Don't waste at least 270 people's time

Sep 27 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Once again my department is putting together a job ad. There's been much discussion over the wording of the ad and exactly how we want to phrase every last detail. Frankly, the minutia of picking one word over another because of subtle differences in implication is rather pointless in today's job market. People aren't worried about the exact phrasing including or excluding them because it doesn't.

One thing I always fight hard for, however, is that we not ask for letters of reference, up front. Why? I mean, maybe an LoR is so good it puts someone on the shortish list! But do the math. Let's say you are advertising a specialized position and you get 100 applications. Three LoRs per application gives you 300 LoRs. If you plan to phone interview 10, there's a really good chance there's nearly 270 LoRs that will never or barely be read.

It does not take much time to send off an LoR, this I know. But it's one more deadline for busy people. In fact, unless the job candidate is a special snowflake, there's a pretty good chance that it's 30-40 more deadlines for busy people. And for what? So the committee can maybe argue a little longer over numbers 10 and 11 on the list? Please.

If you are involved in a job search, do your community a favor. Don't ask for LoRs until the shortish list. Those 30 people will actually feel like they are helping the candidate rather than mailing out fliers for a job-a-thon.

22 responses so far

  • Jim Woodgett says:

    Completely concur. While the effort in writing a good reference letter is really constrained to the first version (adapting it for subsequent job scenarios is a matter of a few minutes), it all adds up. There's increasing use of reference sorting houses for trainees where generic letters are deposited. I'm not sure this is a good idea due to the same issue of relative effort for first vs 10th letter. If someone is applying to 50 positions, my bet is that they will have less chance of landing a position than if they much more carefully applied to 10 with more time to consider how to project their talents to each position. It's really important to do your homework and work out whether there is a logical fit. While selection is based on a bunch of criteria you don't necessarily control, throwing everything at the wall to see what, if anything sticks, is not good strategy.

    I also agree with the issue of advertisement wording. The ad content is not meant to be ultra-precise - unless the job is tailored to a very specific topic - in which case, the recruiters are unnaturally limiting themselves. There are many talented people out there looking for positions and you should simply want the best. While the overall area of research is important to a degree, the only predictor of long term success (and even then it's not iron-clad) is quality. Don't be too prescriptive.

  • DJMH says:

    What if one (or more) of the reference letters might address an issue on the CV that would otherwise be considered disqualifying, e.g. a lack of publication from one position, or a long gap on the CV, or something like that?

  • Anon says:

    While part of me agrees with this sentiment, when my department runs a search we have a pretty short timeline. We meet 1 week after the application deadline to reduce the pool from ca. 75-80 down to 25. We meet the next week to decide on 8-10 people to skype interview. Then we meet the following week to decide on 3-4 people to invite to campus. Our goal is to have an offer made within 2 months of the application due date - this is not atypical for this field. There is not really enough time in this process to have people on the short list send LORs; if we tried we would have a mix of people with 1, 2 and 3 letters and it might be hard to make fair comparisons. So unfortunately we require LORs with the application. We don't generally worry too much about how personalized to the job the letter is, so the use of a service such as interfolio (while it costs a bit of money for the applicant) can really cut down on the LOR writing burden for advisors.

  • DrLizzyMoore says:

    DJMH,
    The applicant's cover letter can address the issue of a publication gap...

  • Simon Goring says:

    I agree in large part. I feel like it's unfair to my references to ask them to write several letters of reference, especially since they're all required at around the same time.

    To my mind, the bigger waste of people's time seems to be the fact that job ads are requiring more and more detail from prospective job searchers (proposed infrastructure lists in my cover letter?!) for positions that seem to become much more broadly defined over time.

    "We're looking for a highly-skilled, interdisciplinary researcher to join our faculty in one of the following roles:
    1. Physicist
    2. Biologist (any system)
    3. Social scientist
    4. General accountant
    5. Hyperbolic conservative talk show host"

    It means that I have to ask my references to highlight different aspects of my CV each time, making the requests that much more onerous. Anyway, those are my sour grapes after having to completely rewrite my job package a couple times already this year.

    It's not that I don't understand why it happens (buyer's market!), and not that I'm not going to jump through those hoops (desperate post-doc!), it's just frustrating to put the excellent research aside to write up another description of why I fit category 2, 3 and 4. Of course, it's good exercise for grant writing, which is what some faculty jobs turn into anyways.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Anon, In our search last year we got the aps, gave the committee a weekend and a day or so to go through them (possible because we planned for it) and then met. We sorted out 10 for the phone list and gave letter writers two weeks until the phone calls. We made a decision on the interview list a week later, so the letter writers really had nearly three weeks, but it didn't matter. The short list people we liked also had very strong letters.

    Simon, I am very in favor of job ads that narrow things down enough to be in the right ball park. I don't want to sort through 600 applications any more than I want that many people wasting their time.

