By Andrew Cheng
Welcome to the Era of Uncertainty. We do not know when the pandemic will end, and experts can’t say when our lives will return to “normal.” Employment prospects remain grim across the country as businesses shutter, educational institutions pivot toward austerity, and state budgets plummet into the red.
For those of us on the academic-job market, however, it’s really just more of the same.
Doctoral students and non-tenure-track faculty members — lecturers, adjuncts, postdoctoral scholars — have lived in a state of constant uncertainty with regard to employment for years now. We do not know if we will have a stable livelihood next year, or even next semester. We make contingency plans for our contingency plans.
Covid-19 has only exacerbated the tenuousness of of our industry. One of my friends was offered a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship in the late spring, only to have it rescinded due to unexpected budget shortfalls in June. She defended her dissertation and quickly joined thousands of other increasingly desperate academics in search of a job in an ever-shrinking pool.
I also finished my dissertation this year — in a top-tier department of linguistics in California — having written most of it in a pandemic-induced fog during a monthslong self-quarantine. When I wasn’t feverishly writing or editing, I was desperately searching for an academic job. I scoured the job-posting websites daily, looking for professorships and lectureships.
But as early as March of this year, I had already begun to give up hope, and not because I doubted my qualifications. The deathly silence from so many institutions weeks, and even months, after I had submitted my applications had made me begin to wonder why I was even trying. The utter lack of proper communication from dozens of departments only compounded the inherent uncertainty of the faculty job market.
At a time of such deep anxiety within and outside of academe, it seems that the least colleges and universities should do is commit to a more sensible and compassionate approach to faculty hiring.
For those who wonder why I want to raise this issue, I’d like to offer statistics from a case study of my own job applications from the 2019-20 academic year. I applied for 32 positions. Of those, 29 were academic jobs — including assistant professorships, visiting assistant professorships, lectureships, and university-sponsored postdocs — mostly in the United States and seven of them in Europe or Asia. In addition, I applied for three postdoctoral fellowships at state or national organizations.
Of the 32 applications, I submitted 22 between October and December 2019, but by the end of January 2020, I had received decisions (i.e., rejections or invitations to interview) from only half of them. It would take until the end of April before the last of those institutions sent me a rejection letter.
Altogether, on average, I waited 62 days for a response to my job applications. For tenure-track positions, the average wait time rose to 73 days. That’s two and a half months of waiting. Applications for non-tenure-track jobs had much shorter turnaround times, with an average of 19 days. (Those numbers exclude postdoc applications to institutions like the National Science Foundation that are known for long processing delays. I waited 265 days to hear back from NSF officials, but at least they were upfront about their timeline.)
Those calculations do not even include three departments that never bothered to send me any decision notification whatsoever.
The variance in the sample is also staggeringly high, with an incomprehensible standard deviation of 59 days. It took European University A only 15 days to reject me for a tenure-track position, while it took North American University B 98 days to make the same decision, and State University C kept me waiting for 167 days.
I was always left wondering: If the search committee at University X needs less than three months to read through hundreds of applications, narrow them down to a longlist of 10 to 20 candidates, and notify me that I am not on that longlist, then what is taking the search committee at University Y an additional two months to send me the same information?
This communication delay — or “job limbo,” as I like to call it — is surely not due to a committee not having finished winnowing down its applicant pool. We know that there are internal deadlines set for these decisions, yet candidates cannot depend on official communications to learn about our application status when the deadlines pass.
Last January and February, my fellow job-seekers and I began to look at departmental colloquia schedules as a means of sleuthing out who had been invited to formal campus interviews at the institutions where we’d applied. When that didn’t work, we resorted to the infamous Academic Jobs Wiki, where anonymous users report their own invitations to interview or other good news from institutions. I had refused for many months to visit the linguistics-jobs wiki, irrationally pinning my hopes on some applications that hadn’t been returned in 50 or 60 days.
“It’s not over until I hear a definite ‘no,’” I told myself. But finally, I swallowed my pride and logged on.
