From the Viewpoints column in the March 2001 Perspectives

Facing the Indignities of the Job Market

Michael S. Foley, March 2001

As the height of the job-hunting season winds down this spring, we come to the end of another open season on the job hunters. Each year, hundreds of job seekers dutifully check the weekly position listings on H-Net, send out applications, solicit letters of recommendation, and anxiously wait for phone calls or e-mails inviting them to interviews; meanwhile, dozens of hiring departments manage their searches with various degrees of efficiency, professionalism, and respect for the job candidates. This essay asks the profession to consider the way searches are conducted and argues for a change in the culture of hiring historians.

Although I am one of the lucky ones now employed in a tenure-track position, two years on the market opened my eyes to the unexpected pleasures of job-hunting as well as the numerous affronts and discourtesies that seem to accompany the quest for academic employment. I hesitate to criticize the process simply because I survived it successfully, but I sense that the abuses are widespread and warrant attention. Although I can make no scientific claims that the descriptions that follow are truly representative of the larger population of job seekers' experiences, I have told these stories many times in the last year and in almost every instance I hear similar stories in response. Moreover, the quantitative data I present here is based on a large sample of search committees from a diverse set of departments. Still, readers will have to judge if my experiences seem consistent with their own and those of their colleagues.

The American Historical Association's standards on employment, published every month in Perspectives, serve as a useful benchmark for the performance of hiring committees. This essay summarizes my encounters with 61 hiring committees to whom I applied for a tenure-track job in the 1999–2000 job hunting season, and evaluates them by three key standards: acknowledgment of applications, notification of exclusion from consideration, and professional and respectful interviewing. (As a white male I cannot comment with any authority on the AHA's fourth key hiring standard: adherence to affirmative action/equal opportunity guidelines.)Table 1

According to the AHA policy statement on hiring, "all applications and inquiries should be acknowledged promptly and courteously (within two weeks of receipt, if possible)." Of the 61 departments to which I sent applications in the last job market cycle, 34 (55.7 percent) succeeded in acknowledging receipt of my application within two weeks (see Table 1). Three more departments responded within three weeks, but nine departments took four weeks or more and fourteen departments (22.9 percent) failed to ever acknowledge receipt of my applications.

In a tight job market, it is sufficiently frustrating to simply wonder about the status of one's application; one should not have to worry if a department actually received the application. And although it may sound overly cautious, some job candidates will hesitate to call to confirm that an application was received, fearing the slightest breach of etiquette might give the hiring committee the excuse it needs to winnow out another application.

Worse than failure to respond to applications in a timely fashion is a failure to notify applicants when their application is no longer under consideration. The AHA policy statement stipulates, "as candidates are eliminated, they should be notified promptly and courteously." But only 34 percent of the departments who eliminated me from consideration did so promptly (see Table 2). Moreover, only 42 percent of departments informed me that I had not been short-listed. Instead, 58 percent of the departments either never sent another letter or waited until the position was filled—often several months after I received the first acknowledgment letter—before informing me that I was out of the running. None of these departments invited me to either a first- or second-round interview, so in every case I must have been eliminated from consideration long before their chosen candidate accepted the position—and long before I received a letter informing me of my status. Indeed, three departments did not send letters until this past July, August, and October. Moreover, it was only after I arrived at the AHA meeting in Chicago last year that I found many departments were conducting interviews for positions for which I thought I was still under consideration.Table 2

The issue of courteous rejection letters is much more difficult to measure. All of the letters I received were at least serviceably courteous, though the degree of courtesy varied significantly. The most frustrating letters and, I would argue, those that conveyed the least respect and consideration toward the rejected applicant were those which tended to be brief (two to four sentences) and simply informed the recipient that he or she was no longer a candidate for the job. The worst of mine said only the following: "Please be advised that the tenure-track position in 20th-century U.S. history here at [name withheld] University has now been filled. Thank you for your interest in [name withheld]." For all of the time, money, and effort that job candidates put into their applications, this kind of rejection letter is unsatisfactory and insulting. Likewise, letters that are merely self-congratulatory announcements, identifying the person hired, are equally annoying.

