Busted Barry begs to interview somewhere else


We get letters about all kinds of strange and remarkable providences here at Historiann HQ:  guarantees for the biggest “male package” are popular, as are letters from a Nigerian prince in exile with eccentric syntax who brings the wonderful news that we can share in his inheritance if only…well, you get the picture.

Today’s letter comes from Barry in Bakersfield, who’s teaching in a thankless term position that pays a part-time salary for a full-time (4-4) load.  He writes,

Please ask your readers what they think about my choice to wrap up my job letter with the following: “At present, I do not plan to attend the AHA convention; to be frank, I do not believe I can afford to do so on my current salary.” I follow it up with a suggestion for an alternative interview possibility, then a normal “closing” section. Am I shooting myself in the foot?  Do you think phone interviews are an advantage or a disadvantage?

As you historians know, the American Historical Association’s annual conference this year is in New York–a cross-country trip for Barry.  That’s quite a trip, with jet fuel going for what it does these days.  There are other reasons why some of you might want to avoid the whole convention interview scene–perhaps you’re only applying to a select few jobs, or perhaps you’re applying to an institution that’s local, so it seems wasteful of time, money, and petroleum to fly to another city for a 30-minute interview.  (Well, quite frankly, it is wasteful.  Convention interviews make sense only if you’ve got several lined up.)

My instinct is for Barry say nothing in his letter unless and until he hears from the search committee that they want to meet with him.  Up to that point, when you’re just a CV and a letter of application, the only thing you want to stand out in people’s minds is your awesome qualifications, extensive and impressive publications, and your deep and meaningful commitment to teaching–not your assessment of your personal bank balance.  Search committee members may be inclined to think, “well pal, everybody else is doin’ it, including unemployed ABDs, so cry me a river.”

If you hear from the search committee, you might propose a phone interview or local interview then, but I’ve never seen someone for whom we did phone interviews make it onto our list of finalists.  (I know of one instance when a locally-arranged screening interview yielded an invitation for an all-day on-campus interview, but in the end, no job offer.  Sample size N=1 here, so I don’t think we can draw any conclusions yet.)  My guess is that it’s better to advance through the interview process along with all of the other candidates.  If they’re setting this job up to have screening interviews at the AHA convention, then that’s their vision for how the process will work.  If that’s impossible, and you get the sense that the search committee is interested in you and willing to accomodate you, then an in-person interview would be better than a phone interview. 

Et vous, cher Readers?  Barry’s application is due any time now!  Most of you urged caution for Tenured Tammy last month, and talked me out of my advice to Tammy urging total honesty.  What do you think Barry should do?

UPDATE, 10/17/08:  Barry wrote me this morning to say the following:  “I was totally persuaded that I shouldn’t mention either my finances or my plans not to attend the convention.  I just wrapped up by saying ‘I hope to hear from you as you work your way through the search process.’  Totally bland and non-commital–let them be interested in me before even worrying about the next step of the process.”  Well done, readers!  Thanks for steering Barry to a happy resolution of his question.

0 thoughts on “Busted Barry begs to interview somewhere else

  1. Barry! Noooooooo!

    Honestly, I would find a way to get to any interview that I landed in such a tight market. Take a train–they are fun and scenic and only sort of smell of stale pants. And you can read the whole time! Doesn’t that sound nice?

    It’s a pickle. But I would suggest availability in a generic sense, saying that you greatly anticipate their decision. My experience from last year’s hunt for a position in American Lit / Rhetoric & Composition was that there was some room for guiding them during follow-up contact (via email or phone) toward an interview, and I suspect that they could not hold it against you. I suspect that the dynamics have changed, and committees may be more thrifty this year anyway. (I mean, endowments have taken it on the nose, and there may not be committee travel funds.) Wait and see what they are offering. I will offer that I landed more campus interviews last year following phone interviews than I did from face-to-face conference interviews.

    FYI, as the job hunt kicks in, I am chronicling my own academic job search largely through impersonal professional correspondence at “Dear Applicant” (thankyouforyourinterest.blogspot.com). I would love to feast on any rejection letters that your readers might receive. I believe the ratio of rejection letters to job offers is about 100:1 in the humanities, so I am putting my money down on rejection!



  2. I understand the impulse towards openness and clarity in the letter, but I think it’s a mistake to put it upfront like that in this case: there’s the possibility (unfair though it might be) that it will create the impression that you’re difficult to deal with or that you place short-term economic concerns above the opportunity for a job at Wonderful University. (Again, unfair, but possible.)

    That said, you shouldn’t just cave and go to AHA unless absolutely necessary. I think there’s a lot of room for negotiation once the initial phone call comes — I’d advise resisting the urge to overexplain: just say you’re not going to be at AHA and ask if a phone or (even better at some places) videoconference interview be arranged. That way, rather than being a preemptive strike on your part, it’s a simply a practical, logistical discussion involving both parties. I also agree with Bing that many departments might be looking to save money by finding alternative interview arrangements this year.

