Advice for Applying for Academic Jobs in Philosophy: Indiana University Bloomington (Part 4: The Interview)

The aim of this series is to provide APA members with some insights into the hiring process from a variety of sources and perspectives.  If you would like to submit a contribution, we’d love to hear from you.  Please contact us via the submission form here.

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This is the fourth in a series of posts on how a job candidate in philosophy should put together a dossier and apply for academic jobs.  In Part 1, Wood addressed aspects of the job dossier, including AOCs/AOSs, the letter of application, the CV, and his approach to this series. Part 2 considered the writing sample. In Part 3, Wood discussed letters of recommendation, the research statement, teaching credentials, and publications.  This post is all about the job interview.  In future posts, Wood will address campus visits, job offers, and offer reflections on the hiring process.

by Allen Wood

The Job Interview

At this point, the twenty or so really viable candidates have been selected. For these survivors, letters of recommendation and other materials are read more carefully. I emphasize that this does not mean they will necessarily be judged more fairly. Readers may spend more time on and give more attention to your writing sample, but their philosophical prejudices are likely to play a major part in their evaluation. Bigotry and philosophical sectarianism become major factors.

For instance, a search committee member who imagines that he or she has been smart enough to spot a philosophical error in an otherwise exemplary paper may become obsessed with this self-conceited crotchet, ignoring the paper’s excellence and voting in such a way that the best candidate gets the shaft. Horse-trading between search committee members may also influence the process: two excellent candidates may each be unacceptable to one member of the committee, and a third inferior candidate may be selected as a compromise.

This kind of thing can happen at the department level too. Departments very often choose the wrong candidate. I should admit at this point that I don’t have a very good record of convincing my colleagues to hire the people I want them to hire. Naturally, these decisions, while still painfully fallible, seem to me consistently better when I am in sole charge of making them.

If your application survives and makes it to the interview stagewhich usually includes only a dozen or so names out of hundreds of applicantsyou may be tempted to feel good about this. By rights, you should. So enjoy it while you can, because it’s not going to last. The most dismal part of the philosophy job search is the “job interview.”

Interviews used to be done at the APA’s Eastern Division Meeting, and some still are. More and more, they are done by Skype or something similar. These interviews are the most artificial kind of human encounter imaginable. I find Skype interviews even more artificial than face-to-face interviews. Departments are increasingly not using them, because they find the results too unreliable. In my opinion, wise departments don’t interview at all. They go right to the campus visit phase.

But as long as some departments do interview, if you are a job candidate, you must sit anxiously by your phone (or check your email every half hour) in early December, hoping against hope that you’ll be the victim (there is no other word for it) of one of these wretched interviews. I wonder whether in ancient Rome gladiators waited in the same way to be invited to participate in a battle—to the death, before drooling spectators—in which they were virtually certain to be skewered, ground into the dust, and hacked to pieces by a bloodthirsty adversary. Let this cheery thought be some consolation to you when your phone does not ring and you get no messages of invitation from anybody.

If you are one of the lucky few, you need to prepare carefully for each interview. Many graduate programs have “mock interviews” to help you prepare. During the whole job search process, you should be in constant contact with your dissertation advisor, job placement officer, and anybody else who is able and willing to help and advise you. You should try to get their reading on what is happening at this place and that place, and on what you can do to improve your chances. You should gather what information you can about the people who will be interviewing you. If you can show your interviewers that you know their work, doing so will never harm you (unless perhaps you can’t hide your contempt for it).

Above all, you need to practice your spiel—your obligatory response to the predictable opening question, “Tell us something about your dissertation.” The spiel should be brief, informative, engaging, and compelling. You may think these people have read your CV and writing sample, but do not assume this. The interviewers might be overworked, lazy, irresponsible people. But you cannot give them the slightest reason to think you realize this. You have to behave both as if they had read your work carefully and, at the same time, as if they know absolutely nothing about it. (Unlike politicians, philosophers are often not good at behaving as if blatant falsehoods and even contradictions were true, but in an interview it is sometimes mandatory.)

You should prepare and practice your spiel carefully. But you need to be prepared at every point for it to be interrupted by questions or objections. And you need to be able to get things back onto the track where you want them without seeming to lose a beat. The worst thing that can happen to an interview victim is that he or she has gotten most of the way into completing the dissertation, yet pockets of unclarity, or uncertainty about a final chapter, remain (because the dissertation is, of course, not quite finished). Interviewers detect these deficiencies without fail and attack them remorselessly in the same way a gang of sharks behaves when it smells blood in the water. (Did you ever see the low-budget horror movie Open Water?)

My grisly similes may give you the impression that most interviews do not go well for the candidate. In fact, most are utter calamities. Moreover, in most cases, there is nothing you could have done to change the outcomenot even if you could go back to the Big Bang and fiddle with the electrons and protons emerging from the primordial cosmic soup. The catastrophe is often the fault of the interviewers (or just of the artificiality of the situation). Interviewers are fallible human beings who may have good intentions but fall prey to their own intellectual limitations or unconscious prejudices.

Then, just at the point when you have become most disoriented and demoralized, they will shift gears and ask you to say something about what you will teach and how you will teach it. You need to respond immediately by self-assuredly convincing them that you will be simply the best teacher of your subject they’ve ever seen. Visibly losing your self-assurance when you see you’ve badly goofed up basically ends the interview (even if there are 45 minutes left, which will be agonizing for everyone).

Much could be written about the current circumstances, in which many very talented and well-trained young philosophers are applying for jobs at places where the entire faculty are their intellectual inferiors. Envy and fear of being shown up may make them not want to hire you precisely because of the same high qualifications that forced them to interview you. They are usually nervous about interviewing you because they probably haven’t read your dossier and would not be competent to judge your work even if they had. If you show them you are aware of this, you are out. But if you try patiently to explain things to them in ways they can understand, they will think you are condescending and feel insulted. If they realize you are smarter than they are, they resent it. If they can convince themselves, much to their relief, that you aren’t, then they dismiss you as non-competitive.

To succeed in the interview, you need to make them feel that you are already a colleague, their equal, not a mere upstart graduate student; but also not their superior, even if (precocious genius that you are) you see yourself as the star from your big-name school and them as a bunch of middle-aged losers with dead-end careers. For don’t forget: you are there solely because you want to join their (no-name) department. The very interview situation itself often poses hopeless dilemmas that it seems logically impossible for a job candidate to solve, however brilliant and inventive he or she may be in solving philosophical dilemmas of other kinds. The point is that most of the time a failed interview does not necessarily say anything negative about you.

In the movie Bull Durham, the aging journeyman catcher Crash Davis (played by Kevin Costner) is mentoring the incredibly talented but totally witless young pitching sensation Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh (played by Tim Robbins). At one point, Crash solemnly pronounces these words of wisdom: “Baseball is a game that must be played with fear and arrogance.” This saying shows that along with his many years of experience spitting tobacco juice on the ground in minor-league ballparks, Crash must once have had an APA philosophy job interview. (I won’t try to guess whether he was offered the job and preferred being a minor-league catcher to being a minor-league philosophy professor.) In this most abnormal, awkward, and adversarial of all environments, you need to come across as an entirely normal, but abnormally likeable, human being. While being disarmingly modest, you need to snow them with your erudition, your philosophical rigor, your overwhelming articulateness,and your inspiring originality. If you don’t act like you’ve done all this, they will never believe you have.

A few manage to succeed, by not showing they realize what a gruesome disaster the whole thing is, and then somehow infecting the interviewers with this total misperception of what has just happened. How do they do it? I wish I could tell you. Being a basically honest person, I wouldn’t know how to bring it off. But my limited social skills (which may include my honesty) are firmly rooted in my astonishing degree of unperceptiveness regarding what is going on in my immediate interpersonal environment. So I myself might simply not notice what a ghastly mess I was making of the interview and behave as if I were carrying it off brilliantly. Perhaps my interviewers, if they too were true philosophers, would be just as dense and obtuse as I am, and would therefore see things the same way I did. If I were ever to interview successfully, that would have to be how I did it. Maybe that’s how all successful interview victims do it.

Careful preparation, practice, and innate talent for interviewing are perhaps necessary conditions for an interview that impresses people, but it always seems to me to be mostly a matter of dumb luck.

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Please see below for other posts in Wood’s series:  

Allen Wood is the Ruth Norman Halls Professor of Philosophy at Indiana University Bloomington. He is also the Ward W. and Priscilla B. Woods Professor Emeritus at Stanford University, where he teaches short courses and participates on Ph.D. dissertation committees. Find out more about Wood here.  

