Image: Tommy Kirk as Travis Coates in Old Yeller (1957), directed by Robert Stevenson
Rebecca Schuman recently called for the death of the conference interview for faculty jobs. A key reason she listed was the expense, citing the Modern Language Association’s recent convention in Vancouver as a case in point. In fact, she went to considerable length to prove that anyone traveling to Vancouver for the meeting would need to spend more than $1,000.
Case closed — on Vancouver and MLA. But a data point is not a universal. Many faculty members with full-time jobs and many graduate students seeking employment still think the conference interview is a useful enterprise.
First, academia is not a monolith. A Ph.D. holder in German (Schuman’s field) might view the job market as a Kesselschlacht (a confused cauldron battle). But my own area of communications is in the fifth year of a boom in tenure-track hiring. We get only 20 to 40 applicants for assistant-professor posts and compete heavily for the best prospects. Anyone we want to hire will likely receive two to three other offers. In other fields, upwards of 500 candidates might apply for a tenure-track opening, and it is a buyer’s market.
In short, the MLA is an outlier and so are we — no universals apply.
So while I don’t negate Schuman’s attack on the conference interview, here are the reasons that it still works for many of us:
Expense. Graduate students don’t have unlimited funds but neither do departments. A campus visit by three to four job candidates is the most expensive part of a search. So naturally you want to vet applicants as much as possible, from scrutiny of their publications and teaching evaluations to reference calls to, yes, meeting them in person — like, say, at a conference. It also makes sense to interview at a place where your faculty members are going to be anyway.
Up close and personal assessment. Interpersonal communication scholars will attest to people not necessarily giving the same impression in person as on the phone, via video connection, or in writing. You simply get a better sense of someone by meeting them than you do hearing them or seeing them on a screen. (I also find that that the face-to-face encounter is friendlier to the candidate than is the electronic interview.)
Technological leveling. Skype and video interviews are also problematic because they can sometimes give one candidate an advantage over another. I recall one set of interviews I participated in as a search-committee member. The first candidate interviewed from his university’s excellent video lab. As a result his picture, voice, and setting were clear, crisp, and professional. Another candidate was skyping from her home, with a poor connection and an errant cat. She (the candidate, not the cat) was blurry, over-trebled, and cut in and out. We tried to be fair, but such factors can’t help but affect the committee a little.
Comparisons in context. There’s a reason people still go shopping rather than buy everything online. Some items you want to see,in person, before you buy. There is an intangible benefit to being in a physical place where you can choose carefully among many similar items. Meeting job candidates at a professional conference along with other candidates helps a search committee focus on what it is looking for. Greater clarity emerges based on the personal experiences of meeting dozens of applicants — and it makes the on-campus interview a better experience for the chosen few.
Finally, candidates themselves gain valuable experience and opportunities via the conference interview in the following ways.
- They hone their listening, read-the-room, and people skills better in a face-to-face setting. A Skype or phone interview is not adequate practice for a campus visit.
- They can network and get on-the-spot hints and tips – like the kinds of questions being asked or who on a committee is in attendance.
- They can pick up job prospects they had not heard about prior to the conference. Several dozen times in my career, having been impressed by a doctoral student’s presentation or poster, I have informed her or him, “We are interviewing for an assistant professor position your area.”
- They can learn quickly when a position might not be worth pursuing. A rude or muddled committee at the conference is a warning that can spare a potential candidate two days of torture on the former’s campus.
In sum, Schuman was right about the shortcomings of conference interviews, but they will survive because they can still be useful for all parties in a search.