The conference job interview: time to kill it? A few thoughts.

First, some background for any readers who might stumble upon this post and not know the basics. (Academic readers in English and other fields that do first-round interviews at discipline conferences can skip the next paragraph.)

As all my regular readers know, fields in the literature and language in the US generally do their first round of job interviews for tenure-track assistant professor jobs (and sometimes higher ranked ones) at the Modern Language Association convention each year. That convention used to be held the weekend after Christmas, but has now been moved back to after the new year. This year’s convention will be next weekend, January 9-12. Department interview committees come to the conference to interview somewhere in the ballpark of 10-15 first round candidates for the job they advertised earlier in the academic year (the MLA “Job List” opens in September, but many ads get placed after that). Candidates come to the conference to be interviewed, but they often have to make travel arrangements before they’re sure they will *have* any interviews. I think that was the case for me the first time I did it, but the second time, I was lucky to be informed of at least one interview more than a month ahead, and so made my arrangements knowing that I had a purpose for being there. (A person *usually* doesn’t give a paper in the same year that they’re interviewing. First of all, there are only ever a few panels in one’s particular field, and it’s hard to get on them. I’ve given exactly *one* MLA paper, versus many multiple Medieval Academy, New Chaucer Society, and Medieval Congress — K’zoo and Leeds — papers. Second, you’ve got enough to worry about with interviews — who needs the worry of a paper, too? Third, you want to be as flexible as possible with times for interviews. But I do remember one year in which one of our candidates was giving a paper, so it’s not unheard of — just unusual.) After that round of interviews, departments then bring 2-4 candidates to their campus for the second round.

OK, that’s the background. There’s a lot of talk around the internet (blogs, Twitter, Facebook) about how much of a financial and mental stress this whole process puts on candidates, and at the present moment, I think that’s true. (There’s way too much to link to. Just trust me on this. You’ve probably already seen it anyway.) I’m not even that old in the field, but a lot has already changed since I was on the market in 2001-2 and 2002-3. My department gave some travel funding to job seekers, enough, iirc, that covered my airfare even cross-country, and I wasn’t even in a particularly rich department. The first year I shared a room, but the second year, I decided that managing my anxiety would be easier without a roommate, and I took the extra financial hit as an “investment in myself.” But as bleak as the job market was then, I could still believe in that kind of Pollyannish financial pablum. And that year I had 13 interviews, so the per-interview cost of the hotel room and other expenses was relatively low. But that is not the case for most job candidates today.

The last few years I’ve been to MLA — I went to LA and to Seattle recently — I’ve talked to seriously *outstanding* job candidates — people whose excellent work I know — who had 0, 1, and 2 interviews, even on their second and third go-rounds, with the PhD in hand. I don’t think I met anyone who had more than 3. I really felt bad for the ones who shelled out for the conference and ended up with no interviews. Even the year I had only 2 interviews didn’t feel as bleak to me as these recent years have felt — there was still a sense of hope for the next year.

Anyway, like many people these days, I’m generally in favor of moving to a discipline-wide practice of Skype (or other video) or phone interviews for the first round of interviews. Yes, both can be awkward in comparison to face-to-face interviews, but they also avoid some of the awkwardness of the latter. For instance, in a Skype or phone interview, I’ll never feel bad about the female candidate who realizes her skirt is a little uncomfortably short when she sits down, and I’m unlikely to see how a candidate’s hands shake when he’s understandably nervous. And no one will be sitting on the hotel bed! (Yes, that still happened in my interviews, but it was the committee person who had to make do with the bed, not me.)  A phone or video interview lets you ignore physical distractions (remind me someday to tell you about the committee that kept fighting over the thermostat) and focus on the things that matter. In my experience doing phone interviews as an interviewee and helping a friend practice for his Skype interviews, both are actually a little more relaxed once the weirdness of the technology is smoothed out.

I realize that there might be some technology cost associated with doing things this way, and perhaps some logistic wrangling, but surely that’s cheaper and easier for all parties than the conference, isn’t it?

