Thursday, January 08, 2004

What I look at in interviews 

Frequent reader and contributor Paul Nelson sends on a new blog, LitSkunk, which has picked up blogchild John Bruce's Stanley Fish experience. I decided to read it over lunch (sorry, John, I had put it aside up to now) and it begins with a description of the labor market for English professors.
A required course for those of us in the Ph.D. program was something called English 562: The Profession. The course was intended to cover subjects like the academic hiring process, the status of the job market, career paths, promotion and tenure, publication, peer review, and so forth. In short, this should have been everything a graduate student needed to know, told as the straight dope by an experienced professor. As a practical matter, the standing of the course in the minds of the faculty was shown by who they assigned to teach it: in my case, it was a dreamy-eyed lame-duck assistant professor who'd been turned down for tenure himself--not the best role model on one hand, but on the other, he believed everything his more senior colleagues told him, so he was a good source on the conventional wisdom of the time.

We listened to polite fictions about how new assistant professors were hired at the annual MLA convention and how the tenure system assures academic freedom. The twelve or twenty or so of us in the class knew perfectly well we'd be lucky to find part-time jobs teaching bonehead English at local junior colleges, our chances of even landing a tenure-track job were like winning the lottery, and it likely wouldn't happen at the MLA. Some Ph.D. candidatess from prior years were driving cabs or pushing carts full of bedpans down hospital corridors. It wasn't good form to mention this.

In fact, the job search method prescribed to us, not just in English 562, but by the department chair and our graduate advisors, was to get a list of all English departments everywhere (whether they'd posted an open job or not), and send each of them a copy of our curriculum vitae and a cover letter, advising them of our availability to interview at the MLA. This of course is the job-hunting equivalent of human wave attacks, a futile and expensive proposition. While hiring practices differ among academic disciplines, it appears (see, for example, Paul Fussell's account of how he got his first job in Doing Battle) that in English, well-positioned professors are aware of openings in their fields and refer likely candidates via back channels, and interviews at the MLA are a formality at best.
The best piece of advice I got in graduate school was from a retiring professor who taught my micro theory courses: If you place at a school the equivalent of your undergraduate school, you've done well. I didn't shotgun vitae to every school, but I sent out over 100 and interviewed 23 schools in under three days. I'm still at the school that hired me that year. Nobody from my graduate school called these people to encourage my interview with them.

I'm now the guy on the other side, the department chair that sits in a hotel room (in San Diego, with a beach beckoning that I never sat on!) and talks to new doctorates who want to follow that path. While I realize many have already taken their interviews, let me write down what I now realize is my subjective screening method.

  1. The first thing I look for when I see a candidate is whether the person can teach principles of economics. It's not as easy as it looks, and at a school like mine you don't have the ability to cram 500 students in a room and fob off a grad student most days. If you do a bad job teaching them principles, I'm going to have a miserable class in monetary theory with them later. Most of them don't want to be there, either, so I need to know if you can hold someone's attention ... beginning with mine. How you talk about your profession is vital; students pick up on jadedness, and it doesn't sell.
  2. The next thing I look for is whether this person will be interesting to talk economics with over a beer. If you are interviewing a school in a smaller city or town, you are talking to people who will be more than just your colleagues. They'll likely compose your first ring of friends. Choose wisely.
  3. I want to know what you'll write next, not what you wrote last. New PhDs want to tell you about their dissertations, and that's fine but it's not the object of my interest. I'm more interested how they talk about their research than what they actually found. And I want to know if it fits into a broader agenda of what they plan to do outside of the classroom for the next few years. Those who know how it fits are likely to be successful professors.