Dan Nexon has sparked some online debate among political scientists about whether our hiring process makes any kind of rational sense. Dan expresses particular disdain towards the centerpiece of any campus interview, the job talk -- a format in which a job candidate speaks for 30-45 minutes and then fields questions from faculty and grad students in the audience for 30-60 minutes.
Dan thinks the whole exercise is stupid:
In fact, the job talk is most useful for… assessing the ability of a candidate to give a job talk. The reason we place so much weight on it is that most academics (and I include myself in this category) are too
damn lazypressed for time to skimcarefully read candidates’ portfolios. And why should we? It isn’t like there’s a good chance that the person we hire will become lifetime colleagues… Doh!
I’ve heard rumors of other, more rationale systems. Some say that the University of Chicago conducts an intensive proseminar in which the candidate provides introductory remarks and then everyone discusses an article-length piece of research. This strikes me as a plausible alternative to the modal job talk. But I ask our readers: are there others? And does anyone want to defend the status quo?
OK, first off, for the record, in my experience that's not how the University of Chicago did job talks. Their process involved some criticism of rational choice theory, a lot more hot wax and-- but I can't say anything more because of that darn oath of secrecy.
Seriously, though, Dan's post triggered a whole passel of responses. Tom Pepinsky defended the institution, as did Jeremy Wallace. Nate Jensen wants to know what's the replacement system. Nexon responded by sticking to his guns, and Tom Oatley went so far as to declare that technological change had rendered the original motivation for the job talk obsolete.
I think I have to side with the defenders of the job talk -- or, rather the job talk and Q&A, because the latter part is way more important in my own evaluation of a candidate.
Dan's claim that it serves no purpose other than giving a job talk seems short-sighted to me. In part, a job talk is an act of editing. No one -- well, no one but political theorists -- simply reads their paper verbatim. They have to organize and select what they believe are the most compelling and crucial parts of their argument. They also have to pitch it to a level that's wider than their subfield. An Americanist will know little about Adorno or Agamben; a comparativist is likely to be unfamiliar with work on state legislatures, and a political theorist would have no reason to know much about the Basel Core Principles. This holds with even more force at an interdisciplinary public policy school like Fletcher or SAIS. A job talk lets me see whether this candidate will be able to talk to anyone outside of the five other people on the planet who know this specific topic cold.
If I've read the paper, I'm always curious to see how a candidate crafts his or her presentation. And if the presenter can't hold my attention, that's a bad sign, because if they can't make their own work compelling, good luck keeping the attention of less interested students with work that's not their own.
Truthfully, however, the most important part of a job talk to me is not the talk, it's the question and answer session aferwards. How well can a candidate respond to tough questions? Stupid questions? What are the reservoirs of expertise that lie below the surface? In my professional experience, I can only think of a handful of candidates that blew their chances with the actual job talk. I can think of a LOT of them, however, that deep-sixed their chances because they couldn't handle good questions. I'd also add that while I often have questions after reading the paper, I wind up with different questions when I hear the talk -- in no small part because the presentation reveals what the candidate thinks is mportant.
Good political scientists have to give a LOT of talks in their career -- large lectures to undergraduates, draft paper presentations to graduate students, invited talks at other universities, APSA panels, smaller field conferences, symposium conferences, workshop talks, think tank presentations, and even the occasional public lecture. In my experience, the job talk is the format that best covers all of these other types of presentations.
Am I missing anything, fellow political scientists?
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.