Reducing the Application Pile

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Rob Knop
    December 12, 2006

    One possible unintended consequence : the number of applications you have to read might go up.

    Already people scatterfire applications to every job listed in Physics Today. I’m sure you see some at Union that make it clear that the person is really trying to apply to a research University; I’ve talked to other people who’ve done searches at small liberal-arts colleges, and they’ve told me that they always see a bunch of those.

    It’s easy enough as is, but if it comes to the point of just checking one more checkbox for “the places to which I want to apply,” I predict that all places get many more applications. As a result, the process gets harder for the search commitees — who, to do their job right, must apply at least some level of care to every application. (Some can quickly be seen to not be right for the job, but even those take at least some time.)

    This would remove a bunch of the “have we received this or that letter” sorts of headaches, but I suspect the burden on the faculty members doing the search would increase…

  2. #2 Jonathan Dursi
    December 12, 2006

    http://www.mathjobs.org

    The AMS (American Math Society) has something like this set up; why there isn’t one in physicsland I really don’t know.

  3. #3 Jeff
    December 12, 2006

    A single common application precludes one from tailoring one’s application package to the particular university at hand. I think that’s an important part of an application.

    I don’t really see the application process as being that difficult. I remember it taking something like half a day to send out a huge stack of applications (after having written the proposal already). And on the university side, if they’re not going to bother to read the letters anyway (as Clifford implies), then who cares if they trickle in slowly?

  4. #4 Jeff
    December 12, 2006

    Wanted to add: I think the real place the process could use some fixing is in communication with the applicants. I’m not sure what I would change, but sending out application packages in September and October, and hearing nothing until January at the earliest, April or May sometimes, or even never hearing anything again seems excessively cruel.

  5. #5 CCP
    December 12, 2006

    Jeff is right; the waiting is the hardest part (thanx TP). Folks on the applicant side of the academic-job equation this year can band together and share some information about the progress/lack thereof of specific searches at this wiki:
    http://wikihost.org/wikis/academe/wiki/start

  6. #6 Chad Orzel
    December 12, 2006

    One possible unintended consequence : the number of applications you have to read might go up.

    Absolutely. Anecdotally, I’ve been told that accepting electronic applications increases the total number by something like 50% (if not more), and not at the deep end of the pool, as it were.

    The AMS (American Math Society) has something like this set up; why there isn’t one in physicsland I really don’t know.

    I think the American Institutes of Physics offer a similar service– at least, I think it was the AIP who was bundling the letters together. I’m not sure, though, and I don’t want to go through the folders to find one to check.

    A single common application precludes one from tailoring one’s application package to the particular university at hand. I think that’s an important part of an application.

    Yeah, and that’s one of the details that would need some work. It wouldn’t be too hard to allow for separate cover letters, or alternate statements, while keeping most things standardized.

    One interesting thing that I forgot to mention: Clifford’s big stack of mail is applications for a post-doc position, not even a faculty job. That’s kind of boggling to me, given the, um, informal way I got my post-doc…

    Wanted to add: I think the real place the process could use some fixing is in communication with the applicants. I’m not sure what I would change, but sending out application packages in September and October, and hearing nothing until January at the earliest, April or May sometimes, or even never hearing anything again seems excessively cruel.

    Yeah, well, that’s what you get for sending things in in September. Smart candidates wait until about fifteen minutes before the deadline…

    (That’s a joke, btw. If nothing else, the last-minute applications get strongly negative responses from the department secretary, and you don’t want to piss her off…)

    I’m not sure what can really be done to improve the transparency of the process, though. Having been in on a bunch of visiting searches, and now a tenure-track search, it’s not easy to make these things go faster, and it would be really difficult to provide an idea of where any given candidate stands.

  7. #7 Jeff
    December 12, 2006

    I’m not sure what can really be done to improve the transparency of the process, though. Having been in on a bunch of visiting searches, and now a tenure-track search, it’s not easy to make these things go faster, and it would be really difficult to provide an idea of where any given candidate stands.

    Well, yes and no. I agree that the nature of the whole process makes it difficult, but more could be done.

    1) At best roughly half the applicants are rejected immediately (although some places probably don’t even bother with this step). Of the remaining ones, realistically only five or six will ever be contacted. I know everybody says they may have to dip further into their long-short list, but I would wager that happens a statistically insignificant number of times (and doing so pushes the process so late that most good candidates are gone already). So just reject everyone not on the short list.

    2) Tell other candidates when an offer has been made. Again, the rationale is not wanting to offend candidates to whom you might make an offer by letting them know they were the second choice. Big deal, they’re going to find out anyway, and most people realize how capricious the hiring process is and would simply be happy to have an offer.

    Just a couple of thoughts off the top of my head.

  8. #8 Rob Knop
    December 12, 2006

    2) Tell other candidates when an offer has been made. Again, the rationale is not wanting to offend candidates to whom you might make an offer by letting them know they were the second choice. Big deal, they’re going to find out anyway, and most people realize how capricious the hiring process is and would simply be happy to have an offer.

    I would definitely second this. Last year, when I was doing a job search, I had hoped to hear from a couple of places by the time that I knew they would have met and have made an offer. And I didn’t hear… and I didn’t hear… and I didn’t hear…. Meanwhile, I had an offer at another place (which I ended up turning down for other reasons, but I didn’t know early on that I was going to turn it down) that I was having to put off while I waited to hear from the others.

    In the two cases where I would have taken the job if I’d gotten the offer, *I* ended up calling the search committee chair to ask what the status was. And, yes, in both cases, they’d made an offer to somebody else, and were pretty sure that that person was going to take it.

