Thursday, July 3, 2014

Should we do job talks at on-campus interviews?

A while back, Colin Marshall (UW-Seattle) initiated a discussion over yonder about the sometimes-central role that job talks play in the interview process. The discussion didn't really get going, so he wrote in to us -- we who are more familiar with "the horrors and inequities of the market," as Colin put it -- and says:
[M]ost search committees seem to think that the traditional job talk is a perfectly fair way to evaluate job candidates. After going through the market three times and watching various friends' experiences, I'm pretty sure it's not remotely fair (especially for introverts). It would be great to hear from people who have recently been on the market whether they think that job talks should be the norm, and whether there are other things that job committees should consider doing instead.
His original question was the following:
Almost every department I know of gives the job talk a central role in hiring decisions, but I'm wondering whether the traditional job talk really deserves to be sacred while other aspects of the hiring process are changing.

My main reason for skepticism is that I know a number of young philosophers who are (a) great researchers, (b) great teachers, (c) great members of the profession, and (d) great departmental citizens, but who, for various reasons, aren't great at presenting their research to a room full of judgmental strangers, most of whom are non-specialists. The latter skill isn't a bad one to have, but it's surely much less important than (a)-(d). Yet in the traditional job talk, this latter skill is what's privileged, and often used to make judgments about (a)-(d). That seems like a recipe for false negatives.

So here's my question: what alternatives to the job talk have hiring departments tried for campus visits, and are there un-tried alternatives we should consider? I have a hunch that our profession could do much better.
I like giving talks, but that just might be because I feel like I'm really good at giving them. In fact, giving talks is probably the philosophical skill I feel like I've mastered (the content, on the other hand...). Though I've only had to give 2 or so job talks, they seemed to go pretty well.

I've also had on-campus visits to other schools that did research sessions -- passing out a paper beforehand and being asked questions about the paper for an hour or so like a mini-defense; the horror! -- and I've bombed; just did an outright terrible job.

And for my current position (VAP), I didn't have to do a job talk at all. Instead, I was only interviewed over Skype, which I will never fail to plug as the most equitable, fair way for departments to do first-round interviews of graduate students, adjuncts, or other members of the profession who do not have travel budgets, but who do (likely) have internet connections.

And while I might prefer giving talks, I probably agree with Colin that they might be especially noisy for making hiring decisions (like so many other parts of the interview process). Perhaps we might do better.

Any thoughts about interviews and what to do instead?

-- Jaded, Ph.D.


Anonymous said...

Off the bat, I disagree that "d" is surely less important than "a-c". Being able to present one's research publicly to non-expert strangers is an important skill for an academic. Not only for conferences etc. but I'd also argue that one's skill in this regard is highly correlated with "b" because what is a classroom of students but a kind of "room full of judgmental strangers, most of whom are non-specialists."

also, this will rub some people the wrong way, but being introverted is worse than being extroverted, it's not something to write-off or romanticize. i say this as a 'natural' introvert. learning to socialize for an introvert is a form of self-improvement.

Anonymous said...

In the Leiter discussion, Kenny Easwaran's comments resonated the most with me, with Kenny Raven's suggestion of a workshop being a nice supplement for research-oriented programs. I don't know if it would be possible to prevent a workshop centered around a job candidate's paper to avoid turning into something like a thesis defense, but ideally it shouldn't be the latter (which is what I take Jaded to have expressed some concern about).

I work at a SLAC, so we explicitly direct the candidate to tailor their job talk towards the undergraduate audience and to think of it less as a chance to present original research to peers and more of an opportunity to teach. It's hard to know what to think when candidates ignore our directions and present a traditional job talk (especially when they read it). In any case, the hope is that we will get at least some useful information about their ability to teach undergraduates.

Anonymous said...

I've done a bunch of job talks over the past few years, and almost all have been positive experiences - in many cases the have been the best part of the interview process. There has only been one school where I'd describe the audience as judgmental or hostile (to a paper that was received well by non-specialists elsewhere). I wouldn't be surprised if they thought I was a good researcher but a bad speaker, or if the job talk there counted strongly against my candidacy. But I'm also pretty confident that this reflects more strongly on that particular department than on the practice of job talks in general.

I'm also glad, on balance, that the hostile school had me give a job talk. It gave me a chance to see what kinds of colleagues the people in that department would be and what kind of feedback I could expect if I continued to work on the same kinds of stuff I presented in the talk. Their reactions were so negative that it really made me wonder why they'd flown me out. This would have been valuable information to have if I had been lucky enough to choose between multiple offers.

Anonymous said...

cold hard fact: the job talk plays a huge role because many faculty members don't read the letters, the reading sample, or pretty much anything at all.