    I’ve had both good and bad experiences on the interviewee end of phone interviews (be very upfront if you can’t hear everyone or need something repeated or clarified — I know from experience that faking it doesn’t work well; the confusion comes through). But in my department we’ve had excellent luck bringing people in through phone interviews and videoconferencing (usually for postdoctoral positions; we still do AHA for tenure-track jobs, but the positive experiences we’ve had in these other formats might actually change that, particularly given the funding cuts that are already being implemented.)


  3. Barry, reading other folks’ responses, above, I have to agree that there’s absolutely no need to negotiate this issue unless and until you get a call from Wonderful U. wanting to arrange an interview. Trust your instincts that it might be shooting yourself in the foot, and don’t do it.

    Of course, the standard rhetoric at the end of a job letter is to say “I’ll be attending the BIC [Big Impersonal Conference] in January and would be available to meet with you there”–but that’s *just* *standard* *rhetoric*. It’s meaningless, really. By the time the committee gets to that part of your letter, they’re ONLY going to notice phrasing that deviates from that standard rhetoric significantly, such as what you propose.

    I like the suggestions above about just saying something vague–“I look forward to hearing more from you as your search continues,” or some such. It conforms to standard rhetoric without either committing you to anything or calling attention to itself.


  4. I’d vote with Bing, too. The process stinks, but advantage goes to the hiring parties and virtually anything can trigger somebody’s “red flag” (as it’s been called around here). I took a two-night train ride from Chicago to the AHA in Seattle some years back with three interviews in hand and fears of getting trapped in a snowdrift in Montana. Didn’t happen. The other big fear was that there would be hundreds of historians on the train and it would be like extending the meeting by two days. That didn’t happen either, although I did end up in the diner sitting next to a guy making a THREE night cross country ride as head of a search committee. I quickly realized it was someone whose autograph I had on a letter back in my berth from one of seventeen or so places that did NOT want to interview me. But I stayed anonymous and it was mostly amusing–the interviews went well enough, and I actually got a job offer out of it.

    I can also raise Historiann’s sample size on that strategem she raises in paragraph five of her post to N=2, but perhaps in a later note.


  5. Don’t be honest. There are times when honesty makes you sound cranky, and this is one. Seriously, we know the market sucks, we know people are stuck for money. If Wonderful U wants to interview you, then deal. If WU is close to Bakersfield, you can say, “For personal reasons I am unable to attend the AHA, but I’d be happy to come to WU City to meet with you instead.”

    Of course, the one time I did that, the committee got stuck in Atlanta in a snowstorm, and then canceled the meeting with me because they decided who they wanted without seeing wonderful me 🙂
    But that was a weird search, in lots of ways.


  6. It’s not dishonest to leave out logistical details that aren’t at all relevant until the next stage of the process. I can definitely see someone reading that passage and saying “Whoa, somebody’s getting ahead of himself here!” The first letter isn’t the place to negotiate interview dates and locations. Leave it out.


  7. I would also add that going to AHA is important. I’ve been on a number of search committees (more than my fair share for a recently-tenured prof.) and the phone interview folks always fall through the cracks-even those with strong records who I’m sure would otherwise have been considered.

    But if you absolutely cannot afford the trip, I would say schedule the interview after the AHA. The closer the interview is to when the committee meets to come up with a short list, the better.

    Best of luck to you!


  8. I, for one, am happy to be situated in Canada. There’s no pretense of forcing candidates to the big annual conference here (that meets in late May/early June as part of the larger Learned Societies meetings) in hopes of getting to run through a larger number of prospects.

    Frankly, interviewing at the AHA means that some hiring committees don’t really do their job as well as they could from the outset. When departments make long “shopping lists” of possible candidates, opting to cull them only after running these people through the AHA gauntlet, that doesn’t seem to have a great impact on the final short-list. Why not use phones, teleconferencing or a deeper look at the files and references instead of forcing colleagues and would-be colleagues to lay out the time and money to make the “Job Fair” work?

    Canadian universities manage to hire some wonderful historians without the AHA’s weeding process. Why not leave the conference to those who really want to attend? In the meantime, it sounds as if Barry will have to be ready to drop a wad on travel and accommodation on the offhand chance that some hiring committee will really be doing some serious work at the conference. Good luck to you, Barry!


  9. I agree you should not to include this information in the job application. However, I do find that the AHA interviews do have a significant impact on the final short list. Also, we only receive enough money to bring three candidates to campus, four if they come from in state, so being able to screen candidates at the AHA or by telephone is very helpful.


