Should the Rumor Mill be more than… a rumor mill?

by Kelle on January 28, 2011

KC poses a provocative question over on the Rumor Mill:

It’s obvious the Rumor Mill is much more popular than just a few years ago. That’s to be expected now that most young astronomers (the primary drivers of the job market) are well-acquainted with wiki’s, Facebook, etc. Should selection committee’s start taking advantage of this change by using the Rumor Mill to post updates and keep candidates abreast of developments? Should this be a Job Bulletin Board rather than Rumor Mill?

Yes, I understand that is kind of what happens now, but judging the veracity of a posting is difficult without knowing where it’s coming from (i.e. we’re still relying on RUMORS). Take for example the Einstein updates by fellowship coordinator Andrea Prestwich from the CXC Director’s Office. The posts divulged no personal information and did not compromise the ability of the committee to conduct their search, all while keeping applicants in-the-loop. In my opinion, it improved the process and is a good example for other coordinators.

Discuss.

(Note, while KC has the same initials as me, my wiki username is kelle.)

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

1 GH January 28, 2011 at 9:03 am

My opinion is the opposite: selection committees should not spend ANY time on the rumor mill, for two reasons: (1) a lot of people don’t follow the rumor mill for various reasons, so communicating directly by the rumor mill yields an imbalance in information among applicants, and (2) selection committees should make decisions independent of gossip (sometimes false) about other decisions.

I agree that selection commitees are terrible at communicating, and this introduces real problems for applicants. Often rejections are mailed to us a month after the selection occurs, or perhaps never communicated to us at all. The lack of communication can be solved by improving direct communication with applicants. I don’t know what Andrea Prestwich updated on the rumor mill, but could she have instead e-mailed the information directly to applicants? If so, that’s probably a preferable method of communication.

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2 Mike January 28, 2011 at 12:53 pm

I completely agree with the above comment. Selection committees (or individual employers making their own hiring decisions) should stay off the rumor mill, because their rankings, decisions, and timing should be influenced by their own internal process and NOT by whatever gossip they may see on the rumor mill concerning other, comparable positions and candidates for their job/fellowship. If somebody making a hiring decision sees their favorite two candidates already have 5 offers from more prestigious positions they may worry they don’t stand a chance and, perhaps even subconsciously, allow that to affect their decision. And who knows if what they saw on the rumor mill was even correct.

Stick to direct communication with applicants, especially e-mail. Yes, communication needs to be improved, but that’s a separate issue.

3 KC January 28, 2011 at 1:34 pm

My original point (besides demonstrating that my late-night grammar is atrocious) was that the Rumor Mill demonstrates a communal wiki is a superior form of communication than direct contact with applicants. I am not suggesting selection committees *consult* the Rumor Mill (which should never happen), as the above two comments have incorrectly assumed; I am suggesting that selection committees *use* the Rumor Mill to disseminate information rather than relying on time consuming individual emails or updating their own web sites. In which case, the Rumor Mill would no longer be a rumor mill, but a bulletin board — the Bulletin Board.

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4 Mike January 28, 2011 at 2:56 pm

Well, I would worry that by “using” the rumor mill, selection committees and/or individual employers would be inadvertently “consulting” the rumor mill at the same time, whether or not they meant to. E-mail communication isn’t that difficult to handle, and still is (in my opinion) the preferred means of communication between applicants and selection committee. If you moved that communication to a wiki, how would you know what information is verifiable and what is not? How would you stop people from removing true information because they either believed it was false or just wanted to be spiteful? These and other questions are certainly solvable, I just don’t see the point.

Of course, this all assumes that simple e-mail communication can be improved over its current state. Many selection committees have not actually demonstrated this to be true.

5 Matt K January 28, 2011 at 5:19 pm

Should selection committee’s start taking advantage of this change by using the Rumor Mill to post updates and keep candidates abreast of developments?

Absolutely not!

The rumor mill is a horoscope for astronomers – fun to read and gossip over, but it is not meant to be taken seriously in any way whatsoever. The amount of legal trouble you’d get into with committees posting to the list? Doesn’t even bear thinking about….

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6 TT January 28, 2011 at 6:34 pm

I generally agree with the above comments. Selection committees should stay off the rumor mills, and as a general rule should only communicate with applicants using information provided in the application (email, phone, snail mail).

However, if a selection committee member (or anyone else) sees things on the rumor mill that they know to be incorrect, they should correct it. If incorrect rumors are persistent or there is widespread confusion, then an official clarification might be helpful. This was the case, I believe, with the Einstein postings. The problem there had to do with false rumors, not any specific failure by the Einstein selection committee.

