Tuesday, July 07, 2009

More Annals of the Great Depression: Whither The Conference Interview?

In my opinion? It's on its way out. For what Zenith spent on searches this year, we could have hired a bunch of visitors, or two tenure-track faculty. Or we could have given the faculty we have a weenie little raise. Just a weenie one, but a raise all the same. Or not cut the library budget. Or....or.....

Budget cutting is no reason to end a tradition permanently if it is valuable, but I predict that budget cutting will jolt universities to some useful reforms. Replacing the conference interview with the phone interview is one of them. We had this conversation in my department recently, and I have had it with a Zenith administrator on two separate occasions. Perhaps I have fallen out of love with the conference interview because I am finishing a book on the early years of the historical profession. I know, for example, that the origins of the conference interview are exactly the opposite of democratic. They go way back to a time when each mentor brought "a few excellent men" to the AHA in order to pair them up with colleagues who had positions to offer: the matches were more often than not made at "smokers" which were held in gender and racially segregated spaces.

This began in the 1880s, and continued until about 1968.

Or perhaps, more relevantly, the scales have fallen from my eyes because I did one search in each semester this year, at a total cost to the university for me alone of around 4.5K. Or perhaps I was just horrified as I watched a colleague interview over twenty candidates for two searches at a single conference, running back and forth between hotels, a test of endurance and good humor that I am not sure I would have passed.

Or perhaps I am hopeful about this possible transformation because I have had real success with phone interviews. All of that time and money, in my view, has no benefit other than what many of my colleagues call "laying eyes on the candidate." Because I hire in an interdisciplinary program, we routinely interview people over the telephone because the American Studies Association conference is so early, and many of our potential candidates are saving their money for the disciplinary conferences where they are more likely to get offers. This year, we interviewed half of our candidates in one search over the phone, brought two of the phone interviewees to campus, and hired both of them. Seven or eight years ago, we interviewed all of our candidates over the telephone and brought in three superb candidates. Regardless of how I feel, it seems quite certain that for many schools, budget cuts may create permanent change, and it is probably time for us to start thinking about the ethics and practices of the phone interview more seriously.

David Evans wrote a timely column about this annual ritual in yesterday's Careers section of the Chronicle of Higher Ed. In "Is The Conference Interview On The Way Out?" Evans observes that the cost of going to conferences is prohibitive, for committees and especially for those on the job market. Even if your university is still willing to foot the bill, there may simply not be as much bang for the buck as there once was. Faculty could better spend this money on curricular development or research, he argues; the jobless could better spend the money on -- well, eating, probably, or printer cartridges. Evans writes that there will also be loss. "I still think that conference interviews have a lot of advantages," he notes.

Meeting candidates face-to-face is, I believe, considerably more effective than talking to them on the phone. Simply being able to read their body language, make eye contact, and interact directly provides a clarity that isn’t available by phone. The intensity of the conference-interview process, while exhausting, gives hiring committees the opportunity to make direct comparisons between candidates, refine their impressions, and get a sense of the candidates’ interest in the position.

With all due respect, there may be losses, but the points that Evans raises are the aspects of interviewing that I am ready to say goodbye to. I have thought for some time that this process of forming definite beliefs about candidacies on what are necessarily superficial impressions is flawed and makes the process contrary. I mean, why do candidates obsess about their clothes? Because they know that it is likely that someone is judging their capacity to think and teach by the height of their heels, the color of their tie, the sweater vest that just doesn't work with that outfit. And we haven't even started with how you occupy the space you are in, who you looked at most frequently, your handshake, your voice, your....your...your....

By the time everyone gets home and start talking about the candidates, each committee member is positive that s/he has the "correct" interpretation of this personality trait or that tone of voice, and you end up arguing about aspects of self-presentation that are most vulnerable to what they call at Zenith "unintentional bias." In my experience, this kind of bias is often a question of perceived class differences. Direct comparisons are just as easy over the phone as in person; indeed, if you are not watching a person's body language, thinking about what moved a certain candidate to cut his hair that way, or trying to judge whether a person really wants the job, you might hear what they are saying with a bit more clarity.

