Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Notes From the Other Side of the Job Market

In my first 3 years at my current position, I served on 2 tenure-track search committees, a process that literally took up every spare moment of my time (and many non-spare moments) for the 4 or 5 months that it lasted. Although I certainly learned a lot in my time on SLAC Search Committees-- including, among other things, that "SLAC" stands for "Small Liberal Arts College"-- I am well aware that the last couple of years were a very strange time to be doing this for the first time. A tanked economy, a new President, a panicked constituency, an inflated applicant pool and a discipline/profession under siege are certainly not the standard job-market fare as I had been led to understand it. As someone who was on the market herself not that long ago, I feel like I can say with some confidence that it is just as time-consuming and labor-intensive on the "other" (i.e., hiring) side of the job market. And, arguably, it's very close to being just as stressful. The possibility of a "failed" search for a department in these economic times is almost as devastating as the possibility of not getting a job is for an individual candidate. Well, almost...

Since this is the first year in some time that I have not been on one side or the other of the Philosophy job market, consider this my still-amateur debriefing on that process. I'm happy to report that there are a lot of really smart, really interesting and really qualified candidates out there. In that sense, our discipline is in very good shape. And for that reason, I'm also happy to report that the embarassment of riches in candidates means that-- pace conventional wisdom about the process-- nobody gets a job on his or her C.V. alone. (Pedigree does still mean a lot, but less than I or many of my co-job-seekers thought when I was on the market.) Although I'd heard it a thousand times, I was still surprised to learn how seriously hiring committees take the fact that a TT (tenure-track) hire may be a hire "for life." So, what one does in the APA and campus interviews matters quite a bit.

Which leads me to what was a mildly surprising and majorly disappointing discovery: candidates can, and do, totally bomb interviews. Of course, since I've only been through this process twice, my experience on search committees is limited at best. But if I could go back and speak to myelf when I was on the market (in one of those if-I-knew-then-what-I-know-now revelatory moments), I would probably offer myself the following advice:

1. Bring your A-game. There's just no excuse for not being prepared in an interview. Know everything you can about the department, the faculty, the major requirements, the college/university course catalogue and "mission statement." It's likely that at least one thing that they think is an important part of the job is going to be different from what you think is an important part of the job. The trick is to not get caught in that difference.

2. Be clear who you are... and who you aren't. Although it may seem like a good idea to present yourself as the Jack-Of-All-Trades-- yes! I can teach interdisciplinary classes! yes! I'm interested in African-American philosophy (despite the fact that I wrote a dissertation on mereology)! yes! I would LOVE to teach Introduction to X (even though I've never heard of it before your mentioning it)!-- that's just a bad, bad, bad idea all around. First, nobody can do it all, and your pretensions will inevitably come off as either arrogant or naïve. Second, if you end up getting the job with all those empty promises, you'll find that you've committed yourself to doing/being something that you're not, which will not only cause you a lot of extra work, but will also make you unhappy. [An aside: when I was interviewing for the job I have now, which was advertised as "19th/20th C. Continental and social/political philosophy," I was asked in my APA interview how I would teach a Logic course. I responded, "if you're looking for someone to teach Logic, then I'm probably not your candidate." I was certain that one statement was going to cost me the job... but it didn't. Looking back, I'm so glad I said that, since I know that if I had to teach Logic regularly I would be a miserable, wretched thing.] Third, the truth is that search committees aren't looking for tabula rasa colleagues; they're looking for someone with an identity, a clear scholarship profile, and a promising future. As hard as it is to do this, candidates really do have to remember that the interview goes both ways: candidates should be measuring up the department on whether or not it's a good "fit" for them, too.

3. Don't act like a graduate student. It's hard to be really specific on this piece of advice, because it's hard to put my finger on exactly what "acting like a graduate student" means. It's like pornography: you know it when you see it. So, don't be "green." Don't be fawning. Don't be insecure. Don't be (too) deferential. But also don't be overconfident. The difference between getting into graduate school and getting a job is that in the former case you need to present yourself as the smartest, most promising, most "cultivat-able" thing out there, and in the latter case you need to present yourself as already cultivated, as a "good colleague." Nobody thinks of their students as colleagues, so it's important to conduct yourself in interviews as a colleague and not a student.

4. Try to approximate, as closely as possible, a normal human being. Keep the idiosyncracies to a minimum. Be nice. Be aware of your interpersonal quirks (do I stare akwardly? am I longwinded? do I swear a lot? do I speak too softly? am I inattentive to questions? am I condescending?). Of course, committees aren't only looking to hire Dr. Beige-and-Vanilla, but academia is chock-full of prickly and odd personalities and your job as a candidate is to demonstrate not only that you're less prickly and odd than the rest, but also that you can work productively with those who are. I'm as loathe to affirm disciplinary normalization as the next Foucaultian, but the truth is that the interview room is just not the place for flying your freak flag. So, try to keep your radical, unmannered, unique-as-a-snowflake (even if truly endearing) eccentricities in check.

5. Be crystal clear. If you can't give a clear and succinct summary of what you and your research are all about in language that non-specialists-- who will be on your search committee, I guarantee-- can understand, consider yourself tanked. (See my This Is Your Blurb! post.) Compared to all the time you've spent developing yourself and writing your dissertation and preparing your applications, you've got precious little time with your committee, so be prepared to maximize every moment you have. Don't fall prey to that peremptory inclination to refuse to "dumb it down." Communicating clearly is not "dumbing it down." It's a basic axiom of successful interpersonal relationships between smart people who may not all have the same background.

