Suggestions on a More Humane Academic Job Market

I’ve just wrapped a pretty extensive academic job search looking for a tenure-track humanities job (in this case, history). I started the first application in my search in August and ended the last application in early November. I was joined on the market by no less than a dozen former and current colleagues also looking for academic jobs—almost entirely in history and/or digital humanities. After almost seven months on this road together, I’ve put together some suggestions on making the academic job market more humane. And….discuss.

1) Academic job ads should list a salary range at the outset. We know you have minimums and maximums set by the university and, more importantly, that each department knows the range they can afford based on their budget. Stop pretending that just because it is a faculty job that you don’t know the rough estimate of what a department would be willing to spend. That simple step will save both the applicant and the institution time in the long run. While you may lose a couple of candidates in the early days, it will save you going through copious interviews only to find that your maximum isn’t anywhere near a candidate’s minimum acceptable salary.

2) Academic teaching job ads should actually state what the recognized university teaching load is. Every university has a customary teaching load per department. Something like: “the current minimum load is X classes per year subject to research and contracted negotiations” would be great to include in the job ad itself. Some schools already do this but an amazing number don’t.

3) Any teaching ad should also specify the minimum and maximum class sizes by department for general core courses. I was horrified this year to find that some institutions considered one class 120 students while another considered one class 25 students. In a 3-3 teaching load, an applicant could have 360 students or just 75 each semester. That is a pretty big difference in terms of job expectations and level of student engagement.

4) Stop requiring from all initial applications anything more than a CV, a statement or letter of interest, and the names of three references. I get why a search committee asks for all the materials they could possible need at the outset. It is easier for them to track everything and move along the process. But, when the average pool of applicants can be anywhere from a dozen to a couple hundred, we (the applicants) know you aren’t reading the 100 pages of materials you requested before that initial weeding.  We, the applicants, also know it is driving up the cost of applications for everything to be printed and sent.  I propose the following:

round one: c.v., statement/letter of interest, names of three references

prior to round two (usually the phone or skype interview): limited writing, teaching, or research samples (e.g. no more than 20 pages of writing, an overview of your teaching experience, and/or research samples)

prior to round three (the second phone or on-campus): here’s where the committee can go to town. if you are willing to shell out your money to bring an applicant town, then at this point, we’ll send you the full spread of everything you could possibly want.

5) Email of recognition. You’d be amazed how many schools use an electronic submission system that does not confirm that your application has been received. Many schools are also moving to email-based submissions. You almost always have to email to ask if your application has not only been received by email but that the recipient has opened and tested all attached materials. And yes, a search committee should actually check all the materials to ensure that they are correct and complete.

6) The job-process timing window. On the one hand, we have schools putting out ads early and pushing the pace to get people to campus and job offers out. These schools seem to think pushing the pace will net them higher quality candidates who are nervous about doing well on the market. On the other hand, we have schools with lengthy submission windows (10-12 weeks from the ad going out to the application being due) who seem to expect candidates to wait for them to get their committees moving. I understand both sides of this coin….but let’s be honest here that in the first case, you forcing candidates to make a decision before any of their other applications have come back isn’t going to lend warm and fuzzy feelings between you and the candidate. And, to a large extent, the long dragging job search isn’t helping either. So here is my proposal:

Job ads should only be live for a 30 day submission window at maximum. Within 30 days of submission, the winnowing process should begin. And within 90 days you should be down to your final candidates. The search will still take 4 to 5 months but at least now, schools can publish their average process so that we can stop guessing when we will hear for round one winnowing.

7) The job ad should match the information entered in the Human Resources system for job classification and benefits purposes. This is particularly important for humanities research positions and post-doctoral positions. If applicants are going to get classified as staff and have different benefits after the fact, we need to know now before we spend our time working through this search. Also, if because applicants are going to be a researcher, we will have different norms than faculty (intellectual property, annual leave, etc) call it out in the job ad.

