My personal woes aside, the period between Christmas and the first week of January is of sacred importance to those who worship at the altar of Athena. It is that special time of year when academics in Modern Languages, History, Economics, and others start interviewing potential new colleagues for jobs in their departments.
Fortunately for me, I am neither on the market for a new job nor on a hiring committee. Very few people outside of academia know what a pain in the ass it is to get a job as a professor. It's such a pain, in fact, that some opt to die in a job that they hate rather than return to the market once again. Yet, the mysteries of the academic job market are hard to convey to anybody who hasn't lived it. Heck, after being out of grad school for six years and having landed an excellent position in my field, I still can’t quite explain to my parents why I don’t “just put an application into the local university down the block so that they will have it on file when they have an opening.” Like most people, they imagine that obtaining a job at a university as somewhere between applying for a primary school teacher position and a civil-servant-for-life job. In terms of the job itself, that's probably true. In terms of getting that job, alas there is an overabundance of humanities Ph.D.’s out there. This makes getting a professor job about as easy as winning a tour of the Wonka Factory.
I don’t bring this up to elicit sympathy for poor, misunderstood academics. Trust me – It’s a pretty cushy job if you can get it. Being a professor most definitely beats shoveling coal or being a secretary (my pre-prof gig). Nonetheless, actually becoming a prof means that you give up a great deal of flexibility about where you might live. You must go where the jobs are.
So, in a nutshell, here is the process of obtaining a tenure-track position in the humanities. Sometime in the Fall, all the universities and colleges that are hiring post ads to academic journals. For reference, a typical job advertisement for “[General] U.S. History” or “Modern Europe” can easily yield 150 applications. More specialized fields, like Latino/a History or African American History, can still result in 50-75 applications. Thus, one’s chances of obtaining any particular job is around 1:100. Those odds are better than playing the lotto, but still nothing on which to bank (I go to great lengths to avoid ending sentences in prepositions). Like the lotto, it also means that luck plays a critical role in one’s success. On average, it takes a newly minted Ph.D. a minimum of two years of searching to obtain hir first job.
After the ad is posted, the hiring department will form a committee (known as the “search committee”) of between four and (hopefully no more than) six people. This committee has the unenviable task of reading all the files submitted and narrowing the list down to ten or twelve people for a “conference interview.” If selected for a conference interview, a candidate’s chances of landing a job has now increased to 1:10.
At the end of the year/start of the new year, many of the major academic disciplines host an annual convention/conference. Modern Languages hosts theirs during the dreaded week between Christmas and New Year’s. So, if you celebrate both/either, you are forced to cut your plans short in order to attend. History and Economics and others host their conference in the very first week of January. Why such a dreaded time of year? It’s all about the cheapness of hotels. Tourists are not likely to want to trot through four inches of muck and ice on January 4. Thus, hotels give bargains to academic associations to keep their rooms filled.
During these conventions, the ten or twelve candidates selected by the search committee will interview for twenty or thirty minutes each. That time is spent
Most campus interviews occur between early January and the end of February. The time on campus is spent meeting the rest of the department, giving formal presentation(s), and learning more about the climate of a particular institution. Once all of that is completed, the department will vote on one person to offer the job. Like the Highlander, in the end, there can be only one.
Because of the intensity of academic hiring, many bloggers are offering valuable advice to graduate students "on the market." If you are on the market, take this advice seriously.
For my part, I want to offer advice to the other side of the table. Maybe I have fantasies of being the Gordon Ramsey of the academic world. I could come to dysfunctional academic departments, yell at people for a week, probably get food poisoning somewhere in the middle, and then put them on the right path with a teary goodbye. Until Bravo calls about that show-pitch, here are some things to keep in mind if you are a member of a search committee:
- 1. Ask yourself if you are a gatekeeper or a future colleague. If you answer the former, think again. It’s not your job to decide whether or not an entire academic field is worthy of existence nor are you really in a place to decide the future potential of any individual scholar (though it might seem that way). Don’t go into the interview with an ax to grind or looking to prove to your colleagues that candidate “X” is really a poser who should never have made it on the shortlist.
