Hey, philosophers: buy your own damn keg

Fat, drunk, and stupid is apparently no barrier to a career in philosophy!

Via Inside Higher Ed, I learned today of the tradition of the “smoker” at the American Philosophical Association’s Eastern Division meeting:

Over the years, the reception at the APA eastern conference has functioned as a job fair of sorts, where, over free-flowing booze, candidates talk to potential employers.

For weeks, philosophy blogs had been alive with discussions about how women job candidates feel vulnerable at the reception, how some of them had been hit on as they talked to recruiters, and the sheer awkwardness of trying to navigate job interviews with a beer bottle in hand. While many disciplinary meetings feature departmental receptions, they tend to be for alumni gatherings and outreach as much as anything; the philosophy reception is one event where candidates say they are urged to schmooze simultaneously with hiring committees, random others, and competitors for the jobs they want.

Ugh–for all of the reasons that the women philosophers note in the linked blog posts above, of course.  But this is also clearly the bright idea of a profession in which the job market is almost entirely a buyers’ market rather than a sellers’ market.  As a tenured professor, I must admit that it would be a lot more fun for me to conduct quasi-interviews over cocktails instead of meeting in the pit in a drafty hotel basement with a sad water cooler the only refreshment.  It would also be a lot of fun for me to ask job candidates to wear silly hats, sing show tunes, and pass trays of hot appetizers of their own devise.  But then, the job interview process isn’t about me, is it? 

Ideally, the job search process in any profession should prioritize professionalism and fairness as well as the preservation of the dignity of all participants.  There are a lot of people who might well feel uncomfortable with this unseemly mixture of interviews and socializing over alcohol–Mormons, observant Muslims, and recovering alcoholics, just to name a few.  Most campus academic job interviews are fraught with enough fake-socializing events like lunches, dinners, and coffees, but most everyone knows that there’s no such thing as a purely social event on a job interview.  Furthermore, there’s more than just alcohol on the menu at those events.  (That is to say, not drinking alcohol is more typical than usual for job candidates, and asking for a soda or a hot cocoa in a cafe instead of coffee isn’t regarded as an oddity.)

Tell me your stories of job interview hell, with bonus points for tales of alcohol-fueled bad behavior, in the comments below.

31 thoughts on “Hey, philosophers: buy your own damn keg

  1. You had a water cooler? Scan that post-convention bill for how much the water bottle refiller convenience fee was valued at by the hotel’s comptroller, which will doubtless slide right by the university cost checker.

    This will probably hasten the day, which I think is inevitable and much closer than we imagine, when the academic hiring function itself is removed from departmental/disciplinary contexts altogether. And so, we’ll find out who “our” new Latin Americanist is when ze walks into the suite and asks for office keys, etc., just like in law firms, hospitals, highway departments, and most of the rest of occupational-ied America. Human Resources departments have lots of things wrong with them, like almost *every*thing, but I think they would generally have the good sense to avoid mixing the interview function with this particular part of the human comedy. I’m sure they’d like nothing better than to absorb “search,” and there’s little longue-duree history available that would prevent that from coming to pass.

    My worst interview moment was in the pit the time I made what I thought was a generic ingratiating opener, only to have one member of the search committee (who happened to be the retiring replacee, a relative rarity) sit bolt-upright, red-faced and vein-popped, and say “boy, you got off on the wrong foot there, buddy!!” The search chair was even more mortified than I was horrified.


  2. Oddly enough, I’ve been to said smoker, but only as a spectator, not as a participant.

    The atmosphere was less “frat party” than “nightmarish middle school dance.” The philosophers with me had been given conflicting advice about drinking (ranging from “don’t go near a bottle” to “definitely take one but only one and carry it around all night”). As in middle school, there were a few socially precocious folk working the room adroitly; most (grad students and professors alike) were either clinging close to friends, making painful small talk with acquaintances, or looking awkwardly alone. It was ghastly but had FAR less good-old-boy drunken conviviality than the cash bars or hotel-room gatherings I had been to at the equivalent annual conference (which involves job placement) for my own discipline.

