We Regret To Inform You: The Emotional Labour of Academic Job Applications

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Andrea Eidinger

I would like to acknowledge and thank the many academics who have reached out to me on this subject over the past few months. Once again, I am profoundly grateful and honoured by their strength and generosity. Special thanks to Ian Mosby for permission to include his story in this piece.

Everything in academia has its season: SSHRC applications, archival research, syllabus preparation, and all the other yearly routines that come with academic life. But for those of us who work as sessional instructors, the worst season, without a doubt, is job application season. These days, applications for even sessional positions can involve countless hours of work and upwards of fifty pages of written materials, much of which has to be customized for each individual application. The sheer amount of work is mind-boggling, particularly to those of us with friends and family who are not familiar with the academic world. I was personally shocked to find out that outside of academia, a job application usually only consists of a cover letter and a one or two page resumé. Can you even imagine?

These days, the components of a job application can vary significantly between institutions but generally include: a cover letter, a detailed c.v., letters of reference from referees, sample course outlines, teaching evaluations, a teaching dossier, and custom course outlines.. The intellectual labour involved in producing these kinds of applications is a major issue. But today I want to focus specifically on the emotional labour that goes into job applications. While most of the specific examples in this essay refer to the Canadian job market generally, and the field of history specifically, the issues raised in this essay are not discipline, or country,specific.

Understanding Emotional Labour in Academia

The term “emotional labour” is a relatively new one in academia circles, but it generally refers to the effort involved in caring. It is related to, but not the same as service. This often involves things like providing a sympathetic ear to a student struggling with homesickness during office hours, the expectation that requires female professors be “nice,” settling disputes between colleagues, having to swallow down anger following an insensitive remark from a senior colleague, and much more. Female, disabled, and LGTBQ+ professors, as well as professors who are Black, Indigenous or People of Colour often bear the brunt of this labour, whether this involves handling unwelcoming and exclusionary environments and attitudes, the expectation that many of us feel to “represent” our “people,” as well as the expectation that we are supposed to be educating others. Sessional instructors also often perform a disproportionate amount of this labour.

Balancing Hopes, Fears, and Expectations

The delicate balance of hope and fear is a part of job searches in every field. But in a field like academia, where the jobs are so few and the applicants so many, the stakes are much higher. A recent survey showed that nearly 90% of humanities PhD students in Ontario plan to become university professors. However, in the past few years, there have only been one or two full-time or tenure-track positions advertised per year in Canadian history across the country. While there are some temporary job positions (either limited-term contracts, or individual courses), the odds are very much against  applicants. Some of us may even know people with wonderful history jobs outside of academia, but these positions, too, are limited. Writing a job application is, in and of itself, an act of radical hope.

Each new application brings with it an emotional seesaw, balancing the need to maintain perspective against the fact that, by the time many of us have completed an application, we have become emotionally invested.  As one of the instructors I spoke with noted, “I start to go down the path of dreaming and considering these potential lives that could be had in countries and universities around the globe, all while managing expectations around the reality of that job actually being granted.” While the feelings engendered by job applications are not universal, the weight of them is. Many precariously employed/unemployed academics will worry about our ability to pay our rent and support our families. Others deal with crushing feelings of betrayal, failure, and anger. And some of us will lose all hope, trapped by a sense of powerlessness.

The Performance of a Lifetime

The actual process of compiling a job application also involves a great deal of emotional labour. These days, most job applications will require the inclusion of materials that require deep introspection, like teaching philosophies. Like many other precariously employed/unemployed academics, I have a file on my computer that I refer to as the “Graveyard of Forgotten Courses.” This file contains course outlines for the many jobs I have applied to over the years. Most of them are for courses that I will never teach, and were compiled only for a specific job application. These days, applications, and particularly interviews, require that applicants demonstrate not only their devotion to the study of history (God forbid, never tell anyone that you are applying to this job because you want to be able to pay your rent), but also their love of research and teaching, and their knowledge of, and personal investment in, the department’s visions and goals. This is even the case with applications for sessional positions. All the while knowing that, in most cases, much of this material will go unread.