Instead, consider your job to be one of finding a new partner to build and expand your academic unit. Sure, some candidates aren’t going to fit your unit or needs and can be ruled out (I would suggest, though, if their work is a different type of scholarship and teaching than exists in your department, it might be a good thing to hire a fresh perspective).
Yes, some other candidates do bomb particular interviews and/or aren’t ready to be on the market. But academics who smell blood in the water can go to a really bad place of attack and destroy. Maybe the candidate had a bad day. Maybe they got bad advice about how to prepare for an interview. Maybe they really are a poser. It’s impossible to say based on 20 minutes of conversation. Whatever the case, don’t be mean spirited. Ask yourself, What Would Jacqueline Kennedy Do? Answer: She would always be gracious -- and she would marry rich.
Also ask yourself if being hired into your department will benefit the candidate. Every unit has its own expectations for tenure, but have you considered how (if) that unit will help a particular candidate meet that goal? If you are hiring a historian of Asia to work in the middle of Nebraska, what will that mean for hir research? Are there funds to allow this person to travel? Other colleagues with whom to chat (even if they aren’t other people working in Asian history per se)? What about time away from teaching? Obviously, many of these things depend upon the cash available at a particular institution. Some (most?) SLACs simply can’t afford leave or travel funds, so how will working at your particular institution help that candidate’s career? I firmly believe that anybody can flourish almost anywhere, but it requires the creative help of the people around hir.
It is important to remember that, as colleagues (not gatekeepers), it’s the responsibility of senior folk to continue to mentor junior professors. This will mean taking the time to read work, set up support, and simply check in on them from time to time in a friendly way. It might also mean that you are going to need learn a bit about Asia.
2. At least pretend like you enjoy the company of the other committee members. Unfortunately, many administrators make the mistake of creating search committees out of warring factions within departments. The theory seems to be that if everybody is miserable, than nobody “wins.” Let me say, this is a terrible way to run a department and does not work. Instead, it just means that those larger wars are played out on the microlevel of the committee.
Job candidates, however, don’t want to step into a battlefield. Going to an interview with sparring committee members is a lot like spending Thanksgiving with drunken in-laws. When Uncle Ted starts yelling at Aunt Alice about her crummy stuffing, everybody wants to slide under the table and die. As a visitor, you can’t really do anything but stare intently at your mashed potatoes and hope to Jesus that they will stop fighting.
One feels a lot better if it seems like people with serious disagreements are still collegial. If this means hiding Uncle Ted’s liquor before the interview, do so.
3. Dress professionally. We expect job candidates to dress in a professional manner, why should you show up looking like you just rolled out of bed and scrounged your outfit from the hotel dumpster? I am not sayin’ you have to dress like you work at the Pentagon, but you should show that you care enough about the position being hired that you combed your hair and thought two minutes about matching your socks. Leave the sweatpants at home.
4. Only interview people that you think have a serious chance for the job. Oddly enough, I have been on committees where people felt that they had to have a perfect number of ten candidates for the AHA interviews. To get that number, though, they sometimes included people whose work clearly didn’t match the job description. This just wastes everybody’s time. If you get 150 applications, but only eight seem like they match the department’s needs, interview eight. Don’t interview two more people who you know will never make the cut.
My personal worst story about interviewing at the AHA involves just such an instance. My first time on the job market, I was still in graduate school and applied to a variety of schools. Among the places that interviewed me at the AHA was a small college in the West. To this day, I still think of that department as totally unprofessional and a place to be avoided at all costs. First, they didn’t bother to get a hotel suite or a table to interview. Instead, they wanted to conduct interviews in the middle of the hotel lobby. Yes, I had to compete with the sound of roller bags going across the tile floor and other job candidates swarming about the lobby.
