What if job applicants had to pay a fee every time they applied for a job?
Postdoctoral applicants in the humanities say they find themselves in a comparable situation as some university departments are charging an application fee. Some irate applicants have been lighting up a discussion board  on the Internet to complain about the fees. While fees are the norm for applying to earn degrees, most say they are unusual for postdoctoral fellowships, which are jobs.
"Charging a fee to apply for such a position is absolutely deplorable,” one comment said. “I know the market is bad, but such exploitation of financially disadvantaged postgrads is wrong on a fundamental level and should not be countenanced," said one.
"...[T]he institutions that ask for them are being disrespectful of the candidates, and so I choose not to apply to Harvard, Columbia and Michigan. I believe that their motivation is not the money collected, but the desire to thin the field so they have fewer applications to read," added another.
"No one likes a fee, but there’s nothing unusual about them. Although it is not their sole purpose, fees help to keep out the weaker applications,” was one scholar's opinion.
Others complained about the difficult financial situation for postdoctoral applicants while one even asked if there was a scholarship to cover application costs. Many of those applying -- having finished long doctoral programs and now scrambling for work in a terrible job market -- count their pennies.
The three most prominent names in these discussions are those named above: the University of Michigan, Harvard University and Columbia University.
These discussions came to the notice of Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, who criticized the practice of charging fees in her Twitter feed .
When contacted, she said that some members of the MLA had been complaining about it. “I think it is exploitative and in some ways counterproductive to the goals of the universities. Maybe they want to do some pre-filtering at the expense of the candidates,” Feal said.
She mentioned the financial difficulties in which many postdoctoral fellowship applicants find themselves. “Institutions like Harvard do not need to collect an application fee from postdoctoral candidates,” she said. She said applicants who might have risky or innovative projects might shy away from applying. “Because of the fees, these universities may never see these applications,” Feal said.
A Harvard University spokesman said the Mahindra Humanities Center charges postdoctoral fellowship applicants a $35 fee. “This fee is used to offset the administrative costs of processing the significant number of applications received each year. On request, we waive the fee for qualified applicants who, because of extraordinary circumstances, cannot pay,” said Jeff Neal, a senior communications officer, in an emailed message.
In another e-mailed message, Donald S. Lopez, chair of the Michigan Society of Fellows, said the fee has been in place at the university for at least 10 years and had not changed in that time. “Unlike many other societies of fellows, the Michigan Society of Fellows is at a public university, and we rely on the $30 application fee for the administration of the program… For applicants who are unable to pay the fee, we are happy to waive it,”
Officials at Columbia University did not respond to emails and phone calls asking about their $30 application fee.
Cathee Johnson Phillips, executive director of the National Postdoctoral Association, said she wanted to study the situation. “We are evaluating the situation and what effect it will have on the postdoc humanities workforce,” she said.
Critics of the fees point out that postdoctoral opportunities usually involve a modest stipend and there is teaching involved. “This is similar to asking the candidate on the job market for an application fee,” Feal said. “Postdoctoral candidates further their careers and also serve the university at the same time.”
Tim Murray, Director of the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University, said he had not been aware that some universities were charging application fees for postdoctoral applications.
“I would imagine they are paying for administrative costs,” Murray said.
In his program, Murray said, the tradition has been not to charge application fees. He said postdoctoral scholars offer a reciprocal benefit: they do their own research while teaching at the university. “It is mutually advantageous,” Murray said.
Another discussion accompanying the posts about fees concerned a practice by the Princeton University Society of Fellows to let applicants apply only once .
It was unclear when this rule was put in place, and a university spokeswoman did not provide an answer Thursday.