And there’s a kind of democratizing and leveling out that goes along with such a practice — one that benefits both candidates and hiring departments. I still remember the interview I had with RBU. They’d picked one of the mid-level price hotels, an old grand dame hotel that probably looked *fabulous* on the web site. Indeed, its lobby was absolutely grand, full of rich woods and Persian carpets. But unbeknownst to my future colleagues and to me, there was an unrenovated wing of the hotel that still had some SRO residents in it (!). Guess where the RBU committee’s room was. Yup. It was really weird. I got off the elevator and turned down a secondary hallway where suddenly the wallpaper and carpeting changed (I think I even had to go down a step) and the lighting got very dim. It turned out to be an ice-breaking kind of thing — the committee all laughed about my finding them on the edge of doom and asking if I’d been accosted by the lady next door (who was convinced my colleagues were being visited by prostitutes!), and explained that had they known, they would’ve picked another hotel, but I very nearly had a *bad* first impression of RBU (“This is all they can afford?”). And has anyone ever had to have an interview with a committee that met you in the mass-interviewing room, the one with all the tables? I haven’t, but I always felt sorry for the institutions who had to do that. What kind of impression does that make?

And believe it or not, the practice of interviews at the MLA conference was actually begun in order to democratize the process, so the move to phone/video interviews would be in keeping with that spirit. Michael Bérubé, former MLA president, writes about this in a public Facebook post in which he dispels a number of myths about the MLA convention and the interviews. He’s what he has to say about the interview process:

But it’s worth pointing out that the conference-interview system was created not to discriminate against anyone, but precisely to break up the deeply discriminatory and opaque system as it existed in the 1960s, whereby dissertation directors or directors of graduate studies got on the phone with their friends at other universities and let them know that Horatio Q. Shuttlecock was completing a most excellent dissertation and would like an assistant professorship in their department. Or, conversely, department heads called their friends to find out if they knew of any good prospects among the new crop of Ph.D.s. That, folks, was the old boy network, and guess what? It was run by old boys. Back then, making the job process into a national, centralized system with conference interviews at the fulcrum (followed, usually, by campus visits for a handful of finalists) was a way of taking the whole thing out of the hands of the old boys.

I think it’s really important to keep some sense of “national, centralized system” — or at least a practice that is universal. But for that to happen, everyone has to start doing Skype/phone/Google Hangout/video-conferencing interviews at once, or at least swiftly, and it has to start with the richest, poshest, most prestigious universities. A few years ago, our administrators wanted to know why it was our department had to go to MLA to interview candidates — couldn’t we do cheaper phone or video-conferencing interviews? It’s not that we were all dying to make a post-Christmas trip (this was back when MLA started on or around Dec. 27), but we were afraid that our department would look bad to the best candidates, who would also be interviewing with richer universities at the MLA. If there’s an uneven trickle of departments doing video and phone interviews, starting with the RBUs of the world, it’s just going to make things bleaker and more confusing and more stressful all around, and candidates will be shelling out money for MLA for even fewer interviews, and then trying to schedule video/phone interviews around that. (Of course, it might make the posher universities look like bigger assholes for insisting candidates come to MLA. Still, I don’t necessarily want that for them, either.) So it really has to happen pretty much all at once — like the change in dates of the conference did.

Here’s where the MLA (and other professional organizations that run conferences where interviews are held) might be of help. I realize that their word is not law and that they don’t decree or control how interviews are done, but they could strongly recommend that departments move to video/phone interviews for the first round. As Michael points out in that post I linked above, the MLA doesn’t actually make any money off the conference interviews, so it’s of no financial consequence to the organization how these interviews are done. But at some point in the 70s, they helped create this system in order to counter the old boys’ network, so they could have some influence in creating another system now. And other influential voices could join them — other organizations, present and past presidents of them, big names that everyone knows, bloggers, etc. It might take a loud sea of voices, because the MLA makes a whole lot of recommendations that get ignored (for example, if I’m not mistaken, they recommend that committees not ask for additional materials up front — but how many committees follow that?). And individually, if we know folks who are running searches next year, *especially* at prestigious places, we could urge them to set an example.

