A genre of tweet has been gaining steam the last couple weeks, about the complete meaninglessness of academic job application documents or processes. It’s all a crap shoot, argues this line of thought. Further, the collapse in hiring has only exposed that it was always nothing but a crap shoot. Previously the arbitrariness of selection was concealed by a larger number of people getting jobs, the argument goes; now the utter arbitrariness lies exposed.
This is inevitable. In times of despair nihilism is a natural response. I have no judgment about it. I’m not linking to the tweets because I’m not seeking to call anyone out. Any level of bitterness and rage re academic hiring is entirely justified at this point, in my opinion. Academic hiring is in a state of massive systemic collapse. The vast majority of PhDs will not get academic jobs, and PhD programs for the most part ignore or even conceal this fact, exploiting and immiserating PhD students for departmental benefit.
But I do have a response, and wish to add a bit of…. [shudder] nuance [ugh, one of my MOST DESPISED ACADEMIC TERMS] to this argument.
Because: it’s not completely a crap shoot.
Of course it’s also not a meritocracy.
Everything about academic hiring is an exercise in privilege – not just the financial privilege to yield a PhD from the elitest departments, but the know-how privilege that comes from being the offspring of academic or other highly educated parents. Plus of course whiteness. Maleness also yields major returns. I have never in my years at The Prof Is In argued that academia is a pure meritocracy, and I never will.
But it’s not a crap shoot.
There are better and worse candidates.
Even when the overall standards keep escalating, and the CVs needed for shortlisting keep getting fatter and longer, there are still better and worse candidates.
Much of the nihilism talks about the pointlessness of academic application documents – surely a cover letter cannot matter, they suggest. Surely some typos in a cover letter cannot make a difference.
In the rush to tar the academic application process as a meaningless exercise in futility, however, such commenters make one error. In the effort to dismiss what a cover letter IS, they forget what a cover letter DOES. And what a cover letter DOES (as do all other docs, and the interview) is communicate.
And even when confronted with, say 25 highly accomplished, well published, brilliant scholars, search committees still are directly impacted by how well any of those 25 actually can communicate the brilliance of what they do, the depth and breadth of their accomplishments, their match with department priorities, their ability to teach the requested courses, and their grasp of what is required for tenure at that institution, to name just a few points of evaluation. (And typos actually do matter. Academics are nothing if not close readers, and if they’d judge a typo in a published article, they will judge it in an application document, and raise questions about an applicant’s preparedness for an academic career. I know this infuriates some but, that doesn’t make it untrue.)
Nobody makes a hiring decision on CVs alone. They make it by reading the narratives presented in the cover letter and other docs, which provide context and meaning, and then by hearing and engaging with the work on a one-on-one basis, which provides insight into classroom skills, and collegiality. And yes collegiality is a cover for a multitude of bias sins, but it IS also something that search committees must evaluate closely, because an uncooperative, hostile, entitled, lazy, abusive – ie, uncollegial – colleague can spell disaster for the running a department and the safety and well being of faculty, staff, and students.
So, what the processes of the search do, is provide communicative encounters. First in writing, then in speaking. And here at The Prof Is In, all day every day we see how desperately, painfully, tragically untrained PhDs are in communicating what they do quickly, concisely, factually, confidently, and appropriately (ie tailored) for the job at hand. What we see instead are an endless (and I do mean endless) parade of self-sabotage (“my dissertation attempts to, I hope, possibly add to others’ important work…”), hedging (“I think I might be able to argue that…”), grandiosity (“my work fundamentally changes all of Political Science!”), hyper-emotionalism (“I am so excited about this position and believe I’ll be the perfect fit!”), pandering (“I’d be honored and privileged to join your illustrious department!”) and all the other depressingly common errors to which PhD job seekers are prone, and about which I’ve been blogging since 2011 (and wrote a book about).
And if I had any questions about whether these issues remained urgent in 2021-2022, those have been laid to rest now that after a long hiatus, I’ve returned to doing live Zoom Interview Interventions, which are 1 hour role play interviews with individual clients, tailored to a specific job. In these appointments, I see the ad, I see the CV, I see the cover letter, and then I perform the role of search committee, putting clients through a series of appropriate questions for the job and rank/type of institution (ie differing based not just on field, but also SLAC vs. R1, etc. etc.). I listen, and when the answer goes off the rails, I stop, explain the problems, and we go through it again.
What I find this year, without exception (I wish I were joking) is that no client with whom I work is actually able to effectively articulate what they do, how they do it, and why it matters, in an interview format. This despite being given clear instructions ahead of time, along with templates for responses to the basic interview questions about research, teaching and fit. They DO QUICKLY LEARN to do it through our practice, and also generally see why the new response structure is effective and the prior ones were not. But absent our one-to-one coaching, and left to their own devices…? No.
- They ramble
- They offer nothing but the vaguest of generalities
- They offer nothing but the minutest of minutiae
- They describe their work with no reference to, or even in ways directly counter to, the priorities identified in the ad
- They answer questions that were not asked
- They are dumbfounded by basic core questions: ie, why are you interested in this position?