9 thoughts on “Advice for Applying for Academic Jobs in Philosophy: Indiana University Bloomington (Part 4: The Interview)

  1. I find this post of Wood’s to be wildly inaccurate about what it is like to be interviewed for a job in philosophy. Many friends of Wood on the internet say that he intends this piece as satire—as willfully exaggeration—of genuinely problematic aspects of philosophy. Perhaps that was his intention. I don’t know. But if it is intended as satire then I think that should have been made much clearer. The venue and previous posts would naturally suggest that we are not being offered satire. But if it is intended just as accurate depiction of what job interviews, and the profs who do the interviewing, are like then I think it wildly inaccurate. That is not to deny that there are problems in the profession in the direction that Wood mentions. But he wildly exaggerates such problems and focuses only on negative aspects of interviews when I think the truth is that many find that, for all the awfulness of being on the market, the actual interview is often a good moment. According to most that I have talked to, the interview is found to be a moment when philosophers who are genuinely interested in your work ask you what you think and really want to hear what you have to say. It is a moment when you are listened to and it matters if you can explain and defend your views.

    The job market sucks. There are many talented job seekers and not enough jobs for all of them. But in my experience in hiring at the 3 different departments I have worked at, and from what I have gathered from talking to others, Wood’s depiction of what goes on during interviews is excessively gloomy. He takes a bad situation and paints it as even worse than it is.

    • Keep in mind (what I said in the first post) that these are my opinions only, and that others will surely disagree. It may be that adopting the attitude and expectation described by David Sobel would be helpful for people going into interviews, and they might even (on rare occasions) experience interviews that are as goody-goody as he describes. But I think it likely that a person who goes into these interviews with that attitude is apt to be quickly disillusioned. I have had many years of experience participating in these interviews and what I said is what I believe most of them are like. If my account seems like a satire then I think most APA interviews are themselves satires of what those who favor them might hope them to be. Keep in mind that I recommend that departments abandon the practice.

  2. I find the advice series by Allen Wood disturbing, completely useless for people actually looking for advice, and very unprofessional. I blame the APA. The organisation should be trying to give some real advice based on statistics and the input of serious people. This is especially true now with the job market in philosophy being probably the worst its ever been. Again, I repeat that I find the series totally unacceptable.

  3. To Penderan Roberts.

    A short sharp answer to Dr Roberts might be that if he finds Allen Wood’s advice unacceptable, he does not have to to accept it. But that of course would be to miss the point. What he finds unacceptable is not just Professor Wood’s advice but the fact that it was offered in the first place. Apparently it is so awful as to suggest delinquency on the part of the APA in in allowing it onto the web. But what exactly is Dr Roberts beef? Allen Wood describes what he does in his capacity as a search committee member, and on the assumption that he is not a-typical, gives some advice to young philosophers as to what they ought to do if their applications are not to be tossed onto the ‘reject’ pile by search-committee members with similar habits. This would be unhelpful perhaps, if he were substantially out of step with the rest of the profession. But if he is not, then it is hard to see how his advice could fail to be useful. You could object to some of his practices as (as in fact I do) but if they are in fact fairly typical, then it is advice based on what search committee members OUGHT to do rather than advice based on what many of them ACTUALLY do that would be unhelpful. For example, if you base your application-strategy on the belief that search committee members OUGHT to ignore pedigree and SHOULDN’T allow themselves to be swayed by letters of reference from big-shots, then you are likely to come cropper given that that is what many of them do. Let us review what Wood *does* (or at least what he says he does) before going on to what he *suggests*.
    To begin with he makes the general point that search-committees often have an enormous number of applications to grind their way through and are therefore looking for reasons to eliminate people. He himself is no exception. This is harsh but true. Wood uses AOCs and AOSs to eliminate candidates who are not suited to the position as advertised. Frankly, this is not only the usual practice but seems to me fair enough, especially as departments who want to be a bit more flexible can do so by the use of some such formula as the following: ‘The AOS is open but preference may be given to candidates with expertise in the following areas, X, Y and Z.’ Secondly, Wood implies, without actually saying so, that he uses pedigree and letters from prestigious referees to help determine his ranking. ‘Your chances of surviving the first cut are often proportional to the prestige of the institution and department where you got your Ph.D., and to the reputation of your recommenders.’ I regard this practice as objectionable, but there is no denying that it is, in fact, fairly common. However, Wood also tries to read, or at least skim, the writing samples of all the candidates, preferring to use his own judgment rather than to construct a publication-based ranking. Again, I have my doubts about this since I think he over-estimates his own judgment and takes himself to be a lot less subject to prejudice than I suspect he actually is, especially as his eyes begin to glaze and sample-fatigue sets in. But again there can be no doubt that this strategy too is fairly common. (I have seen it stoutly defended by a number of well-known philosophers.) Furthermore the fact that Wood grinds his way through the writing-samples means that those with a less than Leiterrific pedigree and no superstar referees are still in with a chance so far as Wood is concerned. He implies that he often does not read samples all the way through and tends to prefer those papers which present a clear, interesting and punchy argument in the first few pages. Finally, though he does not say what he himself does when it comes to interviews, he suggests that the interview process is something of a crap-shoot in which interviewees struggle to meet an often contradictory set of requirements. His skepticism about the value of interviews is born out by all the research that I have read from departments of management where this is, of course, an issue. When people dethrone the best candidate ‘on paper’ in favor of the candidate who shines at the interview, they are often making a mistake.