Another advantage of the phone interview? You can wear whatever you want, eat and drink without making the candidate uncomfortable, sleep in your own bed, and get up and stroll around the room in mid-interview if your back hurts. The committee can make funny faces at each other -- err, I mean, communicate better during the course of the interview -- to move things along when the conversation has gotten off track, or when you all realize that the person has gotten hopelessly muddled about something and you need to backtrack and give them another chance at it. You can look imperiously at a colleague who is talking too much and make slashing gestures across your throat.

Not that I've done that.

There is another great idea in a comment on the Evans story:

Here is a suggestion for my field (history): Why not have a centralized database, where candidates upload their materials? Then, when a department is authorized to hire, the search committee trolls the database (searchable by field and other variables) and picks 4-5 candidates. Instead of paying to send a search committee to the AHA, the university can foot the bill to bring more candidates to campus. This would cut out the preliminary interview altogether.

Here I disagree slightly with the suggestion that a next stage of information gathering be entirely eliminated, but this would be an otherwise outstanding use of existing technology. A preliminary interview of some kind gives you an idea about how a person thinks. It allows for specific questions about specific courses, as well as the research, that can help resolve disagreements on the committee. A conversation can tell you a lot about a candidate as a teacher -- particularly if the committee asks for a draft syllabus for a core course that person would be asked to teach. Furthermore, because jobs differ from each other in emphasis, even within fields, letters of application tell you a great deal about whether someone is prepared to teach what you want, how professionalized they are, and how they see themselves as a scholar. But a central database where letters of recommendation, vita, transcripts, a chapter-length piece and an abstract of the dissertation could be uploaded would be terrific. Think of the number of (wo)man hours are spent filing and duplicating these things, not to mention mailing them in the first place.

There could be another great feature in these days when universities are afraid of affirmative action, many committees don't know how to do diversity recruiting, and many candidates entitled to affirmative action either don't believe in it or don't want to be interviewed just to be your "diversity candidate." Job hunters could opt in, or opt out, of providing information about gender, race, ethnicity and national status. You could have a box to check for "GLBTQ" -- not a federal category, to be sure, but for some of us that would be information that we would want people to know. Thus, such a data base would be searchable if a department was genuinely interested in interviewing more women or people of color. Before advertising, you could test a job description against the gross candidate pool. You could even do a search in round one on the basis of scholarship only, with all identifying characteristics of the candidates (gender, race, university) hidden until you had activated your first round of selections.

One of the unnecessary tragedies of the hiring season is that there are not only great people who don't get an offer, but there are jobs that go unfilled. Let's say it is still fall, and you don't love the candidate pool you've got: what about looking at the materials of people in a slightly different, but contiguous, field? What about looking at a higher/lower rank? Or what if, after bringing everyone to campus, there isn't anyone the department can agree on -- and little do you know, in a narrow departmental battle, the liberal arts college down the road decided not to make an offer to someone who might be perfect? And finally, when the adjunct and visiting season strikes, the pool of people who have yet to be hired would still be there to be searched, and they wouldn't necessarily have to write a whole new round of job letters.

Such a data base would make hiring more of a year-round process, as it is in other professions. It wouldn't have to replace the application process as we know it, but it could strengthen it. And it could allow universities to woo junior candidates who have not applied for their job, inviting them to apply as senior people are now invited to apply for jobs. There is an assumption among an older generation (which I think I am now a part of, unfortunately) that everyone who wants a job applies for all jobs in her field. But it isn't so. Candidates rule out applying for certain jobs for good and bad reasons: ignorance of the region the school is in, a new baby or sick parent, a deadline that has passed by mistake, a relationship that they fear will not stand a commute, a belief that the fit isn't good when in fact it might be.

