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An Anti-Conference (Interview) Manifesto
The conference interview for academic jobs is a time-honored ritual. Hundreds — or thousands — of job hopefuls descend upon a conference city, with their best (perhaps only?) suit in hand, and a selection of practiced answers prepared to the normal battery of questions about research and teaching. There are long, awkward moments waiting in chair-less hotel hallways — and comradely good wishes to one’s rivals as they leave. Then there is the interview itself: a table and chairs (sitting on a bed in a hotel room is at least no longer the norm), some glasses of water, a panel of interrogators, and somewhere between 30 and 60 minutes of time. The process will winnow a short list of 10 or so down to 3 or 4 selected for fly-outs. The conference interview is a time-honored ritual. It is also a terrible one, and it should be brought to an end.
The basic argument against the conference interview is straightforward: It imposes considerable costs on the interviewees at a time in their lives when they are likely to be painful to absorb. Professional membership dues, conference registration, airfare, and lodging can easily run to $1,000 or more. Most job-seekers are, naturally, people without secure jobs: graduate students, lecturers, adjuncts, and postdocs. Only the latter (and occasionally the first) are likely to have a support budget from their university to attend the conference, meaning that for most the money will come, in whole or in part, out of pocket. Candidates are sometimes only notified if they will have an interview a few weeks — or, in egregious cases, just a few days — before the conference begins.
For a graduate student, $1,000 probably equals a month’s salary; for adjuncts and lecturers, it still represents many weeks of labor: money that they will be forced to spend on a kind of grotesque parody of an actual vacation. To this might be added the environmental costs of flying and the difficulties imposed on families, especially those with young children, and you have an institution that would seem to have little to recommend it. If it were not already a tradition, and someone proposed that candidates hoping for tenure-track jobs should have to pay a four-figure dollar amount simply to be eligible for possible employment, it would be considered an unconscionable form of pay-to-play. Yet because it is already the norm, it is accepted.
There is no question that the conference interview does have two types of benefits: those that are intended, and those that are ancillary. The intended purpose of the interview, of course, is to help the committee get a sense of what it is like to interact with the candidate: to see how they represent themselves and their work. Most interviews, therefore, consist of candidates being asked to rehash the content of their cover letter and other application materials. There is rarely enough time in an interview to develop a really deep conversation about the candidate’s work. Most of the people who seemed like the best fits for a position before the interview still seem like the best after it. Only occasionally does the interview process unearth someone who stands out as unexpectedly impressive — or someone who is particularly unimpressive (for personality reasons, perhaps) in a way that could not have been evident from the paper file.
There is a secondary justification for the conference interview: that it essentially is in the candidate’s interest to be forced to attend. According to this argument, young scholars ought to be traveling to their major disciplinary conferences in the early years in order to meet people in the field and share the results of their work with a wider audience. It is a networking opportunity that would likely be passed up if the demands of the job market didn’t require it, and it might pay off in future professional connections, or even a book contract resulting from a lucky conversation with an editor. Furthermore, without the presence of job-seekers (and, for that matter, those conducting interviews) the annual conferences might be considerably smaller, resulting in some loss for the field at large.
These arguments have some merit, but ultimately fail to be convincing. Most sensitive observers (and even the obtuse) will by now have noticed that academe is in the midst of a nigh-unprecedented hiring crisis. Many job hopefuls will never find academic work, no matter how much networking they do early on. It is hard to defend placing the burden of maintaining a professional society on its poorest members, who may never have an opportunity to become full members of the guild.
Furthermore, people who attend major annual conferences in order to be on the job market are often too worried about their interviews to do much of anything else. Often, they’re even discouraged by their advisers from serving on panels. Most of the benefit of conference attendance comes in the early years of secure work, not before they begin. Ending the conference interview may indeed result in some downsizing of meetings and disciplinary societies, but this would be no great tragedy if the people attending were actually more engaged.
Furthermore, for all that young scholars are encouraged to plan ahead for conference attendance, they are not given much support to do so. In my own experience, for example, in my second year post-Ph.D. I had several conference interviews but no conference paper to give, which ended up feeling like a wasted opportunity. So I organized a panel for the next year, figuring that I would certainly have interviews again. But in that third year, I had no conference interviews, and had to make a long and expensive trip at a time that proved very difficult for my family. I planned as well as it is possible to do, and still faced an absurd outcome.
Additionally, many scholars are increasingly building professional relationships online, making the handshaking less urgent than it may once have been. I don’t at all doubt the general value of conference networking — I once had a half-hour conversation with the ex-president of the Dominican Republic when I recognized him browsing at the book exhibit at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association — but it would be reasonable to assume that early-career scholars are also adults. I agree that they should attend conferences, but they should be able to choose the conferences that are in cities relatively close to them, or where they have friends or relatives to stay with, or that fit well with the demands of work.
There are many seemingly intractable problems in academe today, where a issue can be identified but where it is difficult to imagine solutions, at least in the short term. Happily, this is not one of them: There are at least two superior alternatives to the conference interview. One is to move short-list interviews to video conferencing. Many committees are doing this already; it can be done at no cost and at the convenience of the committee and the candidates. It can be done sooner (in November, for example), perhaps allowing fly-outs to take place in January and thereby shortening the painfully long application cycle. If the hiring committee is concerned to see and interact with potential hires before extending further invitations, a videoconference is no more of an artificial environment than is hotel room.
Alternatively, the short-list can be skipped altogether. Seeing the people on the short-list in person might help identify a deeply unpleasant personality, but they might also introduce forms of bias of which we are not aware. The literature on implicit bias tells us that none of us are exempt from it, and that results can change dramatically when candidates are given more anonymity. (Famously, for example, the number of women hired as musicians in classical orchestras jumped when auditions began to be held behind blind screens.)
Perhaps committees would be most likely to find the best candidates for their positions by making the process as anonymous as possible — reading files and then moving straight to campus invitations. The significant amount of money saved by not sending the committee to do conference interviews would surely be sufficient to bring another one or two candidates to campus to provide a bit of additional insurance against someone who ended up seeming like an unexpectedly bad fit.
The conference interview is a ritual that most in academe have experienced. But if it ever served its purpose, it is now clearly inferior to its alternatives. Those who have the power to do so should hasten to end it.
Patrick Iber is a visiting lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley.
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