 35 hours a week to devote to reviewing 300 files in a way that would allow for a leisurely 7-minute perusal of each file. The contraction in the ranks of tenure-line faculty and their increasing administrative burdens have left almost all of them, outside of the most elite, extremely time-stressed.

I don’t recommend that assistant professors pull all-nighters for the sake of a search, as one of the questioners remarked. It’s not healthy, and it sets a bad precedent for other work obligations that are looming for them just down the road.

In short, I think we have reached a point where 3 minutes or less is the amount of time many candidate files will get at the stage of initial review. As an assistant professor on a search committee, don’t martyr yourself trying to give more time than your starved and shrunken institutional infrastructure supports. And job seekers, as unfair as it is, make sure that your two primary documents deliver up your complete record as concisely and directly as possible.

Dear Readers: Have a question about the academic job market and/or professionalization? Send it to The Professor Is In! Karen welcomes any and all questions related to the job market, preparing for the job market while in graduate school, coping with the adjunct struggle, and assistant professorhood. Send questions to gettenure@gmail.com.

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