There Is No Alternative to the Academic Job Talk

Dan Nexon does not like the interview process for research-intensive political science departments. He particularly does not like the job talk. He asks if there are viable alternatives to the modal job talk. The answer is no.

Here is what a job talk does: it gives the candidate 35-45 minutes to present his/her research, followed by questions.  The point is to give the candidate a chance to introduce the argument, the evidence, the research style, the implications…and then to defend them. Some people find this objectionable. I don’t: I enjoy both giving job talks and attending them. But that’s not Dan’s point. He wants to know, what are the alternatives?

  • No talk at all? OK, then how I do know you (rather than your adviser or classmates/coauthors) understand your argument and can defend it? One-on-one meetings aren’t enough: anyone who’s ever compared one-on-one experiences with a colleague knows why.
  • No formal presentation, just straight to comments on a paper? This produces a bias in favor of presenting completed papers. Book-style dissertations where two chapters are the writing samples have little chance here. It also focuses on a single piece of research rather than a broader intellectual project. Remember, we care just as much about what you intend to write than about what you’ve written so far.
  • No formal presentation, but led by a discussant? The discussant—rather than the job candidate—gets enormous power. Think of how this could be gamed by biased committee members. Plus, the bias against book-style dissertations still survives.
  • Standard talk, but given less weight as compared to one-on-one meetings, sessions with grad students, writing samples? In principle this is fine, but this is not an “alternative” to having job talks. And we already live in a world where colleagues are free to discount the job talk completely, and often do.
  • Shorter job talk? Again, not an alternative. And I don’t see why, say, 20 minutes is any better than 35.

One common defense of the job talk is that it is a way to make teaching observable. Maybe, but I don’t think that job talks are interpreted as proxies for teaching demonstrations (although for a methods talk this might help) in most research-intensive departments.

I’ll note that a vigorous Twitter discussion followed Dan’s post yesterday evening. But as far as I can tell, most of the complaints are about how lazy departments are (“if everyone read everyone’s file you wouldn’t need to have job talks”) or how psychological biases pollute how we evaluate talks (“you think you’re basing your decision on the quality of the talk, but what you’re really doing is evaluating how white/male/able to buy a well-fitting suit the candidate is”). Fair criticisms, but irrelevant for judging whether job talks should be eliminated or replaced.

At the end of the day, I do agree that published research, not the ability to speak in public, is the best measure that we have of scholarly impact and intellectual firepower. That is why oral presentations are not used to award tenure, publications are. It is also why job talks really don’t matter for senior-level hiring decisions.

There are plenty of things that make job talks less than perfect. That is why job talks are just one part of the interview process. See Nate Jensen and Jeremy Wallace for more.

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