- They are abjectly unprepared (ie, they have no idea who the faculty are or what they do)
- They fail entirely to mention their funding – the literal fuel of the academic economy
- They fail entirely to mention their publication trajectory moving forward – raising red flags about their ability to pass third year review and tenure and thus enveloping the department in a maelstrom of litigious misery
- They cannot describe how they teach the Intro and Survey courses, which are the bread and butter of the curriculum
- They ask questions that are patently inappropriate (ie, “what’s your junior sabbatical program?” at a 4/4 teaching college)
- And most troubling of all: they cannot, and I mean this literally, articulate their own dissertation project in a concise 6-7 sentence response in terms of what it was about, the methods they used, the questions they asked, their major findings, their core argument, and how it contributes to the discipline or disciplines in which they work.
And without that, a candidate cannot be hired.
Candidates who can do that, rise to the top.
It’s not nepotism. It’s not a crap shoot. It’s ability to communicate, in writing and speaking, what you do, how you do it, why it matters. And how you’ll bring TO the department the things the department prioritizes: some varying combination of publications, collegial labor, grant money, a human to stick in front of classes who can teach right away without needing training or instigating lawsuits.
The #1 rule of ALL job searches (not just academia but actually all of them) is that the job search is not about you.
It’s about THEM. They have a gap that they need filled with a warm body. They need to know as quickly and cheaply as possible who the best warm body is. The more effectively you can COMMUNICATE that you are the warm body that fills the needs they have (to reiterate: in academia’s case: to publish in the area identified, get funding, teach core classes, contribute 1-2 new classes, serve on committees, and so on), the more likely you are to get shortlisted.
The underlying position of the nihilistic social media commentators is that the job search should, instead, be about THEM, the candidates – how good they are, how thick their CVs are, how hard they worked, how it’s unfair that they can’t get a foot in the door. And that their research should speak for itself without attention to instrumentalizing communicative framing and strategies… which to my eye is an offshoot of “the best people always get jobs” line that was last accurate in about 1985.
I don’t dispute that a properly funded academic economy would have room for many, many more deserving candidates. That many, many people who would have been shoe-ins for jobs 20 or even 10 years ago are locked out now. No dispute whatsoever about this fundamental reality. There are almost no jobs. Most people will have to leave academia, through no fault of their own. Excellent application documents/interview skills are IN NO WAY A GUARANTEE OF AN ACADEMIC JOB. They are simply the bare minimum requirement, and one that many, many candidates lack – and tragically don’t realize they lack, which is why I critique departments and not individuals.
But when you remember the point of application documents and interviews is to communicate how well you meet the needs as identified in the job ad, and also understand that the overwhelming majority PhDs fall down in this task, and cannot make any kind of effective case as to why they should be hired, then you understand that even among a pool of stunningly accomplishment candidates, a small set of applicants are going to make a better case for themselves than the rest. And the decision processes in the black box of search committee deliberations can be understood as exceedingly difficult, certainly painful, absolutely grueling, and definitely disheartening. But generally speaking, not random.*
And I do blame departments for this state of affairs. What PhD departments do not do, is teach PhDs how to communicate. Not for the academic job market, and not for the non-academic job market.
That’s scandalous. It’s unethical. And frankly I’ve come to feel, in this pandemic, it’s evil.
If they DID do this essential work, a business like The Professor Is In would not exist. There’d be no need for it.
But instead I’m going into my 11th year, and encountering the same tragic problems in 2021 that I began the business to address in 2011, only now with a large staff and a large and growing Professor Is Out postacademic transition team.
So what is the upshot?
The upshot is: the academic job market is in a state of systemic collapse. The overwhelming majority of PhDs will never gain secure academic employment. PhD programs conceal this reality because they depend on a constantly renewing population of PhD students for teaching labor and institutional/personal prestige. The drastically shrinking pool of jobs and expanding pool of competitors for them mean that competitive CVs expectations continue to escalate as they have done for the past 25 years. Applicants shut out of their chosen profession (in conditions of a global pandemic and unprecedented income inequality) feel despair and search for an explanatory apparatus, and “it’s all random” works. But “it’s all random” is inaccurate. Amidst all of this: search committee reviewers even now absolutely can distinguish between better and worse applicants. Because the case an applicant makes for themself is an exercise in communication. And communication, both written and spoken, is a skill. it’s a craft that can be taught and learned, and that gets better with time, given the proper instruction. PhD programs don’t provide this instruction, and so to those locked on the outside, modes of evaluation look like a nihilistic crap shoot. But they aren’t. They are unfair, but not for this reason. The evil lies elsewhere. In the PhD programs who won’t properly protect their graduate students by telling them the truth about how to communicate what they do and how they fit.
And then, how to move on from the academic pyramid scheme before they are destroyed by it.
*I’m not speaking here about the racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination that absolutely come into play. Because racism, for example, is not random. It’s quite targeted. So a discussion of these patterned structures of exclusion runs counter to this particular “crap shoot” form of nihilism, which come to think of it, might be a particularly white genre of complaint.