Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Job Market: Evaluation of Search Committee Tactics

By Adam Kotsko

have been on the job market for three years and have also served on a search committee as a student representative, and I have come to believe that some typical practices are not optimal. The parts that seem to me to be optimal are basically the beginning and the end — a concise cover letter with C.V. is a great way to kick off an application, and the process of an on-campus interview seems well-suited to generate the kind of meaningful information that search committees need at that late phase. Where things seem to me to fall apart is in the middle stages, namely the application materials required and the various kinds of short interviews.

Here are the problems:
The application packet: The amount of materials typically required at this stage is ridiculous and wasteful. The odds of any committee member looking closely at a mass of material from an average of 100+ applicants are small — and rightly so. Asking every applicant, including long shots, to get several recommendations is itself an amazing method for wasting hundreds of person-hours. The idiosyncratic application materials required from each department also add to the stress and hassle of the process. I understand that search committees want maximum flexibility and don’t want to go back for multiple rounds of documents from candidates — but it’s not like the process is quick and efficient as it stands. This part of the process is a waste of everyone’s time and effort and, given the amount of paper used, a huge affront to any kind of commitment to environmental sustainability.

Short interviews: Whether conducted via phone or Skype or in-person at a conference, these short interviews are always stressful, often humiliating, and almost guaranteed not to provide any information beyond what’s in the application packet. Indeed, in my experience interviewers in these settings spend a significant amount of time asking me to recite information I’ve already provided. Even if more relevant questions are asked, the extremely short and rapid-fire nature of the interview makes misunderstandings a near certainty — particularly given the unfortunate tendency in these settings for academics to mimic typical “HR” approaches to interviewing (i.e., opacity, lack of context for questions, lack of follow-up questions, etc.). The only practical use for these interviews is as a kind of brute-force, arbitrary filtering method, because it seems to me that for most candidates, these short interviews are at best an opportunity not to screw up too badly. When you add in the expense of traveling to a national conference in order to do them (often last-minute, with all that implies for plane ticket prices), this step really imposes an unreasonable burden on candidates — and on the search committee members who waste their entire conference with endless interviews in a cramped hotel room.

My proposed solution is to eliminate the short interviews altogether and replace them with a phased series of written documents. The initial application should be a cover letter (including contact information for recommenders) and C.V., an amount of writing that it is reasonable to ask all committee members to read through with some degree of attentiveness. For the next level of filtering, ask for recommendation letters. For the final stage, ask for a teaching portfolio, a writing sample, or both, as appropriate for the given institution. This procedure works its way logically from a very high-level presentation of the candidate’s qualifications to more and more detailed information about candidates who seem particularly promising — culminating in the ultimate specificity of getting to know the candidate personally through an on-campus interview.

If committees are unsure about jumping straight from only written materials to the campus visit, it seems to me that the only fair way to do it is by holding a longer interview (perhaps with fewer candidates) — a longer interview can allow the process to approximate a natural conversation and take away the stress and artificiality of the 20-minute interrogation model.

Yet if the process I describe is taken seriously by all committee members (i.e., they actually read all the materials as they get phased in), it seems to me that it’s a near-certainty that they will have at least one very strong candidate in their final group of three or four campus interviews — in fact, the concrete problem facing most committees is the need to eliminate so many good candidates at each phase, not to avoid the bad ones. Introducing information that is basically noise (e.g., the short interview) into the process makes it much more likely, in my view, that a good candidate will be needlessly eliminated.

In short, I believe that my revised process for the middle part of a job search will produce more useful information for the committee at the same time as it reduces needless stress on candidates. It obviously wouldn’t change the fundamental injustice of the academic job market, which stems from the lack of dignified, full-time jobs, but it could at least make the process somewhat less exhausting, humiliating, and arbitrary.

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