Meanwhile, I think it’s important to keep some sort of first round of interviews. Bullock is in a field that doesn’t do them — just jump right to the top three candidates, whom they invite to campus. And guess what? The field is overwhelmingly represented by people with degrees from about ten institutions, even among profs at lower ranked universities. (He’s in a social science, and some social scientist decided the crunch the numbers and publish this finding in their organization journal. This isn’t just anecdotal.) I don’t know the numbers for English, but my impression is that this is not the case in our discipline. It’s probably still true that there’s a *lot* of overlap in the 10-15 people who get first round interviews, but I suspect that that larger number allows for a broader range of candidates from a variety of programs. And from the conference interviews I’ve done (where we interview 14-15 candidates), I can tell you that there is *always* someone who looks great on paper but turns out to be not what you’re looking for in person, and *always* someone who just made it on the interview list, but who surprises and wows you in the interview, and moves up in the list. With only 3 candidates, you might get stuck with nothing but the former, and you’re unlikely to discover the latter.  And apparently, Bullock’s discipline is starting to realize this, because some places are *adding* Skype interviews to their process now (it’s still unusual, though, he says, but he thinks it’s a great idea).

I still like the idea of the conference interview, but in practice, it does seem an awful burden on candidates especially, but also on cash-strapped institutions. And I don’t see any real negative difference between an awkward hotel-room interview and a Skype interview (though phone interviews have extra challenges and awkwardness).

What say you all? How can we help make this happen in our disciplines as soon as possible?

Update: Michael Bérubé has posted a follow-up FB post (he really should just go back to blogging!) about what a post-Skype MLA without interviews would look like. The short answer: pretty damn good. I especially like his point that departments could easily interview *more* applicants via Skype over a longer amount of time instead of squeezing in 10-15 at the conference. And, for the record, I would totally drive over to a Cleveland MLA. (He suggests smaller cities could host the smaller resulting conference.)

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18 thoughts on “The conference job interview: time to kill it? A few thoughts.

  1. “we were afraid that our department would look bad to the best candidates, who would also be interviewing with richer universities at the MLA”

    This is so important, and the main piece I’ve felt has been left out of the discussion about Skype interviews. Mid-tier institutions are afraid of seeming less serious (or less moneyed, in a way that might be inferred to correlate with financial support for faculty research, travel, leaves, etc.), and so as you say, it really has to be something that starts at the top.

    Personally, I think the MLA might start by adding to their best practices (if it isn’t there already; I don’t know) an injunction that no institution interviewing at MLA can eliminate from consideration anyone who requests a Skype or phone interview instead. And the MLA could also publicize this as a candidate “right,” to make job-seekers feel more empowered to request it as an accommodation. In my department, we typically have one or two people who request this per search, and we’re always happy to accommodate them. But most committees probably need more experience with Skype to be able to compare Skype-vs.-in-person interviewees in a fully equitable way–and doing it on a partial basis for a year or two might encourage individual departments to move to all-Skype sooner.

    (I think my college’s own HR/Affirmative Action department doesn’t actually permit us to drop candidates for non-attendance–they’re very strict about any later alteration in the order of preference we come up with at MLA–and I’d bet it’s the same elsewhere.)

  2. Yeah, I probably should have led with the bit about lower-funded/ranked institutions worrying about the prestige effect, because it’s been my worry for the last few years as people have called for more Skype interviews. But I was just reading the whole thread in Berube’s post, and it does look like it’s getting more and more common, so the “we’re too poor to go to MLA” aspect might be lessening. But then I still worry about candidates who then have to juggle multiple modes of interviewing. Your point that the MLA could make the *option* of a Skype interview a *right* in its best practices is a good one — but then again, too many departments ignore those best practices already. I really think it needs to happen as a widespread sea change.

    And yeah, our HR/Affirmative Action people are strict about stuff like that, too. But I suspect (but don’t know) that private universities can get away with more bullshit.