And that’s when I learned secondhand of my rejection from three or four institutions: “Invited for Skype interview, January 8” was the single, crushing line under University Z — an institution that, to date, has still not sent me a formal rejection letter. It is demeaning to find out about the status of your application in this way. When and why did academe normalize this?
My experience is far from unique. When I shared a snippet of my collection of rejection letters on a friends-only Facebook post, one of my fellow job-seekers wryly noted, “At least they’re decent enough to write back.” Another: “Wow, most of my rejections were in the form of complete silence.”
This is not a proper way to treat the graduates of your degree programs. Unnecessary delays are disrespectful to the hard work we put into our applications. It also reflects poorly on a department when it does not handle administrative communications like job notifications in a timely manner.
I have three simple proposals:
No. 1: Notify us as soon as we are out of the running. Search committees and/or the HR experts of academic departments and professional organizations (in fields where those associations still hold clout over the hiring process) should notify all applicants at each step of the process — in particular with an email sent as soon as an applicant is no longer being considered. Such an email does not have to be eloquent or even personalized (though “Dear Andrew” was always nicer to read than “Dear applicant”), but it should thank the applicants for their time and give them a clear indication that it is time to continue their search elsewhere. This way, applicants will no longer be left wondering what happened to their applications after months of waiting and searching forlornly in the academic-jobs wiki.
(Note: If your department or professional organization institutes some kind of hold on communications until the final candidate has accepted an offer, ask why that policy is in place, and seek to remove it. Because it is certainly not the norm. Err on the side of transparency with applicants. Especially in small fields such as linguistics, we already know we are competing with our friends and colleagues for the same jobs — there is no need for months of secrecy.)
No. 2: Tell us the timing of your search. Committees should be clear about their departments’ internal deadlines for creating longlists and shortlists. List the projected deadlines in the job advertisement. For example, the job ad for a tenure-track position at Queen Mary University of London included a statement that shortlisted candidates would be invited to interview in late January, two months after the application deadline. Alternatively, after an application deadline has passed, an institution could send an automated email to all applicants to inform them when the committee is planning to finalize its shortlist. When applicants are given this kind of information, it also helps us make some important decisions, such as whether or not to accept one job offer while waiting for another.
(Note: I understand that communications with the shortlisted candidates are more delicate once all the campus interviews are over. As someone who was invited to a few campus visits myself, I understand that it takes time to negotiate offers with the No. 1 candidate, and that a department has to think carefully about the information it gives to, or withholds, from its second and third choices. All the same, I got 74 days of radio silence from one department after my campus interview, and I would have appreciated even a simple, “Sorry for the wait! You can probably guess what’s happening behind the scenes. Hang in there!” But I accept that departments can’t offer a lot of leeway here.)
No. 3: Strive to do better on this front than industry. Department chairs, search-committee members, and administrative staffers should position themselves as models for a sensible and compassionate hiring process. One might argue that the search for nonacademic jobs is equally ruthless; outside of the ivory tower, a job-seeker might send out résumés to 100 employers a month, only to hear back from one or two. But academe must strive to do better than that — in the same way that we strive to be progressive, community-oriented, and sustainable. Let’s set an example and make the hiring process in academe kinder, saner, and more respectful than what we see elsewhere, in as many ways as we can.
I managed to land a one-year position at the University of California at Irvine as a postdoctoral research specialist and lecturer. I sent in my CV and research proposals for this postdoc on July 1. It was my 32nd, and final, application for a job market “season” that began last October. Twenty-seven days later, on July 28 (or seven days after my interview), I received an official offer letter.
I am not ashamed to admit that I cried when I got the news. My job search was exhausting and demoralizing. I am grateful to have a job, but the cycle has already started over again. I can only hope that, this time around, the departments I apply to will treat me and other applicants with a little bit more dignity. We have both the means and the imperative to ameliorate some of the uncertainty that haunts the job search, through swift, clear, and compassionate communication at every step of the process.
Andrew Cheng is an assistant research specialist and lecturer in the department of language science at the University of California at Irvine. He earned his Ph.D. in linguistics from UC-Berkeley. He is on Twitter @linguistandrew.