Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Getting the train back on the rails

Amidst all the discussion about fucking and fatties here, Asstro has a comment up defending interviews that should be responded to and that I don't want to get lost (I snipped quite a bit so be sure to go back to the original comment here, for a nice and encouraging personal anecdote from Asstro):
[...] Being a professional philosopher takes an extraordinary set of skills, including: ability to give impressive talks to other philosophers, ability to think on one's feet, ability to convey an idea succinctly, ability to teach, ability to engage others, ability to generate new ideas, and so on. My list isn't exhaustive [...]

The interview offers a way of testing these factors, up close and personal. It offers a way to get a multidimensional picture of a candidate and to get a sense of how that candidate will fare in a range of real-world professional scenarios. When we're considering a job candidate, we really do talk about how a candidate answered the questions, about whether the approach in the talk was innovative, about the breadth of a candidate's research, about prospects for future research, and so on. Sometimes we may discount some aspect of an interview -- maybe a flopped response to a particular question -- because there are other things that happened during the interview that we really liked. Sometimes, yes, we talk about nervous ticks; but we usually try to weigh these against other more relevant candidate attributes [...]
Asstro may be on to something with the list of what makes a good philosopher and that some of those factors might only be testable in person. However, the question is how good the information provided by interviews is regarding certain elements of the list, which leaves me with a few questions.

Is it really enough to determine if one has these qualities, testable only in person, through two interviews? Do we really think that just because we're philosophers with awesome reasoning skills and years of training in thinking that we can overcome the biases that are in effect in interviewing? Is being aware of interview effects enough to counteract them?

I would provide answers, but I need to change the tagline of the Smoker to "No Fatties".

-- Jaded Dissertator


Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

I'm not really sure that this can be determined by two interviews -- but, isn't it the case that the tenure track is kind of multi-year job interview? The initial courting phase is just to find a good candidate for the final challenge...

Asstro said...

How flattering to have my thread taken up as a whole new discussion. Whoopee!

I think I have to agree that these other factors can't be ascertained in just two interviews, but it's also true that ability to think on one's feet, or ability to articulate views succinctly, can't be tested by looking at a person's CV. That takes face-to-face contact. And yes, there's a lot of noise.

Maybe I can give a few examples.

I've had the responsibility (pleasure? joy?) of interviewing on at least four searches over the past few years. Interviews have proved invaluable to our decision-making process. Sometimes new information emerges about a candidate that kills a candidate's chances. Sometimes a candidate will surprise and impress with her panache and cool presentation.

In one case, we were interviewing a candidate who had a number of strong publications in very good journals, but discovered at the interview that she was profoundly unaware of an enormous body of literature, and as a result, extremely uncritical of her particular method. She went from being our top candidate to being "unacceptable," which is a very serious strike against a person.

(For those unaware of the methods of search committees, voting faculty not only have an option to rank a candidate, but to vote a candidate 'unacceptable'. If enough faculty vote that a candidate is unacceptable, the search will fail. And believe it or not, this happens relatively often. Which actually raises this point: if you're on the market, you're not just competing against everyone else, you're competing for approval from the faculty. This should be obvious, but you want to avoid being deemed "unacceptable.")

In another case, we had very high expectations for a candidate but found her presentation to be rambling and poorly constructed. She fell to a much lower place on our list. Given the strength of her writing sample, we gave her a pass on the poor job talk, as perhaps it was a bad day, or perhaps it was just nerves, but we certainly weren't going to stick our necks out for her. She was too green. She needed time to mature. So maybe that's the noise that everyone is concerned about.

But here's a real case of noise: in yet a third case we interviewed a candidate who spoke very highly of her current, Leiterriffic institution, where she was tenure-track. (We were trying to pluck her away, you see; and while my university is a nice place to be, we certainly have our competition.) To some, though not to me, this appeared to be an indication that this candidate wasn't interested in coming to our university. To me, it seemed just like a natural discussion about the climate at a different department. What happened at the faculty meeting was that there was enough concern that the candidate wasn't interested in the job, and there were enough other strikes against this candidate, that the offer went elsewhere. I kept trying to argue against such speculation about the candidate's intentions, but to no avail.

It's hard to say whether this speculation tipped the balance and scuttled her chances, but this is a cautionary instance of real, non-uglyfat-fattyfat noise.

Be cautious what you say in your interviews. Even very smart philosophy faculty can be extremely dumb about noise.

Anonymous said...

Interesting: Asstro's three examples of interviews serving to eliminate otherwise highly favoured candidates were all cases of eliminating women. Consciously the sex of the candidate wouldn't have been a factor, but can we be sure that genuinely it wasn't a factor?

