February 2, 2013

Defending the Academic Job Talk

This Duck of Minerva blog post takes on the issue of the academic job talk.  For the non-academic readers, a job talk is simply a 30-45 min presentation of a job market candidate’s work.  Thanks for reading mom.

As noted in the post, the conventional wisdom is that these talks make or break a candidate coming right out of grad school.  I’d also add that there is probably way too much weight placed on the job talks of tenured faculty as well.

But I think the post missed two really important elements.

How do we make decisions?

I think one of the most important aspects of a job talk is it is just one of a number of factors that can be weighed to make a hiring decision.  As Daniel Nexon note’s, there might be better ways to evaluate research, teaching, or the personal attributes of a candidate.  For example, simply reading the written work or holding a seminar on the research could be a better way to evaluate the merits of the scholarship.

I attended a meeting in the Fall at WashU for search committee chairs.  In this meeting we had a social psychologist present research on how women and minority candidates are disadvantaged in the search process.  One important lesson was that people tend to ask women and minority candidates different types of questions in the one-on-one meetings.  These questions also tend to be of the “harder” type.  The simple advice was to either ask the same opening questions of the candidate or let them set the agenda.

This is just one example of how bias can influence decision-making.  I can imagine similar types of bias occurring when reading an application packet.  Do you look at the CV?  The letters?  Which working papers do you read?  How to you weigh the different factors?  Is it the same for every candidate?

One of the few saving graces of a job talk is that the candidate gets to the set the agenda.  Sure, faculty can interrupt in the talk, but the candidate selects the topic, how it is framed, what evidence will be presented, and how this fits into a broader research agenda.  This is obviously an imperfect system, but the point is that it can help compliment the other pieces of information about an applicant. 

What if efficiency?

If someone asked me how I could produce more research per day, I would say I would like more time to produce research.  But given I teach classes, sit on committees, and try to help select candidates for jobs at WashU there are many days when I don’t get any time to do research.

But many of the activities that we engage in as academics that compliment each other.  I taught Introduction to International Relations last semester.  Presenting basic material on international relations actually gave me a few new research ideas, helped me recruit a couple of top notch research assistants, and forced me to try to frame many of the classic debates in international relations as relevant for current public policy.  All of these factors have had spillovers on my research.

I could easily say the reverse about my research and my teaching.  My research has had me travel to a number of countries around the world to interview individuals and collect data for research.  These experiences are incredibly useful in the classroom.

We’ve had a number of American Politics job talks at WashU over the past few years.  This is the one field (other than political theory) that I haven’t sat on a hiring committee.  But I have learned a tremendous amount of information from these talks that I brought into the classroom and has influenced my own research.

Job talks can perform many of the same functions as a speaker series.  Candidates bring in work and get criticisms and suggestions to make the work better.  The audience not only gets to hear the work of the candidate, but also the response of other faculty on this work. 

Brining in a candidate to teach a course probably wouldn’t serve the same function.  We’d have a better sense of how good they are at teaching, but it is doubtful that the audience would get the same research benefits form the talk, and definitely wouldn’t engage the speaker in the same way.

Dumping the job talk would probably have many of the same costs and benefits of axing speaker series.  Job talks may not be the most efficient to make recruitment decisions.  But that doesn't mean that they're not an efficient tools for a department.

The Bigger Picture

Both of these points aren’t a defense of the job talk as the sole or primary way of making hires.  But they do give the candidate the ability to set the agenda.  Plus it is efficient for me in the sense that I can both learn something about a candidate’s research and teaching ability while also learning something that helps my own teaching and research.  Seems pretty valuable to me.