Time to Dispense with the AHA Conference Interviews?

Claire Potter over at Tenured Radical recently offered an interesting critique of conference interviews as a practice, and suggests substituting telephone interviews as an alternative. While that may be necessary as an economic expedient for the moment, I wonder whether it is really the best long-term solution. Yes, conference interviews can be a miserable and emotionally draining experience for all involved, but would the alternative really work for the large pool of applicants coming onto the market each year? I suspect not.

Potter’s article is built on a faulty premise, that the conference interview is merely a holdover from the bad old days of the “boy’s club” in the discipline. Judging from my reading of the correspondence of senior historians of the 1920s to the 1940s, and interviews with historians hired in the 50s and 60s, hiring back then was based on little more than a phone call or a letter from some senior member of the profession. The present system was established in the 1960s as a way of making the hiring process more open to women, minorities, and students from less prestigious universities. By opening up the process and allowing a much larger number of applicants to get into the mix of candidates considered for every opening, I think it has been quite successful.

Given that, Potter’s calculation of the economies for search committees and candidates seems misguided. The meeting focuses the committee’s attention on the process and provides a unique opportunity to meet with a large number of candidates. The average search committee at the AHA Job Center interviews 11 candidates. Under a system where all the preliminary interviews are made by phone, I doubt that search committee members would schedule more than half that number of interviews into the day-to-day grind of their lives on campus. Departments are more likely to make a much smaller first cut, and in the process would be more likely to base their selections on the old traditional categories—the applicant’s adviser and school.

We have seen evidence of this happening already. Over the past few years a growing number of elite schools are moving in this direction. As the alignment between new PhDs and jobs approached parity in some fields, and the competition for the “best candidates” heated up, a number of the elite schools have been using phone interviews to jump the line and lock in their choices before the AHA meeting. Everything I have heard about these searches reinforces my concerns, as fewer candidates got their foot in the door, and those that did were from a narrower strata of elite departments.

The cost calculation for applicants is not as simple as Potter’s analysis suggests either. Job seekers who come to the meeting usually get between three and five interviews, and can attend the interviewing workshop. They can also network with other historians throughout the course of the meeting. And given the larger number of interviews per applicant at the meeting, it also increases an applicant’s odds of meeting with a larger number of search committees. If I am correct that shifting to phone interviews would cut the number of people getting preliminary interviews in half, this proposal would just mean larger numbers of summary rejection letters before the first interview. That hardly seems less degrading and impersonal than the conference interview.

While I continue to think that conference interviews remain the best and most democratic system for making the first cut in academic job searches, I am always looking for ways to make the system work better. Over the past decade we have made the whole process more humane—just ask anyone who remembers when all the tables were in a large open room, and interviews were scheduled through “two-way” paper forms. Along those lines, Potter (drawing on an earlier article from David Evans that no longer seems to be available) pushes one idea that I find quite intriguing. Would it make sense for the AHA to establish a vita bank for history—effectively a central clearinghouse for CV’s, letters of recommendations, teaching portfolios, and the like? I can see how that could greatly simplify the application process for candidates and applicants alike, though there are some obvious technical and issues (setting it up would not be cheap, and keeping letters of recommendation confidential could be a problem).

We are here to serve applicants and search committees alike, so do not hesitate to contact with your advice and suggestions about how we can make the system work better for you.

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  1. Larry Cebula

    I could not disagree more. Conference interviews are the least equitable way of making the second cut and should be eliminated.

    The worst thing about conference interviews is the way they put much of the financial burden of the job search process on those least able to afford it. New PhDs with tens of thousands of dollars of debt and a job at Starbucks have to pay their own way to one of the more expensive cities in America for the convenience of the search committee and a 20 minute interview. Or the hope of a 20 minute interview! And so many committees contact applicants late enough that the new PhD will be paying full rates for that plane ticket and hotel room. (Which is no problem for the committee members, who are not paying their own way.) It is unconscionable.