More importantly, though, the interview started with the search committee chair stating that I had more-or-less been ruled out of the running before the interview even started. He noted that they were only going to consider candidates who already had a Ph.D. in hand, but had decided to meet with me anyway. Since I was still in grad school, I was left wondering why I was there.
After that bad start, it only went down hill. Two of the search committee members whispered to each other throughout the time I was speaking. Then, out of the blue, one of the members simply got up and left without explanation in the middle of the interview. The committee never offered me a chance to ask them questions. As it turned out, of course, I didn’t need that job. It still felt pretty icky, though.
Committees should make key choices to narrow the pool of applicants (like deciding they only want candidates who have been out of grad school a couple of years). Nonetheless, if a committee has determined a set of criteria, don’t create bad scenes with “pretend” interviews that you know won’t lead anywhere.
5. Consider abandoning the conference interviews altogether. As a village, can’t we agree that the age of the conference interview is passing? It is unpopular with the AHA bureaucrats (I am guessing with MLA and AEA too), but many departments are skipping the middle step of conference interviews, not passing Go, and forfeiting their $200. Instead, they go directly to on-campus interviews. To be honest, this seems like a smart saving of resources. I have never, ever seen a conference interview ultimately nail a candidate’s position as number 1 (Unlike campus interviews). I have, however, occasionally seen conference interviews become a means for candidates to eliminate themselves. Still, it always seemed to me that the top three or four candidates going into the conference remained the top three or four going out of the conference.
6. Read the Damn Files. No, you don’t have to read every word of all 150 applications. By the time you get to the top ten, however, you should be familiar with all of the contents of each file. For the on-campus, you should know their work better than the candidate. Why? Unless your department is totally
I would also add for those who aren’t on the search committee, but end up on the itinerary of a candidate’s on-campus interview, it is your responsibility to familiarize yourself with the candidate’s letter of application and c.v. as a minimum. I have been shocked – SHOCKED – by colleagues who are in a candidate’s specific field (and thus the people they are most likely to interact with over the long term) who had not bothered to find out even the title of their dissertation. Nothing sends the message that your unit is disinterested in junior professors than having future colleagues ask things like, “So, why did we choose to interview you?”
7. Refresh yourself on local, state, and federal employment laws. For reasons that I have never fully understood (though I do have some theories), the academic world is often far behind the business world in understanding what is actually legal and illegal to ask during job interviews. In almost all circumstances, it is totally illegal to consider a candidate’s marital status, sex, age, race, religion (unless you work at a religious institution), parental status, disability status, or national origin in hiring.
Twenty states (Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, Wisconsin, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Iowa, Illinois, Maine, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington) and the District of Columbia also explicitly forbid discrimination based on sexual orientation. Thirteen states (California, Colorado, Connecticut, Iowa, Illinois, Maine, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington) and the District of Columbia have specific laws prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity.
Despite these laws, I have personally been asked whether I am [heterosexually] married or not (and often if I have children) on every single on-campus interview that I have ever attended. Every.Single.One. Now it should have been obvious if one read my c.v. that I am gay (See #6), but nonetheless this is an illegal question in almost all circumstances (In places that recognize same-sex marriage or civil unions, it is still illegal because marital status has no baring on one’s ability to do the job). All of the times that I have been asked, it has never been with animus as far as I can tell. Usually it’s because faculty confuse an interview with a social gathering.
The problem, though, is that these “innocent” questions can become illegal ammunition that scuttles a candidate (e.g. At my former Texas university, mean-spirited faculty attempted to thwart one candidate’s hiring based on an argument that hir spouse’s career was clearly the more important one (There was no evidence that this was true based on what the candidate had told us)). I have also known members of some units who have protested against hiring “another gay person” when they felt the unit had “enough already.”
