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Why do so many institutions choose their own systems for application rather than universal systems like mathjobs.org or interfolio where letter writers don't have to upload their letters multiple times?

Customized questions don't seems to be the reason since mathjobs.org and interfolio also offer the same option (or at least let the applicants address this in the separate PDF document uploaded)

Cost? I don't know how much mathjobs.org or interfolio charge each institute to use their system, but it seems that it is also not easy or free to build and maintain their own application system.

So there should be reasons other than these. Why can't every institute use mathjobs.org or interfolio, making the lives of letter writes easier?

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    My impression is that this is usually forced by central administration (see e.g. ams.org/journals/notices/201907/rnoti-p1085.pdf for a story related to MathJobs specifically). Nov 22, 2023 at 21:22
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    For US state schools, the answer is "ensuring compliance with state law". Many private universities do rely on just interfolio or math obs.
    – user176372
    Nov 22, 2023 at 21:22
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    Even if one discipline has its own system, which one should they use? The math jobs? Or, an English jobs? From the university administrator perspective, they are using one system. One could also ask the flip question: Why doesn't the math group adopt the same standard as a university system such as the large University of California System? Nov 22, 2023 at 21:31
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    One of the main advantages of mathjobs.org is that you don't need to ask the referees for additional letters once they've uploaded the generic reference letters. This is important because busy professors wouldn't be comfortable writing letters for 10–20 separate applications. I am a candidate, and I feel it. But in my experience, most of the positions in North America (USA, Canada) uses mathjobs portal
    – learner
    Nov 23, 2023 at 13:19
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    (They can't even spell their own name: three different ways on the same page: MathJobs.org, MathJobs.Org, and Mathjobs.org) Nov 23, 2023 at 16:58

7 Answers 7

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Centralized systems like Mathjobs are really the exception rather than the rule. In most other fields of academia, and in practically all industries outside academia, the norm is that applicants for a job will apply through the employer's own HR system. And university HR policies are usually written to assume that as the default procedures. They may need to comply with laws or institutional policies on confidentiality, record keeping, non-discrimination, etc, which are harder to ensure with an outside system.

So, if a department does want to use a centralized site like MathJobs, then usually someone from that department has to lobby the university HR office to get an exception from the general policy. This may or may not be successful, depending on the flexibility and/or risk aversion of the HR and legal people, and/or on how much internal political capital the department is willing to spend.

Sometimes there is a compromise, where the bulk of the application material is collected through MathJobs, but the applicant also has to submit at least a pro forma application through the university's HR system (maybe entering only their basic personal info and a generic CV).

Another argument that's sometimes raised is that MathJobs is something of a victim of its own success: it's so easy for applicants to apply that they very often apply to basically every job they see, even those for which they are not at all qualified, or do not fit the expectations. (E.g. fresh PhDs applying for full professorships, algebraic geometers applying for math education faculty positions, etc). As a result, employers using such platforms can receive a huge number of applications, often in the hundreds. Even if they have very efficient procedures to screen out those applicants, it takes time, and if they do not have such procedures it is going to take a huge amount of time. (For instance, in my department, every application that meets the minimum requirements - which is usually just a PhD in the desired field - must be read in its entirety and scored on a formal rubric.)

As a result, some people think that the extra time burden of requiring applicants to apply through the university's own HR system is actually an advantage, as it forces applicants to "show that they are really interested". Personally, I don't agree: I think it just tends to skew the applicant pool towards people with a lot of free time on their hands, and that it's disrespectful to candidates to make them waste their time filling out forms in order to prove their interest in the position. I would rather see an employer keep using MathJobs, and if they really need to make candidates prove their interest, add a requirement for a special essay about something that's actually directly relevant to the position.

Cost is also a factor: MathJobs currently charges an employer about US$500 for one job posting (or about $800 for multiple postings). It may not be that much in the big scheme of things, but it means that a department lobbying to use MathJobs has to also lobby for the administration to pay for it, or come up with funds from their own budget. At my institution, the normal advertising budget for a faculty search is $500, so if we want to use MathJobs, then we can't advertise anywhere else unless we get special approval for extra funding.

