From the Viewpoints column of the September 2008 issue of Perspectives on History

Hiring Historians: Can't We Make the Process Better?

Martin R. Mulford, September 2008

Practices followed in hiring historians are seriously flawed. Delays, expense, unnecessary requests for material, and the creation of unreasonable anxiety for lack of information are all evident in the current methods. The process truly needs to be fixed.

This year my partner and I applied for assistant professorships at approximately a dozen departments each. Both of us received some acknowledgments of our applications from those departments. However, many departments were not courteous enough even to send us an acknowledgment. In the letters that we did receive, the departments informed us that they were going to conduct preliminary interviews of selected candidates at the AHA annual meeting in Washington, D.C., the weekend of January 4–6, 2008. At no time, either in that letter or in any subsequent missive, did they mention whether we were invited to an interview or not. This leaves one somewhat in limbo. As recent PhDs, we are, of course, looking for full-time positions. On the other hand, we are also in debt up to our ears and do not have not the money to chase the wild goose. Our quandary was, should we hopefully spend the money to go (that is, buy airline tickets, book hotel rooms, etc.), gambling that we shall obtain interviews or stay home and save what we cannot afford?

That's what I'm missing? Money? No, that's not it. What we lack is information. We have no idea, nor have we been apprised in any way, which route to take. This is bad business, period. I was a businessman for many years before changing careers, and I know. In addition, there is no company, not one, that would require candidates for a position to travel across the country at their own expense for a preliminary interview. Ironically, a recent issue of Perspectives on History addressed this very question when it proposed that departments give candidates a choice of interviewing at the AHA or by telephone. Of course, this would probably deprive the departments of the winnowing effect that nonattendance at the AHA provides. Nevertheless, only one of the letters we received even intimated that a phone interview was a possibility.

That consideration aside, since we had no idea if we had interviews or not, we had to opt to stay home, use our money for living expenses and assume (and you know what happens when you assume) that we did not have interviews. The entire process is cruel and at the mercy of those who cannot seem to make a decision in the first place. I would much rather have had rejections up front. I appreciate Cal State-Fullerton's, USC's, and Weber State's timely negative responses, so that we were not kept on tenterhooks and subjected to the terrible cruelty of simply not knowing.

What this situation did was to make us choose between further debt, to the tune of thousands of dollars, with no guarantee of return or, essentially, the rescission of our applications. And even at the end of the first week of February, four weeks after the annual meeting, approximately 75 percent of those institutions to which we applied lacked the courtesy and professionalism to advise us whether or not they are still considering either of us for a position. Had we been late in submitting our applications, we would have been eliminated from consideration forthwith. On the other hand, if the departments delay their decisions on whom to interview or just do not respond, there is no consequence, except to the applicants. Not communicating to those who are not in contention is simply reprehensible.

This is especially onerous because many institutions demanded everything but the kitchen sink in the preliminary application. Departments required, in addition to a c.v. and application letter, a statement of teaching philosophy, sample syllabi, writing samples, and so on, ad nauseam. Why can these requests not wait until after the first cut? Most of these materials get short-shrift in the first round anyway, as any graduate student who has witnessed a job search can attest. If you cannot tell if an applicant appeals to your department by a careful reading of just the c.v. and the cover letter, then you do not want that candidate. He or she should be eliminated from consideration and notified of that fact. If the candidate does appeal to you, then ask for additional materials to allow for comparisons to the other applicants you are considering.

I and my partner carefully crafted our letters to each of the departments to which we applied this year. Although some overlap in composition was unavoidable, each one specifically addressed the requirements requested in the posting, the current constitution of the department, and how our qualifications would mesh with and benefit that department. What else do you need to make a preliminary decision?

What can departments do to fix the process and improve the situation? For one thing, they can borrow from the best business practices, and advise applicants of their status in a timely manner, and make it easy for all concerned to meet their goals in a satisfactory way.

Some immediate steps to improve the process are patently obvious. First, acknowledge receipt of a candidate's application within one week of receiving it. If the application is incomplete, then that is the time to advise the applicant of the deficiencies. Second, in the letter advising candidates that they have a preliminary interview, allow them to choose to have a phone interview, and emphasize that if they opt for that choice in lieu of a face-to-face interview it will not be held against them. Third, advise candidates of their status on a timely basis. This means in early December in the case where preliminary interviews will take place at the AHA annual meeting, so that applicants can make plans to attend with the minimum of financial hardship and other arrangements can be made. This early December deadline should apply whether the candidate is being considered for an interview or not. Common courtesy and basic professionalism demands this, and more so if the application is being rejected. If this time frame is too short, set the application closing date earlier. Fourth, do not burden the search committee by asking them to sift through unreasonable amounts of ancillary materials or the applicants by requiring them to supply such, as above. This last point is probably one salient reason why there is such difficulty in meeting timely notification targets. Instituting these small changes will go a long way to ensure that the hiring process is fairer, more transparent, and easier on all involved. It needs to be.

—Martin Mulford lives in Corvallis, Oregon.