If you are hiring, remember that you must comply with the local and federal law during all periods of a candidate’s interview process (including dinners and/or receptions) or face potential litigation. If you are the chair of a search committee, it is your duty to remind the committee members of these responsibilities. Don’t allow the candidate to be placed in an awkward situation of having to tell faculty that they are violating their basic legal protections.
8. Do ask questions that push the candidate outside of their research zone. If they have made it to the point of being interviewed, it’s clear that their research project is exciting and unique. Be sure, though, that the candidate has not simply focused entirely on their narrow subject. It is especially important that departments think strategically about the future relevance of our discipline to a changing college-aged population.
I highly recommend that every search in U.S. history ask candidates about key books in Latino/a History. Yes, this is partly my personal hobby-horse. But that horse has a silky mane and a gold saddle worthy of all our attention. Let me explain:
Significant Latino communities have been part of this nation for 160 years. In 2003, Latino/as become the largest minority group in the U.S. Today, one-in-five school aged children in the nation are of Latino/a descent. Within a decade, we will start to see the first wave of those students move into universities. If an applicant for U.S. history can’t name a couple of books that touch on at least part of that 160-year tenure (I am not sayin’ they need to be an expert (unless the position advertised was for Latino/a Studies)), their graduate program has failed to prepare them for this future. If they really fumble in trying to address Latino/as’ roles within the U.S., it is also entirely likely that you will be hiring a candidate who has not thought much about the actual diversity that exists in contemporary classrooms.
History is already failing to attract minority students as majors across the nation. If departments hire faculty without any sense of the history of Latino/as in the U.S., this will become substantially worse (BTW, if you are at a university that still doesn’t have a Latino/a Historian (I am looking at you, Harvard and Princeton), you are out-of-step with the reality of the nation and need to catch up).
Beyond knowing about Latino/as, all candidates should be asked about broader works in their field. Hiring a candidate who works on Japan? Ask if they can speak about Japanese imperialism in Korea. If their work focuses on economic history, are they aware of key books in cultural studies?
One of the most important things that I think should come out of an interview is knowing whether a job candidate can talk about another sub-discipline without being disdainful or dismissive (Something that is surprisingly really hard for most grad students). Like the Ghost of Christmas Future, it says a lot about whether they will be colleagues or gatekeepers themselves.
9. Think about the strengths of your department and remember to sell them. Even when I was in the totally hostile department in Texas, there were still many good elements about that program that could make it attractive. Many of the key members of the department were actively pushing for a re-invention of the unit, which was resulting in exciting (if snail-paced slow) change (and, yes, it was that same change that was also at the core of the hostility). That unit definitely had an extremely exciting crew of young, hip junior faculty. That was (and is) a selling point of that program.
Nobody wants to interview with a place and hear about how miserable it is to work there. I am not saying that one has to lie, but chances are the problems will become obvious on their own. Unique strengths, however, need highlighting.
During one interview that I had, a disgruntled faculty member spent a huge part of the time railing against his own institution (Hello, boozy Uncle Ted). It made me wonder, if it was that bad, why wasn’t he on the market?
10. Until told otherwise, presume that the candidate really does want to work for your university. When I worked in Texas, I was often surprised that some colleagues wanted to rule out really exciting people based on the premise that “they would never come here.” True, we did interview a few (very few) people who spent most of the time on-campus talking about how they could never imagine living in Texas. While I was sympathetic, it made me think of them as unprofessional as the search committee from #4. Why waste everybody’s time? Don’t want to live in Texas? I can’t blame you, but don’t apply in the first place.
Other candidates, however, who were almost prematurely ruled out turned out to have family in the area or other relationships nearby. None of that information was apparent in their file, but ultimately played into their decision to come. I have also heard that some SLACs won’t even interview candidates from ivy league institutions because they imagine that they all want to work at Research Ones. That really isn’t true and suggests more about the committee's insecurities than any particular candidate. Why rule out people for no reason?
Lastly, remember to play nice. You don’t want to end up as the committee that becomes a dreadful story on a future academic blog.