    This was barely understandable twenty years ago, but not with the proliferation of communication technology. At my last school I was on half-a-dozen search committees and we did preliminary interviews by phone. It was easy, convenient, less expensive and less stressful for everyone concerned. We went to the chairs office, put the candidate on speakerphone, and interviewed. We would 3-4 interviews at a time and decide which two we would invite to campus. And the phone eliminated any chance of biasing the interview based on appearance or race or dress or other irrelevant factors.

    Finally, the high stakes jobs interviews cast a dark shadow over the AHA conference—or as a friend of mine, said the interviews “poison the conference.” You’d be better off without it.

    The one other point I want to make is that I do not think that the AHA conference interview has ever been some kind of standard. I have known of many departments that do not interview at the AHA, and others that only do so sporadically. Are there any figures on the percentage of tenure track jobs that have been filled via AHA interviews? I suspect it has always been a minority of positions.

  2. Thomas DuBois

    I agree wholeheartedly with the previous comment.

    Professor Townsend mentions the emotional cost, but for most graduate students (or even worse, adjunct faculty looking for a permanent position) the financial cost is very significant. Particularly given that these events are often held in very expensive cities, the idea of making a self-funded trip to the annual conference simply in hopes of securing a campus interview a standard part of the job search is absolutely unreasonable. Were we talking about a job fair for MBAs, it might be a calculated risk, but for an Assistant Professor of History, absolutely not.

    Again, to echo the previous post, given the availability of Skype and other free and reliable methods of interviewing from a distance, the AHA interview makes no sense. And I suspect that this method would be easier on faculty, as well. Anyone who has been through the AHA interviews as an applicant will remember the sight of a room full of tired, probably jet-lagged faculty who have just had the same 20 minute conversation a dozen times, and now are preparing to slog through the same thing with you. Unpleasant, inefficient, and necessarily unfair.

    In our department (National University of Singapore), we Skype-interview all of our first-cut graduate school applicants. This is a large number of people, and does take time. But we can be in the comfort of our own offices, and can spread the process out over a few days. Everyone is happier this way.

  3. Mark Higbee

    Townsend’s observations are mistaken in two ways. First is his assumption that search committees cannot manage to do a dozen or so phone interviews. That task is much simpler than attending the AHA, and is in fact regularly done at many schools. The 2nd mistake is his assumption that AHA interviews are where the “first cuts” in the selection process are made. That’s not usually the case – not for AHA interviews that are set up in advance, which is done by the most thoroughly prepared search committees. The cold call AHA interviews – in which the committee is hearing your name for the first time—may be used to make the first cut, but if so, they are an exceedingly inefficient way of doing so.

  4. James Schneider

    At UTSA, we have been using telephone interviews for years, involving close to a dozen searches I suppose. Faculty participation has been excellent, despite the fact that interviewing anywhere from 8 to 12 candidates consumes up to two working days. The quality of information we get, and the ultimate success of the searches, has been in every way commensurate with the results obtained using face-to-face interviews at the AHA. Moreover, we have had very few problems in arranging these telephone conferences. I view our current system as superior to the old method, hands down.

  5. Knitting Clio

    We are the only department in our university who uses the AHA conference for preliminary interviews. Other departments have used phone interviews for years and I’ve come to agree that this is an acceptable way to do preliminary interviews. Conference travel has become very expensive and funds to reimburse faculty to interview applicants at the AHA comes out of our department budget. Public universities with tight budgets simply can’t afford to interview at the convention anymore. Nearly all of our conference interviews are prearranged, so doing this by phone will be just as easy without the cost and inconvenience of travel.

  6. Former Adjunct

    I am surprised that no one has mentioned the unsavory way that the AHA makes money both ways on the job interviews—by charging the schools that interview and by forcing every interviewee to pay the registration fee to get a badge to allow them to enter the job site. It’s unfair, indeed, for schools to hold their interviews at the AHA given the multitude of costs to an applicant. Furthermore, while the AHA puts out information that applicants can apply for jobs at the conference, few institutions actually have those open calls. But, let’s be honest about this—Why does the AHA keep the job center? Money. Losing the job center would lose hundreds of registration fees and attendees. I much prefer my own field’s organizational meeting to the AHA and I suspect that many others do also. It would be interesting to see what attendance was like at the AHA without the job center.