    Now what about his suggestions?

    1) First, Wood recommends a short, clear, uncluttered CV in which the salient facts jump out at the reader. (In the comments section several of us made the point that this means clearly distinguishing achievements – such as actual or forthcoming publications – from aspirations – such as ‘under submissions’ or ‘under contracts’. ) This is good advice given any half-way sensible selection strategy on the part of search-committees. A long, boring, ill-formatted CV is likely to annoy search-committee members since it will tend to waste their time. If you have to submit a research-statement, that too should be short and pithy and should grab the reader’s attention straight away.
    2) Secondly, he recommends that if you have not been to a top school (which virtually guarantees top referees unless you were a total-stuff-up) it is a good idea to get yourself a distinguished letter-writer if you possibly can. Again this is good advice given the prestige-driven selection process practiced by Wood, but is it good advice even if many search-committees are using a publications-based system to make the first cut. If a philosopher from Boondock U had made it to the long-list and could produce a letter from a big-shot at Princeton or UNC (especially if it came from a big-shot who I happened to know and trust) then I would be inclined to suspect that she might be something special.
    3) Thirdly, Wood recommends a short, punchy writing sample in which the interesting idea or argument is presented up front. This is good advice given his sample-driven selection process, but it is good advice even if many departments defer reading the writing-samples until they have gotten down to the long-list. If I find myself muttering ‘Get on with it!’ or ‘Cut to the chase!’ with respect to your sample, then you won’t make it from the long-list to the shortlist.
    4) Despite the dim view he takes of the interviewing process, Wood offers some sensible suggestions. Make sure you have your research-spiel and your teaching-spiel down pat. Your research-spiel should be clear without being condescending. Be prepared (gently) to steer the conversation back on track if it goes off on too much of a tangent. It does not do to come across as arrogant. It is a good idea to research your potential colleagues and the department that you aspire to join and to adapt your line of patter accordingly. (This applies in particular to your teaching-spiel.) People appreciate it if you show some interest in getting a job with *them* as opposed to just getting some bloody job or other. All this strikes me as straight-forwardly good advice, and advice moreover that applies whatever the selection-process that got you to the interview in the first place.
    Given all this, the idea that Professor Wood’s posts are ‘useless’ and ‘unprofessional’ (indeed unacceptably so) is simply absurd. You can object to his tone and you can object to his tactics as a search-committee member (as indeed I do). But if his tactics are widely pursued his advice is sound. And his tactics are indeed widely pursued. Do as he bids and you are less likely to get dropped off the list at an early stage in the game and more likely to make it to the top. (Indeed, if you do as he bids you are more likely to make it even if the search committee is using a publications-based method to arrive at the long-list, which is what I recommend.) To reject his advice as unacceptable is to reject advice based on reality in favor of advice based on fantasy.

  4. I am not convinced. 1-3 are obvious or have been provided ad nauseam by other sources. Wood Provides no new information. 4 is coupled with so much satire it’s hard to know how to take the advice. He ends with saying that innate talent is a necessary condition and then luck. This may be true, but it’s useless to anyone who’s actually trying. The other interview advice isn’t horrible, but is minimal. I still think the series is unprofessional and useless, or at least largely useless. At best it could have been much better!

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