    There are all kinds of things wrong with the smoker (and with the institutions that insist it has some probitive value in hiring decisions), but those who have the impression of a raucous party scene are off the mark.


  3. good enough cook–thanks for your eyewitness reporting!

    I didn’t think it sounded like a good time at all, even before your account. Middle-school dance seems to be exactly the similie I would have reached for too. But just because it’s not Animal House doesn’t mean it’s not a problematic event to include in the way a discipline makes hires.


  4. I’m crashing the fancy reception of a Very Fancy School at AHA (my Alma Mater is a state school with no such event). I do so because I have a couple of friends who go, and also because they have good food, but I’ll see about some anthropological observations while I’m there. Last I remember, it was small groups of people grubbing as much as possible.


  5. Notorious–the APA “smoker” is a different animal from the AHA smokers, which are (as the article from IHE notes) “for alumni gatherings and outreach as much as anything.” The APA works their large reception somehow into the traditional search process.

    (But not being a philosopher, I don’t quite understand it.)


  6. Brian Leiter has reported occasionally on the APA “smoker,” most recently here and here. As he puts it, no one objects to a social event, but the APA one, where departments rent tables and their search committees are present, isn’t a social event: it’s a big informal interview with booze (though no actual smoke), and the added awkwardness of running into other candidates for the same jobs for which you are being informally interviewed.


  7. It does seem weird.

    Add to that the fact that, among the Humanities disciplines, philosophers seem to drink more than any other group (something to dull the existential angst?), and I’d say that would be a party I’d be dying to leave.


  8. “the added awkwardness of running into other candidates for the same jobs for which you are being informally interviewed.”

    Eeew. Another important aspect of the overall ick. I always hated that in AHA interviews when they were in hotel suites or rooms–I *always* ran into other candidates, usually both as I was going into the interview and then again as I was exiting.

    (Talk about a walk of shame.)


  9. I actually just think this is awful. I don’t know whether it is goony academics acting casual and “cool” while they check people out, or the meat market atmosphere. I guess I know why women feel weird, but my guess is a lot of men must too. If you are a feminist man in particular, it must be tough not to go all bro on the older guys even if it is against your principles.

    But weirdly, this is how historians used to get hired about a hundred years ago (literally a hundred years ago) at the AHA. I’ve seen some of the pre-convention correspondence, and the doktervater types would introduce their students around. Subsequently, if one had made a good impresison one would “receive the call,” as it was said — ie, an invitation to teach.


  10. @Historiann: this happened to me multiple times as well. My favorite was the time I was leaving the suite while the next candidate was entering–and we both ran into someone delivering a big plate of eggs Benedict to one of the interviewers for brunch. It was weird to run into him/her (luckily we didn’t really know each other) and I was thankful I didn’t have to get interviewed over a very messy meal.

    Luckily this did not happen to me during one search in which everyone I knew got interviewed. They set up 17 of use for 15 minute interviews over two days. It was like a parade of your friends, going in and out. That didn’t make anything awkward at all, either in Boston or when we got home a few days later.


  11. The APA thing sounds horrible, mainly because it sounds both like a terrible party and a terrible interview context. And it actually *doesn’t* sound like what used to go on at the AHA and MLA in that regard – in that my sense of how things worked a hundred years ago in those bodies was that it was much less formal and about being squired around by one’s mentors and introduced to one’s mentors’ friends, which is a lot less pressure-filled than having to go from table to table (or at least it would feel that way to me). (Aside: Do philosophers really drink more than other folks? The ones I know don’t seem to drink more than lit people do, but maybe I just know all the lit people who are drunks?)

