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Job Market Advice: Dossier Services

Long-time ProfHacker readers know that we like Interfolio.  We’ve written about it several times over the last three years: Julie Meloni wrote “Using Interfolio to Manage Your Professional Documents“; Brian mentions it when advising readers  about “Preparing Now for Next Year’s Job Market,” and I included it in “Five Things That Helped Me Survive the Job Market.”

The MLA job list went live yesterday, and with it the cycle of hope and anxiety has begun anew for academic jobseekers, from ABDs venturing out into the market for the first time to seasoned pros who might be looking for a change of venue to everyone else in between.

One of the questions that job-seekers frequently ask is whether or not to use a dossier service, whether Interfolio or something similar provided by their university.  The answer to this question: Maybe. Or to put it another way, the answer here is not nearly as black and white as some might have us believe.

Most importantly, follow the norms of your discipline. In certain fields where candidates are applying for dozens of jobs at a time, most notably English and History, using a dossier service is expected and perfectly acceptable.  In other fields which have both fewer candidates and fewer positions, it is customary for applications to include personalized letters of recommendation, so a dossier service might not be as advantageous. In some fields, as our resident physicist Heather Whitney can attest, the idea of using such a service is completely foreign.

Another important issue to consider is the level and type of the search.  In many fields, it is perfectly acceptable to use a dossier service for an entry-level search.  It might be more questionable for senior academic or administrative hires where a candidate may only be applying for a select few positions.  As one of my ProfHacker colleagues has observed, “the difference between asking for two or three personalized letters and 20-60 is enormous.”

Whether you choose to use a dossier service or not, make sure you have your letters updated. As more than one seasoned ProfHacker search committee member has mentioned, failure to update the letters is the biggest issue we see.

If you are in a field where the use of a dossier service is acceptable or even expected, here are some ways to use it effectively:

Give your recommenders plenty of advance notice.  Interfolio allows letter writers a variety of ways to submit their recommendations: email, fax, postal service . . .  They can use electronic letterhead (See Brian’s helpful post on “How to Create Digital Letterhead for Your Department” if you don’t already have it at your disposal), and they can even affix a digital signature. But a good letter is a thoughtful letter, and those generally take time to generate.  In general, ask early, and then remind occasionally as the deadlines near.

Depending on how wide your search is, you might solicit an extra letter of recommendation or two. The benefit here is not to send everything to every job, but rather to allow a candidate to customize the application materials to the type of job for which she is applying. Ideally, a candidate will have letters that speak to both her research and teaching abilities, but not all positions weigh these assets equally.  Or a candidate might have a particular secondary interest that could prove attractive to some of the schools on their list.  Having a selection of letters from which to choose can help emphasize these qualifications. (Please note that by selection I mean 6 or maybe 7 of which a candidate might send between 3 and 5 letters depending on the job ad).

One of the biggest benefits of a dossier service is the amount of time it can save for candidates, their recommenders, and the search committees who receive the application materials.  When I was on the market, I applied for over 40 jobs each year.  I had friends who applied for 60-70 positions. In a single season. My advisor was writing letters for 20 of us: this number included his own advisees, candidates whose committee he was on but not chairing, and alumni who already had jobs but were looking to move.  This scenario was quite common in our department, and I’m sure we were not unique.  Search committees who received my materials routinely reported that hundreds of candidates had applied for these positions.  One of the major advantages of the dossier service from a search committee perspective is the simple fact that everything comes in together rather than piecemeal.  Receiving three individual letters for 300 candidates can be a complete nightmare to organize for even the strongest support staff.  Not all institutions have such support staff.

Avoid the lines at the post office. If you opt for a dossier service, you can largely bypass the post office. Interfolio, for example, will let you upload all of your application materials: CV, writing samples, research statements/dissertation abstracts, teaching philosophies, and more, and not only can you then send everything out together either electronically or in hard copy, but you can also track your applications.  Of course, the post office also offers some of these services but many of them require a trip to the nearest local branch.

Use the dossier service to send a copy of your official transcripts. Transcripts are one of the most costly aspects of the job search for many candidates. Having official copies sent to Interfolio (or other dossier service) can help candidates save money by cutting down on this expense significantly.

Whether you decide to use a dossier service or not, if you are on the market this fall, ProfHacker wishes you the best of luck.

If you have used a dossier service while on the market, do you have tips for job-seekers? Do you have other job-market questions that ProfHacker can address in the coming weeks or months? Please share in the comments section below.

[Creative Commons licensed image by Flickr user adactio.]

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