To a significant extent, academic job applications and interviews are much more about performance than anything else. The reality is that applicants can’t afford to be their whole selves. In many respects, we are expected to be teaching and research machines. Many of us conceal chronic illnesses, both physical and mental, out of fears that they will negatively affect our chances. As one individual put it, “I also deal with a chronic pain due to an injury, which I have never disclosed to any hiring committee, nor would I feel it a good idea to (sadly – I am embarrassed to write that). Managing pain throughout the interviews and days can be challenging.” Women face particular challenges in this respect, as academia has little patience for pregnancy or breastfeeding. The same individual reported that while she was still breastfeeding, she would cut down on nursing sessions in the days leading up to her interviews, so that she didn’t have to ask for breaks. As she explained, “Given the intensity and the competition of the process, I feel like you have to be your best self at all times, and also to not draw attention to yourself on anything other than professional elements – certainly not draw attention to the failings of the body or my role as a mother.”

While it appears that Laval University was alone in requiring female applicants to disclose information about their menstrual cycles, many female academics, including applicants, have to field questions about their personal lives, particularly with respect to family planning. For instance, I was cautioned against wearing my wedding ring in an interview, since it might give interviewers the impression that I was planning to get pregnant. Similarly, one individual reported hearing another academic say, “I don’t want to hire any young women like her – they just get pregnant and drop their job.” The same individual also knew a friend who tried to hide her pregnancy for a job interview, and, when she couldn’t, felt the need to bring up the subject to assure her interviewers that having a child wouldn’t impact her performance.

Dejected Rejections

And after all of that, it is extremely rare that we receive a response — any kind of response — whether an acknowledgement of receipt, or even a rejection letter. If we do receive a rejection letter, it is almost always a standardized one. And, sometimes, these can go terribly wrong. For instance, Ian Mobsy recently shared on Twitter:

And this is far from an unfortunate mistake. One of the other individuals I spoke with had the same thing happen to them. And a quick look through the thread of Mosby’s tweet will reveal further thoughtless and careless mistakes, like receiving an email attachment with the file name “Rejection Letter #1.” Such instances make it all the more remarkable when applicants do actually receive a response. One of the individuals I spoke with recalled being flabbergasted at receiving a personalized rejection letter from the search committee chair, thanking her for her application, commending her for her accomplishments, and explaining why she didn’t get the job. As she noted, “this rejection became lovely because someone actually cared.” This is a low bar indeed. While I realize, as do so many other others, that search committees are receiving unprecedented numbers of applications, and personalized rejection letters create a great deal of additional work for search committees, surely we can do better that this.

Conclusion

I do not want to suggest here that this is a matter of a few bad apples. The fact that individuals from all across the country have had such similar experiences points to a systemic issue about the devaluation of the labour involved in job applications. While conversations are happening at an individual and even department level, these conversations don’t appear to be translating into concrete actions. And I want to be clear there there are better alternatives than our current system. Increasingly, some job ads, for both sessional and tenure-track positions, will only ask for a cover letter, a cv, and letters of reference. Additional supporting materials are only requested of short-listed candidates. This approach lightens the load for everyone. Because at the end of the day, we’re all human, with the same hopes and fears as everyone else. Maybe it’s time that we remembered that.

Andrea Eidinger is a historian of gender and ethnicity in postwar Canada. She holds a doctorate from the University of Victoria, and has spent the last six years teaching as a sessional instructor in British Columbia. She is the creator and writer behind the Unwritten Histories blog, which is dedicated to revealing hidden histories and the unwritten rules of the historical profession.

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22 thoughts on “We Regret To Inform You: The Emotional Labour of Academic Job Applications

  1. Catherine Murton Stoehr

    I always feel a bit silly for minding the no-response so much – but I really mind. One job in particular I was contacted by a headhunter who instigated an ongoing correspondence encouraging me to apply but once I’d done all the work and the application was in – crickets.

  2. Lisa Patterson

    My experience, outside of academia, is similar: application processes demanding an unreasonable or impossible amount of time, effort, and “paper.” Timely courteous responses are virtually non-existent. How can disrespecting workers and devaluing their work ever be a good thing?

  3. JMcMullin

    Thanks for the piece, Andrea, but I’m left thinking that it presents academia in an unreasonably bad light.