    I was once (six years ago) on a search where I wasn’t the first person offered the job, and when the first person (at least) turned down the job, they offered it to *nobody*, doing the search again next year. I don’t know if it was because (a) I didn’t measure up in an absolute sense, or (b) the usual case of the Dean not wanting you to settle for “less than the best,” and refusing to allow them to go one or two below their first candidate. However, *that* was a case where I learned I hadn’t gotten the offer in casual conversation with one of the other candidates who hadn’t gotten the offer! Not the way you want to find out about that sort of thing.

    What would be nice is if the “rumor Wikis” became semi-official… if search committee chairs *would* upload short list names when the short list is made, and “an offer has been made” (with or without a name) when an offer has been made. That would obviate the need to send individual letters to the 200 people you’re not offering the job to, and who aren’t on your short list, while still letting the information get out.

    I generally assume that if I haven’t heard anything by a few weeks after the deadline, I’m not on the short list. This has only turned out to be wrong twice. Once was the job I really wanted, but didn’t get last year. The other was the job I’m in right now, at Vanderbilt….

    -Rob

  9. #9 Ponderer
    December 12, 2006

    I am quite amazed at the degree of insensitivity and disregard for applicant’s lives that exists in most faculty searches. I only assume that most faculty are reasonable, nice and polite people, and when they don’t let people know about results or being rejected it is because of lack of time, rather than insensitivity. Still, it’s absolutely amazing considering they are playing with people’s careers.

    Faculty search people get away with this because they can and because the supply-demand economics of faculty searches is slanted so heavily towards supply end. With 200+ applications for a single positions you can demand a song and a dance and then ignore applicants altogether, and still select the best applicant that way.

    Imagine if manuscript review or grant applications were handled the same way. No transparency, inside-track candidates, lack of information until months after the offer has been accepted.

    Imagine submitting a paper to PRL and not knowing the status for a year. Now imagine that your career and salary and family depended on this single PRL.

    Unfortunately the situation is not going to change unless there is some alternative to academia that reduces the number of applications per spot to reasonable numbers so that people start rejecting faculty positions on regular basis and universities have to compete for a variety of candidates, not just the top 5 or 10.

  10. #10 Chad Orzel
    December 12, 2006

    Faculty search people get away with this because they can and because the supply-demand economics of faculty searches is slanted so heavily towards supply end. With 200+ applications for a single positions you can demand a song and a dance and then ignore applicants altogether, and still select the best applicant that way.

    Yes, that’s right. You’ve figured us out. We’re all just jerking people around for shits and giggles, while twirling our mustaches and cackling diabolically. I know I don’t have a mustache in the picture at left, but whenever we post a job, I grow one, just so I can twirl it while I screw people over.

  11. #11 Ponderer
    December 12, 2006

    no, not you, Chad. You are kind, nice and generous. The rest of them faculty people are evil though. They also laugh maniacally while stroking a white cat.

    Once you are granted tenure you become one of them. Except you will be stroking a german shepard, which will be growling and barking at the other evil people’s cats during your evil faculty meatings.

  12. #12 Jonathan Vos Post
    December 13, 2006

    The problem is with the methodology of search, not with the mechanics.

    Executive Officer of Mathematics at Caltech, Gary Lorden, an expert in Statistics, has a theory. He thinks that most faculty and postdoc searches start with a well-intentioned job description. Applications arrive, and the search committee collectively measures the distance between each application and their imaginary ideal candidate.

    Rather than pick the person best for the job, based on the statistical distribution of the ensemble applicants, they are merely picking the closest to their imperfect job description. Outliers in all dimensions, including those who are overqualified, and those better for the actual job but not for the job description, get thrown out.

    This process is broken, and can’t be patched together by making the mechanics more efficient.

    I’ve had a temporary position through such a process. Before making it permanent, a committee of bureaucrats with no subject expertise (in this case, for an Astronomy position) argued my case, with my Chairman as my advocate.

    They questioned the fact that I had more publications in the field than all other applicant combined. One bureaucrat suggested that I was lying on my CV. Another said that they made a random check, and I had published what I claimed. “Well then,” said a third, “he must be spread too thin with all that writing, and would have no time to teach.”

    One of my letters of recommendation was from the Vicer President and Provost of Caltech. His analysis of my transcripts, publications, international lectures, national TV broadcats, and awards from 4 successive NASA Chief made me better qualified than anyone in the world with my particular degrees.

    “Oh,” said a 4th bureaucrat. “That’s just one man’s opinion.” They refused to entertain the formal appeal process in their own bylaws.

    And don’t get me started with “equivalency committees” which exist because of the “or equivalent” phrase in job descriptions. Is a PhD in Biochemistry equivalent to one in Biology or Chemistry? Is one in Geology and Planetary Science equivalent to one in Geology? Is Geophysics equivalent to Geology? Can Computer Science (with 54 credits in Math beyond an M.S. in Math) equivalent to an M.S. in Math or more? There is no logic to the process.

    Does someone with over 2,000 publications, presentations, and broadcasts perhaps know something that someone with a degree in Creative Writing does not?

    Does someone who has coauthored with a Nobel Laureate trump someone who was the 200th coauthor on a Particle Physics experiment, and has no other publications?

    Does everyone here remember the classical article on the trend towards the LPU: Least Publishable Unit?

    If your website gets 15,000,000 hits per year, is that a plus or a minus compared to someone with no internet presence?

    If one is internationally famous through popularizations, should one be blackballed from the NAS by sour grapes members (i.e. Carl Sagan)?

    Broken. Anyone out there agree?