Applications

by Michael Bérubé on November 4, 2009

It’s that time of year again, only worse.

The academic job search process is under way, and in the modern languages, things look quite dismal.  Yes, I know, things have looked quite dismal for some time now, but this is extra extra dismal, because the effects of the Great Collapse of 2008 are only hitting this part of the academic machinery now.  Colleges and universities have already taken—and administered—hits elsewhere, via salary cuts and/or freezes, furloughs, elimination of travel and research budgets, etc.  And I don’t know how many searches were cancelled last year after being advertised.  But I do know that in the modern languages, we might be looking at a 50 percent dropoff in jobs from last year, and there’s no federal stimulus coming to bail us out.

Let me explain what that means in raw numbers.  When I first went looking for an academic job, there was a surprise “bubble.”  In 1987-88, the MLA Job Information List advertised over 1900 jobs in English—a spike from the previous year’s 1700, and well above the 1400-1500 average from 1975 onward.  The year I was on the market, 1988-89, an amazing 2,025 positions were listed in the JIL—and that was just in English: there were also 1,824 advertised positions in the foreign languages.  The next year, 1,867 in English, 1,609 in the foreign languages.  People actually spoke of a “seller’s market,” and they weren’t totally crazy, because at the time, there were only about 750 Ph.D.s granted in English annually, and about 400-500 foreign-language Ph.D.s.  (Now you all know how I snuck into the academy in the first place!) These, of course, were the years when you could hear people predicting a faculty shortage in the mid- to late 1990s.  But people didn’t talk that way for long, because starting in 1991-92, the bottom dropped out: English positions declined from 1,480 to 1,271 to 1,133 to 1,054, foreign language positions from 1,453 to 1,214 to 1,090 to 1,037.  And remember, these aren’t tenure-track positions; those are but a subset of all positions, an increasingly small subset.  The number of tenure-track positions advertised in the October edition of the English edition of the JIL was 926 in 1990, 735 in 1991, 620 in 1992, 624 in 1993.  (I’m digging these figures out of an old copy of Profession: Bettina J. Huber, “Recent Trends in the Modern Language Job Market,” Profession 94: 94-105.)

In more recent years, the number of positions advertised in English has hovered around 1600-1700.  This year, one of my students told me that she’d heard the number would be something like 250.  “WTF,” I calmly replied. “Where did that number come from?”  It came from a wiki of some kind, which is apparently what These Kids Today use when they’re not twittering on the FaceSpace.  “That would be a Depression-era number,” I said, “because I don’t believe there’s been a time since the MLA started keeping stats when the number was below 1,000.”  Well, it’s now looking like 250 is indeed a very low estimate.  But it’s quite possible that the number will wind up being below 1,000, which is a problem, because all the MLA charts run from 1,000 to 2,000, so that 2009-10 might require the MLA to redesign the things or face the prospect of publishing one of those cartoon-charts where the plummeting line runs right off the page.

More seriously, a number below 1,000 is a problem for the actual Ph.D. candidates searching for actually existing jobs.  No word yet on how many of those perhaps-fewer-than-one-thousand jobs will be tenure-track.

OK, so that’s the backdrop to what I came to say—a backdrop of anxiety and despair.

What I came to say is this: just as in the dark days of the 1990s, I am stunned by what some departments want their job candidates to submit, and I’d like to hear from people in other disciplines (and perhaps even other countries!  where, I hear, people do things differently for some reason).  I would be stunned by these things even in a year more favorable to jobseekers, but in an abysmal year these things seem especially obnoxious, particularly when they are expensive.  For example: in the 1990s, it came to my attention (and Cary Nelson’s, and many other people’s) that certain schools—and we were looking at you, schools of the University of California system—were requiring job applicants to submit enormous packages of materials up front: not just the usual application letter/ cv/ dossier (sent under separate cover), but writing samples as well.  This doesn’t sound like a major human rights issue, no, but when you stop to consider that these jobs would routinely have 500-1000 applicants, each of whom was sending out 30-page writing samples, you realize that’s an enormous amount of waste paper and a gratuitous expense for the job candidates.  Protestations from various UC professors that their search committees really were reading 500-1000 dissertation chapters between October and December were, how shall I say, not always credible.  It made more sense, Cary and I thought, to ask departments to require only the letter/cv/dossier (and maybe dissertation abstract) package first, and then make requests for writing samples on the basis of those materials.  That’s what most search committees do, after all: they get a huge pile of stuff in September and October, read frantically in order to decide which 50 or 100 (your numbers may vary) writing samples to request, then request them at some point in November, then read those frantically in order to decide which 8-to-12 (your numbers may vary) candidates to interview at the MLA convention, whereupon, after the interviews are over, they meet to determine which two or three candidates to invite to campus.

This year, I’m hearing of universities that want job candidates to send transcripts.  Yes, transcripts.  Transcripts of graduate school grades, and even, in some cases, transcripts of undergraduate grades.  I’m tempted to reply LOLcats style, APPLIKASHUN PROCESS: UR DOIN IT WRONG, but I thought I’d ask around first.  Do other disciplines do this?  If so, why?  You’re hiring professors, people, not students.  You don’t need to look at their GPAs.  You need to look at their dissertations and teaching portfolios.

Now, I hear that one of the places demanding transcripts is the University of Colorado, and who knows?  Maybe this is part of a post-Ward Churchill thing whereby departments are checking to see if their candidates have Ph.D.s.  But still.  It’s expensive for candidates, and (I think) completely unnecessary for search committees.  Which brings me to thing two: are there other disciplines in which graduate school grades actually matter in some way?  Because in my business, the grades usually run the gamut from A to A-, and everybody knows (or else should know) that the really important evaluations are the substantive, written ones—the kind you give students on their essays and/or presentations, the kind you’re asked to submit whenever a student is being assessed by the program as a whole (as, in some departments, when they complete the M.A. and apply for the Ph.D. program).

Again, I know that in a job market this bad, departments asking for transcripts and/or writing samples up front aren’t the worst things that job candidates are facing.  For most people, I hope, these are merely minor annoyances.  (I should probably add that a year this bad will have ripple effects for years to come, just as the lean years of the 1990s did, because of all the 2009-10 Ph.D.s who will still be looking for jobs in 2010-11, 2011-12, and beyond—years that may wind up being just as lean as this one.)  And in an academic job system that is deeply broken, it may sound silly to ask that some aspects of it should be relatively sane.  But I remain curious about how other disciplines (and perhaps even other countries, where I hear they do things differently) conduct their junior-level job searches.