    On the letters: Some jobs get hundreds of applications – imagine the, as you call it, “emotional labour” involved in writing an analysis of each file that could be sent to the applicant. That’s an unreasonable expectation. Plus, since lots of files are rejected after unfavourable assessments about the limited potential of the research, if honest letters were sent out Activehistory and social media would explode with rage at the discouragement being doled out to largely-younger scholars. Likewise, I’m not sure what the trauma is in receiving a file marked “Rejection Letter 1.” It can’t be the terminology, since Ian himself uses the word. Sending it to a referee is an unfortunate mistake, though, again, blowing it up into a trauma is pushing it. Many of those tasks are performed by support staff members, and if these usually-amazing people make an occasional mistake we need to give them a pass.

    More importantly, it’s vital to distinguish between what applicants fear (and what can sometimes be suggested based on scattered stories and single comments), and what actually matters behind the scenes in hiring. I hope that family status or planning doesn’t enter into hiring decisions; in our field I bet it seldom if ever does now – I’ve certainly seen no signs of it.

    Finally, we shouldn’t be able to “be our whole selves” in job interviews. Both interviewers and interviewees tidy up everything from our appearances, to our language, to our senses of humour; we talk less about our off-hours lives and relationships and health issues because they shouldn’t matter in the decision that has to be made. And since getting hired into a tt humanities position at a Canadian university almost invariably means a lifetime appointment at an excellent salary, these interviews should, in fact, be “the performance of a lifetime.” That’s good.

    Right now our profession is in a penitent mood. It’s hard to say that’s a bad thing. But we should try to be more precise and realistic in what we atone for and to avoid the incentives offered by academic social media to overblow and overstate.

  4. andreaeidinger

    Thanks for your comments, JMcMulin.

    I would encourage you to do more research in this area. First of all, emotional labour is a well-documented phenomena.

    Second, I would recommend a closer reading of the actual blogpost. I do not suggest at any point that an analysis of each file is a viable solution. In fact, quite the opposite. My point, rather, is that this system is untenable, impersonal, and thoughtless. The fact that you misattribute the “Rejection Letter #1” anecdote suggests that you may need to give the blog post some closer attention.

    Third, many of your comments are troubling in the sense that they suggest that the feelings and experiences of other individuals are invalid because they do not align with your experiences. Rather, I would encourage you to try to see the situation from the perspective of precariously employed or unemployed academics.

    Fourth, I think there is a substantive difference between “tidying up” and what I am discussing. Again, there are numerous studies showing that female applicants are often discriminated against on basis of pregnancy or motherhood, both inside and outside academia. There is little tolerance in the academic field in general for discussions of mental health, well-being, work/life balance, etc… The recent discussion on Twitter about the valorization of over-work in academia is an excellent example of this.

    Finally, I am concerned about your comment that “our profession is in a penitent mood.” To me, this suggests that you see the problems in our profession as minor inconveniences rather than deep-seated systemic issues. Again, I would call your attention to the numerous studies that document this. Overall, I think that there are some serious problems in academia that need to be addressed, for all our sakes. My hope is that this post sparks the kind of dialogue that we need to make academia a more equitable system. Thanks again for your thoughts.

  5. andreaeidinger

    Catherine and Lisa: thanks so much for sharing your experiences! For me, one of the worst parts is putting in all of that work, getting nothing in response, and knowing that the odds are, no one read anything you wrote.

  6. Kevin R Brown

    ‘It was, of course, nothing more than sexism, the especially virulent type espoused by male techies who sincerely believe that they are too smart to be sexists.’

  7. Jon Weier

    I have to back Andrea on her comments to JMcMullin. It’s exactly this kind of minimization of this problem that allows it to continue. In the immortal words of John McLane “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”

  8. Christopher Schultz

    Sending rejection letters to the wrong person is, put quite simply, a gross breach of privacy. It is amateurish, and perfectly indicative of the thoughtlessness that too many inside the profession exhibit in relation to the hardships imposed on would-be instructors.

    JMcMullin thinks we should just give this kind of thing a pass. No big deal.

    I say you should file FIPPA (or whatever provincial equivalent) complaints each and every time it happens to remind them that you are, indeed, a person with dignity.

  9. JMcMullin

    Hi Andrea,
    I wasn’t going to reply, but your comment about empathy really got to me.