I agree that some institutions are very bad about leaving non-shortlisted applicants in the dark… but a job bulletin will not correct this problem. If they aren’t going to notify applicants promptly via email, then I see no reason why they would do so in a bulletin.

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7 Joey January 28, 2011 at 9:41 pm

I don’t know if I think the rumor mill is a superior form of communication. It’s designed to spread possibly false information, and it’s occasionally useful gossip, as Matt K said, but it’s only a useful tool because the notification process in astronomy is atrocious.

It seems to me that it would be less work for selection committees and fellowship coordinators to post regular updates to their websites. These could easily be added to the rumor mill by those who like the rumor mill or want to keep track of these things. But for the bigger fellowships, e.g. Einstein, I really don’t see why it would be so hard to send an email update every now and then (since they have a list of all the emails). I also don’t see why they can’t send all rejection emails at once. Twice now I’ve had confirmation of rejection emails sent eight hours before I get one. It’s ridiculous.

I don’t know exactly how to get it started, but I think we need to push for better notification policies. Not everyone will do it, as TT points out, but I’ve found that having to rely on the rumor mill for tiny shards of occasionally-true information is by far the worst part of applying for jobs (i.e. worse than not having one).

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8 PO January 29, 2011 at 4:51 pm

Well, selection committees couldn’t do a worse job communicating at the moment, so it wouldn’t hurt them to try using the rumour mill. I suppose having an “unofficial” communication route would possibly free them up to talk with applicants more without worry of saying something that could get them in trouble with human resources.

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9 Anonymous January 29, 2011 at 7:08 pm

Unfortunately, such a system can work efficiently only if all people are 100% honest. But this is not the real state of the business. It is known that some individuals tend to post wrong rumours about themselves for self-promotion purposes. Nowadays, the job market in astronomy is full of politics and PR, and certain people will definitely try to use any opportunity to put pressure on committees. That’s life and we can’t do much about it.

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10 Erin January 31, 2011 at 9:58 am

I think part of the reason I check the rumor mill is to find out what the status of jobs are. Some institutions are just awful at sending notifications. . . in fact I can name a couple that never bothered to send me a rejection last year even though they had fancy webforms allowing them to have everyone’s email address in a database. Oh and one place that was administering 2 different postdocs where I only applied for one, but their webform assumed all users were applying for both (so I got rejected from a job I wasn’t even applying for!).

Since others mention the same issue, I wonder if it would be worthwhile for the AAS Committee on Employment to take up cause- like specifying that institutions that use the Jog Register must notify applicants within x months of the close of application deadline where notifications can include updates (ie “Review of applications for xxx position are still ongoing, we expect to make an initial decision on or around yy (date)”). I can imagine that would be a pain in the butt for applications that go through the generic university HR systems and the feds since most of those don’t allow for notification, but a lot of these applications harvest email and/or address. Perhaps that would help minimize the scrambling and lovely little e-blowups that seem to exist around the rumor mill a bit.

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11 Anonymous too February 19, 2011 at 6:13 pm

@Erin (continued from http://www.astrobetter.com/should-the-comment-feature-on-the-rumor-mill-be-changed-poll/)

The difference between my proposed AAS bulletin board and the rumor mill would be that only the original poster of the job would be allowed to make updates — you only have to allow posters to edit their original listing, and would ensure that the updates are made by those with both the authority and the knowledge, while not creating a huge administrative nightmare for AAS.

Updates would be “required” as a condition of using the AAS registry, though enforcing that would be difficult. However, I think people would welcome this change and do it without much coercion because it would replace the need to send people individual rejections. It would literally take 3 minutes to notify everyone who subscribed to the listing, which ought to be at least everyone who applied.

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12 Erin February 19, 2011 at 10:16 pm

Well Anonymous too I can see how that would work, and of course I see complications (yay pessimism!). Most places I’ve been around, the ads in the rumor mill are submitted by a dept admin assistant, not the person with the money. So the intermediate steps like “shortlist made”, “interviews underway” etc might not get posted if the hiring individual forgets to say something to the dept admin, especially in light of things like phone and/or skype interviews which can easily be scheduled without needing to involve other folks within the dept for scheduling. And in some respects I guess that’s okay. . . .but then we’re going to start to push up against some of the same issues I think we have now with delayed notification and scrambling and the various forms of freakouts, so I still think we need to have an unofficial “it would be good form to post updates at least once every x weeks” phrasing. But I don’t think that would prevent a rumor mill with names from cropping up anyways be it here or some other website somebody sets up- these things seem to never be “official” in that I don’t think they have the official blessing of the AAS and well. . .while we have a few thousand astronomers in the US, it’s not as if we aren’t a gossipy lot. The claims that things have gotten worse in the last few years with the name plastering on the rumor mill seem to ring false to me, it doesn’t seem all that different from when I started reading in 2000-ish.