  3. The prestige thing became really apparent to me last year, when I interviewed for a lecturer position at a prestigious school, where I was told during the interview that they had chosen to interview at MLA precisely because it would indicate that they take lecturer positions seriously, and treat it as a permanent position and not just a temporary position. So, that’s a slightly different way prestige fits into the conversation.

  4. I remember our dept. having the same concerns re: prestige and MLA interviews several years ago , but then we hired linguists three years in a row, and of course linguists don’t as a rule attend MLA. I think that got everyone accustomed to using Skype, so when we had another literature hire come up, it was easier to make the move. I guess this is more evidence for the idea that departments may need to ease into these new practices. We’ve used Skype twice for positions in MLA fields with success and are in the middle of a third cycle now.

    I wonder when departments who are using Skype are doing their interviews. Are these interviews generally happening at the same time? We do ours before the Fall semester ends, so in the first two weeks of December. This may give us a small advantage in scheduling campus visits in January, but really it just ensures that we aren’t disadvantaged by falling behind the MLA schedule. I could see complications in the timing of offers if interviewing moves away from the conference. This is another area where MLA (the organization) could be helpful in providing guidance for best practices.

  5. As a Canadian, we don’t interview at our disciplinary conference (held in conjunction with all of the other academic society meetings in late May/early June). And we do just fine. I think that conference interviews had their point, as noted above, back in the 70s, but now with Skype and the relative dearth of job opportunities, it’s cruel to keep up a system where job-hunters shell out hundreds of dollars on the off-chance they might make an institution’s long list.

  6. Ah, Sapience, thanks for the further anecdotal evidence that right now Skype interviews are non-prestigious.

    Yes, J, I noted in the “background” paragraph that this is a US thing. (But you probably skipped that paragraph, as I suggested you should!) But I’d note that the Canadian system when I interviewed was only to bring the top 2 or 3 candidates to campus. I got a very nice call from a Canadian university on Christmas Eve when I was on the market telling me that I was their #3, but that they could only afford to bring 2 to campus at this point, but they wanted me to know how highly I’d ranked and that there was some chance that they might have to go back to their list, so they wanted me to keep them posted about my prospects. That never happened, and I wonder, to this day, if I might have “wowed” them in a pre-campus-visit interview. Maybe not, of course.

  7. And Lara – That’s a really interesting and useful point, that department may need to ease into things, but that they could quickly seem normal. And your question about when interviews would take place — and whether MLA could still advise and partially centralize that — is a good one. Thanks for commenting!

  8. My department has done some searches with phone interviews, and some with MLA interviews, for several years now (it depends on the search committee, often; the good old boys with no family responsibilities like MLA, the rest of us like phone). We’re definitely low budget, so faculty interviewing at MLA aren’t totally covered financially, and we can only send two people, rather than a full search committee.

    As for the appearing low budget: we’re pretty open about how crappy our budget is, and it’s in the news, so we expect our candidates to know that. Some candidates probably don’t bother to apply to our jobs, and others might give us a chance, and that means we know that candidates are interviewing us as we’re interviewing them.

  9. I’d just like to caution folks against generalizing to all disciplines. Sure, Skype interviews are fine for those who can’t make the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion (which meets jointly with the Society of Biblical Literature, largely for the convenience of job candidates in the fields of Christianity and Judaism). But we haven’t interviewed in hotel rooms for over twenty years, since the AAR disallowed the practice. We all interview in the labyrinth of booths set up for interviews. The AAR/SBL annual meetings have just over 10,000 attendees. That’s a more manageable number than MLA. And in my field, faculty and grad students all do regularly attend the conference. Every department I’ve ever worked in cancels all classes in our department that would fall during the annual meeting. Attending is that deeply ingrained. It’s also one of the main ways to socialize grad students into the wide variations in areas of specialization, theories and methods in our discipline, so we encourage grad students to attend, and select them to present all the time.

