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Monday, January 11, 2016

Job interviews

Well, it’s that time of year again. The time of year when linguists gather in an exotic place (Boston, NYC, Washington, Minneapolis) with cheap hotel rates and confabulate. This intercourse is punctuated by good eats, (sometimes excellent) drink, gossip and other activities.  Tucked into this structure is also a job market where extremely smart and scared recently (and not so recently) minted PhDs are interviewed for the handful of tenure track jobs that they are (mostly) all eminently qualified to fill. At least by my estimation, most recent graduates are more accomplished than I was (and most of my friends were) when I was hunting for a position.  This is really unfortunate, and though saying this doesn’t change the basic landscape, it is worth acknowledging that it is so. Contrary to the basic wisdom of people of my vintage, which see the contemporary scene as decline from a Golden Age, from what I have witnessed, recent PhDs are more quite a bit more accomplished than I was when leaving the dissertation nest. As my mother has often remarked: “better to be lucky than smart.”

Given the buyer’s market out there, as part of job seeking process candidates are today asked to do a lot. They need to put together a research portfolio, a teaching plan, have several publications and/or conference proceedings, letters evaluating their research, character and potential, and numbers evaluating their TA teaching.  This stuff is sent off and then, if lucky, a candidate makes it into the next round of 1st interviews (nowadays often Skype conducted or, maybe, at the LSA). This serves to winnow the pool into a long short list. This list is then worried and massaged until a short short list is manufactured in the creation of which a more hands on process begins. Sometimes there is a second remote interview, but eventually there is a real short list of about 5 candidates who make their way to campus to be sniffed over (and, if lucky the candidate gets to do some sniffing as well). Here everyone is on their best behavior trying to impress or to woo. At the end of all of this a decision is made, positions are offered and accepted and the whole process, more regular than current weather patterns, settles down for another year.

This is what we are in the midst of as I write. And I want to make a few comments about this, zeroing in on the interview process.

But before I begin, I want to note that this whole process is quite a bit of a crap shoot. Getting a job is nice (I know that I liked getting mine) but we must all agree that who lands where (and even whether one lands at all) is quite capricious. This cannot be otherwise given the high quality of the candidate pool and the small number of available positions. Fit is a mystical notion, and academic fit is at the more recondite end of the fit-spectrum. There is a sense in which those that get jobs deserve it while at the same time those that don’t don’t.

But that’s not what this post is about. I wanted to try to outline the interview process as I’ve experienced it from the hiring side. I thought that some going into it from the interviewee direction made find this useful. I do not claim that what happens at UMD is the same as the process elsewhere, but I suspect that there is a lot of overlap. If this is so, then maybe seeing what interviewers are looking for may help you prepare yourself.

The point: The interview process aims to uncover the intellectual character of the candidate, though there is some (a lot of!) hubris in thinking that talking to someone for 30 minutes or even a couple of days can reveal a candidate’s intellectual essence. There are basically three kinds of questions: about the thesis, about the field and about teaching. They look different, but they all aim at the same target, viz. getting a feel for a candidate’s intellectual profile.  Here’s what I mean.

In most departments, hiring on a tenure track job comes with the assumption that the person will be tenurable. The very last thing anybody on the hiring side wants is to have to vote against somebody’s tenure. Why? Because this is a very hard thing to do, especially in small departments (and this is the norm for a ling dept), and because a dept looks bad if its candidates are turned down at higher levels. So, in interviewing you want to make sure that the person will be able to produce the necessary paper trail to get tenure. The widely believed secret to success is to discover the candidate’s intellectual agenda and the first step in that direction is to discuss the work that has already been done. But note that is the first step.  So, expect a question about the thesis. And be ready with the right kind of answer, which is…

The right kind has three parts: what, how and why. What the thesis shows, how it shows it and why anyone should care. You need crisp answers (about 1 minute) to these questions that can be expanded upon (3 minute, 5 minute, more minute versions) if there is interest (asking, “do you want to hear more” is one way of finding out). The hardest for a newbie is the 1 minute version. This requires distancing yourself from the details of your work. If you need a long handout to answer this question you are in trouble.

Let me give you an example. Haj Ross comes for an interview and someone asks him what his thesis was about. Here’s something that would satisfy me. Here’s the what: It investigates a class of syntactic dependencies and shows that not all possible instances of this dependency are grammatically viable. Here’s the how: It provides a catalogue of some (the various islands) conceivable non attested dependencies, shows that they fail to occur in a variety of languages (English, Hebrew, German, a.o.) and suggests a formal way of understanding this given the current technology (conditions on variables). And the why? Well, if this is correct, then this is the kind of invariance that is unlikely to have been acquired by exposure to the PLD and thus reflects innate properties of UG.  Other whys might include: it shows that G rules come in different types that correspond to different G conditions, or it shows that phonetic gaps matter in computing locality suggesting possible functional differences between dependencies leaving gaps from those that do not, or it shows how important hierarchy is in specifying linguistic dependencies or… I prefer the first why answer, but if you do not, then choose another. Let me elaborate a bit.

The main pitfall of the what and how questions aer too much detail. Nobody in the room will know about your topic the way you do. You are the expert in the room on this piece of work. But this means that the problems that interest you about the work, may not be of interest to someone that knows very little (or nothing) about it. Moreover, elaborating the many dead ends and detours that you had to take to get to your analysis is of no obvious interest to anybody but you. History is just one damn thing after another. The interviewers want a rational reconstruction: what you got and the evidence that supports it. The dead ends you should save for the HBO version where complex narrative sells.

