Faculty Job Searches in the Humanities

In this blogge post, former academic and now journalist Rebecca Schuman takes the English Department of University of California-Riverside to task for informing faculty job candidates that they will receive only five days notice before the start of the Modern Language Association conference if they are going to be invited to interview at the conference.

Schuman was really fucken pissed offe about this short notice:

The way I see it, Dr. Katherine Kinney and the Overlords of the UC-Riverside English department have decided that anyone they deem worthy will, of course, already be attending MLA, either to give several important papers, or to be interviewed by several other institutions who have the common fucking human decency to notify their candidates more than three days in advance. This is a move that is both elitist and out of touch. Because of the hyper-competitive market and huge glut of applicants for every job, nowadays many, many PhDs and ABDs now attend MLA to go on a single, solitary, pathetic interview–because, they’re told, “all it takes is one,” after all.

The UC-Riverside English department’s decision to give their candidates five days’ notice is unconscionable. I have never felt the need to name a search committee chair in public before, but this one deserves it. Dr. Katherine Kinney, you and your committee should be ashamed of yourselves.

As a natural scientist, it is bizarre to me that humanities job applicants would be expected to spend any of their own money on travel, accommodations, and a conference registration fee in order to interview for an academic job.

While Tenured Radical feels that the tone of Schuman’s reaction may have been excessive, it seems to me that Schuman’s complaints are grounded in truth: that the search committee acted thoughtlessly, blinded by its own privilege to the effect its actions would have on applicants. And I get the impression that the humanities job search process–which Schuman apparently went through multiple times without success–can involve a continuous series of microaggressions exerted by faculty upon applicants. Based on all of this, I figure that this UCR dealio was one microaggression too many, and set her off.

Looking back on my own entry-level natural sciences faculty job search–even though my own experience of it was clearly highly privileged–I myself experienced what I perceived as a pretty continuous stream of microaggressions. Had the ultimate outcome not been favorable for me, I would surely have become embittered and felt oppressed. So I am not inclined to blame people too much who do experience unfavorable outcomes and thereby become embittered and feel oppressed, and lash out accordingly.


  1. says

    I’m on a search committee (in computer science and statistics) right now, and I can’t imagine treating any of our candidates like this. We are not looking for an expendable grunt who can be treated like dirt because there are so many other candidates pounding on our door (even though there were). Despite having no dearth of applicants, we want them all to be valued colleagues…and we’re going to treat them like that from the very beginning.

  2. says

    You know, I think you and PZ Myers are right. I never wondered why my closest colleague at work is on the Biology department , but it is probably related to what you wrote about. I also want to thank you for putting politely something that would have been a rage- filled rant had I written something about it,

  3. says

    We once interviewed at a conference with relatively short notice. Why? We’d done an early search aimed at the associate level (open rank, but associate preferred) and made an offer before the meetings. Everything was looking swimming, and then the person we made an offer to declined after extending long enough for our second choice to accept another offer elsewhere. So we ended up going to the meetings and trying out the assistant professor market instead. It happens. Not because of any malevolence on anyone’s part. We hadn’t intended on interviewing at the meetings and then got a chance to interview.

  4. MLA Member says

    I have experience in the job market in English and with the MLA conference and interview process. It’s as cruel as searching for a job in any competitive field, and also hugely expensive. How expensive? This is my third year on the market (our department’s placement director tells job candidates to expect it to take 3-4 market cycles to get placed, if we do at all). I have a credit card I just use for job related expenses.

    Costs for this year:
    Interfolio – $180
    MLA membership – $44
    MLA Conference reg – $60
    Lodging – $300
    Food – $150
    Airfare – $280

    That’s ~$1000. There’s no way I’ve been able to find to do it for less. Meanwhile there’s all the humiliations of having senior faculty mention how important it is to have a good bag and shoes, that such things are important. It does play to my insecurities. I’m the first in my family to attend college, let alone graduate school. I’ve never felt poorer in my life than I do as I try and scrape together the money for another round on the job market and wonder whether I should give up. Yet each year I’ve been on the market I’ve had more interviews than the one before. This year I have four.

    It’s hard to give up. But it’s hard to keep going.

  5. Scott P. says

    I once got invited to an interview at a major conference, in Manhattan, with about the same short notice (5 days). It was extraordinarily expensive, of course, to get plane tickets, register, and get a hotel at the last minute. In the end, I could only spare two days so flew in in the morning, had the interview, and flew out the afternoon of the second day.

    In order to avoid a repeat of this experience, from then on I paid to attend the conference every year, in the hopes of getting interviews. I never got another one at that venue.

    I am lucky to have a tenure-track job now but boy, is the process rough on candidates.

  6. Sunday Afternoon says

    Networking at conferences = good. That’s part of why they exist after all.

    Requiring job candidates to attend conferences on the off chance they might get an interview = bloody hell, that’s the first I’ve heard of that from my cloistered position in Silicon Valley high-tech.

    Here’s an outline of how we look for a fresh-from-PhD candidate in the 2 companies where I have been a manager (granted, at relatively large companies – I’m sure start-ups are different):

    1: manager receives resume, either through an application or referral. To be honest, referrals are preferred as there is some more knowledge about the candidate if the manager trusts the referee (the converse is true also – if so-and-so recommends this person, steer clear!)

    2: manager does a phone screening to see if candidate is actually interested in the position (often combined with 3)

    3: manager (possibly with one or two others) does a ~30 mins phone screen

    4: a short list of candidates is drawn up, usually in discussion with manager’s manager as a sounding board – the manager’s manager will often have a veto, so the list has to be justified

    5: short list candidates are invited for in-person interview that lasts a day, meeting with potential colleagues and management chain. Guess what? If that candidate is not local, WE PAY for travel and accommodation. It comes out of our travel budget, hence the prior screening.

    You might think that the above is excessive. I’ve seen ball-park reckonings that a bad hire can cost upwards of $100k in time/salary and effort to rectify – this is certainly not an unreasonable figure as it generally takes around 6 months to really appreciate if someone was actually a good fit.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *