Will I be pipped for my dream university post by the faceless application process?

Applying for an academic job has become such a disengaged process that it is difficult to bring anything to your application to make it stand out, says John Brinnamoor

March 30, 2017
Telephone box

It has been a while since I was active in the academic job market, and I freely confess that I wasn’t quite ready for how much has changed. Yes, you’re right – you know you’re getting old when you start complaining about stuff like this. But please humour me.

I’m “mature” enough to remember a time when my courteous but blissfully optimistic academic covering letters were handwritten. Word processing hadn’t been invented and any typewriter of a quality sufficient to impress was well beyond my painfully modest means. This meant that I had to get a whole A4 sheet correct, grammatical and free from both spelling errors and blobs of ink. Inevitably, many ended up being terminally compromised by a misprint on the final line, amid much anguish and heartfelt profanity.

Application forms back then were dourly printed documents that you had to send off for in the post – or source via expensive long-distance calls from the neighbourhood phone box to a patient but long-suffering departmental secretary. After landing one job, I discovered that the secretary had had so many calls from me interrupted by automated demands for coinage that she had nicknamed me “Mr Pips” – a far nicer moniker than the one students subsequently gave me.

Once in your hands, the forms had a substance, a reality that connected you to the potential employer. A quick look at the covering letter – was it on laid bond paper? Was the letterhead embossed? – gave you an idea of how the department viewed itself, and how well resourced it was.

Eventually, human resources lurched into the digital age by planting application forms on universities’ nascent websites. In those early days, these were often scans of existing paper forms – sometimes slightly askew and with staple holes still visible – that needed to be printed out and manually completed. Thankfully, interactive document-style forms eventually became the norm. But although these were digital, they still closely resembled the traditional structure.

Now, these too seem to be dying out, usurped by heavily engineered database front ends that carve up your education, career and skills into myriad diverse, confusing screens. Maybe it’s just me, but once I get entangled in this nightmare bureaucracy of ambiguous headings I find it painfully difficult to get across all the information that I reckon the shortlisting person will need.

These gobbets of text adrift in an ocean of grey HTML have inherent flaws and restrictions, not least because they’ve been coded with the philosophy of a database rather than a word processor. So what’s the problem with that? Well, anything that might remotely be categorised as a special character, font or cunningly wrought element of formatting will generally fail to survive being cut and pasted from your carefully prepared CV or thesis. It will either vanish completely, appear as a dark, brooding tombstone or weirdly corrupt the rest of the text box – leaving you with more work to do than when you started.

There must be a better way of doing this. Yes, I know and support the familiar justification: that online submission, removed from the tyranny of paper quality and investment in expensive printer technology, is a wonderful way of ensuring a level playing field. But I believe that this comes at a real cost. Applying for an academic job is now such a remote, disengaged process that it is difficult to bring anything to your application that might make it truly stand out – such as by conveying a real enthusiasm for the job.

You have probably guessed by now where all this is heading. That’s right, I recently applied online for my dream job – the one that I not only deeply crave but genuinely believe I could contribute to – and I haven’t heard back yet (apart, of course, from the blandly boiler-plated “Your Application Has Been Received And Is Under Consideration” email from the server lurking in the dungeon-like basement of a remote HR complex).

Maybe I’ll get an interview this time. Or perhaps the allotted time in the application life-cycle model will tick down to zero. Again.

Don’t mind me. I’m just cranky, I guess.

John Brinnamoor, a pseudonymous UK academic, is currently seeking gainful employment 

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Print headline: What a carve-up!

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