  7. Joseph Morgan

    The interview process at the AHA conference is indeed tiring, but two of our most recent hires came through that process and they are great assets to the department and the school. I don’t know if my department would have been able to hire them we didn’t send faculty to the AHA Job Fair.

  8. Alonzo L. Hamby

    As a person who has been on both sides of the interview table at AHA or OAH meetings, I’m very surprised at the negative comments on Mr. Townsend’s sensible article.

    As an ABD seeking employment in December, 1964, I made contacts at the AHA meeting that I would not have gotten otherwise.

    As a senior member of our department and briefly as a department chair, I found conference interviews far preferable to making a campus cut on the basis of written credentials.

    The plain fact is that what you see in person is not necessarily what is depicted on paper by supportive mentors. This is especially true if one needs to assess teaching capabilities. The conference interview also allows for a degree of probing into a candidate’s research and mastery of a field that is more difficult on the phone. (Some candidates, I am certain, have rather resented being subjected to what may seem another PhD oral—and on occasion being eliminated as a result.)

    Yes, these convention interviews are a pain for everyone involved, but they are a price worth paying if a department wants to cast a genuinely wide recruitment net and elevate its quality.

    I know it is often financially tough for job seekers to travel to conferences. But if one is committed to history as a career, then it is imperative to attend as many AHA (or OAH) meetings as one can, and do it early on.

  9. Robert B. Townsend

    One correction to the observations of Former Adjunct. We do not charge the schools to use the job center. They only pay a fee (which is done at cost) if they want to rent a room instead of using the free tables.

    If the Association ran the job center solely for the money, we would have discontinued the service many years ago. Yes we do require anyone using the service to register for the meeting, but that is because the facilities themselves and the staff time involved are quite expensive. We run the center at a loss because we consider it a service to the profession, for the reasons described above.

  10. Former job seeker

    My experience on the job market a couple of years ago was that phone interviews prevail for those not on track to get positions at large research institutions. I had two interviews at the AHA that year (none of which panned out into campus visits) and nearly a dozen phone interviews, all of which occurred later in Feb. and Mar. I luckily landed several campus interviews and a job, but none of them started at the AHA.

    For so many job seekers, the AHA is just the beginning, not the climax, of the first-interview round. For me it served as practice for the telephone and campus interviews that followed. But overall it was more stressful than productive, and the promise of getting additional interviews on the spot never materialized for anyone I knew who attended that job fair.

    It should also be pointed out that some of the interviewers at the AHA are not actually on the search committees they represent. They just happened to be attending the conference and got roped into service so the department did not have to send extra bodies. They may not have put in the extra time to closely review each candidate’s paperwork and may not be in a remotely related field. They can still conduct an excellent interview, of course, but it is disappointing to the candidate who has carefully researched the committee members’ work to wind up facing someone else entirely. It pays to ask who exactly will be conducting the interview that day AND what their role is in the search process. There were no such sit-ins for my telephone interviews.

    I can see how AHA interviews benefit the schools that can afford to conduct them, and I do not think they will ever go away entirely. I agree, however, that phone or digital interviewing is a legitimate strategy as well. It is efficient and effective.

    And, yes, prospective faculty members need to attend one of the large conferences to get a feel for the wider scholarly community, learn to network, peruse the book fair, and stay abreast of emerging research trends. On the other hand, many smaller colleges require candidates to pay for their own campus travel up front and get reimbursed later, so for the successful job seeker the AHA is also just the beginning of a very expensive travel season that can stretch meager graduate student budgets to the breaking point. Grad schools rarely offer travel compensation just to interview at the AHA (you must also be on a panel), and often neglect to school their student candidates about the costs they should anticipate in a year-long job search.

    I believe the trend toward phone interviews opens opportunities for candidates rather than closes them, especially for those seeking employment on the teaching or lighter research tracks. I also agree with the “dark cloud” effect. I was ever so grateful not to be on the job market this past year, and I felt anxious just seeing the strained faces of the candidates who were in New York. Even in a good year, the job fair is hard to watch.