As per the idea of BB subscriptions- well I think I ranted about that 3 weeks ago in the comment right above yours that this info ought to be available to them given all the webforms we have to fill out for almost the jobs these days anyways and it wouldn’t be that hard to write a shell script to mass email given that info 😉

However all our speculation about what the AAS should/could do in an official capacity seems fairly theoretical at this point. It does seem however that many people have similar concerns regarding timely notifications of status etc that perhaps need brought up with the Committee on Employment from the AAS.

13 Anonymous too February 20, 2011 at 8:29 am

Even for a perl expert, it would take more effort to write a script to compile the emails for all the applicants, remove shortlisted candidates from the list, then compose and send a mass rejection email. Editing a posting to say “shortlist contacted” is almost painless (my grandma could do that). The bottom line is that the status quo is not working. Will toothless guidelines help? Maybe, but I doubt it — I think everyone already knows it’d be better to keep all applicants informed; they’re just too busy to care. To paraphrase Jerry Maguire, let’s help them help us.

I don’t want to replace the gossipy rumor mill, I want to replace the need for it. It’s shameful that it is our primary source of information when it’s mixed with hundreds of ulterior motives from very smart people, some of whom have no problem stretching ethical boundaries from within their protective shroud of anonymity.

One possible way of enforcing updates would be to remove the posting until a weekly update is issued, even if that update is “no change”. That said, you bring up a fair point about the administrators making the listings who aren’t necessarily in the know. That would have to change if this was going to work and I’m not sure if that’s realistic or not.

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14 Erin February 20, 2011 at 1:51 pm

Yes, I think it would be beyond awesome and more in the realm of simply responsible in light of the past few years for the AAS to make an effort to say something such that we don’t “need” the rumor mill to get our information. That’s a cause I’m all behind! I think I’m seeing 2 different issues however- issue #1 is that we have places that don’t bother to say anything to anyone either than their shortlist or whomever they offer the job too leaving applicants without even a rejection (yes that was me for more than 1 job last year). Issue #2 is that people need/want to post so much on the rumor mill because they feel like they aren’t getting info in a *timely* fashion.

I have some strong feelings that the AAS should put the smack down on the institutions from issue #1 because it seems professionally unethical (or at least professionally unwise) to me and given that for some places this seems to have happened in multiple years, I’m guessing they just don’t care what anyone says. And maybe. . .it’s just that some institutions just need an informal talking to in the vein of “Yo you know that’s rude right?” and things might get cleared up. I’ve been assuming that given all these webforms for so many jobs that the info goes into an sql database. Not that hard to set acceptance flag to 1 for whomever is getting the job, do a query for name and email fields for all users with flag =/= 1 and spawn rejection letter (which really shouldn’t need writing, HR should be providing bland canned versions where you just have to insert applicant name after the greeting and email it to the correct address after inserting the correct job title/listing number in the text). We do that now for telescope and grant proposals, no reason we can’t pass around a little basic code and do the same for jobs and not give anyone an excuse for why they never even sent out rejections.

But item #2 seems to be more in line with your message board recommendation. And then I think there might have to be a discussion of what counts as “timely” in terms of response and updates. I think a massive weekly publication update would probably take care of some of the issues- let the people in charge of positions edit at any time, but don’t release it until one pre-ordained day a week like Tuesday. On Tuesday everyone could see if there were updates rather than having incremental little freakouts because OMG job x has an update on Sunday but what about job y?! I think requiring weekly updates like you suggested might be overkill (and I’m sure other job seekers would disagree!), but maybe a guideline that every 3 or 4 weeks you should post an update, even if it is “still reviewing applications” would have people less worried about the lack of personalized communication. Of course I don’t think your enforcement would work though- people use the AAS to list their jobs. . . by the time where we think maybe they ought to be communicating with people, what would they care? They’ve already got their applicant pool with the current way the register is managed. Of course the only option my brain is coming up with is a monetary one: listings in the Job Register and access to the postings board cost X amount, if you post regular updates on the board re:job status, you’ll be refunded Y percentage of your listing cost after you post and notify the AAS that the job is filled (or cancelled).