The most satisfying and respectful letters are those that give some general indication of the decision-making process. I most appreciated the letters that told me how many applications the department received (often more than 200), how the finalists were selected (in general), and expressed some recognition of the lousy state of the job market. For example, the following excerpt from one rejection letter greatly minimized the frustration of not being asked to interview: "Since we received nearly 300 applications for the position, we had to make some very difficult—perhaps even arbitrary—decisions, often based on what we considered the primary needs of the department. Our inability to include you on the preliminary short list should not be taken in any way as a negative reflection on the quality of your application...." Another department wrote, "While we were pleased by the high caliber of the candidates that we had to choose from, we are discouraged by the job market conditions that presented us with such an extraordinary choice." Such letters convey a certain level of understanding and, dare I say, humanity that says to job applicants "we evaluated you as a potential colleague" instead of as a mere number or some neophyte trying to rise above his proper station. In any case, these kinds of letters were rare; most fell somewhere between the two-sentence outright dismissal and the five-sentence, thoughtfully crafted, empathetic rejection.

Although rejection letters come throughout the school year and become regular sources of frustration, the lack of respect generated by a cold, generic letter pales in comparison to the bad interview experience. The AHA standards require that interviews "should proceed in a manner that respects the professional and personal integrity of the candidates...." Candidates should also be "allowed sufficient time in interviews to develop their candidacies in some depth." Like most job seekers, the majority of my interview experiences were good or at least benign, but I did have three interviews in which I did not have sufficient time to develop my candidacy in depth, and two of those interviews can be described only as nightmares. Sadly, whenever I tell these stories, though I often try for laughs, the response from other young historians is always a mix of shock and recognition. Everyone seems to have his or her own horror stories.

Most job candidates seem to approach the annual meeting of the AHA with some mixture of excitement and trepidation. And each interview can affect how the remaining ones go. Fortunately, in Chicago last year, I got off to a good start. Four of my seven interviews went well, some very well. Another, the only one that I had in the big "cattle room" interview area of the Job Register, was less than satisfying because I was limited to only 15 minutes. Few job candidates can really make a case for themselves in so little time. I left thinking that it had been a waste of time, but given the state of the job market, hopeful that I might get called for a second interview.

The remaining two interviews should never have happened the way they did. I might have guessed that the first one would not go well when the search chair contacted me in mid-December. Instead of inviting me to an interview and inquiring about convenient times, he simply assigned an interview time for me. When I informed him that I already had an appointment at that time, he claimed that his schedule was now booked, and that I should simply locate him through the Job Register at my convenience once I arrived in Chicago. This suggestion irritated me and incensed the Job Register staff. Their own sensible rules precluded them from leading me to the search chair directly, so they suggested that I contact him at his hotel room, and gave me the phone number. On Friday afternoon, I left a message indicating that I remained interested in meeting with him and left a list of openings in my schedule for Saturday and Sunday. By the time I went to bed Friday night, however, I had not heard from him; I resolved to call him before 9:00 the following morning when he would no doubt be taking up his post in the cattle room again.

At 7:25 a.m. I awoke to the phone ringing. To my dismay, when I answered in a horribly raspy morning voice, the elusive search chair greeted me by saying that he would not be able to fit me into his schedule for the rest of the weekend. Thus, despite following his instructions, it seemed I would not get the interview I sought. But when I suggested that I could send a teaching portfolio and arrange to be interviewed by phone, the voice at the other end of the phone said, "Well, what are you doing now? I've got about twenty minutes before I have to leave; we could do the interview right now [over the phone]." Perhaps I should have declined, but I didn't. I needed a job and was prepared to sacrifice some dignity to improve my chances. So, although I sat on the edge of my bed in my underwear, afflicted with a horrible case of morning voice (and not a glass of water in sight), I agreed to the interview. Five minutes into our discussion, my alarm clock went off on the other side of the king-size bed; I excused myself, lunged across the bed to hit the "off" button, and apologized. The interview never really improved after that, and I did not get an invitation for a second interview.

