How To Make It Stop?

Ok, I know that in a post a while ago I said:

I don’t know about you but I melt each of the (very few these days) times I receive a real letter, by post…

So you’d think I’d be delighted with this pile (it is more than three layers deep – and I’ll get at least this many again over the next month or so):


Well, yes and no. What are they?

They are letters written to me applying for postdoctoral positions to work in the group, along with letters of recommendation supporting the applications. This is not unusual. I’m betting that the other guys in my group have their own similar set of letters. Furthermore, anybody in the field who is in even a slightly well known group gets a lot of these at around this time of year. And then there are the email ones as well (ironically, one arrived just as I was typing the last sentence).

Each year, at around this time, a huge number of young people in the field send out such applications. They may apply to anywhere between 15 to 70 or more groups, sending pretty much identical applications to each one, and asking the people who write them letters of recommendation to send a copy of their letter to each of these places.

Now we can have a discussion about why people need to send out so many applications, and what other strategies people use to try to increase their chances of postdoc offers, but that’s not my main thrust right now (but go ahead and talk about that if you want to since there are important issues there). What I am more interested in talking about is why one earth we do things this way at all! Surely, the same field of research that invented the arXiv (for rapid paperless distribution of research papers) can find a way of doing all this that stops so much paper being sent around in multiple copies?

Of the order of a decade ago I suggested (to nobody in particular, just during random lunchtime conversations and the like) that we could fix this with a similar setup to the arXiv, in fact. We have a central database where a person in the field can upload their cover letter, curriculum vitae, research statement, and so forth. The system assigns it a unique identifier. He/she informs her letter writers of that identifier. They upload their letter for that person to the system, and the system links it to that person’s application. Now, all one has to do to get that person’s complete application is go to the database and look up that identifier – either sent to you or your institution by email, or whatever way is preferable. So there is no need to send tons of letters around…. they are only read when needed, etc., etc. Registered research groups are the only places allowed to get direct access to the combined application (materials, cover letter, letters of recommendation). You just read online, or print out and form your shortlist of applicants. In fact, now I think about it, if you’re a registered institution, you can know that someone has applied to you because in their space on the system they can see the list of registered groups and can just click on the ones to which they want to apply. (Sometimes someone will want to tailor their application somewhat differently for particular institutions. No problem… they can have multiple accounts, uploading different versions of their materials if they want.)

Does not seem so hard.

The key point is to make it transparent and universal. More recently, some groups (e.g., European networks in some fields) have started online upload systems (akin to a similar system for graduate school applications that are now increasingly common). This is good, to some degree, but the big problem there is that each of these systems are slightly different from each other. So it has actually made things more time consuming if you are a person’s letter writer. Rather than print off 50 labels and 50 letters all at the same time (and put them into 50 envelopes, and lick 50 envelopes…), you end up havving to go to a host of different websites with different pin numbers and web addresses….. and it seems that it takes longer every year. Makes one long for the days when you just had to worry about where you put that template from last year for printing out 50 Avery labels in LaTeX…

It would be so much simpler with just one database that we all use worldwide, don’t you think? How hard can it be to implement?

Thoughts anyone? What are the flaws that I’ve missed? Most objections I recall from way back -like people being able to easily get access to their own letters of recommendation- are not flaws that don’t already exist in the paper system. (And there are ways around that… and who actually wants to see what people are writing about them anyway?)

letter vs letterBy the way, the other reason I’d like to see the system change? Today, I found in the pile (only been sorting recently now that it is time to look at them) that one of the letters I thought was a postdoc application was in fact one of those rare things: A personal letter from an old friend, sent to me seven weeks ago. You can see from the picture on the right (Click for larger) why it got lost. I’ve put it next to another letter that is in fact a job application. Can you tell which is which?


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