This note encodes a particular observation on the academic job search process that I have witnessed on several occasions as a faculty member involved in, or witnessing, a number of faculty searches in anthropology and folklore studies. There is plenty of good advice out there on the academic job search but I do not recall anyone ever making the following observation.
This note applies to searches that are not of the “wide open” variety. That is, I am speaking about cases where a department wants a particular set of specialties.
Anthropology job searchers play close attention to the job ads in their field. A sometimes puzzling development is when a department runs their ad again with a new, later due date. It may be obvious that this happens when the search committee is not happy with the size or qualities of the applicant pool. What is not so obvious is the effect that last minute applications have on this process. I am talking to you last minute applicants!
As the due date for applications approaches, those managing the search have to make an assessment. Is the pool large enough to pass muster with college or university HR officials? In many institutions, the powers that be will not allow a search to move forward to the screen and interview stage if there are too few applicants. Too few applicants is a sign that something has not gone right. In some institutions, the human resources authorities want to see that the pool has attracted an appropriately diverse pool in terms of gender and other demographic variables. For multiple practical reasons, the assessment of the pool typically has to happen before the original due date is reached. If the due date is reached without being extended and the pool turns out to be inadequate, the search might be declared “busted.” Particularly under current economic conditions, faculty searches are very prized occurrences and no one wants to risk seeing the plug being pulled from above.
So, in a hypothetic search for a specialized colleague, it is almost due date time and there are too few applicants. Rather than risk a range of problems, the department extends its deadline. Then, minutes before the original deadline, a wave of applications arrive. Arriving on the last day are just enough solid applications to cause the original pool to be viable after all. If those late appliers had applied earlier, the original deadline would have stuck and they would have been part of a small but viable pool. For any one of them, their chances would have been better had this happened. Now, in this example instance, they have to wait around a month or more to see what happens. Their chances are harmed because delay=risk. (A Dean can close an in-process search for all kinds of reasons.) They are also harmed because the pool, with additional time, will attract additional candidates. Additional candidates=additional competition. This scenario happens in the real world and the N number of applicants who turn their stuff in on the last day are the cause. They mess things up for themselves and they mess things up for the hiring department. Applying at the last minute is, of course, better than not applying at all, but if you are an applicant, it is not in your self-interest.
If you are applying for an anthropology or folklore (or etc.) job with a narrow area or historical focus or in a specialized or emergent research area or for a job with a complicated mandate or in an off-the-beaten-path location, paying attention to this potential dynamic is very much in your interest. It is simply better to be an excellent candidate in a small but viable pool in a search that is unfolding quickly and early in the annual hiring season.