Jeremy Yoder

Postdoctoral associate at University of British Columbia

Psst, Search Committees ...

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Image: Limitless (2011)

In academic science, the fall semester is Hiring Season. Search committees generally start posting job ads in August, and they continue trickling out onto email listservs and job boards like Vitae into November. Departments often want to be choosing candidates for on-campus interviews before the winter holidays.

That timeline means the submission deadlines pile up between early October and early November. As a candidate on the market, I’m in the thick of them, managing a spreadsheet full of closing dates, specific application requirements, and status updates from mentors who’ve agreed to provide letters of reference. On any given evening this fall, I could be found working on an application. I’ve written and submitted up to three in one day.

Of course I’m not starting each of them from scratch. Writing a new application mostly means adapting material from a previous one — swapping in a more geographically appropriate project under the “Future Directions” section of the research statement, or making sure to note possible contributions to an undergraduate research experience. Every committee wants a CV, and most all of them want a research plan and a teaching statement. Some want copies of a few of my scientific articles, too. Some don’t care about the teaching statement. Some want transcripts going back to my undergrad years. A very few want a statement outlining the candidate’s contributions to diversity in science.

The devil is in all those variations. By now — four years into postdoc-hood, and 40-odd applications into this hiring season — I think I’m in a pretty good position to identify which committee requests are most, and least, helpful. Without further ado, here’s a few reciprocal pleas to the members of every hiring committee, offered in no particular order of precedence, and in full acknowledgement that they’ll probably be ignored:

Would it be too much to ask for all of you to use the same submission system? I don’t much care which one — emailing in the whole package as a single PDF works just fine, or dossier services like Vitae or Interfolio are nice ways to avoid creating dozens of copies of documents that go in every application, like the CV. However you manage it, it would be nice if, two months into the hiring season, I weren’t still encountering entirely new online submission systems, with entirely new idiosyncrasies — file size limits, separate upload pages for the CV and the rest of the “supporting documents,” forms for work and education history that require answers but add no information that isn’t already on my CV.

Do you really need to see my transcripts? I understand the Human Resources department may want proof that I’ve earned a Ph.D., but it will also need my Social Security number at some point, and yet you manage to avoid asking for every applicant’s SSN. (Now that I’ve written that comparison, please don’t show this to HR, lest they get ideas.) Maybe in one or two cases applicants have tried to fake a doctorate, but this is really the faculty hiring equivalent of asking airline passengers to remove their shoes in the security line — inconveniencing everyone to try and skim out a tiny fraction of bad actors who really should be identifiable by other means.

Do you really need to receive letters of reference with my application? Yes, of course, you want perspectives on candidates from people who have worked with us in the past. Will you use their letters in the very first round of sorting through dozens (or hundreds) of applicants? Probably not. I have met a few faculty members who tell me that they do read letters for that first-stage decision — but those professors are the rare, possibly superhuman, exceptions. For candidates, making sure letters get delivered means making sure that three-to-five usually very busy senior collaborators know the general description of the job opening in question, the idiosyncratic method by which letters should be submitted, and the deadline for submission — then following up to ensure they meet that deadline. If you have 100 initial applicants, each with three referees, you’ve made the lives of 400 people a little worse just so you don’t have to send a tenth as many emails at a later stage of the hiring process.

Give me a clear deadline. It doesn’t happen often, but there is nothing more frustrating than an ad that provides no more information on the hiring timeline than “review of applications will begin immediately.” I’m preparing dozens of applications. Let me know where I need to put yours in the queue. Otherwise it looks like you want candidates to drop everything and apply to your position right this moment, and that doesn’t bode well for what they can expect if and when they become colleagues in your department.

Give me a prompt “no.” It routinely takes months after the submission deadline to get official word that an application didn’t make it past the first round. Sure, you’ve got other things to do, but it would be polite — and could inform my choices over the remainder of Hiring Season — to let me know as soon as I’m out of the running. It doesn’t need to be an elaborate email; a short form letter is fine. (Frankly, vague statements about how many qualified applicants there were, and how difficult the decision was, don’t really soften the blow.)

Between managing my reference requests, tracking the various documents each committee wants to see, and writing specific cover letters, research plans, and teaching statements for dozens of applications over a single hiring season, it’s a full-time job just to be on the market. Even with the best planning tricks and applications, hunting for a faculty job while maintaining any kind of research productivity needs the kind of organizational skills associated with managing a multimillion-dollar international collaboration.

But maybe that’s sort of the point?

Coaxing contributions from distracted collaborators, meeting arbitrary requirements for content and formatting, juggling dozens of deadlines within a month — all of the quirks and frustrations of the academic job market are quirks and frustrations associated with almost anything worth doing within academia. Things like: updating a curriculum, applying for external research funding, applying to present at a scientific meeting, organizing a scientific meeting, submitting papers for peer review, managing peer review as an academic editor for a scholarly journal, or assembling materials for tenure review.

The more I think about it, the more it seems that my search for a faculty job is calling upon skills I’ll need if and when I actually do land a faculty job.

So maybe the convoluted, jury-rigged, opaque process by which departments find new faculty is pretty good at identifying people who will do well as faculty, if only inadvertently. Or maybe, after another weekend spent writing and rewriting statements — about who I am, what I’ve accomplished as a scientist, and what I’d like to do in the next six years — I’ve succumbed to Stockholm syndrome.

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