why do we interview?

Having sat through a series of interviews with job candidates (and been on some myself) I have begun to wonder why we take the interview so seriously as part of the job process. I understand that if you’re hiring someone you want to see what they’re like – but I’m curious about how and why the interview is weighted. My concerns about this are multiple.

It advantages people who are comfortable around folks with more power with them, and these people tend to come from advantaged social positions. It suggests that one fairly short moment of interaction can encapsulate a candidate. It allows departments to make decisions on the basis of personality or justify decisions on a brief sense of a person and not a sustained look at their work.

Now I am not (repeat: NOT) calling out my own institution or others I’ve been associated with. I’m curious about the process more generally in the discipline. I’ll throw my own experience out as an example. When I was on the market several people said some variation of the same thing to me: “Once you get an interview, you’re set. You may not be first walking in the door, but you’ll get the job!” This was meant to encourage me. It did. But it also struck me as odd. The translation I took away is, “You have the requisite skills to work the interactional process of the interview”.  Or more cynically, “Don’t worry, the process is unfair, but lucky for you its unfair in your favor”. This cynical reading was supported when I was publicly called out (by friends and others online) as being an example of how the process was unfair. I’m not seeking approval here. In fact I somewhat agree with the cynical reading. And that agreement makes me wonder why we prize the interview as strongly as we do.

My more empirical question behind this is how good of a predictor departments actually are in the selection process (in identifying talent). There are obviously huge intervening consecration effects (as well as investments by departments in their selectees, etc). But I wonder about that – I can’t think of a good way to study it; if someone could I think it would be fascinating. I also think about this for college admissions (in my case, they’re selective, but how “good” are they are prediction). But that’s another post.

28 thoughts on “why do we interview?”

  1. I thought this was going to be about why we use interviews in our research . . .

    But this is a great point and my first time on the job market about 10 years ago, I had no idea what “they” were looking for in these interviews. I used the standard (gendered) approach in conversation — ask them questions and seem interested in them. Little did I know that the test in these interactions is to “be smart” and “play with ideas.” I needed to talk more! I have never ever been accused of being too quiet — quite the contrary actually.

    It was stupid on my part and I am lucky that I began to figure it out and received an offer from the place I most wanted which happened to be my last interview.

    I approached it like I approached interviewing for a waitressing job — which then was my primary type of job interview.

    I don’t think we could study it very well, because it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once we decide they interview well and hire them, we start working hard to make them feel part of the department and invest in their success, thereby making us correct in our previous decision to hire the person.

    And when we don’t offer a job and the person goes on to be a success we tell ourselves that we are happy they are doing well, but we were correct in that it wasn’t a good fit for us. Indeed, that they are successful somewhere else is a sign that the fit was right elsewhere.

    It is not unlike the belief that we each have one true soulmate in the world —


  2. “…when I was publicly called out (by friends and others online)…”

    I couldn’t find the info you reference at the link provided. Regardless, an interesting post. Academics are hardly immune from having status, in its varied forms, affect the hiring process as much or more than merit. But, as you note, hard to study rigorously.


  3. What if interviews were not about trying to identify talent (as if talent was something that resided in individuals)? One idea is that Interviews may be a socially useful mechanism for generating a status array. If departments did not interview, they could not easily watch each other and thus compete for “stars” that the discipline makes in order to share a metric upon which we can array ourselves (as departments).


  4. There are many good points that you raise, which just makes for more questions, such as:

    How do you winnow through 50 resumes to get to the final 3 or 4 individuals that you plan to interview?

    Haven’t you already identified the talent before you start the interview process?

    Once you have identified the talent, isn’t the next step identifying the individuals that you feel can make the biggest contribution to your department?

    If you are most comfortable with candidate A, do you think that candidate A will be able to contribute the most to you department?


  5. pbearman: an interesting point. And it makes me chuckle about how I would fit into such a calculus!

