Tuesday, November 09, 2010


A reader is troubled by the increasing use of impersonal online application systems for faculty positions, and finds the process disappointing, given the momentousness of the occasion, and would even prefer to mail a paper application (although correctly recognizes that doing so would likely result in an overworked staff person having to scan and compile the document into a pdf for the committee).

For me -- i.e., someone who got her first academic jobs in the Paper Era -- there was nothing particularly satisfying about sending off a physical application, including a CV printed in a carefully-chosen font on heavy weight, watermarked, acid-free, ivory linen paper with matching envelope. The result is the same. You get back a form letter or e-mail, either a week later or seconds later, acknowledging receipt of your application. Then you wait and hope that rumors will trickle back to you that your letter writers have been asked to write letters. And then you wait some more etc. The main events on the application trail are the same, even if the first step has changed in form.

I have no experience with applying for a job via an online system, but, although I can imagine that this process can be a bit 'dehumanizing', I think overall I would enjoy the convenience of this type of submission process. As someone who has used online application systems to hire postdocs and temporary staff, and who has been on faculty hiring committees that used these systems, I definitely appreciate the convenience.

I would much rather read applications as pdf files on my laptop wherever and whenever I want, instead of spending many hours in a small room rifling through files. I also like the convenience of having all the relevant files in the same format in an organized way. Imagine reading A LOT of these files. The elegance of someone's choice of paper or font for a printed CV is completely lost on a reader who has to read many of these things.

Seven hours into a marathon application-reading and discussing session today, what was left of my brain wondered which was more exhausting -- reading applications or grading. Even if I were lucid, I probably couldn't decide that right now.


MathTT said...

I applied for jobs around the time of the Great Shift to online apps in my field. My applications were about 50 / 50 paper and online.

I'm now TT in a department conducting a search, and using an online system for the first time. (Early adopters we are not.)

According to my colleagues, applications are up about 50% (which is a lot, when you're talking about hundreds of applications before in the Paper Era).

I think the online apps allow people to blanket the country with applications even more than they already do, and cause us greater work in sifting through the damn things.

Is it really possible to be an old fogey in the third year of TT job?

michiexile said...

So far this season, I have spent $150 on mailing one single application — they insisted on 3 copies each of enough of my publications that it included my thesis, and on paper submission.

And I have applied to ~10 different positions online: uploading cover letter and customized application materials, and then clicking through a form the school itself designs to get the particular details they need.

No competition whatsoever — I'm an electronic applicant through and through!

Anonymous said...

Its not so much the online system that annoys me (infact I prefer it) but in applying for postdoctoral positions, the complete lack of response saying that they found someone better. In some cases this comes out as standard email, evidently sent to all the applicants without adding your name at the front. Nothing is going to sweeten rejection, but I'm always happier if they send out a rejection with 'Dear Anonymous' . And I am always very annoyed when they have found someone but don't bother even telling you that you were unsuccessful. And that ends the off-topic rant.

Anonymous said...

As someone who is in the trenches of application submitting, I have no idea why someone wouldn't want to apply online. I've done so many applications, and when I have to actually print, write and address, and find postage, much less be certain it got where it's going, I'm much more annoyed. I would love if everyone would do online applications or PDF versions of everything all the time.

AnthroChick said...

The main problem with the online application is that there is no centralized job-seeker database to store all the information each school requests: name, contact info, schools attended with dates, employment history in academia, etc. I have to fill this out for every school that requires an online submission.

My preference is to email all the relevant documents to a person. It's still electronic, they can still be circulated, but I don't have to fill out my name and education history three dozen times. I also like this method because I tend to get an acknowledgment of receipt of my application within a day or two from an actual person.

But I'm an anthropologist, so perhaps that biases me. :)

Andrea said...

Well we are about to begin a job search and I guess we are very oldfashioned becausethe thought of electronic submissions never crossed out minds! I do appreciate the reminders of the horrors of unkind job committees and will endeavor to to bring some civility (and timely responses ) the the process.

JR said...

Yes, I agree with AnthroChick. The problem with most online app systems is the duplication of information. I upload a CV, a cover letter, a writing sample, etc., and then I still have to type in my name, address, phone, reference names, education, etc. It just duplicates everything on my CV. Most schools seem to be using the same software package for online applications, so I find myself doing it over and over and over and over and over....