This is the opposite of the main problem in articulating the why. Many answer this question by repeating their answers to the what and how. This is a mistake. The why situates the work and explains why it’s interesting to anyone, not just to you. Why should I care about case marking in Hindi or control in Spanish? What’s the significance (or potential significance) of your result? Why should I care? For my money, this requires telling me how what the thesis found informs us about the structure of FL/UG in some way. But I can imagine other viable replies. Answering this question well also has considerable instrumental value. How so?

Well, the most important thing a candidate can do is make her interlocutors feel intelligent and nothing makes them feel more intelligent than being able to ask a question based on what they have been told. This should guide how you answer the each of the questions; enough detail to challenge the interviewers but not so complex than only an expert can follow it. Why questions are places where senior people not versed in the details might expect to gain a foothold even when they cannot follow the details in detail. Throw them a bone! Let them feel good! It won’t hurt you.

The why answer also opens the door to the second kind of question; about the field. How does your thesis relate to other work in the field? Note that this is effectively the same question as the first but without a focus on your thesis. It also opens up questions about your views of other people’s current work and how they relate to your own. Illustrating your views with reference to your own work is advised. But you need to think about the wider context. By now, every candidate knows that s/he needs to bone up on what people in the interviewing dept do (that’s what web sites are for). Relating your research to that being done by your interviewers is a always a good thing to be able to do. But asking about the field is intended to do a bit more than offer the candidate a chance to demonstrate their sucking up skills. It aims to see if the candidate has a project that can take them beyond the thesis. Here’s what I mean.

We all know that writing a thesis is tough. However, we also know that it is the one piece of work that has been heavily nurtured (at least this is not a bad default position). This work has been supervised, reviewed and hashed over by many minds. It is very unlikely that anything written going forward will have the same kind of input from others. This means that a committee is looking to see if a candidate can generate her own research in the absence of the hand holding characteristic of thesis work. How does a person generate research? Nobody really knows. But, here’s one view: it comes from seeing the thesis work as part of a larger project with open questions that will generate more research. So, probing the big picture is a way of probing whether the thesis is just a one hit wonder or is indicative of more quality publishable future work leading to tenure (which, recall, is where your interviewers want you to land).

BTW, asking about the field is also a way of getting a candidate to talk about work other than their own. One way of getting to know someone’s intellectual tastes is finding out what work s/he prizes. At UMD we have often asked people to name a favorite paper (or one that they think is overrated) and why. Or to identify a breakthrough in the last decade and say why it is important. Incidentally, these questions are intended to generate discussion and so disagreement is to be expected. The aim is not to agree with those you speak with but to defend and articulate your positions coherently and accessibly. Remember, the interviewers are looking for colleagues that can explain things to them that they are not expert in and that can bring something new to the table. They don’t expect agreement, but they do expect to be able to understand what they are being told if they are being well instructed and to have opinions backed by reasons.

A little corollary here: don’t say things you don’t pretend to be or believe what you aren’t/don’t. It’s very hard to pull off.

The last set of questions concerning teaching is not really about teaching. It’s about what you consider important. So when asked how you will teach, e.g.,  intro to syntax, don’t provide a syllabus. Explain what concepts you think a student should master and why, and how you hope to get them there. Of course you will be sensitive to the students’ different learning styles and will make the class interactive and encourage class discussion and give lots of feedback on home works. None of this is news and so  focusing on this is a mistake. Focus on the central ideas the course will impart and the material you will cover that will help impart it. What do you want a student who finishes the course to know?

What works for intro courses works for seminars and advanced courses as well. If you are interviewing at a dept with a graduate program you will be asked about these too. The same general rules apply: concentrate on the content you consider important, not the technology of teaching (unless of course specifically asked).

Oh yes, one last thing: personalize your answers. Here’s what I mean. Someone asks you about how you will teach intro to ling then it’s very good to illustrate your points with personal experience. Tell them how you did things when you TAed, what worked (and what didn’t). If answering about the field it’s fine to use your own work to illustrate a general point.

The job market sucks and looking for jobs stinks. Nobody likes it. The last bit of advice I have is try to make it as enjoyable as you can. A fun interview is a good one. One where you enjoyed yourself is likely to be one where everyone else did too. Try to enjoy it.


That’s it. Good luck.

4 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. Interesting piece. It suggests that the utility of the interview will be inversely related to the size of the field. In a small one where you get a chance to "see" prospectives in action a lot then having an interview might not yield lots of info. Until recently ling was a small community where you got to see many of the rising young PhDs in setting more natural than an interview room. This is likely less so in philosophy. But things may be changing now. Still, interesting. Look at the comments section too.

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  2. First interviews at the LSA annual meeting are now exceedingly rare. It's generally Skype or nothing nowadays. Some regard this as fairer, others complain that it means that decisions are made based on less information, e.g., no attending candidate presentations or posters. Either way, it raises the stakes for candidates, who likely have very little time at all to explain themselves. And Skyping with a group generally means that there's minimal human feedback, because the panel is invisible or inscrutable. That's tough on candidates.

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  3. Tks very much for your post.

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