But they do attend the job talk and make judgments on how well you present, and how well you handle their questions. Then they say things like "this person's view is implausible and she couldn't answer my question, so we shouldn't hire her." This happens even when the question had nothing to do with the topic, and anybody who read the dossier would know as much.

It's pretty shocking how casually some senior faculty take junior hiring.

Anonymous said...

"who, for various reasons, aren't great at presenting their research to a room full of judgmental strangers, most of whom are non-specialists"

Right. And this is why it's used as a way to trim the pile.

As I do every year, I'll now remind the readers that, for every job on the market, there are plenty of perfectly qualified people who won't get it. Yes, it sucks. Yes, it's unfair. But there are lots and lots of perfectly qualified people who can't get the job, because it can only go to one person.

Presenting research to strangers, most of whom are non-specialists, is a useful skill to have. I see no problem with using it as a factor to rank finalists. I have had to present my research to administrators, the public, researchers in other fields, etc. Not being able to do so would have held back my career.

The skill may not be essential to the job, but possessing it certainly allows for more professional opportunities.

Anonymous said...

Oh, man, 12:28 is exactly right. It drives me nuts, too. I'm thinking of one occasion in particular when two of my colleagues together in effect vetoed the person who was the best candidate, and indeed is now (roughly a decade later) employed by a much higher-status department than ours. They objected because of her performance at her talk.

zombie said...

Last year, I had two fly-outs where I was asked to do a job talk. In one case, it was in front of a mixed audience of students and faculty, so I put together slides and presented it much as I would at a conference. In the other case, the faculty read the paper in advance, and then asked me questions, and discussed it with me. (In addition, there was a teaching demo in front of students and the search committee.)

I've been teaching a long time, and have presented at a lot of conferences, so I did not find either experience especially difficult or nerve-wracking, and since the paper I presented was something I was prepping for submission, I got some useful feedback. I quite enjoyed having the SC read my paper and having a lively and challenging discussion about it -- I quite miss that experience in my current department, where I find myself fairly professionally isolated. (It also gave me a good sense of what they'd be like as colleagues, and that was valuable for me as a candidate.) Of course, I have no clue how the job talks factored into the hiring decision (I didn't get either job), but I think in both cases, it told the search committee something useful about me as a scholar and speaker.

If a dept expects faculty to be research active, and to engage with colleagues both inside and outside the department, and/or with the public, then the job talk is useful. If those things are not particularly important to the job/dept/school, then a teaching demo would probably be more informative. (Although there are lots of ways for teaching demos to be completely unlike real teaching, which is a whole other topic.) I think the more data points there are, the better for the candidate. (But also, of course, the more opportunities there are to blow it.)

Anonymous said...

"vetoed the person who was the best candidate"

I will never tire of the ways those in the profession assume that there is some knowable and objective standard that clearly and correctly ranks all candidates.

Let us commence with anecdotal evidence that will be used to generalize the complexity of the market!

Anonymous said...

Re: July 3, 8:25 AM

Someone who thinks being introverted is worse than being extroverted is worse than someone who thinks otherwise, all else being equal. Learning for a moron is a form of self-improvement.

Anonymous said...

"I will never tire of the ways those in the profession assume that there is some knowable and objective standard that clearly and correctly ranks all candidates."

Exactly. There is no objective knowable standard according to which Kit Fine is better than, say, me. At least, that's what I keep telling myself. And that's why I always make my own choice among our job candidates by rolling dice.

I know some of you losers will object that this is not fair, but you have to be more realistic, and other non sequiturs.

Anonymous said...

"Exactly. There is no objective knowable standard according to which Kit Fine is better than, say, me."

Now I'm curious how many of the same jobs you two applied for, though I suspect that he hasn't been active on the market for at least a couple of years.

Anonymous said...

I know. And it was pure, arbitrary prejudice that got Jeff McMahan that snobbish chair at Oxford instead of me. Probably he wore a nicer tie, or used teX for his CV. Which is fine, because they have to have some way of choosing among equally good candidates.

Anonymous said...

Sigh. I love how some people do their best to miss the point.

Yes, there is a clear difference between Major Players and Relative Nobodies. You will never find yourself as a finalist for a job where Major Players are also finalists. In the event you've never been on a search committee, you don't ever get down to three finalists where one is an international star and the other two are nobodies.

But you want to play games? Fine. Here's one for you. Major Research University is creating a new endowed chair in Philosophy, open specialization. Your three finalists are: Kit Fine, Jeff McMahan, and just for the hell of it, Saul Kripke. Who is the objectively best hire? Which applicant is clearly and correctly better than the other two?

