To Be in Person, or Not to Be?

That's the question disciplinary associations and academics are facing on conference interviews, which many departments are replacing with video.

January 18, 2018
 
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Each year, graduate students and recent Ph.D.s brave crowds, weather, nerves and their bank accounts to travel to academic conferences for interviews. The experience is valuable in some respects -- especially if it leads to a job. But it’s also been described as a dehumanizing cattle call. At the very least, conference interviews are costly and potentially awkward. Do they have to be this way?

Departments increasingly are saying no. First-round interviews via Skype, Zoom or other videoconferencing services have been on the rise for some time, but they’ve become especially popular within the past several years. And they may have gotten an assist this month, with meetings of major disciplinary associations happening during the near-national deep freeze and accompanying storms.

Paula Krebs, executive director of the Modern Language Association, said she’s not sure exactly how many candidates or search committees didn’t make it to the MLA’s convention in New York during the first week of January. But the “bomb cyclone” could perhaps be what convinces search teams that it's better to conduct video interviews from campus and then to go to the MLA meeting to participate in sessions, "instead of shutting themselves in a hotel suite with two or three of their colleagues and a succession of job candidates," she said.

MLA is one the largest disciplinary associations, representing fields with some of the most competitive tenure-track job markets. As for graduate students, Krebs said the association would love to see them look forward to the annual meeting “as a place to hone their skills and hear the latest research in their field instead of a place to collect horror stories about the job-search process.”

Skype, Zoom and More

The American Historical Association also held its annual meeting this month in Washington. James Grossman, AHA’s director, said more departments are conducting preliminary interviews via video conference, with or without weather concerns. The last decade has seen two major drops in these interviews: between 2013, when there were 154 search committees at AHA, and 2014, when there were 95. The number dropped again between 2015 and 2016, from 89 to 52, respectively. There were 47 committees interviewing this year.

Edward Liebow, executive director of the American Anthropological Association, said his organization doesn’t have hard evidence of a trend one way or the other, but demand for on-site conference interviews at its annual meeting around Thanksgiving actually increased in 2017 over the year before. At the same time, he said, some academic screening interviews are conducted by videoconference -- something that’s been the norm for nonacademic employers for a while.

Lego Grad Student, an anonymous recent social sciences Ph.D. in California’s Bay Area who expresses the highs and lows of academic life in quirky Lego tableaux, said he’s only done one Skype interview, so far -- as a follow-up to a physical interview. In general, in his field, however, it’s become “slightly more common to also do preliminary interviews by Skype before narrowing down which people to fly out for a formal interview," he said.

“I see no issues with that,” he added, “since it helps reduce costs and gives more applicants a chance to have more face-to-face time, even if remotely, with a committee.”

Karen Kelsky, a former tenured professor and now an academic career coach at The Professor Is In, said she’s noticed departments holding more first-round interviews via video conference, across fields. Faculty members are simply more aware of the “ethical issues behind requiring candidates to pay $1,000 plus just to have a preliminary interview,” she said.

This year in particular, Kelsky said she was asked on Twitter what to do about a missed interview due to weather on the East Coast. Kelsky encouraged the candidate to follow up with the search committee about a proposed redo via Skype later, “so as not to fall off their radar.”

Beyond scheduling concerns, do graduate students who interview in person have a leg up on the remote competition? Kelsky said that some job seekers and even faculty members still tend to believe that’s the case. But that notion is increasingly in flux, she said, “with the technology becoming more and more accepted and normative.”

As of 2018, “I see the in-person and the Skype option as roughly equivalent both in numbers” and perceived “legitimacy,” she added. “And that's an excellent thing.”

The MLA has formally and informally encouraged departments to embrace videoconferencing, including via its “Guidelines for Search Committees and Job Seekers on Entry-Level Faculty Recruitment and Hiring.” The document says, in part, that “all candidates for a position should have the same conditions for the screening interview” and those who “interview remotely must not be held at a disadvantage.”

The AHA doesn’t endorse or discourage video interview formats. But Grossman said it’s discussing changing its relevant policy document to include guidelines on these interviews, “since they clearly are becoming more widespread.”

Krebs, of MLA, said that first-round interviews at MLA evolved to fill a need: leveling the playing field in what was still an “old boys’ network” in terms of hiring through the late 1960s. Now, she said, “technology has changed the landscape of the job search process, and it can offer ways to create yet more equitable conditions for candidates, as well as for the institutions doing the interviewing.”

If all institutions eventually opt to conduct every first-round interview via video, she said, “candidates who can afford to make the trip to the convention would no longer have an advantage” over those can’t.

The Academic Conference: Beyond Interviews

One byproduct of the decline of conference interviews is rebranding: If academic meetings aren’t all about interviews, what are they for?

Grossman said that AHA has had to reconsider “both the meeting and the marketing of it,” since it can “no longer depend on attendance driven by interviews.” In some ways, he said, it’s an opportunity to save a generation of scholars from negatively associating the meeting with pre-interview jitters.

Beyond that, Grossman said AHA has revamped the annual gathering as something more than a “research conference.” While research is still central to the experience, the meeting is equally concerned with teaching and such professional issues as employment landscapes, career paths and ethics.

AHA also has worked to attract more graduate students who attend out of “interest rather than a job search,” Grossman said, via a career fair and special events. Some 100 undergraduates also attended this year, with some participating in an undergraduate poster session.

“A decade ago some observers were predicting that digital communication would undermine academic conferences,” Grossman said. “We're finding that this is not necessarily the case.”

Liebow, of the anthropological association, said changes to U.S. visa policies led the association to experiment with remote presentations and distance participation on a limited scale. (He also noted that two of the association’s larger sections, the Society of Cultural Anthropology and the Society for Visual Anthropology, will stage a virtual meeting in April, with registration thus far proceeding at a rate comparable to face-to-face meetings.)

Krebs said MLA will continue to offer travel grants for graduate students to attend the convention, “as we think it's a crucial opportunity for professional development of many kinds.” This year offered sessions on everything from the job market to working at teaching-intensive institutions to writing book proposals to seeking professional jobs off campus.

Quoting a 2014 column by former MLA executive director Rosemary Feal, Krebs said the MLA convention was long seen as synonymous with the job market, but it's "time for that to change.”

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