About that broken job system more generally: I’ll try to be back next week with a reply to Louis Menand.

{ 65 comments }

1

Barry 11.04.09 at 9:19 pm

“The next year, 1,867 in English, 1,609 in the foreign languages. People actually spoke of a “seller’s market,” and they weren’t totally crazy, because at the time, there were only about 750 Ph.D.s granted in English annually, and about 400-500 foriegn-language Ph.D.s. (Now you all know how I snuck into the academy in the first place!) “

Judging from later in your post, this 1,867 includes all positions, not just tenure-track positions. This means one-year temp appointments, and probably one course-one semester ‘appointments’. That means that some large fraction of the Ph.D. graduates from the last several years were applying for those 1,867; if it includes one course-one semester openings, they’d need to put three together to make one full-time position (for one semester; 6-8 of those for one year).

BTW, huge chunks of this will have been covered on Invisible Adjunct; does anybody know where that site might have been archived?

2

rea 11.04.09 at 9:32 pm

As a 50-year-old attorney, I went job hunting, and found that most places wanted copies of my law school and undergraduate transcripts (not to mention a photocopy of my social security card).

3

John Quiggin 11.04.09 at 9:39 pm

We (University of Queensland) are new entrants to the buyer side of this market, having finally (just about) abandoned the approach of putting an ad in the “Help Wanted” section. We get the standard package in economics, which includes recommendation letters and a job market paper, and we try to read (OK, scan) all the papers. Of course, we don’t get anywhere near 500 applications, and I suspect even higher-profile econ departments get a lot less than in the humanities. It’s all fairly automated, so I don’t think there’s a huge burden on applicants.

BTW, if any recent PhDs in economics are reading this, you should check us out (and look at Australian universities in general). Demand is running ahead of supply here, so there are some big opportunities for arbitrage.

4

Matt 11.04.09 at 9:40 pm

When I was applying for judicial clerkships a few years ago most judges wanted law school transcripts. That made sense to me, as most clerkship applicants don’t have a lot of legal experience other than law school. A few judges, however, asked for undergrad transcripts, too, and that annoyed the hell out of me, not just because I’d finished my BA 10 years, and started it 15 years, before I was applying for clerkships, but also the idea that someone might hold the ‘C’ I got in calculus my first semester against me really rubbed me raw, as well as just seeming dumb.

More on point, though, in philosophy you pretty much always send a writing sample. Law school hiring is a bit different and no writings sample is required, but if you’ve published something (and it’s nearly impossible to get hired these days unless you’ve published something) it will almost certainly be read by someone before an actual interview.

5

AcademicLurker 11.04.09 at 10:00 pm

When I was on the job market (physical sciences, not humanities), there was one place, a SLAC, that asked for my undergraduate transcript (I’m not sure if this is standard practice for SLACs or if it was peculiar to this particular one).

No one asked for my graduate transcript, and it kind of boggles my mind that places are starting to. As M. Berube points out, once you get through the designated “weed out” class(es), if your program has them, graduate grades are basically meaningless.

6

CalDem 11.04.09 at 10:11 pm

Economics Departments routinely ask for graduate transcripts and we look at them. The grades in the core courses can tell you something about how capable the candidate will be at research outside their dissertation.

7

Computer Scientist 11.04.09 at 10:12 pm

Hmm, my department (Computer Science, at a Land Grant University) has hired 7 assistant professors (resulting from four searches) in the 5 years I have been here, and we did not require transcripts. (We did not require writing samples either, but our application process is web-based, and we can read all of a candidate’s papers online anyway) When I applied to various departments five years ago, none of them required a transcript, but a few (perhaps half) asked for my best paper as part of the application. Most of my applications were submitted online, either via email or a web form, so it’s not like this was a huge issue.

I was, however, required to bring a sealed, official transcript stating I had completed my PhD before I could begin my appointment at the University.

8

AcademicLurker 11.04.09 at 10:21 pm

I should note that, in the physical/biological sciences, several years of postdoctoral research prior to applying for faculty positions is standard. By far the most important part of your application is your list of publications.

I can see how the emphasis might be different in fields where assistant professors are hired straight out of graduate school.

9

Donald A. Coffin 11.04.09 at 10:36 pm

My institution (a regional campus of Indiana University) does not request/require transcripts from applicants, but we do require transcripts from someone whom we hire. (Perhaps not oddly, I have seen one candidate withdraw an acceptance of a position when we asked for a transcript. I leave it to your imagination what was going on there.)

10

gyges 11.04.09 at 10:43 pm

Transcripts of graduate school grades, and even, in some cases, transcripts of undergraduate grades.

It’s obvious that the vast majority of applicants are just as able as the next one: the employers are going to these lengths in order to discriminate against, rather than between the applicants.

I keep going back to the activist teacher’s blog again and again when I read notes such yours.

11

Philosopher 11.04.09 at 10:56 pm

As someone sitting on a hiring committee this year at a competitive philosophy program, we’re expecting ~200 applicants, and we don’t look at dossiers until they are complete. Meaning at least 3 letters of recommendation, a writing sample, cv, and dissertation abstract. But no transcripts. We don’t even require teaching information, though many include it.

I guess because there aren’t anywhere near 1,000 jobs per year in philosophy, maybe it makes more sense? Also, we accept emailed documents, so we eat the cost of printing on this end.

12

nick 11.04.09 at 11:46 pm

There are currently 310 “assistant professor” positions found on the list.
Remove Creative Writing, the number falls to 280.
Remove English education and lingustics, you’re down to 259.

(If you add associate and full professorships, you can get the total back up to around 350.)

Michael, I fear Rumour will prove considerably more accurate than your own soberly pessimistic estimate.

Decimated would be an understatement….

13

Keith 11.05.09 at 12:02 am

The library profession is facing a similar problem. The ALA keeps telling people to go to grad school and get your MLS, because all the librarians in the world are creaky old farts who will retire, en mass, in about six months. I exaggerate, but only slightly.