EliRabett said...

The problem is that the cost of an application to an applicant is too low, which leads to everyone applying for everything. Perhaps what is needed is a central job matching site with a few questions to determine whether an applicant has a good match to the position, followed up by an invitation to submit a paper application.

EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddy said...

In the middle of a TT job search.

The hands down best way to apply from my point of view is:

1) Read the add.
2) Write the text of the cover letter as an _email_
3) Attach the assorted document required to the email
4) Hit send.

Maximum convenience for me and nice electronic copies for the committee. I control what my packet looks like. But some poor secretary is going to have to sort out the "What were you thinking" applications before the committee gets to reading.

Paper application are second best for me. I still control the appearance of my materials, but who want to to actually stuff envelopes. 'Course this make even more trouble for that secretary.

The third--and most loathsome--option is a web form. You must find the "apply here" link that goes with the job add you've got (and this always takes a surprising number of clicks); each institution has a different registration process; each requires a password for an account you will use only once; each requires you to copy-n-paste stuff (different stuff!) from your application material and select piles of fiddly little check-boxes; most have one or more no-going-back-from-here-don't-click-continue-unless-you-mean-it points; and they still have the same diversity of expectation for exactly what documents go into you packet as the other methods.

The web forms always take me longer than stuffing an envelope, and you just know that your application will be subjected to a wholly automated sorting process, and strongly suspect that the committee will be given a standard form summary sheet generated from the fill-in form to use before they ever look at your application material.

Meh! Bah! Humbug!

Anonymous said...

Try sitting on the hiring committee and due to budget cuts be the one in-charge of scanning the incoming paper applications as well compiling a table that could have been generated with one button if we had the applicants fill out some of the info online...now repeat for 200+ applicants

Dave Backus said...

I'm with AnthroChick: we need a centralized database. I now spends hours uploading letters of rec for PhD students looking for faculty jobs. Ditto grad school admissions. No need to upload the same letter 15-20 times.

Alex said...

I'm told that math departments are starting to use a centralized web service. You upload your documents, your recommenders upload theirs, and then you click "Send to School X" and School X gets your documents. You then click "Send to School Y" and School Y gets your documents. Etc.

What I don't know is if they let you upload multiple versions of a document. A person applying to a mix of teaching-oriented and research-oriented positions will want different versions of a document for different schools. A person in an interdisciplinary field might respond to more than one type of ad, and emphasize different things in different applications.

Still, a big step forward.

Anonymous said...

I also agree with AnthroChick. It wastes a lot of time taking your CV and rearranging it into the different boxes, especially when you have to turn around and do it again when you want to apply for something different.

The math site is mathjobs.org and I have used this once and I found it to be excellent. Firstly, it gets around the problem above because a large number of universities use it.

Absolutely you can send different versions of your teaching statement to apply for different positions. You just click on the job you want to apply for and click on what materials you want to submit and then you're away.

Anonymous said...

For me the worst was getting your references to send out sixty some letters. At first, I was very diligent, sending each reference a stamped and addressed envelope, and a not describing the position and the school so they could write a personalized request. Then I went to the "hey, could you send letters to schools X,Y,Z." Then, I hit upon the reality of situation, and started to use the method they were actually using: wait until the school complains that "Prof. Z has not yet sent the letter" THEN bug them.

In Biomedical Engineering the approach is far more practical: you list the references, and the school calls if they are interested.

yellowfish said...

I agree with the previous posters- I'm applying right now, and probably 10-15% are paper with the rest either electronic uploads or emails. The emails are vastly preferable, just because it is easy to keep track of, and it feels like it is actually going somewhere specific. Th electronic ones are nice in that you there is no mailing, printing, etc, but the forms are so redundant. By now I just get annoyed when I see someone wanting a paper application.

For the people who worry that having electronic applications is causing everyone to shower the country with extra applications, I think that the reason applications are up is more that this is the first time in 3 years (at least in my field) that there has been any reasonable number of jobs, and there is a huge pool of desperate applicants out there who would probably be showering the country with applications anyways, even if they had to hand deliver all of them, it's crazy out there.

Tina Z said...