8) Communication and Notification. All things being equal, we need to begin admitting the crappy way some universities behave in terms of searching for new faculty, staff, and researchers. I’ve got colleagues who still haven’t heard from institutions from last year’s job search. Myself, I’ve still got 10 active schools with initial deadlines from before Halloween that still haven’t said I didn’t get the nod. I’ve had colleagues get emails with their name spelled wrong and the wrong affiliation information. I even had one colleague who was notified that he was being brought to campus. Only to find out 24 hours later that the email was sent in error and he didn’t make it through the first weeding. I’ve also had colleagues who get emails in one sentence forms: “You were not selected.” with no welcome or closing. So my proposal:

If you don’t notify someone within 90 days of the date the application is due, we can all assume that either I’m not being considered or that your job search met with some sort of hang-up. In the case of delays or issues: if your delay is going to be more than a week and you’ve already been in touch with the candidate, you should notify the candidate with an estimate of the delay and an explanation of the expected repercussions of the delay (e.g. this search will continue until X date at the earliest). And, when you do write, be punctual and careful in the language and grammar being used. A kiss-off email that is badly composed is way worse than a kiss-off email that is polite and well-done.

(And in the case of major errors, like the one my poor colleague suffered, a personal phone call is really best.)

9) The conference interview. Lots has been written about the conference interview (see Rebecca Shuman’s “Market Crash Course IV: Kill The Conference Interview!” for her take on why this needs to go away. I’m not going to rehash things here. But I will say this:

Make sure that if you intend to interview candidates at a specific conference that your timeline allows at least 4-6 weeks notification so that candidates can make the necessary travel arrangements without having to break the bank to do so. And if you can’t make that window, announce in the ad that interviews will take place at the conference so that people can try to start saving early to afford to go.

10) The visit itself should recognize that we’ve got jobs that we have to do while being on the market and that we can’t go 12 hours a day for multiple days. It should also recognize that we (the applicants) have different needs during the visit.

Everyone wants campus visits on tuesdays and wednesdays or wednesdays and thursdays because they tend to be when most folks on campus are available. But given transit issues, a mid-week visit often means leaving a day prior and (if you are lucky) coming back late the day of, if not the day later. This means three days of leave for the visit minimum—if the travel stars align. This winter, for one colleague, he went on no less than four campus visits (yea for him!). Because of winter weather, three of the four visits had him stuck in transit in places where he had to accrue extra leave and extra costs. He ended up calling on friends in the cities he got stuck in to help him out. For me, I got really lucky this cycle and only had one weather-related hiccup. The search committee was truly incredible in covering the extra hotel costs and even offering to run me to shop for additional clothes. So here is what I propose:

No one wants a hit-and-run visit. But for many of us, being offline for three days on visits and in travel means we get up early and stay up late to cover work duties. So, let’s agree that visit days should begin no earlier than 8:30 and end no later than 7 pm. (These hours can, of course, be adjusted based on what you’ve got the candidate doing—particularly when candidates are dealing with time zone issues).

I also propose that before a visit, the organizers asks the applicant about any needs they may have (periods of rest, dietary, special accommodations, room to nurse etc.) but also how much down time they’d like to have. This way, we both feel good about the pace of the visit.

11) Confidentiality (from a colleague who prefers to remain anonymous). Not every candidate looking for a new job is interested in having their name broadcast to the heavens. Some applicants go on the market and expect to have their confidentiality respected. This means that search committees should remember to enforce rules around applicant information. One notable example brought to my attention this year not once but twice was audience members at job talks tweeting the talk using the candidates’ name. Search committees and those involved in visit events should assume all social media is off limits unless the applicant says otherwise. They may be protecting their current position or not want to stir up resentments among colleagues who might be competing for the same position. Which brings me to this recommendation:

All departments should have a clear policy on candidate confidentiality (particularly social media and email) that is made available to everyone in the department and/or audience at each talk.

