you think applying for academic jobs is hard?

Since retiring, my spouse has been volunteering at the “job club,” helping low income people apply for jobs. Applicants for low-wage jobs need to apply on line, and many low-wage workers neither own computers nor have much experience using them. Plus they are often unfamiliar with the various verbal hoops applicants have to go through. One of the big ones are banks of attitude questions. Yesterday he spent a couple of hours with a woman applying to work as a baker in a donut franchise, not the chef who thinks up recipes, someone who just does the work of cooking and frosting. She had to respond to 300 Likert items, 25 a page for 12 pages (!) with items like these

  • It is important to know what my coworkers think.
  • It is important to know what my coworkers feel.
  • I can easily imagine what my coworkers feel.
  • It is important to my life that the company do well.
  • Sometimes you have to take a risk to solve a problem for the company.
  • You have to know all possible solutions before picking one.
  • My coworkers say I’m cooperative.
  • My coworkers say I’m obedient.

Other items, he says, are convoluted sentence structures that even he finds difficult to parse to figure out what the positive/negative ends of the scale are. After two hours, they had to quit because the room needed to be used by someone else, and they had only gotten through five pages of the questions. The 300 is the worst so far, but this kind of thing is common in the low wage world. Another time he was working with a mentally disabled man trying to get a job as a dishwasher who had to work through 150 such questions. This is not what you do after you’ve passed the screening and are being interviewed. This is what you have to do just to enter the screening process. My daughter the labor activist says they are trying to screen out not only thieves but activists. I’m sure she’s right, and also pretty confident that these question banks are produced by consultants who don’t necessarily think through what it means to have to spend five hours applying for a $9/hour job on a computer in a public place. Or maybe they do, and that’s part of the test?

I don’t mean with my title to belittle the stresses of being on the academic job market. It is a scary world out there, and the application process is time-consuming and stressful for everyone. But I think we have not stooped this low. Yet, anyway.

Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. I keep my name out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with. You can read about my academic work on my academic blog --Pam Oliver

10 thoughts on “you think applying for academic jobs is hard?”

  1. People who apply for professional class jobs have to spend four years in college filing out an application. It’s a commitment screening device. People who want the job more are willing to pay higher prices for it. I asked for an application to Ragstock on State Street back when the crusty kids actually still got to hang out down there, and they handed me a 15 page packet. I didn’t bring it back — it worked.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is probably not what this company is doing, but I heard a Planet Money story on these new online employment personality tests where the questions are purposely obfuscating, answers are hard to distinguish between, etc – because they are not measuring what you answer but how (how long it took, patterns in answers, what BROWSER you used, etc). Here’s the story: Again, hopefully not what’s going on here, but I think important to know for potential job seekers!


  3. This reminds me of Barbara Ehrenreich’s description of personality tests in Nickel and Dimed. There was one poignant passage where she accidentally insults her coworkers by saying how easy the tests were and how easily they were gamed, only to realize that they took them very seriously.


  4. I once applied to be an operator at a local phone company (I didn’t get the job). After a brief interview where we went over my application, I had to take a test. It was all idioms and cultural expressions. Fill in the blanks: “A rolling stone…” “When the cat is away…” and multiple choice tests to derive meanings of idioms: What is the meaning of “under his skin” or “keep up with Joneses.” I assume it tapped a type of cultural capital and facility with English, but if anyone knows what they were really measuring, I’d love to know.


  5. Ofer Sharone’s new book, Flawed System/Flawed Self (, looks at some of this stuff (and also just won both the OOW and Econ Soc book awards — it’s excellent). He compares the unemployment experience in the US and Israel. These kinds of elaborate personality tests are much more common across job types in Israel and although people hate them, the book argues that they also allow people to take the experience of rejection much less personally. In the US, looking for a (middle-class) job is about networking and fit and if you can’t find one, it means you’ve failed as a human being; in Israel, if you can’t find a job it’s because you can’t meet the specs that search agencies are looking for — it’s seen as a stupid game you have to play, not as a reflection on your fundamental worth.

    Both systems are pretty horrible but even as I was reading it I wondered whether the US is moving in a more test-oriented direction. I wonder whether what your spouse is seeing is likely to remain confined to lower-skill jobs or if it will work its way up the skill & status ladder.

    And I second the Planet Money recommendation — the test-creators have become very good at creating questions that are hard to guess the “right” answers for and I’m very, very glad I don’t have to take them.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Comparative hypothesis: onerous application procedures will proliferate as a screening mechanism in times/places/occupations where there is an over-supply of labor (i.e. high unemployment & worker desperation) and will be less common in times/places/occupations where there is a shortage of labor and employers are desperate for workers.

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  7. I’d imagine that’s how it works in the U.S. case. But the Israeli case seems to be driven by the fact that most firms hire through employment agencies, which means screening is done by underqualified 18yos and formal tests. The fact that it’s done through screening agencies is in turn driven by efforts to avoid the heavily unionized “standard” employment procedures. So while it makes sense that tests proliferate when there is surplus labor, it’s also shaped by historical contingency.

    We had some really good conversations with Israeli neighbors the night I finished the book.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. There’s a lot of empirical support for @olderwoman’s hypothesis, but it is important to point out how the supply of workers is actively manipulated in contemporary labor markets. The last several decades have seen an increase in the creation of employment rents among the professional class (in the form of credentialing, for example), but a destruction of employment rents among the middle and working class (i.e., unions). This reduces labor supply and raises wages at the top of the jobs distribution, whereas at the bottom it generates greater competition and downward pressure on wages. (See Weeden’s and Grusky’s excellent recent article in the American Behavioral Scientist for more on how this works.) I think the example presented here offers a good illustration of the enhanced competitive pressures among low wage workers.

    Liked by 2 people

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