In this series with the Bulletin, we have asked 21 early career scholars to weigh in on Russell McCutcheon’s Theses on Professionalization, first published in 2007. In his 21 theses, McCutcheon offers advice to young scholars entering (or soon to enter) the job market, addressing the all-to-important (but often overlooked) question of professionalization. Each of the contributors in this series has been asked to comment on a single thesis, addressing its contemporary relevance, and how it relates to their own experience moving forward in the academic world. For other posts in this series, see here.
by Barbara Krawcowicz
Thesis #9. A structural element that must be taken into account is that Departmental search committees often fail to entertain the difficult questions in advance and, instead, go on “fishing expeditions” by defining their open positions far too broadly and vaguely, such as looking for “the best qualified” applicant (without ever articulating what counts as “qualified”). Making explicit their implicit and often competing preferences may strike members of a Department as being too costly an exercise. It is into this mix of unstated disagreements and longstanding rivalries that job applicants can be thrust, affecting such things as how their letters of application are read, their credentials judged, and their performance during campus interviews measured. While one cannot control such factors, when representing oneself one at least ought to be aware of their potential presence and impact.
An interesting job advert appeared not long ago on the Higher Ed website:
Minimum education: no response. Minimum experience: no response. The plethora of information regarding the position contained in the advertisement took my breath away. There is no doubt whatsoever that the hiring department had spent a significant amount of time considering all the important factors before it went public with the search. Imagine those long discussions: we need someone to teach X but it would be great if they could teach Y and Z as well. We could use someone with an expertise in the field of A; that would greatly enhance our program. But it is also essential that the person we hire has experience in B and C because our department really needs that! And also… But as well… And let us not forget about…
Alright, I know, the advertisement was obviously a mistake and thus it cannot serve as an illustration of McCutcheon’s thesis #9. However, every single one of us, (i.e. of people in the trenches of what is commonly known as the job search but feels much more like one of the protracted and exhausting battles of World War I), has seen more than one advertisement that was, to say the least, vague in its description of the vacant position, required qualifications, job’s responsibilities, etc.
As a grad student at Indiana University Bloomington, I attended a workshop where several tenured faculty members shared some of the knowledge they gathered while serving on job search committees. Among many interesting things said, one in particular caught my attention. In response to a complaint that many job descriptions were formulated in such a way that it was quite impossible to decide whether or not one was qualified and should apply for the job, one of the professors replied: well, the truth of the matter is that oftentimes the search committee doesn’t really know what it is looking for. The professor smiled saying this and his words were met with chuckles among the audience. I don’t think I laughed. Somehow it did not seem funny.
On the Chronicle of Higher Education discussion board, there is a long thread entitled Apply For The Damn Job. Am I really qualified to apply for this position? AFTDJ! I’m not sure whether they’re actually looking for someone doing this-and-that. AFTDJ! The description is so broad that I don’t really know if… AFTDJ! You are never going to know for sure. So just AFTDJ if it seems that you may be a good fit. Seems. Yes, that’s all you’re going to know because, sometimes, the search committee itself does not have a clear picture of the ideal candidate.
So we apply for those damn jobs. One problem we immediately encounter is this: how can one tailor application documents to a job description if the description happens to be hopelessly vague? How can I prove that I am the best qualified candidate if I don’t know what counts as qualified (let alone best)? The advertisement says they want a person whose work is interdisciplinary. Ok, great, but what exactly does that mean? Does it even mean anything? Or is only a convenient placeholder instead of which the advert should actually say, “well, we don’t really know what we want” or “we will make up our minds once we see the applications and know who is available”?
That is not all, however.
Not long ago I applied for a job in Europe. The job description in the advertisement was surprisingly detailed. Moreover, there was an even more informative package available through the institution’s online application system. From what was called a job specification I could learn infinitely more than I ever had from any analogous advertisements in the US.
The description was divided into following sections: 1) Job Purpose, 2) Main Responsibilities, 3) Knowledge, Skills and Experience Needed for the Job, 4) Key Contacts/Relationships, 5) Dimensions, 6) Job Context and any other relevant information. The list of knowledge, skills, and experience was divided into two sections: essential and desirable. The former consisted of five points. The latter – of another three.
My goodness, I thought, could one ask for a better job description? Admittedly, parts of it did leave a bit too much room for interpretation. For example, one of the essentials was an “ability to plan and deliver excellent teaching.” One could ask, rightfully, what exactly counts as excellent teaching. Or what is meant by “high level competence in university lecturing,” but then we all know that there are things that are not easily captured within any definite rubric. Especially in a limited space of a job advert.
Either way, I thought I had all the information I needed to prepare an excellent application. And so I did. In my letter I highlighted how I met all the essential requirements and some of the desirable ones. I made sure it was clear that I am capable of successfully discharging the main responsibilities listed.
I was invited for the interview.
The last position on the list of the desirables was occupied by – and here I will allow myself to replace the actual content of the job specification with a bit of a metaphor– an ability to cook vichyssoise. Well, I said to myself, I’ve never actually made this particular soup but I am no stranger to cooking in general and to cooking soups in particular. Besides, it is the very last of the desirables. Obviously it is not as important as the others.
How surprised I was when the interviewing panel presented me with leeks, potatoes, chicken broth and whipping cream and requested that I prepare a delicious vichyssoise right there and then!
Evidently the desirables were considerably more essential than they appeared given the advertisement.
How was that possible, I wondered. Why making vichyssoise was not listed among the essentials? It clearly should have been!
Well, a knowledgeable person told me, probably the committee members were not in agreement regarding this ability’s importance. Or perhaps they changed their mind sometime between the advert’s publication and the interviews. Additionally, you need to keep in mind that in the country where the institution is located, it is often the case that the advertisement is not created by people who later serve on the committee. It is possible that the vichyssoise advocate(s) had less impact on the job description content and more on the actual interview and decision making.
It is not only that, as McCutcheon has written, “Departmental search committees often fail to entertain the difficult questions in advance and, instead, go on ‘fishing expeditions’ by defining their open positions far too broadly and vaguely.” It is also the case that sometimes they define and redefine the position as the search unfolds.
“While one cannot control such factors” as nebulous job descriptions, “unstated disagreements and longstanding rivalries,” McCutcheon writes, “when representing oneself one at least ought to be aware of their potential presence and impact.” I’m not sure how this awareness should translate into action. Unless what McCutcheon is saying is simply: AFTDJ!
Barbara Krawcowicz received her PhD in Religious Studies from Indiana University Bloomington and in Philosophy from Warsaw University. Currently, she serves as an adjunct lecturer at the Polish Academy of Sciences. She’s working on a book devoted to Jewish Ultra-Orthodox responses to the Holocaust. Her research interests include modern and contemporary Jewish thought, religious radicalism, gender and religion, as well as method and theory in religious studies.