TT job ad translation

Nov 05 2010 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Last week Gerty-Z posted about being on a search committee for her department that received around 600 applications. Yes, 600. Why, you might ask?

The large number of applications stems from the fact that I am in a pretty basic dept. that is looking for someone that "does good science". Anyone from a molecular biophysicist to systems biologist to development geneticist to a physiologist could be at home here.

There are a lot of broad departments out there that want people that do good science. Not all of them advertise positions that get this many applications, however. In fact, most places want to avoid this situation at all costs, because it leaves the committee doing a ton of work. The only way to achieve this kind of app count is to make the ad so vague that anyone can apply. But what does this say to your potential applicants?

I brought this up in Odyssey's excellent post about tailoring your application to each department, but I think it bears mentioning reiterating that the hiring process is a two way street. Slapping together a job "Biologist Wanted" job ad says something like this:

What you write - Biologist wanted, any rank. Requirements include doing good science and the potential to collaborate with members of our huge department.

What a candidate reads - Divided department can't or won't decide on a specialty of interest for this position. "Good science" will be arbitrarily defined by a small number of overburdened committee members looking for any excuse to toss your application. We loosely define our needs because we don't care about your time, your letter writer's time (because we probably want LoRs up front) or that of our own administrative staff who have to process all this shit.
p.s. If you don't make the short list don't expect to ever hear from us again.
p.p.s. We also hate the environment because we're printing all these apps out in triplicate for the committee.

If you think I'm wrong, let's check with Gerty-Z to see how much time your application will get:

I've been told not to spend more than 2 min per application.
Yep, you read correctly. In less than 2 minutes one person is going to decide if anyone will ever actually read your application. Those that are not "out" will be assigned to themes and circulated to appropriate faculty to identify the top 10-20%. This is what really terrified me. Some applications may get read here, but I wouldn't count on it. I am told to expect to spend ~10 min per application at this level. In other words, if you make it past triage you have 10 min to convince someone you are the best thing since Howard Hughes.

Glad you are putting all that time into crafting that application yet?

Yes, people will apply, especially now. But if I applied for that position and got an interview, I'm still polishin' up my eff you shoes for that trip. I'm going there looking extra hard for signs of a dysfunctional department. I'm assuming that there is a culture of hoop jumping for everything, especially if (as Gerty-Z mentioned) there are few junior faculty in the department. I am much more likely to have my guard up the whole time and be more mentally critical of perceived departmental short-comings. Why? Because this department either didn't think it was worth their time to decide the field of research they wanted to add for the next 30 years or was too caustically divided to come to a conclusion and shirked the responsibility.

Maybe applicants right now are just happy to get any interview because the job numbers are so low. But chances are, if you rose to the top of a 600 applicant pile, you are likely to have competing offers. Maybe with departments who care more about the time and effort of 600 people.

5 responses so far

  • FCS says:

    Thanks, these have been interesting reads, both your post and the two you linked to.

    Last year in CS, even the tiniest schools no one has ever heard of got 350+ applications. One of the top places got 750. This year most ads, top places included, read, "We are looking for exceptional candidates across all areas of computer science." Then some also say, "We are particularly interested in areas A, B, and C."

    I don't view these departments as dysfunctional, at least no more than usual. 🙂 It seems pretty common, actually. But maybe in technology it's different than in the life sciences, because things change so quickly. (e.g., Molecular biology will probably always be a research area, but speech recognition may soon cease to be).

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    I don't know how it is now, but back in the 90's we wrote very careful position ads. These went by the legal department and we had to jump through some affirmative action hoops as well. For example, if the ad reads, "postdoctoral experience required", then no candidates without postdoctoral experience can be considered. Maybe better to write "postdoctoral experience preferred." Way we did it with large number of applicants was for each search committee member to look at all applicants for a particular required criterion, and discard any who did not meet that criterion. That left a reduced pool of "legal" applicants. Then the real search and ranking of applicants would begin.

  • gerty-z says:

    I started to comment here, but it got long. So I made it into a post over at LabSpaces: http://www.labspaces.net/blog/886/Lost_in_translation_

  • Wow. That is not at all my experience. It is really common to have broad ads in my field. I wouldn't make any assumption about a department based on it, and once I have my CV and research plans done, it is really easy to print out another set and send it out. When I write letters, it is the same--just hit print and off it goes. Tailoring the cover letter is necessary for any, but should take an hour or less (usually less unless the University's website sucks, which is another issue).

  • [...] ads are often as specific or as vague as the search committee wants them to be. There's certainly too vague, IMO. But if the committee is multi-disciplinary it would not be surprising for an ad to be [...]

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