Job hurdles in ESL and EFL #3 – Foreign degrees

Here’s something I bet you hadn’t thought of: a foreign degree, even from a country whose degrees the US recognizes, may disadvantage you in the hiring process simply because of the extra step it takes for employers to process your application. You will probably not know this is happening, because it results, like every other failed application, in simply not hearing back from the hiring board.

(A bit of background: I got my MA while living and working in Japan from the University of Leicester, and now live and work in California. Most of my colleagues have MAs from public universities in California, something I didn’t realize the significance of until after the episode described here.)

The only reason I know that this happens is that a school (unnamed, and perhaps from some long-past hiring season) let slip during the process of not hiring me that foreign-earned degrees represented a burden to the hiring board and HR. Specifically, they were unfamiliar with their institution’s policies on foreign-earned degrees and used their discretion during the hiring process simply to avoid them rather than learn. The main reason given for retracting an offer they had made to me was that it would take too much time and effort to deal with this otherwise normal application.

I wouldn’t have known this was happening at all if they hadn’t made me an offer before having me officially apply for the job, which as it turns out is very normal. I sort of assumed that this would be true based on my similar experience in Japan (where there is a word for the pro-forma official applications process designed to appease Ministry of Education accreditation requirements, 空公募, “empty open recruitment”). For some time before this particular application I had been establishing myself as a reliable adjunct ESL/EFL instructor in my area and put in a lot of face time at conferences, volunteering and generally making myself known as a stand-up guy.  This resulted in me being recommended by people I worked for to other people who I might want to work for in the future.  The party I was introduced to this time immediately brought me in for an interview and at that interview confided that they’d probably have something for me the following semester.

At some point during the semester after that interview, I got an email offering me a class for the upcoming term, pending some hoops I still had to jump through in the form of my official application. One official hoop was, of course, submitting my graduate and undergraduate transcripts. Since I’d gone through this a few times before at this point, I sent them with my usual disclaimer that I had gotten my MA at a British university, so I’d be submitting my foreign degree evaluation in addition to the uninformative transcripts my university sends its graduates. I didn’t get any response for a few days after this.

When I finally heard back, it was a puzzling request for a higher-definition version of my undergraduate transcripts. This was puzzling for two reasons: most schools don’t care about your undergrad years, and the scan that I had sent was clearly readable unless you are trying to zoom in on a thumbnail of it, which is unfortunately an epidemic problem amongst HR departments. In any case, I sent the transcripts in a different format hoping that this hurdle could be cleared and I could start looking at ways to fill out the rest of my schedule for the coming semester.

The next email back to me instantly dried out my mouth – it was from HR and said that they were withdrawing their offer since they had determined that I did not meet the school’s minimum requirements. The email included a half-apologetic redirect to some members of the hiring board – including the person who had initially made the offer – for clarification.

I called that person right away and asked with my characteristic reticent politeness (I wonder how readers of this blog imagine I talk?) how I could not meet the requirements of that institution when I already worked at several other nearby institutions with nearly the same requirements. He/She responded with a somewhat annoyed-sounding pulling up of my information, followed by the kind of time-buying paper shuffling that usually accompanies seeing an important work-related document for the first time while pretending to already be familiar to it.

(The document he/she needed me to walk him/her through was called a Foreign Degree Evaluation, and every academic job I’ve applied for in the US has required one. There is a group of recognized agencies that do research on non-US universities to see how their programs compared to ones common in the US, and suggest a US equivalent to the foreign degree. These documents are expensive – mine was about $250 – but generally stand in for the transcripts, which look very different at different universities around the world. Feel free to browse.)

He (let’s say it was a he) made clear with the kind of explanations he asked me for over the phone that the document had only been glimpsed before and had never been actually read. He also took a dismissive tone toward the information I was now explaining, as if it validated some conclusion he had already made. For example, at one point he asked me what the G next to my unit counts meant, to which I answered “graduate units”, after scanning the document for the part that explains what “G” means. He also asked how long I had been in the program, to which I answered 2 1/2 years, also as written on the document. He then asked how long this program takes for full-time students, to which I answered 1 year, again as written on the document. He then said that this sounded more like a TESOL Certificate program, to which I said it was indeed a Master’s program equivalent to one in the US, as written in bold in a big box at the top of the document, and as is the entire purpose of that document.

There were more steps to my establishing that this document was what it said it was, but the larger point from my perspective was that his institution’s website instructed holders of non-US degrees to submit this very document. I.e., he should have seen it before or at least known that it exists as part of his job as the person who reads incoming applications. He at one point suggested that what I was doing was applying for equivalency (a way of waiving the minimum requirements, for example applying based on a long history of professional photography rather than a degree in photography as a prospective Photography instructor), and condescendingly that I would need to read the school’s policy on that and follow it, and that applicants are expected to do this themselves rather than make the hiring board walk them through it. Of course, I wasn’t filing for equivalency, but applying as a person who meets the minimum requirements by submitting the documents that the school officially requires to prove that I meet them.

I offered to put some links together to prove that my document actually was what I, it, and the school’s website said it was and send them to the administrator I was speaking to. These included the MA programme (British spelling for British university), the NACES (foreign degree evaluators) website, his school’s page outlining their requirement for a NACES-approved foreign degree evaluation, and the SpanTran (degree evualation agency) page where they could still look up my evaluation by ID number. After sending these I once again didn’t hear back from them for a few days.

When I called them to check on my (I hoped) pending application, no one answered, but I got an email quickly thereafter going into detail again on how unusual my application was and how much time they’d already spent on it. According to them, because they were unable to verify the details of my MA program to their local requirements, they wouldn’t be requesting any more hiring documents from me.

(At some point, someone should compile a corpus of the various linguistic strategies that institutions use to let job candidates know that they won’t be hiring them – my favorite thus far is “Unfortunately, other candidates were selected”.)

I went through a few different ways of replying to this in my mind, but settled on a semi-professional “thank you for your time”-style response.  I say “semi-professional” because I did manage to work in a dig about how the problem seemed to be limited to them and their “local requirements” and, after all, they had reached out to me in the first place.

So to recap:

  1. The school offered me a class and then retracted that offer.  That’s not terribly uncommon in adjuncting except…
  2. The reason that they retracted it was that my paperwork would take too much time to read.
  3. The paperwork in question is required by the school.
  4. They pretended that the issue was a lack of qualifications on my part rather than their refusal to learn how to read my qualifications.
  5. The document is not that hard to read (try a Google image search for foreign degree evaluation), and when I called them to go over it it was clear that they hadn’t tried anyway.

To put a hilarious headstone on this event, it turned out upon my re-reading the school’s official recruitment notice for this job that it didn’t even require an MA, just the TESOL certificate that my interlocutor dismissively implied I had.  Ironically, I may have ended up working there if I’d just gotten that instead, although (of course) not from a British university.


Among other British documents with reduced value in the US

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