For the last ten years, the ALA has said that retirees will be creating a job bubble for new MLS grads. Problem is, it’s not happening. No one is retiring. Last year there were 6500 MLS grads competing for 1800 positions. This year there will be less positions (because instead of hiring replacements, those who do leave or retire have their jobs divvied up among the staff who still work there) and on top of the nearly 7800 projected grads looking for work, there are still last years 4700 grads, many of whom are still looking for work (such as my wife). Librarians with jobs are expected to do the work of 2 and sometimes 3 people, with less funds for acquisitions and training.

14

Keith 11.05.09 at 12:11 am

Also, most entry level positions for a librarian require 2-3 years experience and an MLS. This means there are a few thousand inexperienced librarians fighting for the low rung jobs, the ones that don’t have experience qualifications (because they offer low pay and no benefits).

Most people who go into librarianship as a second career, which means they already having at least one degree, if not one or more advanced degrees (in grad school, I knew someone who had a masters in History and someone else with a JD). This means we have tons of highly educated academics fighting for low paying entry level positions. The lucky ones will get them. Everyone else goes to work at Barnes & Noble.

15

Michael Bérubé 11.05.09 at 12:15 am

Barry @ 1:

Judging from later in your post, this 1,867 includes all positions, not just tenure-track positions. This means one-year temp appointments, and probably one course-one semester ‘appointments’. That means that some large fraction of the Ph.D. graduates from the last several years were applying for those 1,867; if it includes one course-one semester openings, they’d need to put three together to make one full-time position (for one semester; 6-8 of those for one year).

I don’t think any department would bother to advertise nationally for a one-semester, one-course appointment. But yes, the figures for “total number of jobs advertised” include a bunch of one-year appointments, of both the renewable and nonrenewable variety. Likewise, a bunch of multi-year appointments, renewable and nonrenewable. So there was, and is, a great deal of market-churning and reapplication involved, which makes it exceedingly difficult (where “exceedingly difficult” should be understood to mean “completely impossible”) to determine the placement rate for any one year. Menand’s essay, btw, does summarize the data from the one longitudinal study that was done in English.

BTW, huge chunks of this will have been covered on Invisible Adjunct; does anybody know where that site might have been archived?

It was for just such questions that Moloch invented the Wayback Machine.

Nick @ 12: the soberly-pessimistic estimate is for the entire year, not just the October JIL. The soberly pessimistic guess is that departments may advertise in February or April — usually for jobs that don’t involve MLA interviews (obviously) and aren’t tenure-track. In other words, accelerated adjunctification. But you’re right, the soberly pessimistic estimate may yet be superseded by the devastatingly WTF cataclysmic total. But either way, it’s safe to say that this year will have serious ripple effects for years to come, and the years to come will probably only intensify matters.

Keith @ 13: true, no one is retiring. And now, many of ’em can’t afford to.

16

Matt 11.05.09 at 12:19 am

(in grad school, I knew someone who had a masters in History and someone else with a JD).

It’s worth noting that many, perhaps most, law librarians, both in law schools and also at big firms, courts, etc. have law degrees as well as MLS degrees, and that this is a huge help, if not completely required, for doing the sort of legal research that they do.

17

Teaching Support 11.05.09 at 12:23 am

Now you all know how I snuck into the academy in the first place!

Don’t. Just don’t.

A friend of mine at work dropped out part-way through his PhD; he’s got a stack of publications but no thesis, and hence no thesis-based monograph, and as it happens no single-authored book in all the time since then. He’s also a Senior Lecturer.

I’ve got a doctorate; I’ve even got a book based on my thesis (your university library may even have a copy). I’m in a Teaching Support role, paid by the contact hour (so July to September is kind of a lean period) – and I was officially informed the other week that my duties are just fine and dandy for a Teaching Support role. Should I aspire to become a Lecturer – on the grounds that I’m, y’know, giving lectures, developing curriculum content, doing research, publishing, all those things? No, I should not. Back in your box, Teaching Support!

18

Tom Hurka 11.05.09 at 1:03 am

Philosophy departments routinely ask for writing samples, and there’s a good reason. If you don’t, you’re going to put too much weight on prestige factors: the eminence of an applicant’s graduate school, the fame of his or her referees, etc. Having a writing sample to read gives people from lesser programs a shot and exposes the over-hyped products of “name” places for what they are. It’s academically egalitarian. (Which isn’t to say all philosophy departments use it that way. We can suck up to the Ivy League with the best of them.)

19

William Burns 11.05.09 at 1:22 am

I’m in history, and its quite common to ask for transcripts. Not sure why. A lot of places, but not all, will let you send photocopies of your transcripts.

20

tired of blogs 11.05.09 at 1:25 am

Re transcripts, it’s routine in political science to request them. But we don’t mean an *official* transcript. You referred to the expense, which probably means that you think that schools are asking for official, stamped, sealed transcripts, which often cost upwards of $10 each, especially if needed urgently. But when most schools ask for a transcript, I’m confident that they will accept a photocopied transcript, which can’t cost more than $0.10 or so.

It’s quite normal for schools to ask hired candidates for official transcripts, though. So there is a $10+ expense eventually. Hopefully!

In comparative politics specifically, there are usually 75-100 jobs in the August issue of the APSR job lists. This year there were 5…3 of them abroad. Hopefully the early hires that political scientists are accustomed too (our conference is in September) will just happen a little late this year because of this year’s delayed budget cycles at the big publics, but as a leading indicator it’s pretty damned frightening.

21

Matt Brown 11.05.09 at 3:21 am

I did the job search last year in philosophy. Pretty much everyone required writing samples, and a surprising number (20% or so) required transcripts. And I was applying for almost exclusively tenure-track jobs and a few postdoc fellowships.

22

jacob 11.05.09 at 4:15 am

I’m on the market for history right now. I’d say roughly one third of the jobs I’m applying for want just the standard letter-cv-recommendations package. Others want some combination of writing samples, teaching portfolio, and yes, transcripts–yes, even undergrad transcripts. I nearly did not apply for a job that required me to fill out an application form that included my social security number twice and my home addresses for the past seven years. The same school’s affirmative action survey form (which are, for those of you who do not know, usually anonymous) wanted my social security number, my name, and my signature. I returned the AA form anonymously with a rather peeved off letter.

23

Michael Bérubé 11.05.09 at 5:40 am

Teaching Support @ 17:

Don’t. Just don’t.