Last year I applied to about 50 positions and about 50% were electronic. It was a major pain to print letterhead, make sure labels printed correctly, etc. I much prefer electronic. This year, 2/3 were electronic and the few minutes it takes to set up a profile to apply is much quicker than the time it takes to print and mail out a complete paper packet.

Besides, the electronic system allows you to focus on the content of the cover letter and not on how well it fits your letterhead.

Bashir said...

Last time I checked the job listing about 50% were paper, though that's been dropping the last few years.

Electronic seems obviously better. A central database may be a good idea.

As for people applying more places, I'm guessing for each school this will just make the first cut bigger, as there will be more out of place or irrelevant applications.

Of course the institution could consider a cap. First 250 applications are considered. Anyone else gets e-trashed.

MathTT said...

@Alex: Yeah, it hadn't even occurred to me that "online applications" meant something other than a centralized service like mathjobs. You upload however many files you want, and then tick off which ones get included in which application. Which is why it's almost too easy to just apply for absolutely everything. Once the files are uploaded, a few clicks of the mouse and... application complete! Repeat, repeat, repeat...

The minor downside is that you can't have multiple letters from the same letter writer. Just as you might want to tailor the CV & other documents for teaching vs. research jobs, you might ask letter writers to write two versions of their rec. Not possible right now...

@Yellowfish, this isn't the first time we've had positions since the job market tanked, just the first time we've used mathjobs. Since that's the only variable that changed, I'm pretty sure we can attribute the increase to that. (Plus, a quick glance at the applicant pool says that nearly half of them are straight out of PhD, so they're not part of the backlog... And they're applying for TT jobs at an R1 school. Tell me they're not just clicking apply on every ad they see. Since we actually look at every application, with no secretarial pre-screening, this is a giant increase in our workload.)

mathgirl said...

I agree that mathjobs is great from the applicant's point of view.

I've conviced the chair of my math department to use mathjobs and we had the same problem that MathTT is describing.

One sub-problem of getting applications of people who only applied because it was too easy are the really strong people who wouldn't have bothered to apply to our school in the paper era. Many of them turned the interview down, which is OK, but some of them accepted the interview when it was clear that they weren't going to accept any offer. We were already in a tight budget and not interviewing as many candidates as we would have liked, and that was pretty bad for us.

So, I'm sorry to say, from the university point's of view, on-line not centralized may be the better deal. (But I agree this is nightmare for the candidates).

AnthroChick said...

I will say, however, that in my field, any position with an online application is about 99% certain not to get pulled. I've applied to 2 jobs that have already been pulled for lack of funding. The departments had me send applications to an email address because the job wasn't yet listed in the online university job website. Now I've learned my lesson: those jobs are the most likely to get pulled, so don't bother applying early.

NatC said...

I'm a big fan of online or email submission! Even though one large multi-use site was a pain in the neck and caused some issues for me (and for my letter writers), it was still more convenient than paper mail. Also, because I am slightly obsessive, I received instant (or very fast) confirmation of successful upload, or that my email attachments had arrived.
Of all the jobs I have sent applications for, about half were online submission, and the rest were email submissions. Only two had the option of snail mail (although both also offered email options).

AnthroChick said...

I wonder if anyone's had a different experience using an online submission system for non-faculty (e.g., research associate/assistant) positions?

At my university, a large public school in the south, there is an online job app site, and on one page in very small type is a sentence that exhorts you to fill in all information completely or you may not be considered for the job. I didn't realize (until after applying for a couple research support jobs) that a computer program (and sometimes an HR person) was screening submissions based on the fiddly little boxes/blanks - rather than looking at the uploaded CV. So my app didn't even get passed on to the hiring department.

(Yes, I should have filled in all the blanks, but it is seriously time consuming when they want specific dates of education, jobs, skills you have that don't even apply to the job you're interested in, etc. etc.)

Anonymous said...

One online application form I had to fill out for a major R1 U had a long form asking questions like "how many papers have you published in peer-reviewed journals", "on how many were you the first author", "on how many the second author", "how long has it been since you completed your PhD", etc. etc. for about 100 questions. At the end of it, they computed a score of some kind that I didn't get to see before allowing me to upload my information. I found this process demoralizing and far too impersonal for the realities of hiring someone in a research position. Needless to say, I turned down the interview as this was such a turnoff. I don't think anyone would have allowed this kind of questionnaire if the application was paper.