FilesWinter is coming, and around the country, a host of applicants are diligently applying their talents to the assembly of materials that they hope will demonstrate their suitability for what few tenure-track positions are available. That means that anxiety is on the rise, as are the blog posts that castigate the academy for its inconsistencies, its capriciousness, and above all, its indifference.

The problem: partly because of their relative rarity, partly because of the varied institutional expectations, and partly because they are conducted by volunteers who themselves have other full-time positions, academic job searches are often more complicated than they need to be. To be honest, I think the single most relevant reason for this, however, is not cruelty but inexperience. Every year, I’d guess that there are a lot of programs (and search committee chairs) who basically find themselves reinventing the wheel. They rely upon their own (often limited) experience, local history, and whatever advice they’re able to track down. And the result is that it can seem like every single job ad comes with slightly different expectations, particularly at the dossier stage, from every other one.

Each of us doubtless has a story about that weird 1-2 page document that we had to write for one school, answering a question that no one else in the country was asking. And because the other applications we have to assemble all blur together, we remember the outliers, and tend to think of them as representative of a broken system. And that’s true to a degree, I suppose, especially if the others each have their one weird document. But really, search committees are just doing what they think they need to in order to find the best person. It’s not a massive plot to make our holiday conversations more awkward.

Rather than waiting for every department in the country to become, spontaneously and simultaneously, just like every other one in its expectations, it seems to me that we ought to be moving up in scale to our professional organizations. Said organizations could easily put together a committee composed of experienced faculty from a range of institutions, whose job it would be to survey the field, then develop and publish a guide for job searches. That guide could be a valuable resource for inexperienced search committees in a couple of ways.

First, it might establish a consensus, baseline expectation for things like dossiers, and what it’s appropriate to ask for at the different stages of a search. Second, it would provide documentation that could be deployed if and when outside forces (from well-meaning colleagues to HR departments) think to insist on non-standard expectations. It wouldn’t have binding force, certainly, but sometimes all that’s needed is documentation of “field standards” to place the burden of proof on those who would complicate the process unnecessarily. Third, it would provide some needed structure/guidance for applicants, those people for whom the process both has the highest stakes and is least familiar.

The two recommendations that I’d make are fairly simple ones. First, the whole idea of the dossier as a stage in the application process developed at a time when our most efficient communications network was the US Postal Service. It made a great deal of sense to ask for everything at once, rather than having candidate submit material piecemeal. Hell, my first search, I had no access to a central service–I had to send stacks of stamped envelopes to my recommenders along with a sheet of pre-populated mailing labels. Ugh. But my point here is that a great deal of what goes into the dossier (writing samples, sample syllabi, research and teaching statments, e.g.) can be stored online, and downloaded directly by those institutions interested in additional materials. If a candidate is set up on WordPress, she might easily create Pages for each institution that links specifically and solely to those materials they request. Nothing could be easier (nor less expensive). While the confidentiality of recommendation letters would still require a service like Interfolio, adding that service as an additional layer (of potential mishap) for something that candidates could attach to an email or for which they could just as easily provide a simple URL makes little sense to me.

The ease with which most of these documents can be submitted is connected to my second suggestion, and that’s that we take a close look at the dossier and restrict its domain to those items that are necessary for us to do our work. For every tenure-track search I’ve ever been a part of, the dossier is a tool with which the committee moves from its initial shortlist to the shorterlist of candidates whom they will interview. That’s it. Rather than imagining the dossier as “everything you could possibly ask for,” we should be asking, “what information do we need to decide whom to interview?” For me, that list is actually pretty short: I feel like I can get a pretty good sense of most candidates from a writing sample, 1-2 sample syllabi (perhaps one writing course, one graduate-level content course), a research statement, a teaching philosophy statement, and their recommendation letters. (I already have their letters and vitae.) I would want to know more before I hired somebody, but that’s what interviews, additional potential materials, followup contacts with references, and campus visits are for. And that’s a lot of additional contact, interaction, and information. I’ve never heard of someone being hired directly from a dossier, so I’m not sure why it’s gotten to the point where it’s this sprawling, no-two-the-same mountain of make-work. The searches I’ve been a part of have all had 4 stages (application, additional materials, interview, campus visits), and three of those stages are pretty standardized. I think it’s well past time the 2nd one was as well. It just needs a little leadership.

One final note: I can only speak to my own experience here, and I work in a field that’s not been hit as hard by the decline in tenure-track positions. When I was prioritizing my applications, though, I was much less likely to apply to jobs whose requirements involved uniquely specific documents; when I had to choose between working on a research statement that was going to be a part of 20 applications and crafting a 2-3 page snowflake that was only required by one application, I chose to optimize what time I had. Not everyone has that luxury, I understand that. But those kinds of requirements are just as likely to chase off qualified applicants as they are going to unearth some deeply hidden jewel of insight that couldn’t have been gleaned otherwise.

Image Credit: “Rusty’s Files” by Flickr user Kate Haskell (CC)