    In sum, there’s nothing wrong with doing Skype first-round interviews for those who cannot, for some reason (financial or otherwise) make it to the annual meeting of the AAR. But to eliminate annual meeting interviews altogether would not necessarily make sense for everyone in my discipline. They’re actually convenient, since most grad students are there anyway!

  10. Bardiac — I don’t know that all budget issues at all schools are “in the news.” First, there are small privates. Hard to know *what’s* going on with them budget-wise. Second, there are the places where things *seem* fine but fishy stuff is going on that’s not getting reported, or where budget woes are reported but they’re disproportionately hitting different parts of the university and that’s not clear from the reporting, either. In other words, I don’t think any of our candidates would be able to tell how we support junior faculty development from any news report. But a Skype interview when most of my other interviews are in person might cause me to make assumptions.

    That said, Bérubé said something useful in the comments of the second thread I linked to above. He wrote: “The fear-of-prestige-loss thing is amazing … and, sadly, very real. Perhaps it will change only when people (with or without the encouragement of the MLA) hear ‘we are interviewing at the convention as ‘we care more about our appearance than about the cost to candidates’ and ‘we are interviewing by Skype” as “we are wisely devoting our resources to campus visits and sparing candidates the expense of conference interviews.’”

    That prompted me to think that if every committee that chose a Skype interview actually *said* “we are wisely devoting our resources to campus visits and sparing candidates the expense of conference interviews” when they offered an interview to a candidate, that would go a long way towards alleviating fears that they’re just nobodies who can’t afford conference interviews. I know *I* would think a department was cool for saying that. It’s all in how you frame it.

  11. Religion Prof — Welcome and thanks for commenting! And point taken about not generalizing. I really was just talking about MLA, although my post title and opening remarks make it seem more general. It might also apply to a couple other behemoth mega-conferences. But the system seems to work better for the AAR/SBL, if, as you say, most graduate students and faculty are already going. (Although point of information, I think 10,000 is the same ballpark number of attendees at MLA, so maybe you’re just as large? I’m not sure.) That’s definitely not the case for all fields at MLA. For many of us, are more field-specific conferences are more important to us.

  12. Dr. Virago, I love your wording: “we are wisely saving,” etc. The MLA weighs in on just about every other part of the hiring process; why not this one? And the recent (humane) postponement of the convention until January shows that they’re interested in eliminating some of the stress. If the MLA promotes this as the norm and as the preferred rather than a “sigh, okay, if you CANNOT attend I guess we’ll let you Skype” I’ll bet it would catch on.

  13. Thanks for your response, Dr. Virago! I had honestly thought that annual meeting attendance at the MLA was much higher, since the MLA encompasses so many more disciplines than does the AAR/SBL. Good to know.

  14. This is all such an interesting discussion to me, since this is probably the year I’d have gone into the academic job market if I’d continued to do a PhD after my first master’s. As it is, the typically academic librarian hiring process is exactly what people are suggesting get adopted in the academic world–and I think it would definitely be a good move. When I interviewed for academic librarian positions, I had an initial Skype interview (about 30-45) followed by a day-long campus interview. The Skype interviews were intensive, even if they were short, and I think are a really good way to quickly judge whether or not a person (or from my perspective, a position/department) seems like they’re worth pursuing. And since I was doing my interviewing right after graduating, I was seriously strapped for funds and really glad *I* didn’t have to foot the bill for making my way to a conference. Maybe academic departments can learn something from their librarian “cousins.” :)

  15. Religion Prof – Well, I could be entirely wrong about those numbers!

    Lydia – Thanks for commenting and giving the librarian’s perspective. Glad to have an example of the Skype+campus visit process working so well!

  16. Any “mid-tier” Department that is nervous about appearing “cheap” or “less serious” by initiating the Skype transition could experiment by putting in its advert the following: “In addition to the savings to candidates, we estimate that the savings to our Department will be $10,000; accordingly, this position will come with a $10,000 start-up research fund that can be used for books, archival or conference travel, or other appropriate expenses within the first two years of appointment.”

    After about 5 years of this kind of transition, it would no longer be necessary to offer such incentives, as the Skype interview would be ubiquitous.

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