More on Job Talks

5 February 2013, 1240 EST

My “Death to Job Talks!” provocation has produced some longer-form responses at other Political Science blogs. Jeremy Wallace defends the institution. Tom Pepinsky goes further and argues that “there is no alternative to the academic job talk.” Nate Jensen gets to the heat of the matter by asking if the “academic hiring process [is] broken.”

Jeremy compares the current format of job talks favorably to a major alternative, the proseminar. He argues that the proseminar creates problems in terms of starting the conversation, introduces the problem of the conversation not taking off, doesn’t provide an opportunity for the candidate to put work in context, and worries that faculty might not invest the effort to read a candidate’s dossier. Many of these objections are dealt with by allowing the presenter to spend 5-15 minutes framing the work and the discussion.

The last gets at the core reason I wrote my post in the first place: my frustration that faculty aren’t willing to put the kind of effort into a hiring process commensurate with the stakes. In other words, the academic norm at stake is the problem. In the status quo, the norm explains why we overvalue job talks (if we didn’t overvalue them, they would probably be fine) — they provide most faculty members with the only exposure to a candidate, her research, and her ideas.

Tom Pepinsky makes some of the same points, but raises a thornier problem: that a proseminar system “produces a bias in favor of presenting completed papers.” I agree. But the job talk also creates biases in favor of “completed projects.” This is one reason why junior talks are often better than senior ones: senior candidates may not have an in-progress project ready for prime time, while junior candidates have focused years on the production of their dissertations. So the question I raise, which underlies all of this, is: “what information we are trying to get from the job talk?”

That’s why I find Nate’s bottom line so useful… but as starting point for further analysis:

I personally think that most of us understate how much luck has to do with success in our profession.  Maybe most professions.

I hate to defend the status quo, since there are a lot of seemingly irrational aspects of the search process.  But I would also like to see some evidence that we would make better decisions with a different process.  To do this, we have to at least evaluate what types of errors are made in the search process and how alternative processes would limit this type of error.