Xenophon said...

Well, the question isn't whether this is "really enough to determine if one has these qualities" but rather the evidence of interviews is (1) relevant and (2) sufficient to counterbalance any harm that unconscious prejudices might bring about. Clearly it's (1), so the question really comes down to (2), namely it's a question of the relative value of the evidence.

I'm inclined to think that phone interviews are at least as bad as in-person interviews, because some people have ugly voices, because extraneous factors like the quality of the connection will come into play, and because of the problems I noted in an earlier reply. Sure, over the phone there are fewer sources of data, so if anything other than the CV is just going to cause noise, there's less noise in a phone interview (well, informational noise at least), but that's because there's simply less information. A well-structured in-person interview should be able to maximize information while minimizing noise.

I'm still in favor of phone interviews (or videoconferencing if that's possible) over conference interviews, but only because of cost: it allows the school to have more campus visits, which are longer and therefore provide significantly more information, plus allow feedback from a much wider range of stakeholders.

I'll also say in passing that I've had campus interviews where I got asked way too many times whether I had additional questions. It's nice to ask, but I felt like I needed a thousand questions. Quite frankly, most people are lucky to have three or four on-campuses a year (or one or two) and it's consequently easier for the candidate than for the school to decide yea or nay. There were a lot of questions I could have asked, but most were irrelevant to my judgment of the school.

Asstro said...

Anon 1:58:

That _would_ be interesting, had I not deliberately changed the gender in some cases to preserve anonymity.

Anonymous said...

"That _would_ be interesting, had I not deliberately changed the gender in some cases to preserve anonymity."

Or did you?

Just kidding, I'm sure you did. What's interesting is that you've wanted to preserve the anonymity. If body fascism is out, who am I supposed to trash anonymously to make myself feel better?

Anonymous said...

Wait, are we done talking about fatties?

Anonymous said...

Ok, ok, I know this question has been addressed before, but how important is it to go the Smoker after a good interview? A couple of years ago, I had a really good interview and thought I had a pretty good chance of getting a fly out there. However, during the interview the committee really pressed me to go the Smoker. I made some mumbling noises about maybe not being there. Anyhow, I did not get a fly out, and I have always wondered whether it was because I didn't show up at the Smoker.

Why didn't I show up at the Smoker, you might ask. Well, I was extremely nervous, and what I tend to do at social events that make me nervous is down several drinks within the first half hour(in part because of the calming effect of the alcohol, but let's not underestimate the influence of just having something to do with your hands -- like lifting them up to your mouth over and over again. Kinda like a nervous tick). I thought, then, that rather than risk making an ass of myself, I just wouldn't show up. But now I am thinking that I should adopt a different policy.

Any comments SC members?

Mr. Zero said...

how important is it to go the Smoker after a good interview?

Yes. The consensus view is that it is pretty important. As your story appears to illustrate. You probably signaled to them that you didn't want the job.

I was extremely nervous, and what I tend to do at social events that make me nervous is down several drinks within the first half hour

Doc Cochrane says, whiskey does not steady the hand; it dulls worry over the hand's undsteadiness. Which, you know, is what's so great about it. But probably not when you're doing something important.

It's probably better to view the smoker as a phase of the interview. It's not really an optional social event where drinking would be wise. Do whatever you did during the day, and try to ignore the fact that it's a bullshit, contrived faux-social event with alcohol.

Anonymous said...

Here's my advice about the smoker: You don't have to hang out there to "attend".

The people who interviewed you will NOT try to find you. You will find them. All it takes is three minutes of pleasantries. Show up. Spot them. Say hi. Leave. (If they're busy or not there yet, leave and come back in 20 min.)

Nobody will notice or care. Your interviewers will just remember that you stopped by and said hi. That's all the interaction they want, anyway.

Anonymous said...

I went on the market last year, and I had a different experience at the smokers than other commenters seem to have had.

I didn't have many "Hey, are you enjoying the city?" or "Man, this smoker is really something, huh?" conversations. Most of my conversations were about my own work; I'd just walk up to a committee member, say, "Hey, how's it going?" and then ask if he/she had any more questions from the interview earlier that day. And then we talked -- in several cases, for 45 min-1 hr. If you've thought about your dissertation in real depth, you can show that much more readily in one of these one-on-one conversations than in a 5-on-one interview.

I should say -- I was lucky to have on my interview committees some serious, no-bullshit philosophers who wanted to have intense conversations like this. But whatever -- if someone says "no, I don't have any questions", then you make smalltalk for a minute or two and then move on to the next one. All's I'm saying is that the smoker can be a great place to show what you've got, if you treat it as such.