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.
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 stage—which usually includes only a dozen or so names out of hundreds of applicants—you 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 outcome—not 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.
Please see below for other posts in Wood’s series:
- Part 1 – Introduction, AOCs/AOSs, the Letter of Application, and the CV
- Part 2 – The Writing Sample
- Part 3 – Letters of Recommendation, The Research Statement, Teaching Credentials, and Publications
- Part 4 – The Interview
- Part 5 – Campus Visits, Job Talks, and the Teaching Demo
- Part 6 – The Offer and Reflections
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.