Adventures in Ethics and Science

Over at Bioethics Forum, Carl Elliott has an essay questioning the wisdom of the “convention interview” in the academic hiring process. As he notes, it is a fairly standard practice for philosophy departments to schedule a round of preliminary interviews for job candidates — those who make the “long list” of applicants still in the running for the position — at the American Philosophical Association Eastern Division meeting. Among other things, scheduling interviews at the APA means that the job candidates are getting themselves to the conference on their own dime, and that there’s some likelihood that the candidates will be interviewing for other positions there as well. I suppose the thought is that with everyone coming to the same place at the same time, there’s an increase in the efficiency of the interviews both for the job candidates and the hiring departments.

Of course, there’s a catch: the Eastern APA always falls around December 26 through December 30.

This holiday scheduling is part of what strikes Elliott as inhumane about APA interviewing. He writes:

The APA holds job interviews between Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve, thus ruining the holidays for everyone involved. Job applicants must leave family gatherings early or skip them entirely. Even Christmas dinner is ruined by the anticipation of the distress to come.

For job applicants, the APA meeting is not a happy event. The hotel is often too expensive for a meager grad student budget; many candidates can’t really afford a plane trip to New York or Washington, so they have to drive hundreds or even thousands of miles; and once they get to the meeting, they will be interrogated about philosophical obscurities at 15 minute intervals while sitting at small tables set up in a hotel ballroom. Back in the old days, when I was on the job market myself, candidates would often be grilled in hotel rooms by faculty members arrayed on beds and armchairs. Today, however, I understand that interviewing job candidates on beds is frowned upon. Departments are encouraged to rent a suite.

All this happens only if the candidate is lucky. If a candidate is unlucky, he or she will not get any interviews at all. In fact, some desperate candidates come to the APA meeting even if they have not been invited for an interview, on the off-chance that they can take advantage of a last-minute cancellation by someone else. The hotel usually has a room or some other space set aside as a kind of central command center for prospective job applicants, and you can smell the fear the minute you walk in. Highly distressed people are pacing, perspiring, trembling, swearing: the scene could be a direct-to-consumer drug advertisement for Ativan. The most common term I’ve heard to describe the APA job interview process is “flesh market,” but that term implies a kind of pleasure that is totally absent from the event. It resembles a brothel less that it resembles the livestock competitions at the Minnesota State Fair, only cattle don’t sweat as much as an unemployed philosopher.

It’s true that the scheduling of the APA disrupts many people’s holiday plans. The hotel where the APA is held is generally pricey, even with the conference rate, and the weather has a tendency to disrupt travel to, from, and within East coast cities during the closing days of December.

But, is there a block of days in the calendar that wouldn’t be similarly disruptive of someone’s teaching schedule, research activities, or summer vacation plans? It may be a pain to miss family gatherings in order to go to job interviews, but most families won’t dock your pay for doing so. (Also, every now and then it’s a relief to be able to take a pass on the family drama because you have an obligation like the APA — or so I’m told.)

The expense is a bother, I agree (and this is the case for interviewing departments as well as job candidates — we’re not made of money).

But the images of fear and anguish bear more resemblance to what I was told the APA would be like than to what I actually found when I first went on the market.

Yes, some people get really freaked out by having to talk about philosophy with hiring departments, some of which adopt the tone of examiners in a thesis defense rather than that of prospective colleagues. Some people get obsessive about whether the department they really, really hope will hire them likes them more than the other 19 people they’re interviewing. Some people are filled with dread as they contemplate the possibility of not getting a job in philosophy. Some people can’t abide suits.

But most of the job candidates seem to navigate the challenges without losing it. If flubbing an interview question is the worst thing that’s ever happened to you, if not being employed as a philosopher is the worst thing you can imagine, it strikes me that your life to date must be a charmed one and that your imagination hasn’t really been challenged.

While I doubt that anyone consciously designed it to be that way, the APA actually provides budding philosophers the useful experience of doing their best in sub-optimal conditions. In particular, it serves as a testing ground for your own belief in your talents and your potential, whether the people who you’d like to see those talents and that potential are persuaded. At the APA, you get to see first hand that very smart people can be wrong in their assessments. You get to see that very talented people can be overcome with self-doubt. You can even come to believe that the world will not end if you don’t get called back for a campus interview.

None of this is to say that the community of academic philosophy couldn’t improve the hiring process, or that younger philosophers ought to endure harsh rituals simply because older philosophers survived them. Rather, I think it may be useful for philosophers entering the job market to separate the worst case scenarios from the reality. Taking a breath and noticing that the experience wasn’t as horrible as you feared — and, in any case, that you came through it intact — can help you find perspective. And perspective is something you need to face an academic universe where jobs are not distributed as rewards for your hard work and inherent awesomeness but have more to do with “fit” with a department’s needs and aspirations (something that depends not just on a candidate’s record of achievements but also on the trajectory a department imagines the candidate likely to take in the future).

