Recruiting a University English Teacher: Raising the Standard

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Paul Stapleton, Hokkaido University

Three years ago I wrote a 'working papers' piece for the September 2001 issue of The Language Teacher in which I described a recruitment exercise for a university teaching job in which I was a selection committee member. I finished that piece by offering advice on how to improve one's chances of becoming a successful candidate. Three years on, and I have just concluded a similar recruitment exercise to the one I reported on earlier. Perhaps not surprisingly, many of the same concerns remain, which suggests a need to revisit some of the key issues in faculty recruitment. Accordingly, I would like to describe some of the nuances of being on the receiving end of dozens of resumes for an English teaching position at a Japanese university with a focus on the increasingly demanding qualifications required for university teaching positions in Japan.

Like the previous recruitment, this year's exercise was for a contractual position and asked for a minimum of a master's degree (with a doctorate preferred) in applied linguistics or a closely related field. The position was advertised only on the Web, at two domestic job sites, the Hokkaido Insider, JREC-IN, and one international site, ohayo-sensei. The contract was for an initial ten-month period, and whether it was renewable had to be kept vague for reasons related to the transition to private status at the university in question. Candidates had the option to submit their applications either in paper or electronic form.

In total, we received 72 applications, 62 of which were in electronic form. The male-female ratio was 10:1. In the initial screening of resumes, I checked to see whether candidates met the minimum educational requirements of a master's degree in applied linguistics or a related field. This, in itself, was a revealing exercise. Roughly 40% of all the applicants did not have the minimum requirements as listed in the job announcement. Shortcomings came in two areas: either the applicants did not have a masters or doctorate, or their graduate qualifications were in a field too distant from that required. Among those whose degree-level was sufficient, but whose area of specialty was not close enough to applied linguistics, a wide range of majors were received. Some specialties such as Chinese and Japanese literature appeared borderline, while many others were, shall we say, overly optimistic, e.g., a lawyer whose specialty was property rights on the moon.

This brief sketch leads me to ask a question: Does teaching English in Japan as an academic profession have an image problem? I wonder what sort of applicants other faculties receive when they advertise a position opening. Do medical faculties receive resumes from those whose expertise is in agriculture? Does the mathematics department have to filter out resumes from Shakespearean scholars? Somehow, I doubt it. Indeed, even though our job posting clearly stated that a doctorate was preferred, many without graduate qualifications applied. Again, this made me think about the image problem. My mind drifted back to those days in the 1980s when native English speakers were swooped up at Narita for high-paying hourly positions despite having no more qualifications than their pulse.

Then I looked at the resumes in more depth. Although all applicants held at least an undergraduate degree, some of the peculiarities in several resumes made me wonder. For example, two arrived typed completely in capital letters. At first, I was about to delete these thinking they were requests for my banking information from a Nigerian prince. Then there were the unforgivable spelling mistakes that still seem to be appearing in this day and age of the spell checker.

Technical errors aside, some applicants included questionable content. For instance, I wondered what possible relevance a pilot's license could have for a university English teacher. Then my mind drifted to my engineer's class on Monday morning and I had second thoughts. More than one resume came with a list of countries that the applicant had traveled to. Somehow, this inventory was meant to impress the selection committee as to the candidates' worldliness. If so, it failed. More precisely, it incited envy. Then there was the applicant who coached a baseball team twenty years ago. A witty remark escapes me…

Another interesting development concerns the university affiliation of some applicants. Occasionally, an applicant would list his or her Ph.D. from a university whose name I did not recognize. In some cases, when I checked out these universities on the Web, one of the first words that greeted me on the home page was "Accredited by…" Perhaps this is an unfair assessment, but any mention of accreditation immediately raises alarm bells in an era where PhDs are available for one's life experience.

Undoubtedly, the abundance of applicants whose qualifications did not reach the minimum requirements was a result of the ease of electronic submissions. When resumes can be sent out at the click of a mouse, what harm can there be in trying, even if one's qualifications are not quite good enough? True enough.

Aside from some of my caustic remarks here, I would like to focus on the positive and perhaps ominous side of being a recipient of dozens of resumes. Specifically, while there were a considerable number of CVs that did not make the grade, an even greater number of good quality applications were received. Rather frighteningly, several of these were excellent. An increasing number of applicants either have attained or will soon achieve doctoral qualifications. Based on the candidates' timelines in their resumes, it appeared that most had achieved these degrees by distance while working full-time. In addition, whereas a few years ago, most of the well-qualified applicants had few, if any publications, this recruitment exercise revealed that many now have publications, some of which are refereed, and these are coming from younger candidates as well. Indeed, the successful candidate in the present recruitment has both a doctorate and internationally refereed papers.

My overwhelming impressions upon completing the selection of a new candidate are not focused on the image problem that teaching English in Japanese universities seems to have. Rather, my sentiments are directed towards the rapidly increasing competitiveness of securing an English teaching job at a Japanese university, as well as the shift towards requiring doctoral-level qualifications in alignment with universities in Western countries. With many of these schools swelling their graduate school enrolments, the direction of recruitment appears clear: successful candidates will be increasingly drawn from a pool of applicants holding doctoral qualifications with refereed publications.


Stapleton, P. (2001). Applying for a university job in Japan: A view from the inside. The Language Teacher, 25 (9).

Paul Stapleton is the recipient of more job rejection letters than he cares to remember.