  11. Peter Porter

    I believe interviews at AHA remain an important part of the process. They allow a large pool of candidates to interact and be interviewed by various universities. As to the good ole boy comment. our former chair was a woman and she conducted many interviews at the AHA.

  12. New Assistant Prof

    As someone on the job market for the past two years, I am surprised to see so much support for telephone interviews. All of my telephone interviews were horrible experiences. No visual cues, awkward pauses, mistaken identities—“Oh, I’m sorry professor X, I thought I was responding to professor Y.” More than anything, it is the nature of the medium that bothers me. At least a conference interview is a face-to-face interaction in which both sides are expected to behave professionally and are given a measure of accountability. Can the same be said for the telephone format? Are committee members more likely to roll their eyes or flash wry smiles during phone interviews? Is it easier to simply ignore a candidate by phone? I think so. (Maybe a video interview would overcome these faults; I’ve never had one.) Also, and I think obviously, the conference interview is a chance to exchange ideas in person and watch a candidate communicate. That is, it is a teaching demonstration. Unless your institution teaches courses by conference call, this alone is reason enough to conduct AHA interviews.

    The opportunity to meet potential colleagues in person is a real benefit to job candidates. The candidate, while at an obvious disadvantage in terms of power, can form her or his own opinions after such an interaction. For example, my reaction to one school, formed in the nebulous world of impressions, feelings, and conclusions was so negative that I decided not to accept a campus visit. A phone interview would not have given me the same amount of information about the department and its members. The notion that a committee is less likely to take factors such as personal appearance or race into account over the phone is preposterous. A biased committee will be a biased committee via any medium. Not to mention the fact that your department will still have to interact with candidates during their campus visits.

    As for cost, yes, it is an issue. But as a graduate student, I learned to accept the fact that I would have to pay for conferences, books, journal subscriptions, and other forms of professional development. Attending the AHA as a job candidate was stressful at times, but I was surrounded by other people in the same boat. Conversations with other candidates over coffee or drinks were absolutely worth the expense. The same kind of crying or worrying into our beers would be impossible if the AHA interviews ceased to exist.

    There is no denying that phone interviews are easier for interviewers. This, I suspect, is the primary reason they are receiving such praise on this post.

  13. Constance Bouchard

    I have opposed AHA interviewing for 20 years—when I had an op-ed piece on the topic in “Perspecives.” The main justification for these conference interviews is that, by “opening up” the job search, we avoid the good ol’ boy network. But interviewing at the AHA (versus interviewing on the phone) does nothing to make applying for jobs easier for women and minorities, given that those interviewed at the conference were pre-selected in almost all cases. At our university we routinely interview about 10 people by phone, spreading it out over a week so that we can digest and think about each candidate rather than rushing madly from one to the next. Candidates have more time to develop their candidacy, up to an hour if necessary. In addition, it seems to us very wrong to expect candidates to pay their own way to the meetings. We especially do not want to be one of those schools that eliminate any candidate who cannot afford the meetings. All the things that cannot be determined on the phone become clear in an on-campus interview—when we’re paying.

  14. Eric Carlson

    From my experience setting up interviews at the AHA when I chaired a search as well as mentoring former students who have since finished PhDs and gone on the job market, I know that there is a fundamental flaw in the timing of the system. In order to get an affordable plane ticket and secure hotel accommodations at the conference rate, applicants have to act well before they know if they will have interviews. For heaven’s sake, when I was on the market 20 years ago, I was still getting calls with interview offers four days before Christmas! It’s a huge risk, and it is very easy for those of us who were in a position to afford it when we were searching to say “Well, it’s just the cost of finding a job.” But for people with families, and especially in difficult economic times—well, how many can afford to risk $1000?

    We have done phone interviews, and I don’t much like them for the reasons that “New Assistant Prof” named. But they are easier for us to schedule, and we can devote more time to each candidate than we would at the AHA. My hope is that Skype (or similar programs) that allow all parties to be seen will soon be used widely enough to overcome the difficulties.