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On the Market VII: Job Candidates Are People Too

Another year, another job season. Sigh.

I’ve been on the market for several years now, and regular readers may remember that in that time I have applied to many, many, many jobs. The positions I’ve applied for since finishing my PhD have represented a generous sampling of nearly all that our glorious neoliberal economy has to offer, from tenure track academic posts to generic office drudgery to unskilled minimum wage-slavery. One might think that applying to such a wide variety of jobs might lead to a similarly wide variety of experiences, but this would be wrong. Aside from the fact that the application process for academic jobs is significantly more onerous than it is for most other kinds of work, the overall experience of looking for work is, as it turns out, strikingly, dispiritingly, and resolutely uniform across all sectors.

If there is one thing that seems to unite prospective employers of all stripes, it is a profound lack of what one might euphemistically call “professional courtesy.” One might more directly call it “basic human decency.”

Such lack of courtesy can take many forms. One academic job I applied to asked applicants in the second round of the search to send them a sample syllabus–not in itself an uncommon or particularly onerous demand, except for two additional factors: it had to be tailored to the very unusual and specific nature of their program (and therefore essentially needed to be designed from scratch), and applicants were given only one week to turn it in. Now, for those of you who may not be aware, designing a good upper-level undergraduate course takes quite a lot of work. Even when you are familiar with the material, it takes many hours to search out and sort through potential readings, making sure they are at an appropriate level for the class. Music history courses also require sample pieces that not only fit the reading, but also have scores and recordings available for the students to consult. Assignments and other evaluations need to be designed. And, of course, the whole thing needs to fit a standard 13-week semester with 2-3 class sessions per week. All in all, it’s a good few days of work, assuming you have nothing else going on in your life.

Oh, did I mention the request was sent out on December 22? Just in time to ruin my one week back at home with my family for the holidays.

By far the worst offense in my mind, however, is the now common practice of failing to notify applicants of their rejection in a timely fashion. And I’m not just talking about the now-common boilerplate in most job ads that says they will only contact applicants in which they are interested. While this too is gross, it is at least somewhat understandable in instances where organisations expect to receive many hundreds of applications for a position (although, really, how hard is emailing a form letter?). In academic hiring at least, the community of job seekers has managed to find a workaround for this problem through the many Academic Job Wikis, where applicants who advance in searches can anonymously let everyone else know that the committee has gone forward without them.

Much more painful is advancing in a search and still being left in the dark.

I recently applied for a non-academic job with a large cultural organisation, and was absolutely delighted to be called in for an in-person interview. I thought the interview went quite well, and they seemed impressed with my references, one of whom they knew personally. They even asked by how soon I would be able to start! I was told to expect a decision on a specific day the following week, and I left feeling positive and hopeful.

The following week, I spent that entire day glued to my email, waiting to hear back. Nothing.

I spent the entirety of the next day waiting to hear back. Still nothing.

Not wanting to have to wait a whole weekend to hear back, I finally wrote to them myself to see if there had been a delay in the selection process. Imagine my surprise to receive a rejection not ten minutes later! Clearly they already knew I was not getting the job, but couldn’t be bothered to inform me on the promised date. I later heard from my references that they never even got a call.

Here’s the thing.

Being on the receiving end of this kind of treatment is painful, nerve-wracking, and humiliating. But when it comes to things like employment, applicants have a lot more than self-esteem on the line. We’re talking about people’s lives and livelihoods. People who are looking for work almost by definition are in a period of financial difficulty and distress. Getting a particular job might even mean the difference in making their rent that month, or even affording food. Their immigration status may depend on it (as mine did and does). Finding new employment is a huge, profoundly life altering process. It is anything but another day at the office.

So here is my plea to those of you who are ever in a position to hire someone else, whether in academia or not: Job applicants are people too, so please treat them as such. Communicate with them in a timely fashion, keep your promises, and don’t make unreasonable demands on people who are almost certainly already having a difficult time of it, especially since they are not being paid for any labour you demand of them.

Here’s hoping part VIII will be a little more positive. Until then, keep on doubting.

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Dan holds a PhD in Music History from a major Canadian university and is now pursuing a M.Ed in Higher Education at another one, because he likes to collect very expensive paper. He performs stand-up comedy at venues all over Toronto when he's not busy playing JRPGs with his cat, Roy. You can follow him at @incontrariomotu, but he isn't going anywhere. You can also send him a tip on PayPal ( if you like his work!


  1. October 17, 2017 at 1:39 am —

    I sense when you see a super-specific requirement from a job ad, with a well-nigh impossible timetable, it means that there is probably an internal or already identified person that the committee wants to hire.  But ‘fairness’ requirements mean they have to go through a faux search.  Your syllabus story sounds to me like they already have someone teaching the course with a well worked out syllabus and don’t want any competition that looks more qualified.

    • October 17, 2017 at 1:57 am —

      That wasn’t exactly what was going on with this posting. The specificity of the job had more to do with the size and nature of the department (I don’t want to get into too many specifics, but it was a large-ish programme with a big performance component) and what they were missing.

      As for the impossible timetable, it came later on in the search, along with the expected request for writing samples (which normally does have a short turn-around, because they expect you to have them on hand). It’s just that the very specific nature of the job meant almost no one in the field would have previously taught a course that satisfied what they were looking for, and so it required building something from scratch. The hire was definitely not an internal candidate, though I don’t know if they had some other kind of connection.

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