    It also occurred to me that the “skill” of interacting with others above you is actually a skill. And one can imagine reasons for rewarding. And the critique should be not on the basis of rewarding such a skill, but instead on the more general distribution of it, which is not a disciplinary question.

    Some very good points captaincrab. As for my being called out, it was on last year’s job blog. And the posts were removed on the basis of a “protest” by someone who was not me. This year others have similarly been discussed (more and less charitably).


  6. pbearman: Nice try, but even departments that are not at all interested in status still interview. I guess you could counter that being able to interview is itself a status marker for a department that perpetuates the interviewing process, since one can imagine that now it would seem low-rent if a department hired someone without interviewing.

    I am going to go with the more obvious theory.

    First: it’s well-documented that employers overestimate their ability to evaluate candidates from interviews, so a cognitive illusion may be helping.

    Second: the interview is less important at research universities than the talk. While opinion differs on this, I think it plain that the talk reveals things about a junior candidate’s that you can’t see from the file. A senior candidate, not so much, but then again the talk isn’t as important as a senior candidate. Note that this part implies that the interview at research universities is mostly about the talk, and the sessions with individual faculty members are more to fill time and perhaps to sell the candidate on the place should an offer be made.

    Third: The talk/interview creates (somewhat more) consensus among colleagues that wouldn’t exist from the files alone. A candidate who is being propped up by a wishful reading by colleagues is more likely to have that exposed in a talk/interview.


  7. In Philosophy, they do two rounds of interviews, once at the Eastern APA (for the “long shortlist”) and then the campus interview. There’s a lot of disagreement about the worth of the process, especially the APA phase. Interestingly, Princeton — the best department in the country for much of the 1980s through the late 1990s — was notable for not interviewing candidates at all, not even a job talk. On the grounds that it was the written work that mattered, the department just read the files and made offers. My sense is that this led to Princeton often making quite different choices in the junior market from its peers.


  8. “(as if talent was something that resided in individuals)?”

    I understand this perspective, but submit that I believe more of what we term “talent” resides in individuals than most sociological models would allow.


  9. “…Princeton — the best department in the country for much of the 1980s through the late 1990s — was notable for not interviewing candidates at all, not even a job talk.”

    Wow, that is interesting.


  10. Agree with you that the most important factor should be a person’s work, but with new PhDs you are often going more on recommendations and you cannot always pull apart the candidate’s thinking and the advisor’s. While not disputing concerns about the extent to which privilege and irrelevant characteristics influence interviews, there are things you can learn in an interview context. You get information about how good a teacher someone is likely to be from their ability to give a talk and answer questions about their work. You find out how deeply they have dug into their research — do they know only what is in print, or have they done work underneath that work? I.e. when you ask about a possible confounding variable, do they look confused about why you are bringing it up, or do they tell you that they looked into that possibility and found out it did not change the results. And you want to know how broadly they’ve read outside their research area and how they handle a conversation on a topic they know nothing about. Can they listen as well as talk?

    Character is pretty hard to assess in an interview, but is not irrelevant. The tenured faculty in an academic department can be thought of as stuck together for better or worse in a group marriage. Other people’s personalities and character do actually matter for the long haul. “High maintenance” people who are self-absorbed, needy, and paranoid can extract a serious toll on the people around them. The loonier you are, the better your work needs to be to compensate.

    It is an interesting point about the “skill” of interacting with people of higher status, as this is highly cultural. The hard part is the differing cultural norms about how to do this, as some people are from cultures that require more overt deference than others. Mainstream academic US culture is particularly tricky, because we think we value equality and get annoyed at people who are overtly submissive, but older more senior people do expect to be subtly treated as if we know more and get upset if we are not, even if we are unwilling/unable to name what is bugging us. This is worse for women and racial minorities, who are damned for being too submissive if they are deferential and for being too aggressive if they are not. I was told by a senior male colleague that I was seen as aggressive and difficult because I would walk up to men, stick out my hand, and say, “Hi, I’m X.”


  11. I was told by a senior male colleague that I was seen as aggressive and difficult because I would walk up to men, stick out my hand, and say, “Hi, I’m X.”