    This is one of the worst, most counter-intellectual elements of academic chatter right now: the idea that you either think the profession is systematically oppressive or you lack a vital component of human-ness. The same goes for terms like “troubling” and “concerning,” which unsurprisingly appear in your reply: these are ways of stigmatizing opposing views. We need to start calling out these tactics when we see them, because they’re starting to really harm the way that we think as a profession.
    On your other points. First, I don’t doubt emotional labour is a well-established concept; I didn’t run it down as a concept. What underlay my point is that much if not most of what we and most other working people do is emotional – writing letters to 80 applicants explaining why they didn’t get a job would be intensely so. If we use it to mean everything, then it means nothing.

    Second, on the letters: through a quotation you praised an individualized letter that let the recipient know why they didn’t get a job, then you said we have to do better than the current form letter routine. If all that you were asking for is a form letter that better masquerades as a personal note, then I apologize for the critique. Otherwise, I’m puzzled.

    Third, not sure why you think I misattributed the Rejection Letter 1 anecdote or how you get from there to the drive-by smear that I didn’t read your post thoroughly enough.

    Fourth, I haven’t seen any studies on women being discriminated against for pregnancy or motherhood in Canadian historical academia, which is the profession that I thought we were discussing.

    Here again I want to make a case for precision: too often in discussions about our profession or about Canadian universities in general, participants wield statistics and studies published about workplaces generally, or US colleges, etc. We should be wary of assuming that trends demonstrated in other sectors, departments, or countries are manifested in our own. Having been in a few different workplaces inside and outside universities in a few different parts of the world, I’m incredibly impressed by how well Canadian historical academia does on issues like the ones we’re talking about. Rather than hair-shirting ourselves on every issue that we can, we should be offering lessons on lots of fronts to workplaces elsewhere.

    Finally, nothing about the word penitent or my use of it suggests trivialization. What I said was that we should be precise in what we choose to be penitent about – what we choose to write about, for example, as “deep-seated systemic issues.”

    To Christopher Schultz: sending the letter to a referee was certainly a mistake. But calling it a “gross breach of privacy” is warping the issue beyond recognition. Filing a formal grievance would lead to an irresponsible misuse of too-scarce funds that are key to public university education. I hope they apologized; that should settle it.

  10. Catherine Murton Stoehr

    In other news – has everyone ever heard this from Jen Kirkman:

    “The “why women aren’t funny” line is coming into focus it isn’t that we aren’t funny—it’s that men lack an ability to see life through our experience, & lack the empathy to want to try. In other words, they don’t get the joke & never wanted to.”

    Some things you gotta want it.

  11. Christopher Schultz

    JMcMullin – Respectfully, for someone who is lecturing others on “precision,” I think you should look up the definition of “gross.” It means obvious or unacceptable. Then you should look up the definition of “privacy breach,” which is a matter of law. Sending a rejection letter to the wrong person is clearly both of these things.

    As for “using precious resources,” again you aren’t thinking of the heart of the article, which is that the precious resources being abused by the institutions are those of the applicants. When you screw it up, you only add to the burden. The reason why FIPPA legislation exists is precisely to permit ordinary people some fundamental protections against this kind of carelessness.

    Setting that issue aside…

    I do think that most of the problem with the job market is that universities do an appalling job at opening non-academic career opportunities for graduates in the social sciences and humanities. That needs to change. When Andrea writes about the few non-academic “history jobs” there are, I now know that the skills I developed learning and writing about History would serve an awful lot of graduates very well. Researchers are needed everywhere. Analysts are needed everywhere. Policy experts are needed everywhere. Auditors, investigators, ombudspersons… all of these roles use the historian’s toolkit. But nobody in the academy taught me this, and nobody is reaching out to include them at the job fairs. You just have to find it out on your own, it seems, and that, too, is part of the untold emotional (and mental, and physical) labour of the post-PhD job market.

  12. JMcMullin

    Okay. I have to stop this; internet neurosis is setting in. But to respond to Christopher: having done what you said, and looked it up, I think gross implies severity – that is, it was more than ordinary either in recklessness or consequence (see gross indecency or gross negligence). I guess this isn’t surprising: in your definition there’d be no difference between gross breaches and other breaches.

