Some reflections on university technology and bureaucracy, and a biz opportunity for you entrepreneurial/sili valley types.

I’m on the academic job market in both law and political science this year. Comparing the brute bureaucratic process of applying in the two different fields is really quite fascinating.

Law is actually quite simple and centralized from the applicant end: everyone files a big form, and then committees call you. However, it externalizes a lot of work onto the committee end, i.e., going through a bunch of forms. (There’s a ludicrously high — $450 — fee for applicants, presumably to deter the unqualified [I'm being charitable here; no idea where all that money actually goes], and hence to trim the burden on committees, but that obviously raises its own problems re: wealth effects etc.) In law, there are no reference letters, just lists of references that committees call — much better for applicants, much worse for committees, again.

Political science is totally decentralized, and involves sending out dozens of packets, filling out numerous totally dysfunctional web forms, etc. (As far as I can tell, all the major web applications are, frankly, written by total incompetents.) And then faculty upload references, or, more likely, get some lovely and long-suffering department staff member to do it. Tons of work for applicants and recommenders, though presumably much less for committees. I’ve actually been on the edge of declining to apply for some searches just because the web app is so hopeless. (Naming and shaming: academic jobs online is bad. One school uses a peoplesoft system, which is much, much worse, just like everything else peoplesoft ever does.)

Both systems have advantages and disadvantages. On the whole, as noted, the law system is much gentler on applicants and (as far as I can tell from the outside) much more work for committees. Personally, though the $450 hurt, I’d much rather be able to pay that for polisci too and not have to go through all those wretched web apps. The polisci system is a crushing amount of work for applicants and, again AFAIK, less work for committees. But it should be possible, with a little creative centralization, to get both.

I think the only solution to this mess is going to be market-based, i.e., someone coming up with an actually usable centralized system at a good price and then marketing it like crazy to disciplinary associations to get schools to adopt. (Its utility and profit would both depend on adoption — a classic network product.) That system would have to do the following:

1. Allow applicants and references to upload full dossiers. And by full, I mean full. At most, there should be a customized cover letter for each school. Few applicants customize the rest anyway, and it’s unlikely that it makes any difference.

2. Allow schools to upload job descriptions and then allow applicants to apply to those jobs will one click.

3. Allow schools to, alternatively, search dossiers that applicants have chosen to make public, along clearly specified subfield lines per discipline as well as qualification terms. (e.g., law schools could search for people in contracts w/ at least one publication listed, political science departments could search for comparativists who study Europe).

4. Be affordable.

5. Be user-friendly. (That is, not be written by peoplesoft. Let me repeat. Not be written by peoplesoft. Did I mention not written by peoplesoft? Also, no peoplesoft. And peoplesoft is right out. Peoplesoft delenda est. One of my life’s dreams is to have the opportunity to dance on the steps of the bankruptcy court while peoplesoft is inside.)

I hear interfolio tries to do some of this, but I also hear (secondhand) that it is extremely overpriced and doesn’t work so well. Academic jobs online also tries some of this, but from personal experience it isn’t very user-friendly, and also doesn’t appear to be adopted widely (at least, I’ve seen it on only 2 of the polisci searches I’ve applied for so far).

This is possible. It’s more-or-less happened on the undergraduate level with the common application; I’m not sure of its precise details but I hear that it works fairly well. Also, that’s an initiative started by schools, not the private market. But, still.

Hey silicon valley friends, who wants to do this? There’s money in it! Really, there is! Right now, the market is absolutely not providing this service. I might even get involved myself.

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2 Responses to “Some reflections on university technology and bureaucracy, and a biz opportunity for you entrepreneurial/sili valley types.”

  1. Jacob T. Levy Says:

    What do people think doesn’t work well about interfolio? I’m a big fan of it.

  2. Paul Gowder Says:

    I’m not actually sure — I know a few people who used it and were cursing it horribly, but no details.

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