    Olderwoman: how dare you! I bet you knock too loudly on office doors as well.

    As for me, I have a loud laugh. Or so I am told, over and over (and over) again.


  12. “I believe more of what we term “talent” resides in individuals than most sociological models would allow.”

    I actually think the reverse: that we overestimate the individual quality of talent. I’m quite fond of talking about myself, so again I’ll use me as an example. I have a talent: playing the violin. I’m good. Arrogant? Maybe, but I’m not bragging. But what makes the talent a talent? Why is it that repeatedly being able to lightly place my fingers in the same spot on a little wood plank while moving my other arm along a plane is seen as valuable? Most people are bad at this; I am good. It is, upon its technical description, a completely ridiculous talent. And I would guess that most “talents” are like this.

    One of the things that shocks me about talking to high-status cultural producers is, to put it bluntly, how normal they are. So when I’ve chatted with famous classical musicians I’m almost always surprised how everyday they seem to be. They have an extraordinary talent. But it doesn’t always translate. And though the talent resides in them, the fact that the talent counts as a talent resides in the relations they’re situated in. The technical skill required is distributed more or less scarcely across the population. But so are lots of other skills that we don’t care at all about. They’re not talents.

    At least that’s how I think of it.


  13. “Why is it that repeatedly being able to lightly place my fingers in the same spot on a little wood plank while moving my other arm along a plane is seen as valuable?”

    I agree that that is an interesting sociological question. My point has more to do with what determines differentiation in performance within realms we’ve decided reveal “talent” (whatever that may be). It is interesting to ponder what determines the realms within which talent may be expressed.


  14. What does The Interview tell you that you don’t already know from the paper application? My guess is that it mostly gives the department and a chance to find out what the candidate is like as a person (ditto for the candidate vis-a-vis the department).

    In my department (and we are not a Division I research institution), discussion of candidates has often included mention of personal qualities that we wouldn’t have known about just from reading the files. But I’m wary about making judgments of scholarship or teaching based on The Interview when there is so much more systematic evidence in The Folder.

    The Talk tells how well a person can talk. Someone who writes a great paper may still be a lousy talker or, especially in the case of newly minted Ph.D.s, may not yet have learned how to present their research, and that disparity may make the department’s decision more difficult.


  15. We interviewed a candidate who was late for the lunch with graduate students because the person was on their cell phone. Granted, the school’s administrative assistant had to run around the floor to find grad students to come to the lunch – it was the first day back. We wanted to work. Really.

    Then, the candidate’s phone rang during the lunch. And the candidate took the call, left the room, and talked on the phone.

    It could have been important. I don’t know. None of us asked. But still. It’s the kind of thing interviews are good at bringing out. Other than that, the candidate was eloquent, friendly, intelligent, well-dressed, confident, etc.


  16. “Then, the candidate’s phone rang during the lunch. And the candidate took the call, left the room, and talked on the phone”.

    At this point, it’s time to end the interview and kindly say good bye to the candidate!


  17. Anyway, just to show how much I’m on the other side of the question posed in the post title, rather than “Why do we interview assistant professor questions?” I’m more prone to wonder “Why don’t we interview grad applicants as part of admissions?”


  18. “Why don’t we interview grad applicants as part of admissions?”

    Emory does this. They invited a slightly larger pool of people to their equivalent of a prospective student weekend and we hung out with both grad students and faculty, both formally and informally bot mostly the latter. As much as it stressed me out as a potential grad student, I’ve often remarked on what a great idea it was since then.


  19. I find the argument that you want to “see what the candidate is like a person” extremely dangerous. This might lead people to want to hire someone they want to “hang out with”, which may often have a bias toward hiring people with the same social and cultural background. People who are as good academics but have different interactional styles because of differences in background may come at an unfair disadvatage, it seems.