Well, which is worse? People who acknowledge the degree of sheer dumb luck involved in the academic job search, or people who don’t? I started getting involved in graduate student activism and unionization in the early/mid 90s partly because I realized I never would have survived the search process had I finished my doctorate four or five years later. There just weren’t a lot of takers, even in 1989, for a dissertation on Melvin Tolson, Thomas Pynchon, and reception theory. I applied to 73 schools, and got 72 rejections. In 1989, 25 University of Virginia Ph.D.s in English got 175 MLA interviews — an insane average of seven each. Two years later, 40 U.Va. English Ph.D.s got 35 interviews. It wasn’t because their work was seven or eight times weaker than ours.

And now I’m getting depressed at all these reports of transcript requests. Because the kind I’m talking about, O tired of blogs @ 20, are indeed the expensive official kind.

Tom Hurka @ 18:

Philosophy departments routinely ask for writing samples, and there’s a good reason. If you don’t, you’re going to put too much weight on prestige factors: the eminence of an applicant’s graduate school, the fame of his or her referees, etc.

I hear you, and I understand the argument. I even agree with it, a little bit — with the caveat that a candidate’s letter and abstract should be enough to override the obnoxious prestige factors. But when you’re talking about hundreds of writing samples, I doubt that people are reading enough of them to offset the prestige-of-degree-granting-institution factor, which, I hear, is even stronger in Philosophy than in the modern languages. For this I blame Brian Leiter.

No, seriously (Professor Leiter! I was only one-quarter joking!), one of the important differences between philosophy and English has to do with the dissertation itself, and what counts as a “writing sample.” For more on that, though, I have to ask you to wait until next week, when I take that deep breath and reply to Menand.

24

FMguru 11.05.09 at 7:22 am

Making applying for a job into a time-consuming chore is also happenning in the non-academic world. A lot of job openings make you jump through a bunch of hoops in order to apply. You follow a lead to the company’s website, and instead of being given an email address to send your resume to, you have to register an account, verify it in your email, fill out a bunch of web forms (FIRST NAME / MIDDLE INITIAL / LAST NAME / STREET NUMBER / STREET ADDRESS and so on) and then get to the section where you copy-paste your resume as unformatted text. It’s infuriating, but I imagine the purpose is to infuriate people and convince them not to waste their time applying if they’re not really, really sure they want the job. It’s a way to cut down on the number of resumes that the HR department has to slog through and to ensure that the ones who apply for your job aren’t just blast-broadcasting their resumes to every job listing that is within three ballparks of what they’re qualified for. I wonder if the increasing hassle of applying for academic jobs has the same cause (an arificial barrier designed to “weed out” non-hardcore applicants and save the hiring committee’s time.)

25

Ciarán 11.05.09 at 9:12 am

It’s infuriating, but I imagine the purpose is to infuriate people and convince them not to waste their time applying if they’re not really, really sure they want the job.

These policies may not be designed to piss you off but may be part of equality policies for recruitment etc. Everything goes onto standard forms so the search committee isn’t swayed by lovely design etc. Seriously. I write from a region of the UK where, shall we say, we’ve had to innovate on these things.

Also, I presume that to get a job in an American English department I’d need references from Hitler, Stalin and Hilary Clinton.

26

Zamfir 11.05.09 at 10:23 am

I never really understood how these job markets with 70 applications per job work, even in non-recession circumstances. I can see the point if only a few of thsoe 70 will end up with a desired job at all, but in practice a lot of those 70 eventually find a job not too dissimilar to the ones where they were rejected.

Now job seekers write 70 applications and job get 70 serious reactions, but if jobs only got 20 serious reactions and seekers had to write on average 20 applications, would the end result be that different?

27

Teaching Support 11.05.09 at 10:40 am

Well, which is worse? People who acknowledge the degree of sheer dumb luck involved in the academic job search, or people who don’t?

If you told me that the reason I can’t get a job like yours is that you’re smart and I’m stupid, I’d hate your guts but I wouldn’t take what you said to heart. Being told that I’m just unlucky, or I should have gone into academia a few years earlier – I respect your honesty, but what you’re saying rankles like hell.

28

Barry 11.05.09 at 10:50 am

FMGuru: “I wonder if the increasing hassle of applying for academic jobs has the same cause (an arificial barrier designed to “weed out” non-hardcore applicants and save the hiring committee’s time.)”

That’s an obvious thing, to me – if one requires 30 items in an application, with 20 of them being stupid and trivial, that’s got to increase the percentage of applications which can be quickly and cheaply rejected by a secretary, with no load on the professors.

There’s also a simple social aspect of a deprofessionalization – an applicant for a professorship is no longer assumed to be a member of at least the mid-middle class; he/she is a low-wage worker standing in a long line of applicants for a job, and should be treated like cattle.

29

Barry 11.05.09 at 10:53 am

Michael, thanks for the link to the Wayback Machine. Anybody who’s interested in the state of employment in academia should read the Invisible Adjunct’s blog first. It’s probably already been covered there, and covered well.

30

DivGuy 11.05.09 at 12:02 pm

I’ll be on the market next year (religion). Right now, it’s looking terrible – one subset of schools hit worst by the recession are small religious schools, mid-level seminaries and such. They weren’t raking in much money from tuition, and had small endowments in the stock market and depended heavily on charity. Now they’re on the brink of collapse – in all likelihood, a good number will just fold, and very few of those that stay around will be posting non-exploitative job openings.

I have a thing I keep telling myself – well, apart from, you can always quit academia and move to New York and get a different job. My hope is that the shape of the economic recovery, while it will be very bad for the vast majority of Americans, will actually be relatively good for academics. Tuition-driven schools will see a rise in funds and applications, since tuition runs counter-cyclically. Endowment-driven schools are hooked in not to the real economy, the actual production and provision of goods and services, which looks to be in the shitter for a few more years, but rather larger academic institutions are dependent on the fake economy, finance, which looks to be recovering reasonably well. So, as long as the government keeps funneling cash directly to Wall St with no strings attached, the financial markets should recover, endowments should recover, and the job search listings should spike in the next year or two. That’s what I’m saying to myself.

31

Phillip Hallam-Baker 11.05.09 at 12:59 pm

I find it rather interesting that it is assumed that the only reason one would want a doctorate is to teach at a university. If there are 750 doctorates in a subject then at most 75 should be expecting to go on to teach and at most 25 can become professors.