Please show your work.

Anonymous said...

Oh, so there are some philosophers who are objectively better than others, but all the ones my search committee looks at are tied.
Sure, that makes sense.

Anonymous said...


Who said anything about being tied?

My first comment was: "I will never tire of the ways those in the profession assume that there is some knowable and objective standard that clearly and correctly ranks all candidates."

Let me clarify. As we have witnessed Every Year, different SCs have different criteria, which they will weigh differently, depending on their needs. There is, never was, and never will be some objective standard to which all SCs can (or should) hold. Every year, we will witness on this blog people getting outraged because the "best" candidate for a job was not hired, and that someone "worse" was hired instead. (Most often, those judgments will come in the form of counting publications, though sometimes people will point to teaching experience, or some other marker, as the "proof" of the "error.")

Someone suggested that, in my first comment, I implied that there was no way to ever make any evaluation between any philosophers ever, and that simply isn't the case. No matter what the job, the SC will tend to narrow the pool down to a short list of roughly equal applicants (equal based on the criteria that they choose to work with). Even if one applicant stands out as that SC's top choice, it's not because the other finalists were so thoroughly unqualified as to not be in the same pool.

So when people here suggest that there's no means to judge between an anonymous poster and Kit Fine, they misunderstand how SCs narrow down their pools of finalists. Also, this does not mean that all applicants are always tied. There is *always* a winner in a job search (unless that search is canceled). My point is that the criteria by which that winner is chosen is not ever clearly identified or consistent with how other winners are chosen for other jobs, even in similar positions (or for similar institutions). Remember the recent case of W, who lost a job for criteria that was not in the ad, but only revealed after the SC pulled the offer.

So, yes, some philosophers are objectively better than others. My point is that those philosophers who are objectively better than others will never find themselves as finalists for jobs with those particular others.

If you ever find yourself as a finalist for a job, and discover you have lost that job to Jeff McMahan, then congratulations; you are one of the finest philosophers in the country. And no doubt you will find work soon.

zombie said...

I don't think the point is that there are NO objective differences between job candidates. But generally speaking, FINALISTS for a job are all finalists because they are all very good. And there may be very little objective difference between them. (Assuming by "objective difference" what we are talking about are qualitative differences that make some philosophers better than others. But by the final three, the differences, although differences, would be slight in the sense that the pluses and minuses all add up more or less the same overall.)

Also, self-evidently Jeff McMahan, QED. It just stands to reason.

James Morgan said...

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Dr. Killjoy said...

Is the question should we reform standard job talk format at on-campus interviews (e.g., Workshops, research sessions, etc.)? Or is it should we do away with such things altogether at on-campus interviews?

If it is the former, then I'm all ears. In fact, I think it's kinda shameful more job talks aren't pre-read format.

However, if it's the latter, then I'm hard pressed to see the point of on-campus interviews at all, as what's left over is precisely the sorts of unrelated shit that gets way too much weight (e.g., likability, personality fit, blah, blah). Throw out the job talk (broadly construed) and I say throw out the campus visit along with it.

Colin said...

Thanks to everyone who responded to my question.

In case anyone is still following this: I certainly didn't mean to suggest that job talks were worthless (some good people get hired on the basis of good job talks), or that we should simply eliminate them from campus visits.

I did mean to suggest that there are reasons for thinking that job talks are a non-ideal way of evaluating final-round candidates. They might nevertheless be the best way, or as good as any other way. To my knowledge, though, nobody in philosophy has seriously attempted to consider what alternatives there might be, though, and (as Mike Raven suggested in the Leiter discussion) it seems that we should at least consider what alternatives there might be. Hiring departments have a huge amount of freedom in what approach they take, so this isn't just a theoretical question.

As it turns out, a closely related discussion appeared on Philosophers' Cocoon at the same time my question was posted here:
(Thanks to Asia Ferrin for the pointer.)

Anonymous said...

"To my knowledge, though, nobody in philosophy has seriously attempted to consider what alternatives there might be."

You're knowledge is pretty limited.

My department hasn't used the standard job talk in years, and I know of several departments that have also dropped it. In my department, finalists come to campus for 2 reasons:
1. To give a teaching demonstration in an Intro class, and
2. To give a presentation to the department about their research, with an emphasis on bridging the gap between their research and teaching. (If we are running a class in their AOS that semester, the applicants have the option of giving a lecture to that class based on their research).

You want alternatives? Contact people teaching at small state schools and community colleges, and ask how they select their finalists. They have been changing how they approach the market for years, despite the fact that most PhD-granting institutions don't pay them any attention.