It appears that academe is starting to catch on to something that the business world realized a few years ago (see here and here, respectively), namely, that the travel costs associated with traditional face-to-face job interviews often outstrip their value when video-interviewing software is both free and widely available. As universities and academic departments continue to feel the financial crunch of the recent recession, now is an opportune time to rethink the outdated and burdensome tradition of interviewing academic job candidates in person at the annual meetings and conferences of professional societies. Rather than focusing on academe more broadly, I am going to focus instead on the hiring practices of my own field of philosophy. After saying a bit about how the philosophy job market operates, I will then make the case that the reasons for abandoning face-to-face interviews far outweigh the reasons for sticking with the status quo.
The job market in philosophy in the United States is fairly representative of how hiring in academia typically works. For starters, The American Philosophical Association (APA) publishes two main volumes per year of Jobs for Philosophers (one in October and another in November). After reviewing applications during the hectic twilight of the fall semester, hiring departments typically contact candidates in early December to schedule interviews at the Eastern APA, which is inconveniently held between Christmas and New Years Eve in often expensive hotels in major cities such as New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington DC, and Atlanta. Although the meeting is officially for the eastern division of the field, departments from other parts of the country also interview there because of its timing. For hiring purposes, this is de facto a national meeting.
Because candidates typically don’t know whether they have any interviews until early to mid December and because the Eastern APA is scheduled during the peak of the winter holiday season, candidates across the country are forced to make arrangements to attend the Eastern APA before they know whether they will actually have any interviews. Given how bad the job market in philosophy has been during the past few years, this is especially problematic since the graduate students who comprise the bulk of job candidates in philosophy are forced to spend substantial amounts of money for the mere chance of being interviewed for one of the shrinking number of jobs. In short, the job market in philosophy and other disciplines is an untimely and costly exercise that imposes significant yet unnecessary burdens on both hiring departments and job candidates.
Even before video interviews became more of a possibility, the idea of forcing impoverished graduate students to travel in this way has understandably been called into question (see here). Now that video interviewing is widely available, it has become increasingly clear that there are no justifications or excuses that merit the continuation of the current practice of forcing candidates to endure the costs and stresses that have become hallmarks of the philosophy job market and those of other disciplines. Given that every hiring department can simply use video-conferencing software to conduct first round interviews at no cost to either themselves or the candidates, why would any departments continue to insist upon the status quo? In addressing this question, it’s not enough to show that traditional face to face interviews provide useful information that is lost by video-interviewing. Rather, defenders of the status quo have the burden of showing that the value added by face to face interviews outweighs the benefits associated with alternatives. This is a burden that simply cannot be met.
Here are just some of the myriad benefits provided by video-interviews (see here for an earlier discussion of these issues): (a) they are free for both the departments and the candidates (who often don’t have the money to attend conferences over the holidays in some of the country’s most expensive cities), (b) they are markedly less stressful for the candidates, who are able to do the interviews from the comfort of their homes or offices rather than having to navigate the stress-filled ballrooms, lobbies, hallways, and suites of hotels, (c) they enable both candidates and hiring committees to spend time with their families over the holidays rather than braving the cold and expense of compulsory mid-holiday “vacations,” (d) they can be scheduled much more flexibly, which not only benefits candidates but also makes it less stressful for the hiring committees themselves, (e) they minimize stress and fatigue as factors that influence hiring decisions by ensuring that candidates and search committees are much more at ease than they would otherwise be, (f) they save money for the departments so that departments have more funding to bring additional candidates to campus, (g) they make it possible for departments to spread out their interviews over a few weeks rather than a few days, allowing them to actually interview more candidates under more favorable conditions, (h) they greatly reduce our profession's carbon footprint; (i) they minimize some gender-related issues that arise when it comes traditional face to face interviews (e.g., mostly male hiring committees interviewing female candidates in hotel suites); (j) they make the job market less punishing and burdensome on single parents and the parents of special needs children; and finally, (k) they send a welcomed message to candidates that the hiring department has the good practical and moral sense to set aside the irrational practices of tradition and embrace new methods and ideas that make life easier on everyone involved.
In light of these considerations, I believe it is now clear that freely available technology has finally revealed that the emperor that is the traditional academic job market simply has no clothes. And I am not alone. The results of a recent online survey I conducted reveal that both job candidates and members of hiring committees in philosophy appear to overwhelmingly support switching to video-interviewing for first round interviews (see here and here for details). Of course, this is not to suggest that switching to video-interviewing is some kind of problem-free panacea. It’s not.
However, it is nevertheless far less problematic and costly than the traditional practice of conducting first round interviews in person. Unfortunately, as Mark Twain once correctly pointed out, “often the less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of it.” Hopefully, as state coffers and departmental budgets continue to shrink in lock-step, hiring committees in both philosophy and other academic disciplines will come to their collective senses and decide to abandon tradition in the name of technology and progress. Continuing with the status quo is environmentally unfriendly, financially irresponsible, and unduly burdensome on candidates who are often forced to spend money they don’t have for both interviews and jobs they likely won’t get.