The math is simple, a tenured professor should be minting a new doctorate a year on average. So if we allow for a 30 year service life, that means each professor should be principal adviser to 30 students.

From a social perspective the academy is a waste of resources if it is the only consumer of the work product it produces. The real problem with the academy is that it perpetuates the myth that grad students should aspire to jobs in the academy as the highest point of achievement. That is rubbish, students should aspire to be or create the material that is studied by the academy.

There are actually very few disciplines where the major research effort takes place in universities. In my field less than 10% of the research goes on in Universities and much of that just isn’t very good.

32

Zamfir 11.05.09 at 1:17 pm

The real problem with the academy is that it perpetuates the myth that grad students should aspire to jobs in the academy as the highest point of achievement. That is rubbish, students should aspire to be or create the material that is studied by the academy.
The main assumption underlying universities is that the education needed to be become an academic is,for a variety of reasons also a very good education for other intelligent people. Therefore universities can support themselves by extending their in-house training to others, and they get first picks when looking for future academics.

It’s a system that has worked very well, but the result is inevitably that more people try to become academics than in a world were academics were found on the normal job market.

33

Glen Tomkins 11.05.09 at 1:47 pm

The buyer’s market

When I applied to medical school, they wanted to see your high school transcripts. Why would they have such a requirement? Perhaps there was a crank or two here or there on some or another admissions committee who thought that infromation might be helpful, and since there was no downside to the medical schools for being unreasonable to applicants, it being such a buyer’s market, why not humor the crank? I’m sure the writing sample thing has the same rationale. No, they don’t read them all. But, if there’s even one member of the admissions committee who might find it marginally more convenient to have the writing samples already in hand for applicants who pass the first screen, what’s the downside, in a buyer’s market, to the school for inconveniencing hundreds of applicants just to please some lone crank? And, of course, it might be some adminstrator’s bright idea that maybe the chronic problem of faculty on the committee not getting their admissions work done in a timely manner would be helped by eliminating the wait for writing samples between the first and second rounds. Same reasoning, why not humor even a blatantly ridiculous theory of why you can’t get faculty to do admin work efficiently, when there’s no downside?

By the way, the residency programs I applied to also “required” HS transcripts. But residencies need the stoop labor more than applicants need any particular residency, and there aren’t really any elite residencies because the worst working conditions are the best training for all of us except the few who want to go into research — and most importantly, some residency slots went unfilled in those days — so I told several admissions clerks that they would have to do without that information, thank you, which they all quite cheerfully did. The “requirement” was clearly just a holdover from the standard medical school process.

34

Jacob T. Levy 11.05.09 at 2:02 pm

In political science in North America, a writing sample is almost universally required, and grad transcripts are very common– this was true when I was on the market 10 years ago and is true now.

I’ve seen grad transcripts matter in two kinds of circumstances. One, when the applicant was claiming a secondary area (what philosophers call an Area of Competence) that wasn’t borne out by the dissertation– credibility’s added with a bunch of grad-level coursework. Two, when hiring people who are supposed to be (as we say) “tech’ed up,” able to teach formal and/or quantitative methods at the graduate level. A bunch of A’s in grad courses like those (in which the range does *not* go from A- to A) adds credibility– especially if the research using those methods is coauthored, so the committee needs some evidence of the candidate’s own ability with math.

Writing samples: what Tom Hurka said.

Do we read everything? No. It’s possible to cull many files on the basis of vitae and abstract. But we do read a lot, and in my experience it matters a lot. The list-of-15-or-20 stage is made up of very different people from those who would have been selected if writing wasn’t requested until *after* the list-of-15-or-20 was assembled.

35

J. Fisher 11.05.09 at 2:15 pm

I’m actively on the withering humanities job market, and have been for a few years, and it is indeed frustrating to attempt to send out complete application packets–not only because some ads ask for so much but also because there’s such wide variation between requirements. I think the most egregious, IMO, requirement I ever saw was a position that, in addition to a complete dossier, writing sample, transcripts, etc., I was asked to write two essays–yes essays–explaining why I wanted to teach at the college in question. These essays were not meant as substitues for my statement of teaching philosophy (already included in the doorstop packet I compiled), but in addition to that packet, like I was applying to college all over again.

Two things come to mind when reading this:

1) I know a handful of creative writing folks who are consistently irked when asked to forward mutiple copies of their books to search committees right up front. In one case that I know of, those books were returned still shrinkwrapped to the “candidate.” Inexcusable.

2) The fact that there is such wide variety in what is asked of job seekers reveals the fact that this whole process is incredibly opaque and idiosyncratic, which means that it’s quite difficult to get sound, accurate advice from mentors–dissertation advisors and such. I can’t count the amount of times that I’ve sat with my advisors pondering if “sending at least three letters of rec” means that I send only three letters; or, since the school in question is a research school, just the letters that focus on my research; or, since said school claims to value teaching, the reserach letters and the teaching letters; or if I should send only three letters so as not to irritate the job committee; or if I should send all of my letters because, after all, the ad says “at least” three letters; or if I should just chuck the whole enterprise and try to play professional sports–or become a rock star.

36

Harry 11.05.09 at 2:30 pm

All sorts of factors offset the prestige of the department (not institution: thanks substantially to Leiter I doubt the prestige of the institution gets much weight at all) in Philosophy — the letters count for an awful lot in getting past the first cut, and while the prestige of the letter writer matters, it doesn’t correlate very strongly with the prestige of the department. What counts as a good letter isn’t much of a mystery, either.

37

Donald A. Coffin 11.05.09 at 4:21 pm

@31 (Phillip Hallam-Baker): “The math is simple, a tenured professor should be minting a new doctorate a year on average. So if we allow for a 30 year service life, that means each professor should be principal adviser to 30 students.”

That assumes all tenured professors work in PhD programs, no? Most of us do not. We work in smaller state institutions, in 4-year colleges, even in some (increasing) number of cases, community colleges. So your starting point is wrong, and your arithmetic is wrong as a consequence.

38

christian h. 11.05.09 at 4:47 pm

Couple points:

1. In Germany, all kinds of transcripts are needed. That’s because even if, say, you thesis contains a proof of the Riemann hypothesis, if it turns out you didn’t finish high school, you won’t be able to get an academic job. In fact, they’ll rescind your PhD. seriously.

