Friday December 4, 1998
Job Application Advice
"I have a great job application story...It proves once and
for all that everything is horrible and the endtime is near."
By Annalee Newitz, Contributor
STANFORD - It all started three weeks ago when I completed my October column and forced myself to write, photocopy, and Collate materials for 26 different job-application packets. Using my greatest powers of anal retention, I managed to get everything together and in the mail a week in advance of the earliest deadlines.
And that's when things began to go wrong. Somewhere, somehow, a cruel bureaucratic force began to gather in power and work against me. It came from ... the Post Office. Now let me make myself clear. Each job letter I sent out contained exactly the same amount of paper; the only difference between them was what I had written on said papers.
And yet, two weeks after I sent out my letters -- five days after the November 2 deadline for several of the positions -- two of my job letters were returned to the UC-Berkeley English department, marked "insufficient postage." All of my other letters, bearing the same postage, had gone through. In fact, one of the returned letters was from an institution to which I had sent two applications (in different departments) --apparently, one letter made it; the other didn't.
What brutal force of coincidence was this? Had some postmodern Bartleby randomly chosen two of my letters, sighed quietly, and pronounced, "I will not"? Had a crazed worker chosen to press her thumb into the postal scale and destroy my future rather than strafing her colleagues with a semi-automatic?
One of Stephen King's apocalyptic homilies drifted through my mind: "Perfect paranoia is perfect awareness." There was nothing to be done but call the universities whose letters been returned and try to explain my situation to them without sounding a flake or a lunatic. I imagined the conversation: "Uh, I know this sounds weird, but all my job applications got through the mail with one stamp on them, and somehow your letter didn't. I really did send it, and I really did put a stamp on it -- I swear!"
In real life, I opted for the calm, anti-Postal Service approach: "The Postal Service screwed up and returned this letter. Can I send you a fax?" Of course, my first fax wouldn't go through either. The pages kept sticking in the fax machine, then the line went dead for no discernible reason.
Finally, I ended up faxing the application to one school twice: once in an incomplete form, and once with the pages out of order. Maybe this makes me the perfect professor. I can't master the postage system, and I can't operate a fax. But I can say one thing. If this was some kind of weird psychological symptom, it's the very first time my unconscious has had the power to control the minds of postal workers.
Now that my applications have made it through the mail (hopefully), it's time to brace myself for the barrage of requests and advice that will begin arriving in my mailbox and consciousness over the next few weeks.
Every university has its own way of asking for affirmative-action information, ranging from very open to shamefaced and Byzantine. Most will send a simple postage-paid card asking you to answer the Four Basic Questions anonymously: race, gender, disability, and veteran status. Others will hem and haw about the information they want, reassuring you in smudgy little paragraphs that although they want you to reveal your name, they won't be using affirmative-action information to evaluate your candidacy.
Occasionally, it seems that schools are polling you for some kind of demented marketing strategy: "What is your race? Are you disabled? Where did you hear about our school? What professional publications do you read?"
I find it most insulting when schools ask you to fill out several sheets of paper and don't provide you with an envelope or stamps. It makes me wonder whether they really do want this information, or if they're deliberately making it difficult for you to respond so that they can "prove" that affirmative action is unnecessary.
Only one college has asked me whether I'm of mixed racial/ethnic heritage. And they still required me to choose which racial category I identify with or with which most people identify me. So at least one affirmative-action department somewhere in the United States will acknowledge me as a "mixed" ethnic, even if in the end I'll be considered "white."
Some people have advised me not to respond to affirmative-action requests. But I always do. I don't mind who knows that I'm a white female non-disabled non-veteran. The worst advice I've gotten has been in regards to writing samples.
Departments asking for writing almost always request "a 20-page sample." How the hell does anyone represent the breadth of their knowledge and research in 20 pages? And I've been told -- as if search committees were composed of wild animals -- "Don't send more than 20 pages. It will only make them angry."
Okay, so I'm a dope who will turn up on some Fox special called "When Search Committees Attack." I always send an entire article or chapter, even if it's over 20 pages. But I do include a cover letter advising tired readers which 20 pages are the most important.
Actually, I have to admit the worst advice I've gotten has been about job interviews. "Women should always wear skirts to interviews," I was told last year by a famous feminist scholar. If that's what it takes to get a professorship, I thought to myself, too bad for me. I don't wear skirts or dresses. Period. Not even for tenure.
[The editorial also appeared in The Chronicle on 11/20/98]
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