Though this second column is about working at the university level, I want to emphasize that this column will attempt to discuss problems at all levels in a variety of situations. In the works is a two part column on interviewing process from both sides and I'm especially hoping for input from those JALT members working at conversation schools where interviews, both face to face and by telephone, are relatively commonplace. If you have been the interviewer or interviewee, please contact me (contact information is on the first page). Also, if you have a subject that you would like to see discussed here, please let me know.
If variety is the spice of life, then working as a teacher of English must be one of the spiciest slices of life around. The people who come to Japan have, in my experience, widely varying backgrounds, enormously different interests and as many goals and motivations as could be imagined. I feel that this diversity is a good thing, but because of that diversity, some source of information is needed about the hiring process(es). Thus, this column about getting and keeping a job in Japan. The goal is to present information, not opinion, so as to better equip yourself (and your psyche) for working and looking for work in Japan.
I thought we'd start off with an overview of the hiring process at the university level and how it differs from a Western hiring process. One shibboleth of finding a job in Japan is that contacts are the key. Unfortunately, that leads to people indiscriminately contacting as many people as they can, under the assumption that one of them is going to 'get' them a job. This betrays a certain misunderstanding of the process.
Generally, for an university position, a small faculty committee is formed who then is responsible for placing the advertisements, accepting the applications and making the recommendations to the faculty of the department, as is generally done in the West. In addition, the committee is not a standing committee, but one that is constituted for the immediate purpose of filling a vacancy, as in the West. Previously, because of the smaller numbers of applicants, smaller departments decided on the faculty as a group, but with increasing numbers of applicants, most schools opt for a committee.
What is different is that in the West, the committee takes in all the applications, reviews them, and generally gives a 'short list' of candidates that are then decided on by the-faculty as a whole. The Japanese approach can be different. As the numbers of applicants have increased, oftentimes, the administration office or jimu, will receive all of the applications, make a list that summarizes the applicants' qualifications and present the list to the committee. From this, the committee then selects the applications that it will review more closely, often reading the publications in detail. The committee then makes a short list that is ranked and recommends the top candidate on that list.
What does this mean to the applicant? Well, the first is that the committee has much more power over the decision. The second is that at this point, if you are known to the people on the committee, you will have a better chance of getting the job, all other things being equal. The third is that because the committee system operates by seniority, the more senior members will have a greater say in the matter. Now, since it is generally more junior members of a department that you are likely to encounter, the contacts that you make will generally not pan out in terms of 'getting' you a job. What is true for junior faculty is generally even more true for foreigners working at the university. Very few foreigners have tenure and therefore don't generally participate in these decisions. It was only with the passage of the 1982 law that the tenuring of foreigners was even permitted, so it is only a tiny minority that participate in these decisions.
In addition, the absence of actual short list makes it difficult to gauge one's prospects. You may have been a stone's throw away from several jobs, but because there is no short list, you may never know it.
A second problematic area is that because it is the committee that ranks candidates, biases held by that committee can come into play. For example, a teacher may feel more comfortable with British English than with American English, or may have had a bad experience with one nationality or one gender and thus rule out potential applicants.
Generally, one candidate emerges from the committee. But if there is a split, this encourages the committee to take a much broader perspective between the remaining candidates, asking questions about how the candidate would fit in to the atmosphere of the department. At this point, biases become determining factors in being selected or not.
This leads me to point out two things. The first is that you should never take the rejection as a personal rejection. It is quite possible a different committee from the same university would have hired you. The second is that a close reading of job announcements is essential for finding jobs that you have a reasonable chance at, which will be the subject of a future column.