It’s job-hunting season in academia, so we’re not the only ones sifting through huge piles of applications looking for the One True Job Candidate. Clifford Johnson has his own pile of mail, and some suggestions for how to fix the process:
Of the order of a decade ago I suggested (to nobody in particular, just during random lunchtime conversations and the like) that we could fix this with a similar setup to the arXiv, in fact. We have a central database where a person in the field can upload their cover letter, curriculum vitae, research statement, and so forth. The system assigns it a unique identifier. He/she informs her letter writers of that identifier. They upload their letter for that person to the system, and the system links it to that person’s application. Now, all one has to do to get that person’s complete application is go to the database and look up that identifier – either sent to you or your institution by email, or whatever way is preferable. So there is no need to send tons of letters around…. they are only read when needed, etc., etc. Registered research groups are the only places allowed to get direct access to the combined application (materials, cover letter, letters of recommendation). You just read online, or print out and form your shortlist of applicants. In fact, now I think about it, if you’re a registered institution, you can know that someone has applied to you because in their space on the system they can see the list of registered groups and can just click on the ones to which they want to apply. (Sometimes someone will want to tailor their application somewhat differently for particular institutions. No problem… they can have multiple accounts, uploading different versions of their materials if they want.)
I should point out that there’s already a partial version of something like this system in place– in the ninety-odd applications I read, there were probably eight or ten that were complete electronic packets sent by a service that collects together the CV, statements, and recommendation letters for a given candidate, and sends the whole thing as a big collection of PDF’s. It’s not all that widely used, and none of the applicants using the system made my “A” list, but the beginning of a system is there.
I think the basic idea here is sound– there ought to be a way of distributing applications and letters that doesn’t involve quite so much paper-shuffling, but the details would take a lot of work. If any community is in a position to get something like this going, though, the theoretical physics community would probably be it, so I definitely encourage the folks behind the ArXiV to get to work on such a system.