Sunday, December 23, 2007

Advice For the Young at Heart

I got lost in my own snark yesterday, which can happen from time to time. So I didn't emphasize as much as I'd meant to that if you're lucky enough to have some APA interviews, you really should go read all of Ari Kelman's really excellent advice about conference interviews.

But also, I want to highlight the APA advice Old Fart was kind enough to leave in comments, since it's a little more philosophy-specific:
Old Fart here again.

Interviews are mostly noisy not informational. Mostly the interview committee -- especially if it has any degree of non-overlap with the search committee, which is sometimes the case at larger places- will not have read closely your writing sample or your dissertation abstract. That will often lead to their asking many not very deep questions about your work, on the basis of the little spiel you give them in the beginning. There will also often be interesting group dynamics within the interviewing group about which you will be clueless, but they may not be.

Imagine the crotchety perhaps somewhat clueless professor X who keeps pressing you on some inane point. You think to yourself "what an inane stupid point, why does X keep pushing me on this???" The others in the room are fully aware of how crotchety and clueless X is. What they're looking for from you is how you handle X, whether you can gracefully shut X up and move on, whether you can make lemonade out of the lemon that professor X is handing you.

Now suppose you do a great job handling the crotchety but clueless X. X's colleagues are impressed. They may think you are smooth and clever. They may even think you're deep.

Alternatively, imagine that you don't handle X so well that day. Maybe X gets you flustered and throws you off your game. Maybe X causes you to be distracted. Maybe X's colleagues don't really realize how clueless X is. Maybe they think X has hit on some deep point that points to some crater- sized hole in your approach. They sort of keep piling on. Now, you've blown your interview.

But now ask yourself have the committeed in the two scenarios I've imagined really gained much pertinent information about you? Is the information gained in scenario 1 more reliable information about you than the information gained in scenario 2?

My own view is that both scenarios are noisy. It's just that in the first the noise favored the candidate, while in scenario 2 the noise works against the candidate. In this connection, I should say that I tell my own students -- I have a good number on the market this year -- that they should think of the art of being a good interviewee as the art of introducing favorable noise and blocking the introduction of unfavorable noise.

That's what the professor who insisted that you shouldn't have to prepare for interviews was missing. If the interview situation wasn't simply and utterly noisy, then he would have a point. But to the extent that interviews are simply and utterly noisy, he doesn't have a point.

Is there a way to cut down on the noise?

Maybe somewhat. You could have the interview committee really read the writing sample and dissertation abstract in advance. The committee could come prepared with well thought out questions about the work. Then it would be more like a real philosophical conversation, in which the mutual background knowledge of the what's in the writing sample and abstract would make it less like that the discussion got sidetracked into stupid inane tangents.

This would be a lot more work for the committees, but it would lessen the need for the candidates to perfect the delicate art of introducing lovely noise and keeping out unlovely noise.

Short of that, I say that you should keep preparing for your interviews, keep practicing your spiel, keep repeating it to different people, let them interrupt you, tell some of them to act like clueless A-holes, etc. Learn to direct the discussion in ways that you want it to go, firmly but politely. Etc, etc.

Again, good luck to you all in these highly stressful times.
Echoing Mr. Zero in comments, let me just say, Old Fart, you are awesome.


Anonymous said...

I don't know if Tears for Fears is the music to get psyched for interviews, but nice anyhow. Maybe "Everybody wants to Rule the World" would work.

nullo said...

i must say i much preferred the Old Fart of the previous post; crying to himself in the shower and all that...

CMD said...

Old Fart's idea of a less noisy interview is great, but where is the conversation about teachinig? In my inexperienced mind (remember me? applying to PhD programs, not jobs), teaching should be as important as dissertation. Maybe I'm just destined for a SLAC.
As for noise, all job interviews are about noise management. APA interviews are not special in this regard. I have done mostly tech support in my career since college. I would loved to have talked about analytical troubleshooting techniques and technical knowledge, but mostly it was "I'm nice and I know enough tech jargon to get by." One employer actually had me write a quiz for potential hires to make sure they knew enough technical jargon to get by!
Overall, though, I just wanted to add teaching skill to the nice-interview-idea proposed by Old Fart...amd thank Old Fart for the insight and encouragement.

Ari Kelman said...

Thanks so much for the link. That was awfully nice of you. I should note that I have bad advice* on a variety of topics, not just the job market.

* Use at your discretion.