12) Contract processes. Communication is key to any contract discussion. If you are going to offer the job, a phone call is great. But know that none of us are going to agree to anything without it in writing. So, search committee, if you put out the offer, can you do it knowing that we’ll want to see things in writing in the next day or two at maximum? It doesn’t have to be the final offer…but a place of us to start. Once we’ve negotiated, the final offer needs to have a deadline on it…both for you to produce the final offer and for me to respond. Those last two, by the way, should not be the same day. The longer you take to produce the final written offer, the longer it will be before the clock starts on the applicant being able to sign off. Please have your ducks in a row before you get us all excited.

If you have post-offer steps (university approvals, HR sign-offs, etc), specify them up front at the beginning. If this process is going to take weeks to accomplish, extra heads up would be nice as well. Also, know that this process is likely complicated by personal and professional factors. One colleague needed to consult not just with immediate advisors and family but also do financial estimates. Another had to consider their partner and give them time to scout the job market seriously before decision making. We get that you want us to commit so that you can move down the list if we aren’t. But, there can be lots to weigh in, giving us two weeks to decide would be nice considering how much time it takes you to get us to this stage. (The American Historical Association recommends this…but very few people actually follow the recommendation.)

By the way, if there is more than a couple of days of delay at any point in the contract discussion and finalization, know that we are going to panic. An email saying that things are still working is just polite to our emotional well-being.

13) The spousal/partner hire. Spousal or partner hires can be complicated situations—whether the partner is in the same discipline, in a different college, or even a potential staff member in the larger university. The fact that your university is interested in the joint hire situation is awesome—we, the applicants, wish more universities were (particularly at the assistant professor level). But, and this is a BIG BIG but, do not say the words spousal or partner hire unless your university actually does these on a regular basis into the particular department, discipline, college, or staff area that the joint hire would pertain to. If you get asked about it, the correct answer is: while we hope to accommodate a spousal or partner hire at some point in the future, we are unable to make any arrangements as such at this time. UNLESS you commit to have their job hire done at the same time. In that case, feel free to talk about joint hires.

In the case of one colleague, he was hired into a recognized R1 position with the promise that his spouse would be given a position in her particular area of expertise (non tenure-track, of course). Eighteen months after the hire was completed, the University finally found her a part-time position in a discipline completely unrelated to her interests and at a much lower pay scale than the position she left. My colleague likely wouldn’t have picked up and moved cross country (and depended on that joint income) had he known it would take such a long time to get his spouse a job.

14) The Interim (via a post from another colleague). Know that once we’ve hired on to join your institution that we are really excited for the job and can’t wait to start—but that we still have a pre-existing job (student, employee, faculty at other institution, whatever). We are happy to weigh in where possible and spend some time getting things prepared for when we actually start—but lord above, please don’t start asking us to basically begin our job now. (I admit this one was a new one to me and seems to be very unique to this one situation but still.)

Emails, friendly missives, and even some limited input and decision-making is great. But if you start cc’ing the newly-signed applicant on every departmental email, listserv, or asking them to “sit-in” on calls and meetings without even discussing it first, you aren’t helping them transition…you are asking them to start their job early without pay. So, let’s limit transitional applicants to essential work only so that they have time to do their own prep for courses, research, etc.
So, here are my recommendations for making the academic job market more humane. What are your suggestions to improve the process?

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3 comments for “Suggestions on a More Humane Academic Job Market

  1. February 25, 2014 at 3:42 pm

    Terrific list, Jen. I’ll add a tough lesson from my own experience *hiring* someone (not for a full-time or teaching job, but still). I knew that I wanted to do a good job with #8 in particular (notifying everyone about the outcome of the job search), so I wrote the successful candidate first and told them they had the job, but asked them not to say anything about it until we had announced it. And then I wrote a polite and compassionate email (with a proper greeting and closing!) to all the unsuccessful candidates informing them of the outcome. And THEN (I don’t know what I was thinking), a couple of hours later, I announced the outcome of the search on our blog. I learned later that at least one of the unsuccessful candidates had seen the announcement on social media before they checked their email. I was horrified. I had fallen into the trap of thinking that notifying the unsuccessful candidates was done just because I had sent the emails. Next time I’ll wait at least a day or two before making the announcement. Social media moves fast.

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