Speed Date Interviews at the AAR/SBL: A Look at the High Costs of the Academic Job Hunt

By Philip L. Tite

INTRODUCTION

As the joint annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) approaches later in November, there has been a flurry of activity in preparation: applications, CVs, cover letters, reference letters, transcripts, student evaluations, etc have all been flying through the hands of postal workers and email servers. Haircuts, dry cleaning, picking up extra deodorant, and perhaps even a pedicure or two are all on the “to do” list. Search committees have been formed, meetings are being held, interviews are being set up. It is that season again. The academic job market is in full swing for the discipline of religious studies.

This is a season filled with anxieties, hopes, and fears for many who are entering the job market, as well as fleeting hopes and nagging distress for those re-entering the job market for one more year. Our discipline, and many others (e.g., classics and history), has shaped this job market so that the annual meeting is the first major hurdle for any candidate who wishes (finally!) to be paid for her or his academic ability. Years ago, candidates would simply go through Religious Studies News (back then it had a physical existence, floating around departments until finally recycled), go through the process of submitting an application with letters of reference etc as required, and then wait to see if he or she had been shortlisted. An institution would draw up a shortlist between December and February, fly in candidates for a two-day “OMG” experience (which could be either positive or negative, but always stressful) of talks, meetings, conversations, and dinners. Usually four or five candidates would appear “on stage” for such a search, the “audience” (= search committee and other members of the institution) demonstrating approval or disapproval with their applause, all followed by the agonizing wait as a decision was made.

Today we do the same thing, but with a few changes. First, we have the Internet. The Internet allows us to administer the search process with online applications, online use of a dossier service, and email communication between candidates and prospective employers. We also use the Internet in our research on a particular institution, looking up size, mission, student demographics, faculty members’ interests, etc. Second, we now have the Employment Center at the annual conference, where institutions will hold quick meetings with upwards to a dozen candidates from which a shortlist will later be drawn. These meetings typical last for only 15 to 20 minutes in little white cubicles that look more like a bleached tent from an old M*A*S*H episode. I have whimsically referred to these preliminary interviews as “speed date interviews”. That’s what they feel like. And, like actual speed dating (so I’m told), there are no guarantees that the interview will lead to a “real date” (i.e., an on-campus interview).

THE SITUATION

If a candidate wishes to have any hope of success on the job market these days, then she or he is almost required to be available for these “speed date interviews”. In order to participate in the Employment Center, candidates must be members of one of the societies, register for the conference, and actually be physical present. I’ve already touched on some of the emotional anxiety that candidates go through while on the academic job market, but I would like to set forth the financial costs that candidates face. These preliminary interviews are neither convenient nor affordable for most people who are looking for work. In fact, the economic pressures are so real that these pressures can affect people’s financial lives in serious ways. Yet rarely do I see this problem being discussed openly, let alone among faculty and administrators (who already have jobs) on the other side of the process.

In estimating the costs of being on the job market, I have made a rough estimate based on the fees set forth by the AAR/SBL to be able to participate in the Employment Center (which includes membership, conference fees, and registering for the Employment Center), as well as estimated costs for hotel, flights, and food. I have also considered the cost of sending out all the applications. For some the costs will be less than others, depending on where they live, whether they are splitting a hotel room with friends, or whether they are still graduate students or already have their doctorates. We also have to consider when a person registers for the annual meeting, as there are different rates. I have not counted in things like haircuts, dry cleaning, and printing off of materials (CV, syllabi, samples of scholarship, etc), though those are real costs.

Application Costs (at about 50 apps per year)

$300 to $500

Membership

$50 to $100

Conference Fee

$150 to $225

Employment Center Fee

$25 to $50

Hotel

$600

Flights

$300 to $900

Food

$100

TOTAL COSTS

min: $1525

max: $2475

Let me break this down a bit.

