Saturday, October 26, 2013

Technology and the Job Search

[Sorta-update: I went back and read this after I posted it, and realized that the tone sounded a lot like "Say! Back in the day, we delivered our job applications via dirigible or telegraph, but it seems that the profession is really getting on board with these computing machines, so maybe you should, too!" Honestly, I am not 90 years old. But I'm kind of amazed how a ten-year gap can leave me sounding that way. If you find yourself rolling your eyes at the painfully obvious, then skip straight down to the part where I lecture you about controlling your online persona. Then you can roll your eyes because I'm a schoolmarm.  ::sigh:: ]

[AACK! Real edit! Ellen just mentioned Interfolio, which I had totally forgotten about, since it didn't even exist when I was applying. If anyone wants to chat about that in the comments, I'll just sit back and listen.]

Back when Mama Notorious was on the job market… Well, actually, it wasn’t all that long ago. Maybe a decade or so ago. And yet look at the difference a decade can make.

As I was saying: Back just past the turn of the millennium, the role of technology in the job search was generally limited to finding the job ads: disciplinary website (AHA, MLA, etc.), H-Net, and the Chronicle. But other than that, the search was almost entirely analog. I can recall having my home table covered with stacks of application packets: Cover letters and CVs went to everyone; in some cases the little stack would have a writing sample, a teaching portfolio, or some other supplementary material. And there was the stack of FedEx envelopes. A wing and a prayer: most schools did not acknowledge receipt of your application packet (though one or two did say you could enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope, and they'd mail you your acknowledgement). After that, it was on to the AHA, then waiting at home for the phone to ring or the e-mail to chime for that elusive campus visit, then more waiting.
My sophisticated in-home telecommunications setup looked something like this.

That, in short, is the job search that I know.

Now, let us count the changes, from start to finish:

  • Job ads: Still online. No real change there. In fact, most of the job sites look exactly like they did back in my day -- which, when you think of it, is kind of weird.
  • Submitting the application: A pretty substantial set of changes here. I’m not sure if anybody asks for paper applications anymore. PDF/e-mail submissions are the most common, followed by schools where you upload to an HR website. Sadly, none of these systems can prevent you from sending the wrong letter to the wrong school. In my book, this is a huge improvement. Graduate students are an impoverished lot, generally speaking, and they don’t make enough to make itemizing those shipping fees make any financial sense, so the grad student in question is just plain stuck with the cost. It also eliminates the “Did it arrive in time?” anxiety, and no more messing about with “receipt date” versus “postmark date”. Same goes for faculty letters: they just type ‘em up and send ‘em in. Unless, of course, there’s one of those odious forms to fill out that goes with them. Can we please stop having those? In any case, about the only thing that I’d miss is the satisfaction of taking yet another giant physical stack of fat application envelopes and waving bye-bye to them at the post office. But I think the benefits outweigh the losses.
  • Preliminary interviews: This was by far the biggest complaint among grad students back in my day, and I think it remains so. There is no good way to do a preliminary interview; it’s a matter of finding the best of bad choices. The conference interview — running around, finding your location, practicing your 90-second pitch in a corner behind a potted plant, trying not to throw up — is a rite of passage, but one that can leave the person in question bloody and broken. If you want a shot at a conference interview, you need to book well in advance of knowing whether you have any interested parties. So that’s $1000 expense right there, if you’re lucky, and no one is reimbursing you for that. Couple that with the weirdness of a suite interview, or the awkwardness of the “pit” interviews, and it’s just a nasty experience. And I’ve even heard of some cash-strapped schools insisting on the conference interview, but conducting them in the hotel’s public spaces. But back in my day, the alternative was the phone interview, which everyone agreed was much, much worse. Skype is beginning to emerge as a truly viable alternative. Of course, it disadvantages the technologically clumsy, and I’m giggling trying to imagine implementing something similar in the days of dial-up (again: a decade makes a difference!) but younger grad students may actually be more comfortable operating this way in some cases. Of course, many interviews are still at the big conferences. But as budgets shrink, I think that the Skype interview is going to become more important. And honestly, if someone gave me the choice, as a job-seeker, between having my preliminary interview in a suite, the pit, by phone, or over Skype, factoring in both awkwardness and expense, I’d choose Skype in a heartbeat.
  • Waiting for the call: I think this one’s more or less a wash: waiting for a phone call vs. waiting for an e-mail (and most of this was done by e-mail in my day as well) is pretty much the same thing. The only real difference here is…
  • The Wiki. Yes, I think that it deserves to be capitalized. Way back in… what was it? 2005? Something like that. Anyway, someone noticed that there were a ton of threads in a section of the Chronicle forums called “Have you heard?” Basically, anxious job-seekers wanted to know whether other people had heard anything at stage X from school Z, so they could know whether a particular search was moving on without them, or whether there was still hope that that call would come. So someone built a wiki, and it’s been running ever since. Of course, this wiki is like all others in that its content is user-generated, with all the problems that implies. It’s a largely self-regulating community, but the occasional troll does sneak in: “They made me a job offer!” when no such thing ever happened. Still, some info is better than none… or is it? The wiki can tell you when to stop hoping, but is that a good thing?
  • The presentation: Back in my ABD and job-seeking days, few people in my field (medieval) had Powerpoints to go with their presentations. I, personally, came armed with handouts with a brief outline, some key texts, and a map. And I was in the majority, by far. Now, I can’t recall the last time that I saw a job talk without a visual presentation. But not all Powerpoints are created equal, so this is yet another skill that you need to make sure you’ve got down cold before the campus visit… as well as knowing what to do if the tech goes belly-up.
On the whole, I think that the way that technology has been integrated into the job search has been a very good thing, and most of it has the potential to make things much easier on the grad student pocketbook. But new technologies have also added a new worry that we didn't have back in the day, one that could be the subject of a whole 'nother post (though it won't, at least not by me) called "It's 10 p.m. -- Do you know what your online persona is doing?" Seriously: google yourself. In fact, Have a friendly faculty member at your institution google you so you aren't deceived by the you-specific results that the algorithm will give you in particular; you want an outsider's search results. You should start monitoring and controlling your online presence to whatever degree possible as far in advance as possible. Delete embarrassing pictures -- better yet, don't allow embarrassing pictures to be taken of you. You might also consider actively augmenting the professional you that appears online by building and maintaining a profile at a site like Get it up there several months in advance and it will be one of the first hits when someone googles your name and the school, and you get to control that presentation.

So that is my longish chunk of unsolicited and semi-informed advice. But I’ve really only experienced most of this at one remove. Thoughts from job seekers who have experienced this? What about hiring committees? Any issues with reluctant adopters among the faculty? And for those of you in grad programs that mentor you through the process (for example, with interviewing workshops), are you getting mentoring/advice that incorporates these methods? Anything else that I'm missing here?


Ellen said...

I don't know how much the cost for Fedex would be, but the few paper applications I've sent via USPS have all been cheaper than the cost of submitting either the whole app or just letters of rec through Interfolio. I appreciate being able to apply for a bunch of jobs without feeling like I'm bugging my committee, and I'm happy I only have to do a handful of paper apps, but Interfolio sure cuts into the wallet.

And the online persona . . . This probably isn't a problem for most people, but I have a fairly distinctive name, so I knew pretty early to keep my online tracks pretty clean, since everything that comes up as me really is me. Except for the one other woman who either shares or just uses my name . . . to post on a lot of amatuer porn sites. My online traces are clean to the extent that there's no images of me to compare against, so from google it looks like we very well could be the same person, and I just dread it every time I get one of those "someone just googled you" alerts from I guess I would hope that the kind of place I'd want to work wouldn't hold that against someone, but I always wonder what search committees/HR depts think when they see that. Especially since I've done about all I can to push my academic stuff higher in the google results. :/

Susan said...