Interviewing at conferences may disappear because of budget cuts, to be sure. But if we are thoughtful about how to replace it with a good new system, cheaper could be better.


Anonymous said...

Why would knowledge that a candidate checked a GLBTQ possibly be of use to you in your hiring?

Tenured Radical said...

Nag, nag, nag. I said I might want someone to know that about *me* before they interviewed me. There are any number of religious schools who do not knowingly hire queer people: legally, this is a gray area. Ergo, it might be better all around if -- as a very out queer person -- they did not bother further investigating my sterling credentials.

But other candidates might be quite happy to be in the closet if it meant a shot at teaching at an excellent university that also operated according to the precepts of its church. And some religious schools might by quite happy to have an out gay person, so why strike them automatically from my list?

Community College Historian said...

We've used phone interviews very successfully at my Community College, for all the reasons you describe. I think it's going to be the way of the future for 4-year institutions as well.

Unknown said...

Excellent comments on a hiring system that will almost certainly change as we move forward.

I suppose different fields must have been doing things differently for some time. When I was ABD (in psychology) seven years ago, I started out with phone interviews, and that is the norm in our area. Ten candidates by phone and bring the top three to campus for the final selection. Not that it always works, of course, but it does save everyone gross amounts of time and money.

Janice said...

In Canada, with the CHA meeting in May, job interviews at the conference are not the norm. When I was on the market, I did go to the AHA but it really puts the onus on the prospects to come up with the money to make the interview possible.

If "seeing" the candidate is so important, do what we've done and set up video-conference meetings. On-site interviews still are the best but the video-conference is a good substitute!

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Phone interviews have another advantage, this time for the candidate: many conference interviewees will be grad students or adjuncts, individually bearing the cost of travel to the Big Meeting, registration, and hotel stay. These are arrangements that need to be made long before said candidate knows if s/he even has an interview. Dropping a thousand bucks on the off chance of an interview is rough on many candidates.

That said, from the candidate's side, the phone interview can make an already difficult process even more awkward. Does that long silence on the other end mean that the committee members are trying to figure out who gets to ask the next question, or are they looking at each other and rolling their eyes at what you just said? Is your voice coming through the speaker okay, or are you shouting? Did the lousy cell phone reception in your apartment or office mean that something critical got lost in the ether? I've been fortunate that all my preliminary interviews have been at the Big Meeting, but friends who did phone interviews have told me, to a one, that they were horrible experiences.

Tenured Radical said...

Notorious: I agree about all of the difficulties you mention, but I think one place where *most* committees could probably clean up their act is to figure out what they are doing before the candidate walks in the room.

I think video conferencing would probably help a lot in terms of making the whole scene easier for everyone. When I have run search committees, I have asked people to identify themselves each time they speak: "Hi, this is Dr. Radical...", but also worked from a script so that everyone knows what they are doing and who is supposed to speak next. You can't always avoid unreadable silences, but you can try.

Amanda said...

In my field (political science) our professional association does have a centralized, searchable database of job candidates, though it includes only basic info about fields/interests and the vita--no chapters or transcripts. As a candidate, I was definitely contacted by schools who found my vita and invited me to apply for their positions--one of those turned into a conference interview, a campus interview, and an offer. Between this and our job rumors blog and wiki we have some of the functionality you are talking about, though it could certainly be expanded and improved.

Katrina said...

I totally agree with the database match system (like what is used for medical students to find residencies). But when I have suggested something like it, I have been told that the AHA 'can't change' and various nonsense about the (nebulous) value of conference interviews.

The value you describe to institutions (having in effect a large 'applicant pool' to which they could return at any stage) would surely be a great advantage over the current system.
(I also think that removing the first weekend of January as the focus of the hiring year would free things up too). There is no real reason - other than 'tradition' - that searches have to drag on from October to April.