  20. I agree with much of what Olderwoman said.

    I suspect some additional questions are worth asking here about what makes a good academic and a good colleague (assuming a place might care about that sort of thing). Is it all about book and writing smarts? If that’s your view then perhaps interviewing is irrelevant (although even in that case I think several comments here make a good argument about issues that are hard to assess from writing alone such as logic in thinking, grasp of material, etc.).

    Is there value to being able to interact with strangers? Is there value to performing well under pressure? Is there value to being able to handle social interactions? One may easily argue, I think, that some of those traits will matter in interacting with colleagues at meetings and in mentoring students. Assuming those (just to name a few) are relevant for academics then interviewing may be helpful.

    Plus there is the asshole factor. Some departments don’t like to have them. (Yes, you could argue that a behavior that may seem assholish is simply reflecting someone’s lack of familiarity with a certain situation, but how far do we stretch this as okay? Would it not be fair to assume that someone may have picked up on some clues during graduate school? Plus would it then be okay for the person to act like an asshole at a conference representing your department or with students just because they don’t know the norms of the situation?)

    Also, I’m curious, can you point to your source of evidence that suggests class and cultural issues here trump other issues such as gender or national and language background? How about certain personality traits that are independent of SES background? Shakha, you placed a lot of emphasis in your post on “advantaged social positions”, but one can easily come up with numerous examples where that wouldn’t be the most important variable per se.


  21. just responding to whether class and cultural issues trump gender or national and language background: not necessarily, I guess when I was talking about cultural background I was including gender and nationality. I think that gender can be a huge issue in interactions, especially if you’re interviewing in male-dominated settings.


  22. CD: my emphasis on people from “advantaged social positions” was purposely vague – I didn’t mean to solely imply class; lots of positions are “advantaged”. However, I will stand by my claim that people from advantaged social positions are more likely to feel comfortable with folks who have more power than they, and the resulting interactional dynamic is more comfortable or natural to the one with power, resulting in a better “feel” and subsequent outcome.

    The reasons for this could be multiple: risks are lower, creating greater ease; experiences have suggested that advancement is likely; previous interaction with powerful people are more likely to be positive; powerful people are more likely to be part of their everyday personal life; etc.

    As for empirical evidence that class and culture trump gender and nation, I don’t know of any study that looks at this particular question. However, there is evidence that each of these factors do matter. My own interest is less which variables have the greatest effect and more how social advantage affects interactions and outcomes.


  23. Note, however, that the interview happens after very many hurdles that could have already disadvantaged the disadvantaged. Consequently, those who are still in the system at that stage have managed that far for one reason or another.

    I guess my point is that while what you refer to will result in disadvantages during the educational and training process as a whole, it’s not clear how much of this is still left over as relevant at such a far stage in the process (the process starting at going to high school and graduating then going to college and graduating then getting into and going to grad school then doing well enough there to have a strong application, getting faculty support with it and making the cut to an interview).


  24. I think Shakha’s point about the cultural advantages of having certain social networks that make interactions such as in interviews comparatively more comfortable (or create less cognitive dissonance) is the point. At each level of educational advancement, one may have been able to negotiate through the hierarchy successfully, but each step presents its own set of cultural norms far removed from anything previously experienced personally or experienced within one’s personal social network. The idea of entitlement has tangible effects. As I teach my students, it’s easiest to notice privilege when you don’t have it. If the norms are those of your own cultural background, they require much less thought.


  25. There’s certain things that seem culturally variable, and also gender variable, and that affects not only interviews but also things that require oral communication, but not necessarily written communication. Doing good written work and being mostly quiet in social situations can get you into and through grad school but not necessarily do you good in the job market. There’s also issues about how to talk about yourself, how to show confidence without sounding arrogant, and these things are more difficulty for women, for people of different cultural backgrounds, etc.


  26. Socfreak – I think this downplays the importance of such factors throughout grad school (and earlier). Self-promotion and the inclination to take initiative is already at work in grad school from not being shy to pester faculty about getting back to you about work or letting you into a class to taking the initiative in applying for fellowships.


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