@Ellen, if you look significantly different from the person with your name, you could put a photo on

The one new thing I have begun to see in the last year is grad students who have built themselves websites, with sections on research and teaching. I can get lots more information from those than we ask for in our initial application. I only go when I'm interested by the application, but that is a real tech change.

Our applications are uploaded to a central website. You have a choice between word and PDF, and I recommend PDF-ing things - it looks better, and works more easily in our system. You need to remember that the reading end of the site may be (ahem) idiosyncratic, and every little bit helps.

Comradde PhysioProffe said...

I remember going to the post office with my stack of applications! I used a computer to show my job talk slides (pdf, though, not PowerPoint), but my PhD thesis seminar was physical slides in a carousel (7 years earlier).

susan said...

Yes, websites are very good, although in the search I chaired last year, I ended up wondering why a few candidates had links on cvs or in cover letters to sites that weren't being maintained. I don't expect everyone to have a website, but if you have one, best that it actually have the sort of content you want it to.

Our HR office emphasizes that we were NOT to be googling candidates, and I sure had enough to do just reading all the applications that I never saw the point of looking people up. But I did click through to websites for candidates I was interested in.

(I'm a different Susan than the first Susan here, btw)

Flavia said...

We still have plenty of candidates who do job talks without PowerPoint (well, these days it may be under 50%, but that's still a decent number--we've hired virtually every year, sometimes for more than one position). Handouts are perfectly adequate, and in some cases better, since we sit around a 20-some person conference table and not everyone can see equally well!

And I agree: if you're going to use it, use it well. A few well-chosen images are better than a constant barrage of them, since you're trying to talk, too.

(And I think chairs/search chairs still make actual phone calls to set up conference interviews, or at least that's my sense. . .)

Flavia said...

Oh, and re: 2nd Susan's comment: as a hiring committee member the only time I Googled an applicant before the final rounds was when something looked suspicious on their CV. Like the guy who claimed to have written or have under contract three books with a press I'd never heard of on a writer I'd never heard of. Or the guy who had 12 publications dated to the current calendar year. Otherwise, there are SO many applications that it's pointless additional labor.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Hi All,

Thanks for so many comments so early, and for no one making fun of my old-timey point of view too terribly much.

I'm not surprised to hear that a busy search committee isn't googling every applicant that comes in. But I'd have thought that they would do so as they moved from semi-finalists to finalists. Hm.

Janice said...

We've done a few Skype-style remote video interviews, some actually on Skype over the last few years. They were all for term positions for which we had no budget to bring people up to see the Big Nickel. At least video conferencing can give a better sense of who's there and a bit of what the facilities are like than phone interviews.

Including something of your online professional persona is a really good idea for any job candidate - if you're a prolific Twitter-user in a professional capacity, that should be shared. As Susan wisely suggested, you might create a landing page that includes your CV, teaching resources and links to publications. Many graduate programs do these for current grad students but it doesn't cost too much to buy a domain name and park it somewhere with a couple of static web pages jammed full of your scholarly awesomeness. Properly managed, you can finesse this to the top of most Google searches, too!

clio's disciple said...

It may be worth noting that, on the search committee side, not all faculty are very tech-savvy. It really may not occur to older faculty in particular to google you... but I wouldn't count on it.

I personally would be all in favor of Skype interviews--easier for the candidate, easier for the committee, in my book. But I don't see selling my senior colleagues on it yet.

Canuck Down South said...

I think, as Ellen says, that the full integration of Interfolio into the job search is changing it even from what it was 3-4 years ago. Sure, I could email my referees and say "Please send letters to these 10 addresses," (and I know many people who still do it that way), but the faculty would prefer to upload their letter once, to Interfolio, and have me deal with sending it places from then on. Or as one faculty member told a classmate of mine, "I could keep uploading this thing to HR websites, or I could spend that time reading your dissertation." Of course, it costs to use Interfolio, but now you get a free Interfolio account through MLA, which comes with a certain number of free credits, and you can earn more by using it more. Interfolio has also made agreements with a bunch of search committees wherein the accepting college pays the fees. While it does seem that this one service has taken over a lot of the job search, it's a lot more efficient than than dealing with the many idiosyncratic HR websites so many non-Interfolio searches insist applicants use.