Again, I know it's 'how things have always been done', but look at academia in the rest of the world, where hires are typically made on much shorter timelines - in the UK jobs are often advertised in April or May: to start in September. Are the hiring decisions made in the US better for the long lead time?

I actually would have thought that the tenure system in the US would allow institutions to take more risks in hiring - after all, there are pre-tenure reviews and the tenure process as junctions at which a problematic hire can be jettisoned, but this is unfortunately not the case. Rather the opposite! ('failed' searches, where a SC felt they couldn't take a chance on any of the applicants...)
In other countries jobs are effectively permanent from the start, yet institutions don't seem to feel the need to have 9 month searches, 3 day campus visits, etc, and the 'failed search' seems to be less common too.

Katrina said...

Following Amanda's comment, yes the political scientists have the right idea. Their job wiki also names those selected for interview: a level of daylight that AHA searches sorely need IMO.

PMG said...

Just to chime in with another discipline, mine (musicology) holds its annual conference too early for most hiring processes as well, and so we've never particularly relied upon conference interviews. Most of our job searches start with the basic open call, then ask more materials (often including a teaching video these days) from a long list (10-20 candidates), then a campus visit for the top three.

Anonymous said...

The danger of an open database (and the Poli Sci wiki) is that it sacrifices the candidate's privacy. In a case where a candidate with a job is trying to be on the market confidentially, it could be catastrophic. Simplification and lower costs for the candidates would be great, but you'd want to give the candidates quite a bit of control over who gets and gets to see their materials.

Tenured Radical said...

But I wonder why a graduate student would be on the market confidentially?

And of course, there should still be open advertisements for jobs so that people can send their materials confidentially if they are associate or full.

Having unpublished writing hanging out there would be the big issue. But I can imagine having one's vita and abstract visible and then "unlocking" one's full materials for a search committee.

Katrina said...

Well, the database could be more sophisticated than that. The candidate could nominate that they only wanted to be considered by institutions in particular regions, or block particular institutions from accessing their info.

As for confidentiality, I can see this being an issue for senior hires. But the polisci wiki is for entry-level positions, a stage where everyone is publicly on the market.

Amanda said...

One of the problems we have with the wiki and the job rumors site is false information and its impact on search committees. People have deliberately posted false information that a particular candidate has accepted an offer, leading committees who haven't moved yet to put that candidate out of consideration. I've seen this happen several times. Its worse on the job rumors site when malicious posters start attacking a successful candidate. You can move to a moderated blog site for reporting on the status of searches (the international relations field has one), but that does inhibit the free flow of information (and requires someone to overcome the free-rider problem). Our execution of the ideas we are discussing here, in short, is not necessarily a good candidate for emulation.

Rachel said...

Who says the church is behind times? In our denomination, we have had a central database for ministers seeking new positions for years. In more recent times, it has become online.

Goodness, we also use telephone conference calls.

Only after these techniques are utilized does a church begin to focus in on a few and start to spend the money necessary to actually meet a candidate.

Susan said...

Yes, TR, I think you're right. Telephone interviews are less expensive for everyone, less stressful, and saner. With skype, you could do video, too, without much trouble.

Oh, and a database? That would be terrific.

Larry Cebula said...

The worst thing about conference interviews is they shift a big part of the cost of filling jobs from the institution to the candidates. Twelve candidates each pay $1500 for the privilege of waiting for two hours in the bullpen for a 15 minute interview.

And all for what? A phone interview is actually far superior for screening purposes. With less tension and without the distractions of appearances you get a truer view of the candidates.

dcat said...

An insane story that reflects the inefficiency of conference interviews: In my small department every full-time member of the department serves on the search committee -- with the outside person that makes for a committee of eight. Two years ago we sent a colleague to AHA to conduct interviews. She did unbelievable work, put in two long days, pared a list down to about five or six. And then . . . a couple of members of the department/committee insisted that we do phone interviews of the top ten anyway. It was a slap in the face to our colleague (ok, also my wife) but also in my mind made us look like damned fools for asking someone to fly to the AHA only to do a phone interview as well. And I bet I am not alone in this experience -- small budget mitigates against sending three or four people, but everyone feels the need to get their say.