6. Be prepared to "spin" your weaknesses. At the end of the day, yours is an "interview" like any other. Every interviewee has weaknesses... but the best interviewees know their weaknesses, can account for them, and can articulate the latent "promise" for development in them. Did it take you 8 years to complete your graduate work? Have you served in a string of fixed-term positions? Were you denied tenure at your previous institution? Do you have middling-to-poor student evaluations? Is your publication record sub-standard? Be ready to account for it. And don't wait for your interviewers to ask you. Believe me, in your interviewers' minds, the devil you know is better than the devil you don't know.

7. Remember that EACH committee member gets a vote. In my time on the interviewer's side of the table, I was shocked to see how many candidates neglected to speak directly to one or more of the search committee members. It will come as no surprise, I suspect, to report that The Ignored were usually female, non-white or junior-faculty committee members. (Though, to be fair, it was just as often the case that candidates chose to focus their attention entirely on the committee members who they percieved to be their closest "philosophical" peers, i.e., those working in the same or cognate areas of research.) It should go without saying that one should not ignore any member of the search committee, I hope, since it's likely that each of them gets the same one-vote in the final analysis. But sometimes candidates' neglect manifests itself in more subtle ways than outright disregard. I don't know how widespread this phenomenon is, but my own and others' anecdotal observations leads me to believe that many candidates seem to be unaware that the content of their questions/remarks are consistently less substantive when directed to female, non-white, or untenured committee members. For example, candidates asked me about my impression of our college's students, its level of collegiality, its service obligations, its location, its weather or other polite niceties about 10 times more often than they asked me about my research or my impressions of their research. Of course, questions related to teaching, service, interpersonal politics and quaity-of-life issues are all important and, in their own way, substantive when determining whether or not a particular job is a good "fit" for you, but candidates must be conscientious about unreflectively directing all of those sorts of questions to (politically) "minority" or (professionally) "underrepresented" committee members at the expense of discussing "real philosophy" with them. To put it bluntly: don't talk to female committee members like they're mommies, junior committee members like they're children, or non-white committee members like they're tokens. And, correspondingly, don't talk to the senior, white, male or "famous" committee members like they're your (and everybody else's) daddy.

8. Know your history. One advantage of our discipline is that we share a largely common canonical history, at least up until the early-20th century. Those (of us) who work in 20th-C.-or-later philosophy may have a little bit of a harder time conversing with one another, especially if our differences span the so-called Analytic/Continental divide, but everyone ought to at least share the common language of our historical canon. This is particularly true for SLAC's, but with the exception of prestigious R1 jobs, most of your interviews will be for jobs in which the majority of the Major course requirements include the history of philosophy. So, be prepared to situate yourself in that history. Espescially if you have an idiosyncratic research profile, you should be able to translate it to your interviewers via figures that they know. I'm sure this isn't true for every search committee member, but for me it's a serious red flag if candidates are unable to demonstrate at least a nodding familiarity with pre-20th C. figures like Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, Mill, Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche. (After the 20th C. it's different-- I easily can excuse a candidate's unfamiliarity with Chalmers or Rawls or Deleuze.) In my estimation-- and, again, I don't think this is peculiar to me-- a candidate uneasy with the basic "history" canon in our discipline is a liability.

9. Follow-up. This advice applies more to the campus interview than the APA interview, but in either case I think it's a good idea to send a short note or email to thank the committee for their time with you. Especially if you had a particularly good conversation with one of them, or if in the course of your conversations you (or they) promised to send an article or text reference, follow-up on that. It shows that you're really interested in them and the job, that you're attentive to details, and that you're collegial. Or, at the very least, it provides another opportunity for your name to be registered in their mind.

10. Remember that you are ALWAYS being interviewed, every second that you spend with a search committee member. That includes the dinners, the lunches, the coffees, the walks between appointments, the car rides to and from the hotel... it's ALL interview time. One of the most psychologically exhausting elements of being on the job market, especially on-campus interviews, is that you have to be constantly "on." So, no matter how informal or casual or off-the-record a situation seems, never turn off your internal censor. You'd be surprised how many of those "throw-away" comments are not thrown away.

So, that's my meager $0.02 from the other side of the job market. Most of it is obvious, I'm sure, but it never hurts to illuminate the obvious when the stakes are as high as they are for candidates in this economy. The comments section is open for further advice, of course.


Chet said...

I think you forgot the most important part of all: pray to Zeus and know that he will punish you.

DOCTOR J said...

Interesting, Chet. I might be inclined to say that "praying" (to anyone or anything) is not a good idea on an interview. But, yes, one should assume that the job market process will punish you in some way. ;-)

Tim Kirk said...

A really great column, and all quite true. The bit about being clear on what you can teach and cannot teach--and your response re: teaching logic--especially resonates. I was hired as a specialist in healthcare ethics, per the advertisement. However, I did not specifically ask what I would be expected to teach and the questions in my interview about teaching were largely interdisciplinary, which should have been a flag to me, but were not.
I now finding myself teaching a bunch of intro level courses and only one or two per year in my specialty--not what I thought I was signing up for.
So, to candidates: yes, you would be lucky to have any tenure-track job, they are all too rare. But ask very specific questions about the position if they are not addressed in the ad, and when you are considering compromising, think hard about what life would be like teaching a multiple sections per semester of a course unrelated to your primary interest (and simultaneously developing a research portfolio unrelated to that teaching).

Anonymous said...

Hume! Why no respect for Hume?