    And this is off topic, but I feel like if candidates are running into one another in hotel interviews that’s just really bad planning on the part of the search committee. We set our interviews up both times I interviewed candidates at MLA so we’d have 15-20 minutes between each candidate. And we stuck to that schedule. As far as I’m aware, there were no awkward encounters in hallways that were our fault. (There were a couple of awkward encounters when candidates showed up at the wrong time, but I feel like that’s not about the interview process at the conventions but rather about human fallibility.)


  12. awkwardness of running into other candidates for the same jobs for which you are being informally interviewed.

    I wonder if this is a culture thing. I have experienced (as a candidate and as an external examiner) interviews during which all the candidates were present in European settings and have heard about this in other places as well. There were public (everybody in the room) and private (interviewee and committee) components.

    My impression–via gossip–is that this is designed to spur competition among candidates but that is not really what I observed to happen in either case. The various candidates, with one exception (who did not get the job), were sympathetic to and supportive of each other.

    I was once summoned for a “visit” that was really an interview at a very fancy institution. “By now you have probably figured out why we brought you here,” and all that. I went through the whole day with everybody not-interviewing me. It was impossible to not rise to the challenge and perform a bit for the audience–in the ways that you would for an interview–but I did not want a job there so little was at stake. In any event, the gods reached down from Olympus, plucked me up for inspection, and, apparently, found me too much an idiot for their company. That was (and is) just fine with me. They were all very interesting people but get over yourselves already. You are all special, but probably not for the reasons you think. Also, the hotel bed was so soft I had to sleep on the floor.


  13. Honestly, why do you NEED conference interviews? Decades ago I went to the AHA and had one interview which went nowhere but at least it was politely carried out in the appropriate area of the conference hall. But I hear so many horror stories and the costs are so high for candidates and committee members to travel in order to do preliminary interviews.

    In Canada, our big disciplinary conferences are in May/June and there’s almost no hiring/interviewing going on at that point. At my institution. we get around the problem of no conference to run interviews at by putting together a good short list (possibly with the help of preliminary phone interviews) and then fighting for as many short-list candidates to come to campus as we can manage. Of course, that was when we had crazy things like hirings!


  14. @Janice – I don’t think conference interviews are a necessity per se, but I did see benefits both when I was a candidate and when I was on hiring committees. One benefit for me as a candidate was that I knew when my “first interviews” would be – yes, there was the expense of going to MLA, but I could plan for it, and it was much easier to negotiate the timing of interviewing at the MLA than it was to negotiate the timing for doing phone interviews, given the fact that I was working full time in an office setting while I was writing my dissertation and on the market the first time. I personally appreciated being able to be focused on interviewing during the convention – as opposed to squeezing interviews in during my lunch hour or something.

    As for when I was on the other side of the table, we only send two people to interview at MLA for the first-round interviews. So yes, there is the expense of sending two people (but it comes out of the money already set aside for faculty travel), and we interview between 10 and 15 people. And it is definitely the case that some people find their way to campus by impressing us in the conference interview who would not have made it to campus if we hadn’t gotten to have a 45-minute chat with them. And given the way our budget for hiring works, campus visits are not funded by the university – the money comes out of the department budget. So at most we could maybe afford to bring 4 people to campus if we didn’t do MLA interviews instead of the 2 or three that we currently bring … the savings by not going to the convention wouldn’t mean that we get like 6 or 7 people coming to campus or something. So while there are negatives with interviewing at the conventions (and yes, there are), I think there are benefits to it, too.


  15. I’m off to the AHA myself this week, so I’ll do some sleuthing and see if I can uncover some juicy interview horror stories. I’ll tell one on myself, though alcohol is not involved – the first time I ever interviewed for jobs at AHA, I was experiencing moderate to severe hearing loss (even though I was young). I was too upset/mortified to tell anyone about it (foolish, eh?) and went into one interview where the suite was huge, and the wide space ringed by seven or eight people. Of those people was an extremely soft spoken man, whose words I literally could. not. hear. I asked him politely to speak up, but he did not (this is very common, btw). What I should have done was got up and moved to a seat closer to him and made a casual comment about my “condition” – what I *did* do was keep looking at the search chair to translate the interviewer’s question, which he (the chair) did with a very puzzled look on his face. I must have looked like a complete moron, and also racist because the person I couldn’t hear was a man of color, the only one in the room. So. Good times.