Note that candidates will apply for as many jobs as they can, which, in my experience, is upwards to 50 applications per year. Using a dossier service, the costs of each application is usually $6 to $10 per application (especially if that application requires official graduate school transcripts). Thus, we are looking at a rough range of $300 to $500 in just getting the applications off. Certainly not all applications are targeted for the AAR/SBL meetings, but they are part of the process of job hunting. Even if we limited this to just jobs posted for AAR/SBL interviews, we would still be looking at about $1000 to $2000 total costs.

Membership rates for SBL are set at $85 per year, with no distinction between a Full Professor and an unemployed or underemployed independent scholar or sessional lecturer. Student rates are less, but we must not forget that the job market is not just for students looking for a job after graduation (and once that student is minted “Dr”, she or he no longer qualifies for reduced rates). The AAR has a sliding scale for full membership based on income. Those making under $20,000 a year are charged $50 and those at the $20,000 mark a membership fee of $100. (I am not considering the recent announcement of an increase in membership fees for the AAR, but I’m going with what is currently listed on the website.) As I am assuming that most candidates fall within the lower economic strata of the profession, and as SBL’s rates fit within that range, I have kept the membership fees at $50 to $100. Also, let’s recall that candidates must be AAR and SBL members in order to access the job listings posted by each society. So for a candidate in biblical studies, membership may be needed in both societies just to know what jobs are out there.

Both the conference fees and the Employment Center registration fees are dependent on when a candidate registers, with the most expensive rate being on-site. This is an important problem for candidates, as they need to decide whether or not to make a serious financial commitment for November before they have even sent out their job applications (in some cases even before the jobs have been posted), let alone being contacted about a preliminary interview. It is a gamble on the candidates’ part, betting on the possible advantage of being available for an interview outweighing the economic commitment. For those who may wish to wait to see how many jobs they will apply for, or wait to see how many job descriptions will indicate if they are interviewing at the annual meeting (not all do, after all), a higher cost to attend will need to be absorbed.

Hotel and food are estimated for a four day conference and does not take into consideration individual differences, such as whether or not a candidate is sharing a hotel room with another conference attendee. Flights will differ based on where one is flying from to reach the conference. In this case, I looked up what it would cost someone in Boston to get to San Francisco if booking a flight at the beginning of November (for the high end, last minute flight) and estimated the low end based on my own flight costs this year from Seattle (adding a bit for those who may live slightly farther away or didn’t arranged flights before October). The range is rough, but viable. Of course, some candidates will live close enough to the conference outlet that they will drive to the meeting. I have not taken that into consideration, as most people attending will be flying from various locations. (I also have not considered international flights, but have limited myself to domestic flights. Flying from outside the US, including from Canada, would certainly increase costs.)

Thus, a candidate will likely spend somewhere between $1,525 and $2,475 to simply attend the AAR/SBL annual meeting, all in the hopes of maybe, perhaps, OMG wouldn’t it be awesome, thumbs crossed, getting at least one or two preliminary interviews. That would be over a thousand dollars for just one 15 to 20 minute interview.

To put this cost into perspective, let’s comparatively look at the economic resources of both the candidate sitting on one side of a “speed date interview” table and the two or three interviewers on the other side.

CandidateInterviewer
Income

$20,000

$50,000 to $80,000

Institutional Assistance

None

Yes

Loss of Income

Yes

None

Income estimates are based on, for the candidate, the scale range identified above. I’m assuming that if a person has a bit of contractual teaching, at a generous $5000 per course (if one teaches at a community college, they will make far less), that they may make $20,000 a year, though likely less. For some this will be more, especially if they come from a double income home or have a better financial source (inside or outside the profession; though do note that many universities pay far less to visiting or adjunct faculty than they do to regular faculty). However, my experience on the job market is that most candidates are on the job market because they don’t have well paying jobs, let alone secure employment. Some are actually unemployed, perhaps even using food stamps to simply get by. Furthermore, many (most!) are burdened with massive student debt after nearly a decade or more of higher education. These candidates typically do not have institutional funds to help them attend conferences. Only once did I have such support, which was a small research stipend built into my contractual agreement as a visiting assistant professor (though I also made about $20,000 less than a normal assistant professor). For most candidates, they pay their own bills; or, more accurately, they max out credit cards to pay those bills. For those candidates who have jobs outside of academia, which for many is the only way to pay rent, there is the added burden of loss of income by attending a conference (of three to four days income). Some people try to get around this by using vacation time, though the stress of the job market is hardly a vacation. Based on my estimates, a candidate will spend one to two months income just to be available for a preliminary interview at the annual meeting!