Dr. Koshary said...

Interfolio definitely has its good points. Especially in my first few years on the job market, when I was applying like a fiend to every long-shot job in ten different fields, it was painful for my referees to generate letters for every school when there were a billion addresses to keep track of. Letters often came in late or not at all. I didn't even know about dossier services until one of my beleaguered referees gently insisted that I subscribe to Interfolio in my second year on the market. The subscription streamlined my application process hugely, especially since a) I was abroad and could not have sent anything snail mail, and b) many schools -- even just a few years ago! -- still insisted on hard copy applications.

Of course, my referee's request also came with the implication that, unless absolutely required, the letter provided would be a generic letter untailored to any specific institution. More recently, I've noticed that The Professor Is In has decried Interfolio for exactly this reason, since it seems to encourage referees to phone in generic letters instead of tailoring their rhetoric to each school. I'm sympathetic to this argument, but I'm also sympathetic to the reality that professors have a lot of balls to keep in the air, and it's kind of nuts to expect them to tailor letters for every candidate they support when every one might have sixty jobs or more on their dance card.

Incidentally, this is the first year since I was an ABD when my referees are (supposedly) tailoring all my letters and sending them independently. We shall see how this works out...

Historiann said...

WAIT a minute--I want to hear from Flavia about the results of her google searches of job candidates "like the guy who claimed to have written or have under contract three books with a press I'd never heard of on a writer I'd never heard of. Or the guy who had 12 publications dated to the current calendar year." I want to know what she found out--doesn't everyone else?

Notorious, I think you've covered it all. I agree with you that Skype serves both institutions and job candidates much better than the old AHA interviews ever did. Who wants to fly to some godforsaken cold North American city in January at the beginning of another semester? NOT ME!

(If the AHA and MLA insist on meeting in January, why can't we meet in a rotation of Miami, Houston, Phoenix, LA/San Diego, and San Francisco? Why, Santy Claus, why?)

Dr. Koshary said...

Yes, what Historiann said. What's up with the guys who set off your BS detector?

Flavia said...

Historiann & Dr. K:

The Google searches were inconclusive. One candidate wasn't really right for the position anyway, so it didn't matter. The other I *think* we interviewed, even though there were some other potentially odd things on his vita. And if I'm right about who it was, he turned out to be CREEPTASTIC. Hard to put a finger on what was wrong, but when he left the room we were all totally unnerved and agreed that he might actually have been Ted Bundy.

But to the larger question about candidates' online presence: I agree that you should definitely clean up/clarify everything you can--but don't stress out about the things you can't.

We had a finalist for a different search about whom Google revealed something peculiar (because yes, Notorious: I think most of my department DOES Google finalists!). Let's call it an unusual prior job, or a sideline, or a hobby; it's in that category. It's something many educational elites would regard as pretty cheesy or tacky, and it's not unrelated to the skills a humanities professor uses--so in theory someone could have used it to cast doubt on this candidate's taste or judgement.

But it just wasn't relevant, and though lots of us had apparently found it out, no one raised it beyond private "well! whaddaya know?" conversations. The candidate had strong credentials and gave a strong interview, and s/he wound up being our first choice (though s/he turned us down).

I'm not saying that's how it always plays out. But the people who are most likely to leverage dubious/equivocal Google evidence against your candidacy are those who are already hostile (to you, to the kind of stuff you work on, or to the search itself).

Susan said...

My experience is that *someone* always googles, though it's usually not me. I don't think of it! What's really weird is when people with distinctive names have public Book of the Face profiles. HINT: If you're on the job market, check your privacy settings.