    But this time, I will be sitting on the other side of the table, a very different experience.

    @ Dr. Crazy – I am a big fan of the conference interview, for the reasons you state. Going through the files is so abstract. Sometimes you come across someone who seems like they could be great, but isn’t quite and you want to get a clearer sense. But I’ve heard other colleagues say that the conference interview doesn’t necessarily result in stronger on campus candidates (ie, candidates that don’t “bomb”, which is an expression I really hate, since I don’t think the job talk should be the end all be all of a campus visit).


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  17. On the utility of conference interviews: I used to believe in them more, but I’ve come around to Janice’s point of view on this one. I think the results end up about the same whether we do conference interviews or not, as 1) our top candidates almost overwhelmingly remain our top candidates, and the 30-minute conference interviews do nothing to change that, and 2) almost anyone who meets the formal qualifications for a job can perform well for 30 minutes. It’s the 1-1/2 or 2-day marathon of a campus interview that sorts the women from the girls and the men from the boys.

    I think telephone or SKYPE interviews can be used to substitute for convention interviews, if only to make sure that our favorite applicants are reasonably well-spoken and still interested in the job.

    I wonder if in some cases our invitation for a conference interview offered false hope. I’ve met some really dynamite people in conference interviews who performed brilliantly, but their research and teaching interests in the end were marginal for what we had advertised. So, as I said above, we went with the people whose qualifications and writing sample suggested that they were better fits for the jobs.


  18. H’Ann, on the hiring side, I think that conference interviews might have more or less value depending on institution. I suspect that they actually have less bang for their buck at institutions that are already attractive to candidates for whatever reason (location, ranking, teaching load, etc.) whereas they might have more value at an institution that candidates might otherwise be less interested in (ahem, mine). Up until about 10 years ago, my department didn’t do convention interviews. According to my colleagues who were hired during that time, and who changed our faculty handbook to stipulate that we should make it a policy to do convention interviews if at all possible, we’ve gotten significantly more applications and more well-rounded candidates since making that change. (We’ve hired something like 15 people in the past 8 years.) Basically, the move toward convention interviews upped our profile for candidates. And in the searches I’ve observed, it’s my sense that we’ve never hired somebody who was in the top three prior to the convention, which suggests that there is a lot more movement (whether it’s in my department or in my discipline I’m not sure) than your experiences suggest. I wonder whether this has something to do with the heavy teaching load at my institution? How candidates answer questions about teaching and our student population plays a big role in who comes to campus, and the paper materials candidates conventionally submit don’t tend to answer the specific questions that we have about those issues, though I agree that the paper materials do address general questions about teaching competency and research area. So I guess we’re looking for more in our interviews than just to see whether the person is well-spoken enough to have a conversation for 30 minutes?

    But let’s say that there isn’t a whole lot of value for the institution in convention interviews. I will say that as a candidate they did give me a lot of information about where I’d like to work, and I came away from convention interviews much less excited about particular jobs in some cases and much more excited about particular jobs in others. In doing phone interviews (I haven’t interviewed since skype became the big alternative), I never felt like I got as good a sense of the department with which I was interviewing.


  19. Dr. Crazy–you make really good points about the value of convention interviews for different kinds of jobs and to the candidates themselves.

    I wonder, though, if candidates will come to resent the convention interviews they’re invited to if and when SKYPE interviews become more common? (That is, why show up for one or 2 interviews at the cost of a plane ticket and one or two nights in a hotel plus related expenses, when one has 3 or 4 SKYPE interviews that cost nothing but the price of electricity to run your computer, plus *maybe* a spiffy new sweater or jacket, and a quick home office cleanup?)