In contrast, those conducting interviews have academic employment. They wouldn’t be on a search committee otherwise. While pay scales vary from institution to institution, region to region, and rank to rank, I have estimated a $50,000 to $80,000 salary based on what I know as a rough beginning point for many at an assistant professor rank, while recognizing that associate and full professors would be rising to that $80,000 mark (there are, of course, many who make well over that high end, but let’s not talk about the academic 1%). These academics are also paying to attend the meetings, but usually, if they are doing some service on behalf of their college or university, they will receive some level of financial support from their institution that covers or at least defrays conference expenses. We can also consider that by attending the AAR/SBL meeting, an interviewer does not lose income for being away from her or his job. In fact, they are doing their job, which is salaried rather than based on an hourly wage like many candidates.

These socio-economic inequalities are stark when we look at them. These inequalities are even starker when we recognize that one of the major reasons for initiating preliminary interviews at the annual meetings was not to lessen the burden of individuals applying for work, but to ease overtaxed institutional budgets while conducting an employment search. The rationale, as explained to me, is that people are going to be there anyway and that conference interviews would be cheaper than flying candidates in for on-campus interviews. Yet, I continually ask myself what is the real advantage of these “speed dating interviews” even for search committees? A shortlist is still drawn up by the early New Year. Roughly four candidates are flown in, housed, and fed over a 48 hour period. And failed searches still occur (either due to budget cuts, committee stalemates, or the pool of candidates). I also have to wonder how universities are saving time and money by conducting these preliminary interviews. For candidates, it is one more massive expense. It is one more major source of stress and time consumption. It also raises hopes for those who are lucky enough to get a preliminary interview (most candidates do not), with a subsequent emotional crash when the shortlist is drawn up and their name is strangely missing. Time and energy is also put into preparing for the conference, which compete with other necessary priorities for a scholar trying to establish or, as an independent scholar, continue to work within the field. That effort is set into motion with little hope of even seeing the campus let alone updating their CV’s “Employment” section.

Over the past few years, the situation for those on the job market has been even more desperate and depressing than ever before. When the economy collapsed in 2008, nearly half the job searches in the field were cancelled in 2008 and 2009. There was a scramble for positions, even temporary contractual positions (which were also being cut). The number of candidates applying for any one position ranged from 150 to 200 and there was a proliferating glut of candidates as people continued to enter and re-enter the market in following years. The fact that the AAR and SBL, then holding separate annual meetings, were each conducting their own career services made it even worse for candidates who needed to attend both conferences (basically nearly double the expenses listed above!). This challenge still faces those who need to attend other academic conferences, beyond AAR and SBL, due to their specialization. While the initial scare of the 2008 collapse has passed, the situation is hardly much better – for both institutions and candidates.

Let me put this into a slightly more personal perspective. I recall in 2009, when I was unemployed (my contract ended and we were in the midst of the economic crisis) and living with a family member (I couldn’t afford rent or food; my wife, also on the job market, had only picked up some online teaching), that I actually attended both the AAR and SBL meetings. In fact I needed to attend them, as I had a single “speed date” interview at each conference. I borrowed money, tapped my credit cards further, and headed to both Montreal and New Orleans. I had decided to cancel my paper presentation at SBL due to my economic situation, until that email arrived asking me to an interview. When I attended, I did it as cheaply as I could, which meant that I barely ate anything for the few days I was there. In fact, from the stress and lack of food I nearly passed out while presenting my paper as a wave of nausea swept over me at the podium and my head pounded in agony. This personal experience is not everyone’s of course, but it does raise questions as to whether I should have been there or not – was the job potential really worth it? In the end, the position went to another candidate (likely equally or even more fitted to the position). I love conferencing, but not when I’m job hunting. It takes the fun out of it.