    Casting what happened here as a gross breach of privacy is…a heavy lift. The referee knew the applicant was applying; they would have found out that the person had been rejected for the post. I doubt any other personal information was contained in that communication.

    So, seriously, a *gross* breach of privacy?

  13. SSchli

    So just to be clear, JMcMullin, in order to believe that pregnancy and motherhood have an impact on hiring practices, you require a study done specifically on pregnancy or motherhood in Canadian historical academia, given that we can’t generalize from other “sectors, departments, or countries.” First, studies can be generalizable. Second, something doesn’t exist because you personally haven’t seen evidence of it in the world or in a study? That seems like gross (as per the definition above) dismissal of the experiences of many others.

  14. Jean-Luc

    I sure am picking up on a really nicely worded reply from Andrea. It looked like a good balance between being polite and not putting too much effort into explaining everything to J.

    J, if you haven’t seen any studies showing what has been claimed, feel free to look them up and research it yourself 🙂

  15. Ed Dunsworth

    Thank you Andrea for this thoughtful and important piece. The practice of only requiring short-listed candidates to provide the whole mega-application seems like a no-brainer. Your comments about the particular barriers for women applicants are so important, and though there may not be confirmed statistics about this, many/most of us have certainly heard variations of those stories.

  16. Geoff Read

    I certainly agree with Dr. Eidinger about the vast emotional toll of the application process and the unreasonable demands we place on applicants. I think the note she ends on is a possible way forward. Departments should ask for much less in the initial call for applications. More materials can then be requested of the long-listed candidates. Applicants should be advised in the initial call that they will be asked for these materials if they make the long-list. That seems far more reasonable.

    It would then be equally reasonable, I think, for departments to send as compassionate as possible form letters to everyone rejected before the long-list is formed. And then personalize all those letters sent to the say roughly 9 people on the long list who don`t get the job.

    I also wanted to point out what puts us all in this shitty position within the profession: our graduate programs are producing too many PhDs for the extremely limited jobs available in what seems like a deliberate plot on the part of governments to engineer a job market flush with over-qualified people competing to fill the part-time and precarious job contracts universities do offer. The fact that departments are not managing this situation well in their hiring practices is indeed a problem that Dr. Eidinger is right to identify; the cause of that problem is structural in nature, and lies in government and university policies. Which themselves, I would argue, are rooted in the triumph of a neo-liberal discourse about reducing the tax burden on the middle class and so forth, which has produced cuts in public spending on post-secondary education. Those cuts, in turn, have made governments and universities look to find ways to offer their programs on the cheap, on the backs of the academic precariat.

    So, in sum, departments should do their best of harm reduction with compassionate and humane hiring practices but we should also think about strategies for reversing the destructive governmental policies that have deliberately created this situation.

  17. SSchli

    I completely agree with this. It is even very easy to give personalized feedback on each of the applications, even if it numbers over one hundred applications. With a simple mail merge function, you can add one line of text – or even a a word or two – on an otherwise standard email. Harvard is known to do that and they have a lot of applications to handle. In my opinion, it’s respectful and helps to increase the reputation of the university and scholars involved.

  18. Bruce Douville

    Thank you for sharing this, Andrea. After seven years of applying for LTA and tenure-track academic positions, one develops a sense of resignation. (I’ll still continue applying, of course.) But I acknowledge that for many academic applicants, a sense of resignation is a luxury. I’m in a privileged position, because I have relatively stable part-time academic work, and additionally, stable work as a musician. And because I’ve returned to my hometown, and am residing with family, I don’t have some of the same pressing worries that others do in regards to accommodations. Thus, as I said, even a sense of resignation, and a certain emotional detachment (which, even for me, isn’t entirely possible), are luxuries.

    I agree with Geoff Read’s observations that the primary problems are structural. I also agree with him that your final suggestion is an excellent one: slim down the initial round of applications to a cover letter and CV.

    Once again, thank you for writing this.

    Cheers,

    Bruce

  19. Allison

    Thank you for this thoughtful post Andrea. I am a graduate student who may sit on a hiring committee for sessional instructors in our department this year.

    This post was really helpful for me to structure my thoughts around who will be applying and what they experience during these processes – and to inform what kinds of questions I would ask of fellow committee members with regards to how we are treating applicants with respect.

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