You're right that an internal system has a cost too, but usually it's some off-the-shelf software-as-a-service package that the university has already licensed, and so the marginal cost of posting one more job is basically zero.

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    Probably worth noting that it's the people in HR who are legally responsible if anything goes wrong. If days is leaked, or a hiring process turns out to be discriminatory, it'll be HR people who will be in front of a judge. Makes sense they want a single system they were confident about, understood, and controlled. Nov 24, 2023 at 8:09
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    @IanSudbery: I'm not sure that's true here in the US. Certainly the organization is legally liable for data breaches, discrimination, etc, but I don't know that there is personal legal liability for any of the individuals in the organization. Nov 24, 2023 at 20:26
  • is guess I miss spoke there. I suspect the HR person is not personally legally liable, but that they are the person the organisation males responsible for the organisations liability, and they are the person that would have to answer for any problems, even if the punishment would go to the organisation. Nov 27, 2023 at 8:49
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My institution uses the same system for tenure track professors as for HR staff as for plumbers as for student jobs.

If they used mathjobs for math jobs what would they do with all these other positions?

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    I consider using mathjobs is a courtesy for applicants and letter writers by making their lives easier. It is completely up to "all these other positions" whether to use a centralized systems or not.
    – No One
    Nov 22, 2023 at 23:26
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    @NoOne I don't know much about the use of MathJobs; it's possible people here in that field post on both as long as that's in compliance with regulations. And if you go tell HR "Hi we'd like to hire a faculty member, here's the job description" they're going to use the standard procedure. But, besides that it may be a bit cruel but what's the incentive for making applicant's lives better? It's not like it's hard to find people that want research jobs in mathematics.
    – Bryan Krause
    Nov 22, 2023 at 23:44
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    @NoOne To the institution their time is more important than yours. If MathJobs costs them time then no amount of "courtesy" is going to be worth it. Nov 24, 2023 at 14:52
  • Plus, of course, the school had a hiring process in-place before MathJobs (or even the internet) was even a thing. Don't ever discount inertia. Nov 24, 2023 at 20:47
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A non-American perspective...

In the country where I work, we have a single job application portal for all academic jobs and other university positions across all our univeristies, research institutes and other similar organisations. Why should we change to use multiple subject-specific portals? All jobs are advertised through this site, although university policy may also mandate adverts elsewhere for certain types of jobs. Then the applications are also gathered with this site. This gives the adminstrators their single system, and the academics a key place to job hunt.

(For reference I work in the Netherlands and am referring to https://www.academictransfer.com/en/ ).

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As Pieter Naaijkens comments, it is administrators who are pushing this, often against the advice (or protests) of mathematicians.

From their point of view, they might be overseeing hires in multiple disciplines, and so using a university-wide system is simpler from their point of view. It is true that significant amounts of faculty time is wasted in fiddling with letters, but, well... that's less visible to them.

Some universities (including mine) have adopted a hybrid system, asking candidates to apply both on MathJobs and whatever software their university uses internally. The key point is that recommendation letters are only required on MathJobs. This seems like a sensible compromise: candidates have some extra hoops to jump through, but letter writers don't.

One extra point: I have read in the Chronicle of Higher Education that hiring processes can be very cumbersome in some fields. Apparently it is expected there that recommendation letters be tailored by the writers to individual job openings.

With mathematicians often applying to 100+ jobs, such an expectation seems utterly absurd to me. However, for an administrator familiar with such customs, mathematicians' complaints might seem trifling in comparison, and hence easily dismissed.