Matt L said...

Yes! Yes! And a thousand times Yes! I like the idea of a central database. If it were designed properly, and used in good faith, I think it would level the playing field.

I really like the idea of testing your proposed job description against a sample pool. Same thing with running a search based on just scholarship or teaching criteria.

I teach at a four year regional comprehensive university and my department uses phone interviews. I was on a committee for a dean-level administrative hire and we used phone interviews. The conference interview is a waste of money, and inflicts a needless expense on job applicants.

As a grad student on the job market I did both phone interviews and conference interviews. Both were stressful, but the phone interview was cheaper and easier to schedule.

Jo said...

Take a look at mathjobs.org, which has become a pretty standard site for academic jobs in math. Departments post their job ads. Candidates upload their materials -- a c.v., a research statement, a teaching statement, a teaching portfolio, preprints, cover letters, etc. -- and make them selectively available to the departments. Reference letters can be uploaded as well (by the recommenders, so they stay confidential), so once you've applied for a position, the search committee can see your entire application packet online. It's also possible to make your basic materials generally available, though you don't have to.

I can't say how it works from the departments' perspectives, but as an applicant, I can say that it's been nice not to have to pay to mail out so many applications.

Me, PhD said...

This year the the AHA the interview room was abysmally small and bleak. So much so, that in years past waiting candidates were quarantined off and you had to be on a list to get in. Not this year. A room holding maybe 30 chairs sat mostly empty. I have a hunch that this scene will reappear in San Diego.

As for the phone interviews, I have done more than my fair share. You have to be prepared for a seemingly barrage of questions, anywhere from three to ten committee members (yes ten once), and a short iview time. While detest "the pit" interviews, I do not particularly embrace the phone ones either. But, that said, the phone interview does the make the process somewhat more user friendly.

Larry Cebula said...

Robert Townsend reacts to and attempts to refute this post over at the AHA blog: http://blog.historians.org/annual-meeting/851/time-to-dispense-with-the-aha-conference-interviews

Anonymous said...

I have a suggestion somewhat related to bias in the administration of job searches.

I think that the AHA should collect data from history department job searches. Race/ gender of applicants at different stages would be useful. But also very instructive would be the ability to track which schools' applicants get conference interviews, campus visits, and jobs.

Reporting such data might cause search committee members to more honestly discuss whether and to what degree pedigree is being used to sort through hundreds of job applications. To place Ivy league schools in relation to non-Ivies, or private in relation to public schools, could also be eye opening.

Few conclusions could be drawn from the data, since the job search is infinitely more complex than whittling applicants down based on which schools they attended. But the conversations that could be brought out by some hard data rather than speculation and personal anecdote might be valuable none the less.

Nels P. Highberg said...

Not a historian but married to one, and the central database idea terrifies me. There were sixty jobs available the year I went on the market in my field, and I only applied for eighteen because I was very particular about where I was going to move us. I had several friends who applied for every position available, so I get that some like the idea. But I had a really good non-tenure-track job and was picky.

Also, what about streamlining letters to align with particular departments and needs? I had a different letter for each job because there was a different part of me I wanted them to see. Maybe it's because I have an interdisciplinary gender studies background and graduate degrees in three different fields, but I can't imagine how one letter could fit the eighteen jobs I applied for let alone all of the jobs available for which I was qualified.

That said, I'm a fan of the phone interview. That's what we did this year.

Karl the Depression Cure Guy said...

We are having interview system like with Stephanie's. We usually use telephone to interview some candidates and will ask shortlisted to come personally for the final interview. Less pressure for both parties, with just one tick and presto you can communicate with the candidate.