  20. I just applied for my first real job, and I was at home with my parents while I was putting the packet together. Explaining to my dad how hiring works in academia provoked quite a reaction. The stuff we go through is incredibly Byzantine compared to what happens in the corporate world. When my dad hired his last junior associate, this was the process:
    (1) quickly scan 150 one-page resumes; dump 147 of them in the garbage.
    (2) do three phone interviews.
    (3) do one in-person interview.
    (4) hire.

    Whole thing took about a week.

    Now granted, he wasn’t hiring someone for a potentially lifetime position, but even still…I’m trying to find better adjectives than Byzantine for what we do. Baroque? Needlessly complex? Bat-shit crazy?


  21. Rustonite–as Tenured Radical and Dr. Crazy suggested above, the hiring process in academia used to be very simple. A chair of a department looking to fill a line would call his grad school besties to ask if they had any students who might be suitable for the job. They would recommend some chaps–and they were all chaps to be sure–and after a telephone conversation (no interviews, no campus visits for most) one of them would get a letter offering him a job.

    This is how 100% of my colleagues who were hired in the 1950s-early 1970s at Baa Ram U. were hired, and I think it was a pretty typical way of doing business. My advisor used to talk about his two years in the academic wilderness, being forced to teach at the University of Michigan (!) before getting a phone call one day from the chair of the Penn History department offering him a job, quite out of the blue. (He even talked about how he had to think about it, because it was “only Penn,” and was it really worth it when there might be a more prestigious offer in the making.)

    In part, the complications and the timeline of the academic job search are a result of that kind of unfair and patently discriminatory hiring. There was no requirement that jobs be publicly advertised, no prohibitions on asking about people’s personal lives, and really no rules at all. So in the main, the AHA’s (MLA’s, etc.) attempts to regularize and democratize access to open positions has been very salubratory for their respective professions.

    BUT, most of these Convention-based hiring conventions were developed in the 1970s. I think that technology as well as an eye towards always making the search process as transparent as possible have already changed searches compared to the last time I was on the job market (11 years ago.) My hope is that hiring departments will continue to use technology to make things better for everyone, but of course in my view, the bigger problem is “will we have tenure-track jobs to offer,” rather than “should we interview at AHA/APA/ the other APA/MLA or do SKYPE interviews?”


  22. H’Ann,
    I think that you might be right if/when Skype were to reach critical mass, although… well, I suspect that the departments who will be the last to abandon the convention interview will be the departments who actually benefit the least from it (i.e., research universities with hefty endowments and loads of resources). So then that brings up the question of whether the convention interview will become a signifier of a certain kind of status within the profession, where the cost just of applying to prestigious institutions will be something like $1,600, when all is said and done, while the cost of applying for “regular” jobs will be at most the cost of postage and a reference service. If so, this might have the effect of taking a wide range of candidates out of the running for the “best” jobs, which seems unfortunate to me, if this is the way things go.

    (It’s worth noting that relegating so many candidates to the “adjunct track” has this effect already… I’m just thinking about how the gap would widen unless there were some sort of regulation by the MLA or AHA or whatever *prohibiting* convention interviews at a certain point. And I have a hard time of seeing them do that, as it would likely mean the death of the conventions.)


  23. gagh. I hate the AHA Interviews, but mainly because I never had anything come of them. And I had to waste four days in January for four years in a row, plus plane tickets, hotels,etc. A waste of time and money.

    The interviews were all uncomfortable, a waste of mine time and the committee’s energy. And yes, I did meet the other interviewees in the hall after finishing up. Better than the pit interviews though. I remember walking into the men’s room after one of those and slipping on vomit.

    Its hard for me to come around to the idea of the AHA as being “a good time.”


