The death of content in academic job adverts

As my current (and last) postdoc contract is going to finish, I am actively looking for a job. Yesterday, while in line to board a plane, I saw a tweet signalling three positions in digital humanities at London’s King’s College. While I do not exactly fit with the area (not that there are many areas I fit exactly with), a good amount of my research is of interest to digital humanities (for example, here or here), and I had few positive interactions with other practitioners. So, I clicked on one of the links proposed (you can try this, it is the same for all).

Here is the main block of the advertisement:

King’s College London is continuing its significant investment in the Department of Digital Humanities as part of an ambitious programme of expansion into growing and emergent research areas and a rapidly expanding student base across its five MA programmes and the BA Digital Culture. We are seeking to recruit an exceptional candidate to join the Department no later than 1st September, who can enthuse and inspire our students, conduct world leading research, and contribute to the life and reputation of the Department through academic leadership and public engagement.

Senior Lecturer – Candidates will be scholars of international standing with a strong research and publication record and evidence of or potential for research income generation. The successful applicant will play a key role in leading work across the Department to enhance our research strengths, to develop new and emergent research areas, towards innovation in teaching practice and pedagogy, and in our underpinning values of co-research and collaboration.

Lecturer post – Candidates will be striving to become scholars of international standing with a research and publication trajectory that illustrates this ambition. The successful applicant will contribute to the further development of the Department’s research strengths, provide high quality teaching and supervision, and work collaboratively within the Department and beyond.

As you may notice, King’s College is making a “significant investment” as a part of an “ambitious programme of expansion into growing and emergent research areas”, and looks for an “exceptional candidate who can enthuse and inspire […] students, conduct world leading research, and contribute to the life and reputation of the Department through academic leadership and public engagement”. Etcetera. You may also notice that there is not a single word about what the “emergent research area” is, or what, in fact, the candidate is supposed to know, research, or teach.

Of course, some details are given in the “Job pack”, which can be accessed from there (after registering and providing personal information). This, however, makes my point. First the buzzwords, and then, hidden, some minimal content. Now, I am not so naive to be surprised by the usage of the “striving to become scholars of international standing with a research and publication trajectory”, etc. jargon – I work in academia, and I did my share of grant and job applications or cover letters, but this is the first time that there is only jargon.

Also, I am sure that the persons that tweeted and retweeted the advertisements, as well as all digital humanities people at King’s are doing a fine job and they are doing exactly what everybody else is doing (in fact I was even thinking to apply for one of the positions, but probably not after this post…). This is a classic problem in academia – and in many other places – in which everybody agrees that there is something wrong (think about academic publishing…), but the incentives at the individual level (or, in the case of jargon, perhaps the absence of disincentives) go in the opposite direction. It is just that I have made a fair amount of applications, and presenting myself as “striving to become a scholar of international standing” in an “emergent area”, etc., was fun at the beginning, annoying quickly later, and it is starting to become frankly depressing.

2 thoughts on “The death of content in academic job adverts

  1. Hi Alberto,
    I agree and share your view (both on the current state of publishing and the job adverts). I guess most of it is social learning, right? You need to advertise a job at your faculty. How to write a job advert? Create one from scratch? Or look at a dozen adverts from other universities and Frankenstein them together in a new one. Copy, publish, copy, publish and the informative and (for the job seeker) relevant parts become smaller and finally disappear. As you say, for the advertiser there is little to no incentive to make it more informative. The pool of unemployed scientists is sufficiently large (and growing?). What do you think would bring about a change to the system?

    1. Hi Marco,

      Thank you for your interesting comment! I was interpreting it as a sort of sub-optimal strategy: expressing “real” content is costly, and as long as there are no incentives to do it, it is easier to resort to general if vague formulas. Someone suggested on Twitter this has also the side-effect of allowing freedom for the examinators, as they do not have to respond to objective criteria (which candidate is not “striving to become a scholar, etc.” ?) and so they can choose whoever they want.

      Said so, I am (not surprisingly…) sympathetic to the social learning hypothesis 🙂

      I wonder whether this does not even point towards some possible suggestions: how is this problem solved in standard cultural evolution? Copying-from-many-models is certainly a good strategy (I remember a model from the Stockholm group + Kevin Laland showing that “one cultural parent does not make culture possible” or similar), but are there works around showing how you avoid this sort of blending problem? Perhaps I am not thinking about something obvious, but please comment here if you have any suggestion!


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