2. Out of curiosity: are language job applications still paper based?

3. In math (in the US), many places do require graduate transcripts, though most accept copies. The way the market works for us is (simplifying a bit) that one person will get all the job offers, and once that person decides, the next one gets the remaining offers and so forth. It can be quite excruciating if you are not one of those top people (as most of us aren’t/weren’t).

4. Amen! to Michael’s emphasis on pure dumb luck. And this years candidates are out of luck. It’s an awful job market.

39

Britta 11.05.09 at 7:08 pm

Clearly, the solution is to create a standardized test for professors, a la the SAT or GRE. Here’s a first question:
Assume each publication in a regular journal increases your odds of being hired by 8.25% and in a top journal by 13.12%. If Mary has 3 publications , one in a top journal and 2 in regular ones, and John has 5 publications, none in a top journal, who will be more likely to be hired?
a) Mary
b) John
c) the odds are equal
d) neither, Fred will get the position, but only after both Mary and John have submitted official undergrad transcripts and a 1oo page monograph each.

On a more serious note, why do all the “academia is doomed” articles only site statistics on the field of English? Can such stats be more broadly applied to other disciplines across the board, or is English lit unusually afflicted? I gather the take away message, we’re all doomed, and the field of English is the canary in the coal mine, but it would be interesting to see actual data for other fields (especially other humanities or social sciences) rather than just personal anecdotes suggesting other disciplines are also in trouble.

40

Kathleen Lowrey 11.05.09 at 8:37 pm

Oh, thank you for saying this. Search committees that ask for everything, up front, from everybody, should be shot. It’s terrible for the environment, it asks far too much of poor and in-no-position-to-protest candidates (many of whom are applying for dozens of positions), and it’s lazy lazy lazy.

(1) Sometimes, it really is easy being green. Don’t compel the generation and transit of excess paper. Done! Easy peasy!

(2) A job letter IS a writing sample. You know after reading those two pages if the applicant writes well, if they can present their research in a compelling way, and if they are a plausible fit for your department’s needs.

(3) The reason committees do it The Bad Way is b/c they want to get together as few times as possible, have everything at their fingertips, and not have to make it a process of many rounds. It should be a process of many rounds — it’s a big deal for everyone involved — and narrowing the original list to the 15 (or whatever) people from whom it would be genuinely worthwhile to see more is the right thing to do. The stubborn insensitivity of (some) departments about this, given the 45 degree angle of the playing field between hirers and applicants, is exasperating.

41

Harry 11.05.09 at 9:03 pm

English is a huge discipline, and a well organised one. Most of the other humanities disciplines are significantly smaller, and much less well organised. Also, English tends to assume that it is in a relatively strong position with undergraduates, both because it is a subject taught (and often loved) in high school, and because it has secured for itself pole position in offering writing instruction (which universities think is important, but no-one really wants to do — hence the fact that it tends to be done by graduate students). So, I’m not sure it is the canary in the coalmine (if Michael is right about the reduction in positions, it seems much worse than what seems to be happening in philosophy) but there are reasons to think it might be.

42

Mark K. 11.05.09 at 9:53 pm

Keith @13,14:

Also common in libraries is replacing a departing professional with a paraprofessional, a.k.a. de-skilling.

43

Tom Hurka 11.05.09 at 10:16 pm

In Philosophy at least the idea that you can judge a candidate by a two-page letter or a thesis abstract just doesn’t seem true. The letter or abstract will say the candidate will argue that or prove x — but the question is, how does he or she do that? what are the actual arguments, and how persuasive do they make x? You have to see the details to have any idea of the quality of the candidate’s work. That said, it often doesn’t take the whole writing sample to judge that. Often the quality is fairly evident early on. But it’s early in a substantive piece of work, not in a description of what that work sets out to do.

44

Kathleen Lowrey 11.05.09 at 10:45 pm

Tom Hurka — I’m not saying you can decide on the basis of a two page letter whom to hire. I am saying you can very easily decide from whom you are simply not interested in seeing more, and this will eliminate more than half the pile every time: some because they are simply bad, some because they can’t pique your interest in two pages so never will in 25, some because they are a bad fit because of overlap, lack of match to the description in the ad, etc. etc. etc. It’s very easy, in fact, to tell in two pages from whom you want to see more in order to make the more nuanced kinds of evaluations you are describing. In a climate in which 100 applicants is routine and as many as 600 not unheard of, asking for more material than that up front is disgusting.

45

John Quiggin 11.05.09 at 10:46 pm

I’m surprised that there is apparently still a paper-based process in lots of places. That seems burdensome for all concerned – for example, are the writing samples manually replicated or submitted in multiple copies, or does one dog-eared copy make the rounds.

Unsurprisingly, given our antipodal location, relative to the physical job market and most of the applicants, we request everything electronically. Asking applicants to attach a PDF of their job market paper (this is a standard feature in economics, maybe not elsewhere) isn’t a problem then. The big problem is that applicants can, and do, send us three or four papers.

To repeat, in case anyone interested is still reading: UQ Economics is a great place to work and we are definitely hiring.

46

Salient 11.05.09 at 11:03 pm

Every time I see a post on this topic I feel physically sick.
But this was substantially mitigated by the line “WTF,” I calmly replied.
(Thanks for the chuckle.)
(However, I think O RLY? was the proper responseme.)

Because in my business, the grades usually run the gamut from A to A-, and everybody knows (or else should know) that the really important evaluations are the substantive, written ones

Maths at my university: Our pre-qualifying-exam classes run the C-B-A gamut, and it seems commonly understood that Cs generally reserved for signaling purposes and financing decisions. TA funding is tied to GPA, so a C means something like your performance was not sufficiently satisfactory to recommend you for continued funding, are you sure you want to continue here? (We graduate students were gently informed of this at the outset.)

Anyway, it seems the easiest way to get information about a mathematics grad student’s general breadth of competence in core fields outside their specialty (algebra/analysis/topology/etc) would be to look at their GS transcript. It would be weird and disconcerting to me if a university didn’t request that information from me as part of the upfront applications process.

In our post-qualifying topics courses in mathematics, grades are irrelevant, but I can confirm there exists at least one department in the humanities on this campus which is peculiarly demanding in coursework, all the way up through topics coursework, and assigns grades quite harshly all throughout its Ph.D. program, with homeworks that require substantial weekly time investment (in addition to the readings etc). Net effect there, nearly every non-superhuman grad student in that department has to take a semester or two completely off of coursework in order to have time to work on their dissertation.

