Reassessing the Value of the Job Register

Constance B. Bouchard, April 1990

I would like to make a radical proposal: to end the practice of interviewing job candidates at the annual meetings. The AHA has recently and laudably been concerned about the fairness of the interview process, everything from trying to assure that candidates are not rushed hastily in and out to worrying about women feeling uncomfortable being interviewed by men in a hotel room. However, I would argue that the whole system is so fundamentally unfair to potential job candidates that history departments should find other ways to narrow down their short lists.

At a time when most departments carefully avoid discrimination on the basis of race, gender, national origin, and the like, not just because the faculty are under a legal obligation to do so but because they are personally committed to affirmative action, they can and do practice economic discrimination against those potential candidates who feel they cannot afford to pay their way to meetings. Enough schools use the happenstance of whether or not a candidate comes to the AHA to pare down their lists, that graduate students feel they must attend the meetings to have any chance of getting a job at all. Plane and hotel reservations must be made well ahead of time—and paid for—even though candidates are usually not invited to be interviewed until shortly before the meetings. Graduate students must therefore buy nonrefundable airline tickets and risk forfeiting a night's deposit on a hotel room—even at special conference rates, a hotel room costs per night as much as a graduate student might budget for two weeks' worth of groceries—without knowing if they will have any interviews at all.

The Job Register has long since ceased to be a "new" opportunity for job seekers, as almost all interviews are prearranged. From the point of view of hiring departments, it is certainly convenient to use the meetings as a prescreening device, to find out whether a candidate who looks good on paper can actually explain her research cogently or is personable enough to fit into a small department. But the difficulty of assessing a number of different candidates in a short period of time means that the interviewer—who may not even be the best qualified person in his or her department to judge a candidate's research—is given a great deal of arbitrary authority to act on the basis of superficial impressions. In this pressure-packed situation where first impressions count for everything, a candidate is most likely to do herself actual harm; it is far easier for someone to drop out of the top group of candidates than to advance from the bottom group on the basis of a half hour's conversation.

In addition, the practice of most departments of interviewing four or five candidates at the AHA for every one they plan to bring to campus means that many candidates are given false hopes. A department that plans to hire someone working on nineteenth-century Germany, and indeed eventually does so, may still interview someone working on nineteenth-century France. A department that does not intend to hire anyone without a degree in hand may still interview graduate students who have strong recommendations. Someone with reasonably good but not outstanding credentials may well make a number of schools' "top twenty" lists and have a half a dozen or more interviews at the AHA without any of them resulting in an on-campus interview. Such a candidate would then be tortured wondering "what went wrong" when in fact a superhuman interview would have been needed to vault over a number of other good candidates.

Not all departments interview at the AHA, because they only receive authorization for a position late in the year, because they try to hire early in the fall, or just because they do choose to do so. Most of them are perfectly content with the candidates they get. There are certainly other ways to prescreen the candidates, if that is indeed necessary, including telephone interviews. Because of the burden interviewing at the meetings puts on the candidates, without any real benefit to the departments other than a slight increase in convenience, I urge historians to end the practice.

—Constance B. Bouchard is a visiting associate professor at Kenyon College.