Publication Date

August 6, 2009

Claire Potter over at Tenured Radical recently offered an interesting critique of conference interviews as a practice, and suggests substituting telephone interviews as an alternative. While that may be necessary as an economic expedient for the moment, I wonder whether it is really the best long-term solution. Yes, conference interviews can be a miserable and emotionally draining experience for all involved, but would the alternative really work for the large pool of applicants coming onto the market each year? I suspect not.

Potter’s article is built on a faulty premise, that the conference interview is merely a holdover from the bad old days of the “boy’s club” in the discipline. Judging from my reading of the correspondence of senior historians of the 1920s to the 1940s, and interviews with historians hired in the 50s and 60s, hiring back then was based on little more than a phone call or a letter from some senior member of the profession. The present system was established in the 1960s as a way of making the hiring process more open to women, minorities, and students from less prestigious universities. By opening up the process and allowing a much larger number of applicants to get into the mix of candidates considered for every opening, I think it has been quite successful.

Given that, Potter’s calculation of the economies for search committees and candidates seems misguided. The meeting focuses the committee’s attention on the process and provides a unique opportunity to meet with a large number of candidates. The average search committee at the AHA Job Center interviews 11 candidates. Under a system where all the preliminary interviews are made by phone, I doubt that search committee members would schedule more than half that number of interviews into the day-to-day grind of their lives on campus. Departments are more likely to make a much smaller first cut, and in the process would be more likely to base their selections on the old traditional categories—the applicant’s adviser and school.

We have seen evidence of this happening already. Over the past few years a growing number of elite schools are moving in this direction. As the alignment between new PhDs and jobs approached parity in some fields, and the competition for the “best candidates” heated up, a number of the elite schools have been using phone interviews to jump the line and lock in their choices before the AHA meeting. Everything I have heard about these searches reinforces my concerns, as fewer candidates got their foot in the door, and those that did were from a narrower strata of elite departments.

The cost calculation for applicants is not as simple as Potter’s analysis suggests either. Job seekers who come to the meeting usually get between three and five interviews, and can attend the interviewing workshop. They can also network with other historians throughout the course of the meeting. And given the larger number of interviews per applicant at the meeting, it also increases an applicant’s odds of meeting with a larger number of search committees. If I am correct that shifting to phone interviews would cut the number of people getting preliminary interviews in half, this proposal would just mean larger numbers of summary rejection letters before the first interview. That hardly seems less degrading and impersonal than the conference interview.

While I continue to think that conference interviews remain the best and most democratic system for making the first cut in academic job searches, I am always looking for ways to make the system work better. Over the past decade we have made the whole process more humane—just ask anyone who remembers when all the tables were in a large open room, and interviews were scheduled through “two-way” paper forms. Along those lines, Potter (drawing on an earlier article from David Evans that no longer seems to be available) pushes one idea that I find quite intriguing. Would it make sense for the AHA to establish a vita bank for history—effectively a central clearinghouse for CV’s, letters of recommendations, teaching portfolios, and the like? I can see how that could greatly simplify the application process for candidates and applicants alike, though there are some obvious technical and issues (setting it up would not be cheap, and keeping letters of recommendation confidential could be a problem).

We are here to serve applicants and search committees alike, so do not hesitate to contact with your advice and suggestions about how we can make the system work better for you.

This post first appeared on AHA Today.

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