Historic Artifact? An Open Letter to Department Search Committees from 1997

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The following (co-written with my then co-editor at the now defunct Bulletin of the Council of Societies for the Study of Religion, the late Tim Murphy), first appeared as an open letter in our inaugural issue (26/1 [1997]) and was then reproduced as the appendix to chapter 6 of The Discipline of Religion (2003).  Though many things about the academic labor market may have changed over the past 20 years (e.g., many universities have moved to online application systems, complete with PDF uploads and automated emails to applicants, making the mention of self-addressed postcards an historical relic), it is re-posted here in its original form since, in large measure, the topics it addressed have — sadly — not changed much at all.

Given the characteristics of the current North American job market in the humanities and social sciences, where each year the number of qualified candidates far exceeds the number of tenure track openings, search committees sometimes fail to follow reasonable advertising and hiring procedures. In so doing, they increase not only their own workload but the workloads of all those who apply for positions. Overly detailed application requirements, coupled with vaguely defined job advertisements, suggest that search committees often do not define their departments’ needs before venturing into the job market. A casual survey of current job descriptions will suggest the manner in which candidates are sometimes confronted by virtual wish lists that few, if any, actual applicants could ever satisfy.

To begin addressing this we would like to propose the following minimal recommendations:

1. Before advertising for a position, a department should decide what are its specific requirements and needs. That is, search committees should decide what they want and advertise for it clearly, rather than placing a vague or excessively wide description of the position in their advertisement and only making their actual decisions after candidates have submitted their application materials. Applicants should know in advance that they have a reasonable chance of obtaining a position if they are going to go to the trouble and expense of applying.

2. Departments should use a layered application system instead of requesting all application materials from the outset. To request of all candidates a full dossier is not only an unnecessary expense and inconvenience to the applicant, but it results in an excess of initial information and paperwork for already busy department search committees. A first round should include only a curriculum vitae and a cover letter from the applicant that includes a list of her/his references. Moreover, if this is all that is initially requested, candidates should comply and avoid submitting unrequested materials. In this day and age of couriers, faxes, and electronic mail, additional information can easily and quickly be requested and submitted in subsequent rounds of the search.

3. As soon as possible, candidates should be notified of the receipt of their application materials and again be notified as soon as they are definitely out of the running. To this end, candidates can be pro-active by including with their application materials a stamped, self-addressed postcard. In addition, it would be courteous if, in the final form letter sent to unsuccessful applicants, they were notified of the successful applicant’s name and credentials.

We believe that because some search committees have not followed these simple and minimal recommendations, it has tainted the hiring process in general; vague, ambiguous, and excessively wide job descriptions have increased the time and effort of hiring committees as well as candidates by generating a surplus of job applications that can force search committees to take short-cuts in their selection process. Such poorly articulated job descriptions suggest that the successful candidate will be selected on the basis of some mysterious qualification that will only be known to the committee when they intuit it. Surely, as a community of scholars we can expect our peers not only to be able to identify the actual needs of their departments in advance but also to be able to articulate and advertise these needs clearly and to be able to address all applicants with courtesy. Of course, to do this will require all department members to engage in frank discussions of their individual conceptions of not only the needs of their own department but the future of the field as well. Only if such admittedly involved but necessary conversations are carried out prior to advertising a position will the search process be more efficient, fair to all applicants, and of greater benefit to the overall health of our field.

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