  • pyrope says:

    Kind of along a different vein, but as a current Jr. faculty I've looked around a bit at other departments hiring and letters up front is a barrier that has kept me from applying. I don't want word to get out that I'm looking around unless I actually have a shot at the position.
    Also, agree on the sentiment that letters are really only useful for that final cut to bring to campus - there is plenty of separability between CVs and statements without the need to delve into letters.

  • I've lost an argument about this this one in the past.

    The one upside to getting letters from everyone at the outset it that it speeds up the search by a few weeks. I'm not saying that a good reason to get letters from everybody at the start, but it does make the job of the search committee a little easier/faster. Just at a relatively huge cost to everybody else.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    We wrote job ads very carefully because one can be sued, so we understood, as a result of hiring someone not meeting all the search criteria. If one says "postdoctoral experience required", one cannot then consider a hotshot newly minted PhD.

  • If someone is applying to 50 positions, my bet is that they will have less chance of landing a position than if they much more carefully applied to 10 with more time to consider how to project their talents to each position.

    This is grotesquely wrong. Unless you are a superstar with HHMI-type bigwigs backing you, you better apply to a lot more than 10 fucken places.

  • Busy says:

    I agree with CPP, 10 is far too low. At the same time 50 might be too high and you are likely applying to positions for which you are not such a good fit. In that case it might be better to concentrate in a smaller number (20-30) and try to chase each one of those more carefully (say by contacting people that you know personally in each of those departments).

  • DrugMonkey says:

    It's really important to do your homework and work out whether there is a logical fit. While selection is based on a bunch of criteria you don't necessarily control, throwing everything at the wall to see what, if anything sticks, is not good strategy.

    err. WHAT? the "fit" is often influenced by a whole lot of factors you cannot possibly figure out by "homework" save if you have an inside source in the department. not only do you not control the criteria, you can't even know them. so the only solution IS to throw everything at the wall.

  • Geologist says:

    I agree completely. We also do not ask for letters up front, but we meet and choose a top group from which we then request letters quickly. In my experience, letter writers respond quickly to the letters when they realize their candidate made a short list. This issue has never held us up in moving forward on our decisions.

    I also agree with Pyrope that throughout my career, I have hesitated at times to apply for other positions when they require letters up front. Such a pain in the ass for everyone involved, and I rather doubt that search committees really read ALL of those letters. When they see less favorable candidates, I think they often just skim or neglect to fully read the letters and instead move on to the next applicant.

    Just don't ask for letters up front. It is a pain in the ass for everyone involved, and you can still choose your candidate quickly without making so many people produce letters. As a letter writer I HATE doing letters unless I know my person has made the short list. My letters are also better written for short lists than they are for mass applications. It isn't exactly fair, but my time is limited and if I think my person has a better shot (short list) then hell yes, I'll write a stronger letter and give more details.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    There is no "right" number of applications. Apply for anything that you can reasonably fit under.

  • Busy says:

    Apply for anything that you can reasonably fit under.

    I agree... I was operating under the assumption that this number is usually around 20 or 30, but on second take it might be higher in other areas.

    Also like Geologist said if you apply to 100 places I'll send the same reference letter to all. If you apply to less than 30 in one season go I'll edit a letter individually for each place.

  • "the "fit" is often influenced by a whole lot of factors you cannot possibly figure out by "homework" save if you have an inside source in the department."

    Even if you have an inside source, sometimes all they really know (or want to communicate) is their preferences, not what the department overall will want. I found this one out the hard way. I didn't apply to a job because an inside source said my career stage would rule me out.....then they hired someone at my career stage w/ similar publication record.

  • I agree. It is burdensome for applicants to ask for LOR. I lobbied last year's search committee chair to ask for LORs only from those invited to campus. Also, I suggested that first round be permitted to submit documents electronically. The chair hadn't thought of burden to the applicants and decided to do as I suggested. The committee was still able to move quickly once the campus round candidates were selected.

  • Mac says:

    My dept had a recent discussion about this with most of the junior folks arguing that asking for letters up front was wasting people's time but the more senior folks were pretty adamant and so we ended up asking for letters. Hopefully this will change with time as more of us know what it's like in today's market to ask letter writers to write so many letters (some of the older folks applied to 3-5 jobs ever).

  • A.J. says:

    Job candidates - please consider using a letter service. Most universities offer them to their alumni through their career center. Your letter writers send one letter each to the service, the service then mails out the letters upon your request for a nominal fee.

  • Dave says:

    Assuming we are talking TT jobs here, please make it abundantly clear in the job posting that candidates without CNS papers and/or a k99 and/or an HHMI pedigree will be immediately triaged. Would also save time.

  • Heavy says:

    PLS is right on target. I've successfully fought against this once and failed the other time on search committees. LORs up front are a waste of time, discourage some well qualified applicants for the reasons detailed above and are a sign of a lazy (or old) search committee.

    Good LORs are tailored to the specific position and cannot be replicated by a letter service.

  • […] is hard work. There's a lot of time spent weeding through applications, checking references (for the short list, dammit!) and coordinating visits. During the interviews it's even more work, with considerable time spent […]

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