47

Salient 11.05.09 at 11:15 pm

To repeat, in case anyone interested is still reading: UQ Economics is a great place to work and we are definitely hiring.

[This is welcome news, even though it’s outside my department. I will retain the hope that in 2-4 years, the UQ Mathematics department feels likewise.]

In a climate in which 100 applicants is routine and as many as 600 not unheard of, asking for more material than that up front is disgusting.

I like the idea of requiring each applicant to upload their CV and their entire dissertation/thesis as PDFs to a publicly accessible website. (The website format could be standardized by providing free server space and simple upload tools via the professional organization, e.g. the MLA.) Name, CV, dissertation.

Is there any particular reason this is infeasible? My understanding is that neither CVs nor dissertations are especially private things.

48

Kathleen Lowrey 11.05.09 at 11:42 pm

Salient — it sounds perfectly feasible, but you are counting without the sloth of selection committees. Why should they do anything (like consult a website, print stuff out themselves) when they can make applicants do everything?

The basic lack of compassion, collegiality, you name it on display — it’s awful. On the one hand you have employed people sitting in a warm room reviewing files, at the end of which they are 99.6% guaranteed to get themselves a thrilled and grateful new colleague from a highly competitive field of candidates.

On the other hand you have un- or under-employed people hauling themselves all over town making copies, reformatting their job letters to dozens of criteria (but one of the most common search-committee laments is, “they hardly tailored it to us at all! No mention of our recently refurbished gym! It’s like they just don’t care!”), corralling reference letters, all for a process which is mostly going to yield silence and rejection.

Who should be cutting who a little slack? But so many searches don’t. Not all — some get it just right, I think. But there should be more disciplinary shaming of the ones that sort of aggressively don’t care or are even borderline-punitive in their proliferation of up-front demands.

49

djw 11.06.09 at 12:36 am

Political Science. I’d say 50% want grad transcripts, 15% undergrad (???), 75% writing samples (mostly the 4/4 or more teaching jobs that don’t), and 60% want sample syllabi, evidence of teaching effectiveness (ie, evals), etc. A variety of other random things are asked for, such as statements of teaching philosophy and, in one case, an outline of planned research and publication venues for the next six years. The teaching philosophy statement is annoying, because I feel like I have to go and redo the ‘teaching’ part of my cover letter such that I’m not re-printing entire identical sentences in different parts of the application, since I of course include about teaching philosophy in my letter.

I include it all and don’t gripe, although it seems like a grim exercise in futility. I’m a lecturer at an institution that feels terribly guilty about exploiting me (well, the dept does, the institution probably less so), and all that printing is free. One job requested a 20 minute teaching sample, recorded in front of an actual class. Apparently, that’s my limit–I didn’t apply to that job.

50

Barry 11.06.09 at 12:55 am

John Quiggin 11.05.09 at 10:46 pm

” To repeat, in case anyone interested is still reading: UQ Economics is a great place to work and we are definitely hiring.”

John, I’m interested – would the department waive both the Ph.D. requirement, and the requirement for any actual economics training or reserarch? :)

51

Barry 11.06.09 at 12:56 am

…as well as ability to spell, obviously. That I can fake; if pressed I’ll say that Americans spell it that way.

52

astrongmaybe 11.06.09 at 1:17 am

By all accounts the situation in the other modern languages is if anything worse than in English. So, for example, the wikis’ figures on tenure track positions in German, offered on the opening day of the MLA List:

2006: 38
2007: 34
2008: 23
2009: 8.

A few more jobs will trickle along in the following weeks and months, but not many.

53

Kenny Easwaran 11.06.09 at 8:26 am

(2) A job letter IS a writing sample. You know after reading those two pages if the applicant writes well, if they can present their research in a compelling way, and if they are a plausible fit for your department’s needs.

That seems to be another disciplinary difference. In philosophy I don’t know anyone whose cover letter was two pages long. Mine was barely 3/4 of a page, including the address fields at the top and the space for my signature at the bottom. If all these sorts of things are much shorter in philosophy than in English, then perhaps it does make the writing sample more relevant earlier on?

54

Phillip Hallam-Baker 11.06.09 at 2:14 pm

@37 (Donald) Yes, but teaching in PhD programs is what folk aspire to. Not teaching at community colleges or taking an interminable series of Post Doc positions. In the course of 5 years I held a total of six Post Doctoral positions, albeit three of those were before I submitted my thesis so I guess that they were Pre-Docs.

To get onto tenure track I would have had to take at least one more since I was rather too busy doing useful research to play the game of writing on the topics that gains tenure. At the time, the Web was considered ‘soft’ and ‘unmanly’, too ‘commercial’. To get papers published in real journals you had to be doing stuff with obscure theoretical math.

So the folk who were pushing the broken models of network hypertext are now the ones teaching in the colleges and the folk who built the Web are out in industry or working at Tim’s highly industry facing W3C. We are only just getting to the notion that studying how people are using the Web is interesting.

The point I am making here is that the academic selection process does not get you the best candidates. In fact the best candidates will have nothing to do with the process because they have other career options that do not require them to crawl over broken glass to get there – besides paying considerably better.

And the complaint I hear from the women who have got to the top of the university ladder is that having children is not compatible with an academic career. If you look at the tenure race, it means that a woman has to put off having children until after 30 at the very earliest.

55

ohtheirony 11.06.09 at 5:19 pm

@ 54 (Philip): “And the complaint I hear from the women who have got to the top of the university ladder is that having children is not compatible with an academic career. If you look at the tenure race, it means that a woman has to put off having children until after 30 at the very earliest.”

30 at the earliest? That presumes that female grad students actually have time to meet potential mates by then. I started my PhD program at 26, am now 30 and expect to graduate in 2011 (faster than average for English). I happen to be married (met my spouse before I went back to school – lucky me). But if I get pregnant now, I won’t finish my degree on time, and I put my measly funding at risk. And if I get pregnant next year, I won’t get a job. Because the accepted wisdom is that nobody hires a pregnant woman (assuming she makes it to the interview stage at all) because she’s a “risk.” You know, she might want to do it again, which would harm her productivity. Not to mention the tenure clock. Not to mention that there’s no way I could *afford* to have children on my measly graduate stipend – I can hardly feed, clothe, and shelter myself. And, presuming my first three jobs are postdoc or one-year appointments, this means that I will be on the job market constantly for the next three years (and likely adjuncting with no health insurance). Say I then got a job, I might respectfully wait a year before trying to get pregnant. This pushes my childbearing horizon back to 35, which, as the medical profession suggests, is too late.