15 Anonymous too February 20, 2011 at 5:07 pm

For big annual fellowships with fancy web forms, that would work well, but there are many jobs offered by a single person with a grant, and it doesn’t make sense for them to invest that much effort in a system they’ll use once. It makes much more sense to have the AAS do it, since they already have 95% of the machinery in place and one system will be universal to all job posters.

I don’t see the distinction between #1 and #2. #1 is just an extreme of #2, and you make #2 sound as if those that don’t get “timely” updates are just a bunch of OCD brats with entitlement issues. Since many offers have deadlines, it’s absolutely critical to know where you stand with other, potentially higher-ranked positions in a timely fashion.

Let’s run through my situation as an example. I applied to 16 jobs. As of now, (5 days after the AAS recommended deadline), I haven’t heard from 3 at all, I was notified by 2 that I made the first cut but never heard from them again, I emailed 4 others for information and then they told me, and I actually got unsolicited updates from 7 (only 1 rejection beat the rumor mill, btw). At this point, it doesn’t matter if I get an official rejection from the others since I’ve already had to accept a job. So in my book, there are at least 5 (nearly 1/3) that for all practical purposes fall into category 1 (all of which have entries on the rumor mill), and there might have been up to 9 (over half!) had I not asked. That is a terrible track record.

You’re right that weekly updates, at least at the beginning, is unnecessarily arduous. But every 3-4 weeks, particularly during the home stretch (Late Jan/Early Feb) is way too long to wait. Perhaps set dates for updates (Jan 1, Jan 15, Feb 1 and weekly thereafter until filled).

I like the idea of a refundable deposit as a means for enforcement; I think that could really work.

Setting aside a day of the week for updates has its merits (it’d certainly mean less wasted time obsessively checking a bulletin board), but it would also unnecessarily delay a time-sensitive process, and people would once again rely on the rumor mill to get a head start. If people had email subscriptions enabled for each job in which they were interested, then they’d just get an email as soon as an update was issued. That seems much more elegant to me.

16 Erin February 21, 2011 at 5:17 pm

Oh in the cases with single individuals with grant money they’re using to pay postdocs, I guess I’m a bit confused as to how those get listed without having to go through HR (who most definately has a webform in place!) without HR having a hissy.

That said I don’t mean to make folks sound like special snowflakes with my use of “timely”. I think the issue with that is that the two different sides of the fence have different definitions of timely and one camps definition may not satisfy the other camp. Job seekers probably do want weekly updates in the late Jan-early Feb time frame, however I think on the other side of the fence that things may not move that quickly. After all, once you have a person you want to make an offer to you probably need to check with the dept head and clear it, then talk with the dept admin/grants admin, have them get a hold of HR to double check things and put offers in the correct officialesse, and the wait can easily snowball past a week or even two before an honest to god official offer can go out and that’s without some key person in the hierarchy being on vacation. So I think that if timescales for timely updates are going to be put down in stone that there is going to need to be some general agreement and consensus making between the two sides. But if the issue is that someone has an offer and needs to know about other jobs, I don’t see anything stopping them from emailing themselves to ask about status or utilizing their advisor/supervisor to their advantage to make discrete (or even less than discrete) inquiries if it’s that critical. That Feb 15th date though isn’t a suggested notification date, that’s the soonest you can force a job offeree’s hand about their decision for a postdoc starting in the next academic year as per the AAS Council’s Resolution on the Postdoctoral Application and Selection Process because institutions were trying to out-scoop each other for postdocs at one point by offering jobs earlier and earlier.

(oh and personally I’m at zero communication for ~70% of my applications thus far this year excluding the one that doesn’t close until the end of the month).

17 Anonymous too February 21, 2011 at 5:41 pm

There were 3 (out of 16) jobs to which I applied that involved nothing more than sending an email (as per the AAS listing instructions).

I agree that updates don’t necessarily happen on a weekly basis, but operating under the assumption that the honor system won’t work, people will push the maximum boundary, and a week in late Jan/early Feb is about as long as it can be without being useless.

That said, I’m still not convinced the honor system won’t work, as long as we give them an easy tool to provide timely updates, such as a 3 minute edit of the listing to which applicants are subscribed.

Yes, the AAS guideline is the earliest they can request an acceptance, which effectively makes it the absolute latest they should provide an official update for the first time (not necessarily yes/no, but may also include “offer made, but you’re on the waitlist”) — though obviously, somewhere between 30-70% don’t agree…

18 GH February 20, 2011 at 6:04 pm

Really, I just want to know who is sleeping with who.

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