Later that morning, I went to one of the interviews about which I was most excited and nervous. The department in question is part of a major research university and I loved the job description. When I arrived at the appropriate hotel suite for what I understood would be a 30-minute interview, however, the search chair informed me that there had been some scheduling difficulties and that after 15 minutes, he would have to "peel off" to meet with someone else while I finished my interview with his colleague. Again, perhaps I should have protested, but I wanted the job and did not want to cause myself any trouble. Then the search chair did something unusual; instead of interviewing me, he said we would begin with my questions about the job and the university. I had plenty of questions and I easily used up the first 15 minutes of the interview. Soon he looked at his watch, interrupted me for two quick questions, and excused himself. It quickly got worse. As I continued my discussion with the other member of the search committee, I heard a knock at the door of the hotel room, and then became aware of the search chair guiding someone else to a chair at the other end of the room. The other person and I exchanged puzzled looks as we realized that we were both interviewing for the same job in the same room at the same time. Over the next 15 minutes, I struggled to ignore the conversation at the other end of the room, and tried to make a case for my candidacy to someone who was herself obviously distracted by the entire situation. I could not believe that within the span of three hours, I had been interviewed both in my underwear and in a room with a competing job candidate.

On the one hand, I appreciate the comedic qualities of these interview stories. I never fail to get laughs when I relay these accounts in person. One has all the makings of good slapstick humor, and the other was so outrageous it provokes, even in me, nervous laughter (I often joke that each time I heard the search chair and the other candidate laugh, I felt compelled to make my interviewer laugh). But neither episode was funny at the time. More important, both experiences demonstrated the cavalier manner with which some in our profession regard the pool of job candidates.

I used to believe that because historians understand the history of working people, because they are intelligent and enlightened, they would never exploit or mistreat their own kind as if job candidates were mere automatons to be sorted, evaluated, accepted, or rejected. That turned out to be naive. I realize now that the basic conditions of the job market—in which the labor supply vastly outstrips demand and search committees are flooded with mountains of applications—have produced an employment system and hiring culture largely devoid of compassion except as directed to the lucky few who become finalists. We should expect more and do better.

Perhaps this article comes off as a whiny rant. At the end of the day, of course, these are not life-and-death issues. Indeed, it seems that this kind of treatment of job candidates has gone on for a long time, and many people have survived it just fine and gone on to very productive careers. When I first told these stories to some senior members of the profession, they shook their heads and, echoing Santayana, simply urged me to remember these experiences so that I would not repeat them when I serve on search committees in the future. They did not suggest that the system could be changed in any other way.

But to just shake it off and chalk it up to an imperfect process in a grossly competitive market is to miss the larger point. Searches can be conducted in a manner that treats job candidates with the respect that they deserve. The reality of too many fine historians for too few jobs is alienating enough, particularly when that reality is confronted after seven or eight years of graduate school; to exacerbate this alienation with poorly run searches, bad rejection letters, and inconsiderate interviewing habits is nothing short of cruel. This is especially so when we realize that there are departments out there that run thoroughly professional and efficient searches. The two departments that brought me to campus for second-round interviews treated job candidates like potential colleagues; they wrote thoughtful acknowledgment letters, kept the candidates informed of time lines, met every deadline they set, and created an interview climate that was both challenging and stimulating. Given my other experiences, these two searches proved refreshing.

What, then, should be done to change the culture of the job market? We can simply wait until demand catches up with supply and departments have to compete with one another to attract good scholars, teachers, and colleagues. But that day may never come. And we cannot expect the job candidates themselves to stage the equivalent of a sit-down strike, thus risking the possibility that they may never gain academic employment. Perhaps we should ask the AHA to strengthen its standards and improve the monitoring mechanism, even if it lacks the resources to investigate every violation of its policies. Ultimately, however, the change must come from within the departments that seek new historians this year, next year, and in future years. We have a unique obligation to treat our would-be colleagues with the dignity and respect that we demand from our own college and university management. It doesn't take much to write a thoughtful letter or to conduct a stimulating, respectful interview.

The first step is discussion and a healthy acknowledgment of the problem. My biggest fear is that this call for a change in hiring culture will simply be ignored. Perhaps we need a kind of truth and reconciliation commission process. Those who have suffered the indignities of the job market could tell their stories; then we as a profession can apologize for a history of impertinence and agree that we will do better in the future. Please write to Perspectives with suggestions, comments, and criticism. Let the dialogue begin here.

—Michael Foley is assistant professor of history at Widener University in Chester, Pennsylvania.