The Application Letter
Me: We aren’t asking for a background check and a physical exam, too?
Soon after the announcement goes out, the applications begin to roll in. Ours requested a cover letter, curriculum vitae, writing sample, letters of recommendation, and university transcripts. The last of these is to verify that our hire actually has the credentials that he or she claims. By the end of the application period, there were two large file-cabinet drawers. As we read, the SCC changed the organization of the files in order to confuse us. My general impression was that the cover letters were so chocked full of hyperbole that they no longer described human beings, which means that few of them have any idea of what to have a job in academia. This is because the candidates are not applying for the position that exists, but rather they are applying for the position they want, which looks like that of an advanced graduate student in their graduate program. Like search committees they, too, are not looking for change: they prefer to remain in the warm confines of their home institution or move to one that is just like it. Most are unable to imagine that there are university positions that bear no resemblance to those found in their graduate programs, which will eventually be a rude awakening for them down the road.
There are a few possible outcomes after they receive a job: some will adapt to the new situation; some will loathe their jobs; and, others will move on, forever searching for the Promised Land of prestige. For this reason, I prefer to hire people that have been out for a few years. It is even better if they’ve been exploited to some extent. While my university is not at the top of the US World Report College Rankings, we are not at the bottom, either. If a person has some experience, he or she will have a better sense of the type of opportunity we’re offering.
Although the letters of recommendation are an important part of the dossier, I always take them with a grain of salt. Sometimes I wonder if their mothers have written them. Most are boilerplate and don’t tell us much about what kind of colleague the person will be. The simple logic is that the letters are part of the advertising and publicity machine. Some thesis directors want their students to get jobs so that they can spread the Gospel and leave their mark on the profession. Others want their students out of their offices, and some might be looking to break up with a lover before it gets too complicated. In any case, the letters are full of “second coming” language that never pans out beyond the introduction. On occasion, there will be a few lines that give some insight into the character of the person that may become a colleague for the next ten or fifteen years, but don’t count on it.
To be continued…