In short: the job search is brutal if you take it personally. A lot of details of the process are beyond your control. Nothing about getting an offer, or not getting an offer, is evidence that you are better or worse than you were without the offer. Don’t freak out. Do your best. Use the experience to find out how to navigate chaos (a skill that turns out to be remarkably useful in an academic job). Greet 2008 with the expectation that you will grow as a person and a philosopher, and that good things will happen — even if they’re not always the good things you expected.

Comments

  1. #1 Laura
    December 31, 2007

    The MLA is, of course, exactly the same. I don’t see why they can’t conduct phone interviews instead of conference interviews. It’s cheaper for everyone. They could still do it at the same time of year if they want. Part of why I’m not on the academic job market is that I have no desire to travel hundreds of miles away at the holidays for a job that’s less than 1/2 hour’s drive from my house.

  2. #2 Janet D. Stemwedel
    December 31, 2007

    I meant to mention that the MLA happens during the same time of year and works the same way.

    Also, with respect to interviewing for “local” jobs, I know that some departments (including my own) have preliminary interviews with local candidates on campus rather than at the APA, both to obviate the need for the candidate to travel to the APA (except for other interviews s/he might have there)and to be able to see more candidates at the APA. Do the MLA-connected departments not do that kind of thing?

  3. #3 Rob Knop
    December 31, 2007

    Dude, it’s academia. If it isn’t dehumanizing, it isn’t done right.

  4. #4 Bardiac
    January 1, 2008

    I’m wondering about the local preliminary on campus interview thing. The way our legal eagles talk, we have to do everything as much the same as possible, especially interview conditions and such. We can’t interview some candidates by phone and some in person without a darned good reason because it might be unfair to some. We’re even supposed to plan out basic interview questions (and who asks them), though we’re allowed to ask follow up questions based on individual answers.

    So how does that work with on campus preliminary visits? (I’m not averse to such, just wondering how the legal folks thing about such things.)

    MLA is a cruel conference in so many, many ways. I imagine APA has it’s own unique cruelties, too. There HAS to be a better way!

  5. #5 notaphilosopher
    January 1, 2008

    Any guesses as to why there is such a huge divide between sciences and humanities in how interviews are arranged? I already knew about the MLA’s “job interviews in a conference hotel room” tradition. I suppose it’s no surprise that the APA does the same.

    In the physical & biological sciences we have nothing like this. I was thinking it was just a matter of money (science departments have more), but don’t humanities departments invite several of the most promising interviewees to campus visits? So in the end the process isn’t much less expensive than the direct-to-campus-visit model used in the sciences.

    I’m wondering how the tradition of everyone interviewing at one huge convention got started and why it never caught on in the sciences (and what about the social sciences?).

    Just curious.

  6. #6 Laura
    January 1, 2008

    In Computer Science, at least, there aren’t even phone interviews sometimes. A small number of candidates are just invited to campus. I think Bardiac is right about the feeling that interviews all need to be the same, whether it’s really a true legal issue or not. Some local jobs–at CC’s for example–get mostly local candidates and don’t usually go to the conferences anyway.

  7. #7 Drugmonkey
    January 2, 2008

    IME, “science departments” only bring out the short list for interviews, meaning something comprising 5 or fewer, frequently 2-3.

    I’m wondering if this has anything to do with the degree of professional interaction and exposure “enjoyed” by the typical science job candidate versus philo candidate? or potentially the degree to which their pertinent history is on the record via published research?

  8. #8 Kenny Easwaran
    January 4, 2008

    I don’t think this is just a humanities/sciences divide. It sounds like this process goes on in linguistics at the LSA, and I’ve heard that there’s at least something like it for mathematics. In math, I think it’s mainly only teaching jobs that do the interviews at the Joint Meetings, so people aiming just for research-focused post-docs don’t really have to go, but the same set-up does exist.

    My thought from those patterns was that the larger disciplines (like psychology and the natural sciences) end up not doing it in such a centralized way, because it’s better to focus things by sub-field. But this doesn’t explain the MLA.

  9. #9 SteveG
    January 4, 2008

    It’s like having a family reunion in the oncology ward. You have half the people chatting away happily with folks they haven’t seen in a while, catching up, gossiping, talking shop. And then the other half are walking around nervously, the tests have been done and now they have to wait for the results hoping for outside chance that it is good news, but bracing themselves for the very real possibility of bad news which could mean that they have another tough year of adjunct therapy ahead of them or worse, that they could be terminal.