Publication Date

April 15, 2019

Perspectives Section

From the President

AHA Topic

Professional Life

Thousands of historians, young and old, know the anxiety of interviewing for a job at the AHA annual meeting. For a half century and probably longer, the meeting has served as the primary site for preliminary job interviews, held in hotel rooms and suites as well as a designated space upon which generations of job seekers have bestowed not-so-nice nicknames. I remember it as “the pit.”

In the months ahead, the AHA’s Professional Division will take up the question of whether the AHA should continue in this tradition or exit the interview business entirely. Convention interviews once seemed to make the job market less unfair. They replaced a system based more heavily on personal contacts and phone calls from influential doctoral advisers. Nowadays, more and more preliminary interviews take place via videoconference anyway. So is in-person interviewing at the annual meeting worth continuing?

From my own experience—vast, if I do say so myself—I can see both sides of the question. For three straight years in the 1980s, I went to AHA annual meetings to interview. Like many people, I found it disagreeable, although I doubt I ever pondered the validity of the practice. The memory most searingly etched into my mind came in 1983, in Washington, DC. I had an interview scheduled in a suite in one of the two Woodley Park hotels. I went up to room 1328 (I believe it was) and, at the appointed hour, knocked repeatedly on a door without an answer, before it dawned on me that I might be in the wrong building. I sprinted to the other hotel, arriving 20 minutes late. I put my ear to the door, heard voices, debated with my frantic self about whether it was worth it, and knocked. A shortened interview ultimately led to an appointment at Goucher College—for which I am forever indebted to professors Jean Baker and Julie Jeffrey, the voices behind the door who overlooked my manifest failings. Perhaps I appeared more at ease than in other interviews because I was sure I had sabotaged whatever chance I might have had.

Convention interviews once seemed to make the job market less unfair, as they replaced a system based more heavily on personal contacts.

Since then, I have served on 24 search committees and taken part in interviewing more than 200 job candidates at AHA annual meetings. I found those in-person interviews extremely helpful in helping to choose short lists, especially in trying to figure out who would shine in the classroom.

Others find videoconferencing or phone calls just as good for assessing candidates. But I remember being dead wrong when I argued for including on our short list someone whom I thought had nailed the videoconference interview. In person, within five minutes he convinced all my colleagues (and me) that he was not right for the job.

Despite my personal preference for in-person interviews, I see two important arguments for the AHA to stop supporting the practice. The first is that, in what I hope is only a small minority of cases, unseemly conduct occurs at convention interviews. Barstool or bedroom interviews—and worse—are far less likely via videoconference. The second reason is the expense to impecunious job seekers who, due to both the rise of the videoconference interview and the overall decline of academic job postings since 2008, are less likely to have multiple conference interviews and therefore probably receive a poorer return on their financial investment. In my day, while jobs were no more plentiful than today, hiring committees had fewer plausible alternatives to interviewing at the AHA, given the available technology. So each aspirant had a better chance of multiple interviews, improving the logic of paying for the trip.

The table on this page shows data on the decline in registered searches at the AHA in recent years (with the caveat that there are interviews that take place without the AHA’s knowledge).

Year City Searches registered with the AHA
2005 Seattle 270
2006 Philadelphia 311
2007 Atlanta 283
2008 Washington, DC 260
2009 New York 198
2010 San Diego 115
2011 Boston 168
2012 Chicago 160
2013 New Orleans 154
2014 Washington, DC 95
2015 New York 89
2016 Atlanta 52
2017 Denver 34
2018 Washington, DC 47
2019 Chicago 20

Source: AHA

In Atlanta in 2007, more than five times as many searches held interviews as in Atlanta in 2016. Three months ago, in Chicago, only about 20 searches occurred. Meanwhile, in 2017, 1,066 PhDs in history were awarded in the United States. Even if in-person interviews yield more useful information than videoconferencing, the economic argument for abandoning the tradition is hard to resist, both for budget-conscious chairs, deans, and provosts and for historians looking for a job.

Even if in-person interviews yield more useful information than videoconferencing, the economic argument for abandoning the tradition is hard to resist.

The president of the AHA should be the last person to discourage anyone from attending the annual meeting. I encourage all historians to come to New York in 2020, Seattle in 2021, and New Orleans in 2022 in order to see firsthand all that is going on in our discipline, visit the fabulous Exhibit Hall, peruse the equally fabulous poster sessions, mix and mingle with peers at any number of receptions, and, of course, attend roundtables, workshops, and research sessions. You might enjoy it so much you’ll make attending a regular habit.

Good reasons abound for making the trip. Suffering, or inflicting, acute interview anxiety with diminishing odds of any reward for job seekers is no longer among them. That, at the moment, is my view. Please let me know yours, which might change mine—ideally before June, when the Professional Division makes its recommendation to the AHA Council. I’ll read it with interest and pass it on to those who must decide.

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John R. McNeill
John R. McNeill

Georgetown University