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    I think your last paragraph is looking at the issue backwards. US mathematicians apply to 100s of jobs because with an automated system like mathjobs it is feasible to do so. In Europe every job application is individual and therefore mathematicians apply to much fewer jobs. They choose a lot more where it is actually worthwhile to apply and tailor the application. Both from an individual mathematicians and from the hiring universities perspective I prefer the European model.
    – quarague
    Nov 23, 2023 at 8:14
  • @quarague Sorry, this is a naive question, but how then do candidates decide to which jobs to apply? From an American point of view, there are lots of universities out there, and if you're a candidate it's very difficult to guess which of them might be interested in you.
    – academic
    Nov 24, 2023 at 23:03
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    I would say the match of research interests is the key point. Pick universities where you already know some researchers or have already collaborated with them. Of course this works a lot better with research focused postdocs but then the teaching oriented liberal arts colleges in the US are a lot more rare in Europe.
    – quarague
    Nov 25, 2023 at 6:46
  • @academic thanks for asking your "naive" question. In the countries I've been in, there is no centralized application portal like you described in your answer, and the way quarague described (look at each institution/university and consider the people and the reputation, and topics, etc. then apply individually) is the norm, and happens to be the only way I could imagine, at least until I read your last paragraph. Applying to 100+ jobs is very much an exception (in my experience) and you're supposed to be deliberate in choosing where you apply.
    – justhalf
    Nov 25, 2023 at 7:47
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From a university IT perspective, a lot of it is ensuring compliance with all the boring bureaucratic parts. My institution does use the same system (PeopleAdmin) for every single job, from trades to temporary office workers to professors and deans. I have seen others where there is a clear separation between faculty and staff application systems.

Especially as a public university, there's a bunch of questions we have to ask everyone about veterans preference, prior state service, equal opportunity statistics, acknowledgment about false statements, etc. It would be difficult for HR/legal/IT to get all that implemented on a website like MathJobs. Another issue is requirements about retention and privacy/disclosure of job application materials. At the end of the day it's a state job, professor or not. A lot of the rules are exempted for academic positions, but some still apply.

There is also a direct connection between our application software and the so-called ERP software (which handles everything from grades to registration to payroll). So job postings automatically connect to the relevant position/salary/etc. I don't think they even allow people to post a job without first setting all that stuff up in the system.

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Inertia. Tradition. Preference. ...

Not every institution wants such things to be seen and perhaps even "mined" by other entities over which they have no control. Some information needs to be "privately held" for various regulatory reasons.

Some seemingly useful online "services" have disappeared with little or no warning. Google is rather famous for this. Some large online services have had security issues with personal data released to the public.

And, asking potential candidates to take a little extra effort tailored to the institution isn't a bad thing from the institution's perspective.

On the other hand, if you want to know, you can ask, though you need to ask lots of places to get anything useful. It is a sort of research question that a potential service provider would want answered.

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    The first two (inertia and tradition) are factually wrong, at least in California: mathjobs was used widely in California for about 15 years until administrators decided to change the system to a homegrown one. Nov 22, 2023 at 22:07
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    Actually, inertia and tradition are the reason most universities do many (most?) things, @MoisheKohan. Easy call, and the world is bigger than California.
    – Buffy
    Nov 22, 2023 at 22:44
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    I agree in general, but this way one can also easily prove that 7 is a composite number, because "most numbers are composite." And for how many universities do you know as a matter of fact that they are not using mathjobs because of tradition and inertia? The only example I know is Harvard, but their hiring process is totally different from anybody else's. Nov 23, 2023 at 4:33
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NIH

The Not Invented Here syndrome.

Many organizations consider themselves unique, and with extraordinary requirements when it comes to recruiting. The reality is that a site that manages generic recruitment is enough.

There are specialized sites that will have integrations with external entities that help to link to publications, author databases etc, making them ideal for a specific field. If they also manage the legal specificities of a country it becomes a fantastic site.

These sites cost money, when local development is free. Except for the salaries. Except for the lack of experience in development, legal and HR requirements. Except in maintainability. Except, except, except.
Unfortunately this becomes clear too late.

The specialized sites aren't a panacea either - some of them are truly atrocious and then a general site will be better. Local dev will rarely be great, except if you have an IS army.

The industry used to be in that situation in all cases. This is slowly improving now (even though the larger and older companies still belive that are unique in their needs)

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