56

Jordan DeLange 11.07.09 at 8:11 am

So you are saying that going on the job market in three or four years, after the Bush economy is over and people need to hire again to make up for what they couldn’t do recently, is a good thing?

Excellent.

57

jeff 11.07.09 at 9:27 pm

When I’ve chaired a search and required writing samples up front, it’s been for the convenience of the search committee, and because at my school we’re almost always late getting our positions approved and advertised. We proceed as Michael mentioned, cutting the 300-500 applications for a position in English or American lit. down to 50-75, and then down to the number we’ll interview. But if we had to notify those 50-75 and ask for writing samples, it would put an extra burden on an already tremendously overworked administrative assistant, and it severely increase the time pressures on the search committee, during that period near the end of the semester when decisions finally get made.

58

Skutotomos 11.08.09 at 4:04 am

Given all of the headaches associated with this process, why hasn’t the MLA, or the AHA, or the APA, or any of the other three-letter nightmares, figured out a way to establish an online database onto which candidates could upload all of their materials, where referees could submit letters, and from where then hiring departments/institutions could log in to retrieve what they needed from whomever, whenever they happened to need it? With such a system the “application” portion could consist of an applicant emailing a tailored job letter to the SC, in which they also would give the committee an electronic password to unlock the documents needed by the SC. Voila! No more mailing, no more fretting, no more worries and expenses of Fed-Ex and deadlines.

I spent hundreds of dollars, and dozens of hours, mailing packages of various sorts to various places. No doubt most of those places never looked at all of the documents I sent them. Now, having been on the other side, I see how overworked our staff is when dealing with similar piles of documents from applicants. Quite frankly I find the whole system absurd.

All of us are constantly emailing PDFs back and forth with very little problem. We upload pictures onto FaceSpace and its ilk. Why, then, do we still insist on burdening applicants and assistants with carbon-footprint-expanding slices of dead tree every year?

This wouldn’t fix the larger problems of the academic job market, but it could go some way towards minimizing the absurdities of one part of the process. Were I designing this database I think I’d also devote considerable server-power to the establishment of virtual interview rooms, where applicants and SCs could then conduct video-conferences in lieu of these soul-crushing conference cattle-calls. This would be much more fair economically to the applicants, much more ecologically friendly, and save untold hours of travel and cost from the institutional end.

The more I sits and thinks of this, the more I wants to start the damn company myself and contract it out to the MLA, etc. … Maybe after my tenure goes through.

59

nona mouse 11.08.09 at 7:47 am

“This pushes my childbearing horizon back to 35, which, as the medical profession suggests, is too late.”

This isn’t too late for many women. But there is a higher risk that either you won’t conceive or you will have miscarriages. I always find it a bit strange that this cost of tenure for women is so comfortably accepted by many academics. It is interesting to compare women in medicine and other fields, such as law. Most women doctors have children whereas the number of women academics who have children is much smaller. Some women manage to have one or more children though and still get tenure and others get lucky after tenure and can still conceive. (The received wisdom is that it is very risky for tenure to have more than one.) Some people want to adopt, and adoption agencies leave open a bigger window for age. There is a cut off age for some international adoptions but I don’t know about domestic.

I can’t think of a reason why women academics would be very different than women doctors in their desire to reproduce. So I think that more than a few women are sacrificing being parents to get tenure. Being a woman who wants children and tenure at the same time is a true dilemma because you are running big risks in both directions: You might not have children and not get tenure, for example. Or you might wait and then be unable to have children. Statistics about women in other professions suggest it is probably the tenure system rather than the standard problem of being in a demanding career.

60

nona mouse 11.08.09 at 7:52 am

I should add that it is only claimed to be risky, in terms of tenure chances, for women to have more than one child.

And I do not know how much of that is perception (you must not be serious about your career if you have two kids–something which can only be disproved by being a publishing superstar) or the actual demands of mothering. Or a combination of both.

61

Ben Eltham 11.10.09 at 5:58 am

John Q,

just out of interest, what sort of publication record would you expect succesful candidates to possess?

I’m not an economist but I am interested in the sort of record UQ economics would desire ;)

62

John Quiggin 11.10.09 at 10:22 am

These are positions to be filled by recent (or about-to-be) PhD graduates, so it would be possible to be appointed with no publications, but we would be expecting new hires to get at least two or three articles in good journals out of their dissertations. Obviously the best way of demonstrating that you can satisfy that expectation is to have the acceptance letters in your pocket, but if the articles look good (hence our demand for these to be included in the package) the supporting letters are positive and the seminar goes well, we would take a chance.

63

Ben Eltham 11.10.09 at 11:15 am

Great! thanks John ;)

64

Martin 11.12.09 at 2:19 am

I’ve just read the presidential column in the latest MLA newsletter, and I am deeply dismayed. The Obama administration, she says, probably doesn’t count “our” numbers when it calculates under- and unemployment; this blog post has also said no federal stimulus is coming our way, not that it’s a news flash. But why won’t the MLA do any lobbying? Why are the humanities so damned silent in Washington? The N.E.H. has so little funding compared to, say, the N.I.H.–yet not a word of protest. Count me among those who find this silence from humanists inhuman.

65

George Berger 11.12.09 at 6:47 am

There’s an interesting political take on part of this problem in the higher education job market. It applies to the Netherlands (where I had the misfortune to live and work), and perhaps to other EU nations. That country has little need of highly skilled and highly trained workers, in any field whatsoever. So the politicos (not often lovers of pure thought) figure that it’s a waste of money to spend too much on higher education. But of course they cannot say this in public, for to do so would be to commit political suicide. Since they do wish to cut and downsize, they use Newspeak terms like “modernzation,” “efficiency,” “preparing for the future,” etc. Then they go right ahead and cut, often by firing staff and putting hiring on hold (forever?). That, I’m sorry to say, is the bottom line in one country. I’ll bet that similar tricks are used elsewhere, with the same hidden agenda in mind.

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