  24. Off topic, but the NYT has an article on teaching and technology in Idaho:


    I was going to say it was a good article, but it actually doesn’t do enough to show why that one teacher’s point about learning is spot on — she’s relegated to the second page after a pointless first page of “whether teachers are republicans or democrats.”


  25. The AHA is academic hazing, pure and simple. Just like the oral dissertation defense. The old guard went through it, so you will too. It’s an excuse for proffies to go to fabulous cities on the college’s dime, and eat out at fabulous restaurants. It is very clique-ish. I enjoyed Chicago in January 2000, had 2 interviews, very proud of myself, didn’t get either one, spiralled into despair, but then I got a CC job that summer and I’ve been here ever since. Good luck to all history peeps.


  26. When I was not really on the job market, there was a job at fancy pants U. I was at the AHA (my mother then lived in the city it was in) and my advisor introduced me to the chair of the search, and took me to the smoker for fancy pants (where he had lots of friends). It was weird. (I didn’t get the job, but since it was really a year before I expected to be on the market…)

    My worst convention experience was when I was kept waiting about 15 minutes in the hall by a search committee that wanted to give the previous candidate who had come from the UK a chance to make HIS case. No need for me to make mine, eh?

    When I do conference interviews now, we plan 15 minutes between them, and even if we go over 5 minutes, we all have a chance to run to the bathroom and whatever else.


  27. The APA smoker sounds pretty tedious. But I don’t understand the attitude that running into other job candidates is such a bad thing. I mean, surely anyone being interviewed knows they’re not the only one!
    As another commenter mentioned, meeting the other candidates is common in the UK, and generally they are very supportive of one another. After all, these are other scholars in your subfield: if you don’t know them already, chances are you’ll run into them at some point. Why not have a collegial chat?
    Actually, I think the extreme of paranoia that seems to afflict the academic job search in North America (in history, at least) is corrosive. Job candidates are much more freaked out, and it’s not very healthy. People are unwilling to mention where they have interviews like it’s some state secret: I honestly don’t get it. Knowing who the other candidates are (and who gets the job in the end) can be demystifying – and the history job market needs more demystification, not black box craziness and smoke machines and “oh my god you might SEE another candidate!”.


  28. I think the conference interview is ridiculous. I got invited to one once. It was for the University of the South at the MESA conference in DC. But, I was living in Bishkek at the time and could not afford to blow $2000 on plane ticket on the slim hope that I would get a job. In the corporate world the company will usually pay for transportation and accommodations for the interviewee. If they don’t then they probably don’t want you enough to justify the time and expense. The same thing should be true with universities. If they want to interview you in person they should pay your way. The only in person interview I have done for an academic position was the one I did for getting my permanent contract at UG. But, since I had already working at UG for eight months I don’t think it was really necessary. The Head of the History Department was quite familiar with my work by then. The process struck me as one of the many colonial holdovers still haunting the university.


  29. @AHA Veteran: But, in fact, the “old guard”–depending on how defined–*didn’t* go through the conference interview process. It was the middle guard (since the decimated job market faintly revived in about 1985) that went through that process. Because until about 1978 there were no advertised jobs, and even when they began advertising them there were still basically no jobs to advertise. Historiann’s chronology is quite accurate. I’ll be glad to send her the detailed handout that my entering cohort got in the early 1970s about how to “look” for a job–which wouldn’t have involved a whole lot of looking had the market not imploded the next year–if she wants to print any of it on-blog.

    And Historiann, your advisor is actually in print as having conditioned his willingness to make that trip east from Michigan on being allowed to continue to teach early modern English History along with early American!

    The convention search, cattle call and all, and painful as it is, was a by-product of the democratization of academic governance after the 1960s rebellions, the rebellion against departmental patriarchs, and it did contribute greatly to the diversification of academia. But there’s no “ancient constitutions” guarantee that any of that system will endure if the zoo-like aspects overwhelm the deliberative aspects.


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