Image: Men reading the newspaperNanjing, China, by Stougard

Job ads in academe often use the same hiring jargon even while the disciplines, institutions, and positions vary widely. The language may be standard but its meaning is anything but. Culture and circumstance govern how each word and phrase is applied.

So far in this series we have examined the nuances of the following career lingo found in job ads: “degree completed by,” “in a related field,” and “required” versus “preferred” qualifications.” Now we turn to another ubiquitous phrase that can mean different things to different committees: “applications will begin to be reviewed” or “we will begin reviewing applications” on such and such a date.

To begin, what does “begin” mean here? Years ago, when I first saw the phrase in a job ad, I imagined the members of the search committee sitting down on a certain date — the morning of the “begin” date — and gazing upon a huge pile of thick, unopened manila envelopes. The chair would proclaim, “Let us begin!” Then everyone would pull out letter openers and start opening packages.

In truth, it is the rare committee that lets applications pile up (physically or electronically) and then sits down on the specified date to look at all of them for the first time. Most committee members (and administrators) have been checking out the pool all along. Sometimes they do it systematically and thoroughly, and sometimes haphazardly (like when a name catches the eye of a committee member).

In other cases, the committee is already aware of an application because:

Someone has called to recommend a protégé or colleague.

Faculty members have encountered applicants from conference interviews, networking, or professional collaborations.

Faculty members have solicited some applications.

There may be internal candidates known to all.

So, the application-review date stated on the job ad may not mean much. A friend described a committee that did not meet to review applications until two months after the posted date. The consensus was that “the pool was too weak” and so the committee held off meeting until it could get stronger candidates to apply. Then again, I know of another committee that met on the posted date and, within an hour, had selected five applicants to invite for phone interviews.

Now to the really vital part of the phrase: What do committees mean by “review”? Almost always it refers to the initial cull, the attempt to toss out people who are obviously unqualified or to set aside applications that are incomplete. The committee wants to quickly move on, either to:

The “who should we consider for phone interviews” stage — in the case of a small candidate pool; or

A more intensive review to identify the true standouts — in the case of a large pool.

Once again, the intensity of the initial review will fluctuate, depending on departmental culture and individual personalities.

In a comprehensive review, committee members scrutinize all of the requested materials for each candidate. Many types of HR software will post the documents in a rankable format, from the cover letter to the CV to the teaching philosophy to, if requested, the letters of reference. Search committees in my own college try to do that. But we get no more than 40 to 50 applicants for a position and the typical six-member committee can handle the load of looking at everything for the first cull.

As a general rule, the smaller the committee and the larger the number of applications, the more likely the task will be divided, with not every member reviewing every document for every candidate. The committee may break into small groups to handle the workload. For example, an English department in a choice locale at a prestigious university might get 400 applicants, so each subgroup would cull a portion and then report to the main committee.

The actual quality of review varies as well. A friend at a small liberal-arts college described to me the awe he has for his colleagues who deeply and thoughtfully read and discuss each element of a candidate’s application. Another acquaintance who teaches at a regional state university described “Professor Lazy” who liked to chair search committees for the free meals but “reviewed” applications by counting pubs on each candidate’s CV.

So what can you do to maximize your odds when they “begin the review”?

First, if the start date for reviewing applications has already passed but you just noticed the position, don’t let that stop you from checking it out. The elasticity of the application-review process should also give hope to those who are late in submitting an application. I would suggest a brief email to the chair: Politely inquire about the committee’s timetable, list your main qualifications for the position (in bullet-point format), and attach your CV. Who knows? You may be just the savior-come-lately it is looking for. I have seen committees reopen the process for late applicants who impressed everyone. Being late shouldn’t be a tactic on your part, but the “begin review by” date does not necessarily constitute a drop-dead deadline.

Relatedly, don’t despair when you have not heard anything for a while. Searches get bogged down for many reasons. And while search restarts are not common, they are not unheard of either.

Third, pay the closest attention to those documents that are most likely to be reviewed carefully by the hiring committee: your cover letter, CV, and reference letters. [As a commentor pointed out below, for community colleges, the teachng philosophy would rise to prominence]. Do those documents emphasize your key qualifications for the position — both to experts (people in your subfield) and to other committee members? Do your documents make clear how you fit? Would the committee pick up on your strong points in a quick scan?

Finally, try as much as possible to find people who will not only write a letter on your behalf but advocate for you. After you create a list of positions you’re interested in seeking, show it to all the faculty members you trust. Ask: “Do you know anyone at these departments?” With luck, your advisers do have contacts at one or more of these places and are willing to make a call on your behalf.


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