  10. At least one or two departments that I know of not only don’t do AHA interviewing, they also don’t do phone interviewing either. They just read submitted and invited materials until they drop over and invite the “files” that impress to campus visits, disguised as actual persons. That’s gotta take a lot of steely confidence in your antennae. Of course, the prime exemplar that I’m thinking of also doesn’t hesitate to abort a search very far along and break it to the dean that it’ll have to be done over again the next year.

    So, which is the all-time (recent) nightmare AHA job ordeal: The famous “Ice Storm” AHA in Atlanta in, what, 1995? (Some people didn’t get home for months). Or the “Jackhammer Job-Pit” AHA in Boston a few years later, which almost resulted in a pullout from the HQ hotel, and which did result in hotel letters of apology to the entire membership? Or was there a worse one?


  11. I agree with the consensus: Busty Barry should not say he won’t attend the AHA.

    @Indyanna’s last comment: Last academic year, I had the “privilege” of being a grad student representative on one of my department’s search committees. We, the committee, read over the 200+ “files” and submitted our “top six” to the department. No phone calls. No AHA interviews. The department rearranged the six and then invited the “top four” to campus. Out of the four, one was a dud and the rest were great. Everyone appears happy with new department member.


  12. Thanks, everyone, for weighing in. Barry, I think the consensus of the intelligensia is clear. As the old song goes, “Say nothing ’till you hear from them…” I think Bing, Rose, JJO, and Susan (and everyone here) have good advice. JJO may be right, in that some departments may start to reimagine these interviews outside of the usual jet-fueled and hotel-enriching procedures.

    Indyanna and Susan, the AHA that left us all snowbound was in 1996. That was my first year on the job market! (Unsuccessful, despite the fact that I ended up spending almost an entire week in frickin Atlanta.) But, it was a memorable conference for other reasons: I happened to share a cab with Tenured Radical from the airport to the convention hotels, and since she was being reimbursed by her department, she paid for it and wouldn’t take a contribution from me! It was also at the time of the Yale grad student strikes, so I overheard some gossip about that in the elevators. (And Indyanna–it was at the Boston Jackhammer AHA that I was interviewed by Baa Ram U. In between the jackhammers, I was also trying desperately not to be seen by my former “colleages” at the University of Desperation, which was difficult because the waiting area for the interviewees was in the middle of a main hallway connecting the hotels and convention center…)

    There is a lot of hatin’ on the AHA interview process in this thread. While I think that a careful read of applications is always a necessary and salubrious practice, and I’m glad that it has worked in Janice’s and Ortho’s experience, I think screening interviews at the AHA have served my department well. In most cases, our top choices probably don’t change much, but in some cases people who were in the middle of the list vaulted to the top, and people near the top sank. I think that they’re also helpful in terms of knowing who you’re inviting to campus if for some reason one or more of your top 3 or 4 decline your invitation–they help you sort out that mushy middle of people who are qualified, but who don’t make it into the top 3 right away. Although I think a job in my department is an above-average job (2-2 load, M.A. program moving to a Ph.D., no evil people), many people consider Colorado “flyover country,” so we don’t get as many applications or eager interviewees as we would if we were in Chicago or on the Atlantic or Pacific coast.


  13. I didn’t make it to the Ang Lee Iceout AHA in Atlanta that year but I well remember running into Historiann in the long wooden cattle “chute” that led to the job corral at the Boston Jackhammer.

    I’m sitting here in the overflow MO-tel, miles from the downtown historic hotel at a state-level conference here in PA. Since the conference is partly on the campus in question I can narrate my first weird job app (N=2) from the top of this thread. Some guy retired in February so they ran an expedited Chronicle-only, OAH-only search. The job would have been for a “Jim Rice” figure to replace Yastrezemski who replaced Ted Williams, so I sent in a confused letter suggesting that I would be at the OAH in I think St. Louis–which wasn’t plausible. A week later I was shocked to get a call from the dept. chair saying they wanted to talk and that he saw I was going to be in I think St. Louis. I began backtracking cluelessly, at which point he said well, since you only live 30 miles away why don’t we talk to you here on campus? I said great and when we set a day I asked what should I plan for, a couple of hours? Oh, no, he said, the whole day. You’ll meet everyone, have lunch with the committee, talk with the dean, give a little talk….

    I was dumb but not enough so to miss that I’d fumbled myself into both avoiding an unaffordable trip to St. Louis and becoming a de-facto finalist! It went like a dream, too, and was a good learning experience until I sort of screwed up the job talk. Walking around tonight on the same campus years later brought back some I think “interesting” memories! If “Yaz” had been there he would have said kid, don’t think you’re going to the post-season every year, and right he was about that part!


  14. Pingback: Friday food fights! Plus evidence of my evildoing, with links. : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

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