RECOMMENDATIONS

So what can we do? I’ve written this blog with this question in mind. I don’t really have much of an answer, to be honest. I do have some recommendations for those on search committees and for the profession in general. But I really welcome a constructive dialogue on this problem facing our discipline.

In order to spark such a dialogue, let me first direct some recommendations to those who are on search committees. Above all else, recognize the socio-economic inequalities that are at play within the academic job market. You are in a position of power, with resources to support your work. Candidates do not have such resources and are in a disempowered position. When I was a graduate student, I was constantly told that an interview is a two-way street; i.e., a candidate should interview the potential employer, specifically that a candidate should be discerning as to whether or not the job is a right “fit” for building his or her career. That’s good advice, for sure, but it is no longer applicable in a market where people are desperate for any form of employment. For many candidates, the only power they have is to decide to continue looking for work or to leave the academy completely. So recognize that power imbalance.

Also, recognize that your candidates are human beings, not simply “candidates” or “applicants”. They have put a great deal of effort, time, and personal resources into trying to impress you with their credentials and potential as a teacher, scholar, and colleague. They are the people who have spent hours researching every institution to which they have sent off an application, learning about your institution, department, and faculty members. Trust me; they have done far more research on you than you have done on them. Also realize that they have far more at stake in this preliminary interview than does any specific faculty member on a search committee. Bottom line: treat them with respect.

Treat them like colleagues (because they are!). Remember that power imbalances may flip at some point. You may be sitting across from them at some future time while being interviewed for a position. They may be the editor who decides if your book or article is accepted for publication. Candidates are as much a part of the profession as anyone else. I’ve met some wonderful people while on the job market, people that I would be delighted to work with as a fellow scholar. Try to be that type of person.

I would strongly recommend that search committee members be aware of an online resource for those searching for employment in academia: Academic Jobs Wiki. Note especially the “venting” page and the “Dear Search Committees” letter (both under “Interview Experiences”). This site offers readers a sense of the anxiety and troubles that candidates face each year. Horror stories are shared, including sorrowful moments of people finally deciding that they’ve wasted their time and energy in higher education, deciding to finally walk away from their field of study. Be aware of the pulse of the discipline when it comes to the job market.

On a practical side, respond to every candidate that you interview. It is very bad form to expect someone who has made an effort to meet with you to simply walk away. I’ve been in the position where I’ve been interviewed (even on campus) and then never heard from the committee again, at least not until I contacted them to discover that the search was over. Many candidates have similar experiences, and it is one of the most offensive things a committee can do. In fact, respond to all candidates, regardless of whether you interview them or not. Send a “thank you” email or letter to each interviewed candidate, keep them updated on the search as much as you can, and finally be sure to let them know if the search was completed. We are talking about professional etiquette and showing simple respect.

Try to keep it an equal playing field for candidates who can and cannot attend the AAR/SBL meeting. Remember, they are not “blowing you off” when they say they can’t make it. They just don’t have the same resources that you have. Candidates know that their chances of landing a job are seriously cut when they send you that email. It aches inside. Remember that. If you promise a telephone interview in lieu of a face-to-face, then follow up on that promise.

Finally, the question needs to be raised: should we just do away with the whole “speed dating interview” thing? Perhaps we need to reassess whether the AAR/SBL Employment Center, as a feature of the annual meeting, should be changed or simply dismantled. I have serious doubts about the usefulness of these preliminary interviews, and, as several institutions have stopped holding them, my hunch is that I’m not alone. Who really benefits from these interviews? I want to leave this blog with that question, as well as a challenge for readers (candidates, search committees, etc), to share their own experiences. Perhaps others have a different perspective or experience than me. I would love to hear from you, to open a constructive dialogue that may improve our discipline.

 

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One Response to Speed Date Interviews at the AAR/SBL: A Look at the High Costs of the Academic Job Hunt

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