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How the APA Stole Christmas

When philosophy job-seekers hear the phrase, “It’s that time of year again,” they don’t think of the holidays. They don’t think of Christmas, or family gatherings, or anything remotely associated with tidings of comfort and joy. For young philosophers on the job market, December means the annual ritual of anxiety and humiliation known as American Philosophical Association job interviews.

For as long as I can remember (and probably much longer than that) finding an academic job in American philosophy has taken an unusually programmatic form. Virtually all jobs are announced in a single publication; they are announced during a brief window of time; and the preliminary job interviews are all conducted at a single meeting. This program has the virtue of simplicity and predictability, but its simplicity and predictability are also the reason why it inflicts such psychic distress. The APA holds job interviews between Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve, thus ruining the holidays for everyone involved. Job applicants must leave family gatherings early or skip them entirely. Even Christmas dinner is ruined by the anticipation of the distress to come.

For job applicants, the APA meeting is not a happy event. The hotel is often too expensive for a meager grad student budget; many candidates can’t really afford a plane trip to New York or Washington, so they have to drive hundreds or even thousands of miles; and once they get to the meeting, they will be interrogated about philosophical obscurities at 15 minute intervals while sitting at small tables set up in a hotel ballroom. Back in the old days, when I was on the job market myself, candidates would often be grilled in hotel rooms by faculty members arrayed on beds and armchairs. Today, however, I understand that interviewing job candidates on beds is frowned upon. Departments are encouraged to rent a suite.

All this happens only if the candidate is lucky. If a candidate is unlucky, he or she will not get any interviews at all. In fact, some desperate candidates come to the APA meeting even if they have not been invited for an interview, on the off-chance that they can take advantage of a last-minute cancellation by someone else. The hotel usually has a room or some other space set aside as a kind of central command center for prospective job applicants, and you can smell the fear the minute you walk in. Highly distressed people are pacing, perspiring, trembling, swearing: the scene could be a direct-to-consumer drug advertisement for Ativan. The most common term I’ve heard to describe the APA job interview process is “flesh market,” but that term implies a kind of pleasure that is totally absent from the event. It resembles a brothel less that it resembles the livestock competitions at the Minnesota State Fair, only cattle don’t sweat as much as an unemployed philosopher.

For many years there have been very few jobs in academic philosophy and many, many applicants for each job. The better jobs attract hundreds of applications, and many applicants wind up applying for well over fifty jobs every year. (One graduate student I worked with last year applied for ninety.) The competition is so intense that many applicants consider themselves lucky to get any kind of tenure-track job, even if it is a poorly paid job teaching critical thinking to prospective refrigerator repairmen in rural Oklahoma. Many job candidates have to go to the APA meetings year after unsuccessful year, marking time in between by working as adjunct professors or replacements for tenured faculty on sabbatical. In these circumstances, plainly, the anxiety would be considerable in any case. The genius of the APA is that it takes already severe anxiety and ramp it up exponentially by virtue of the way they conduct their job searches. Why do they do it this way?

The answer, in all likelihood, is that the meeting organizers arrange the events to suit themselves. Unlike job applicants, tenured faculty members go to the meetings with a university expense account. It’s no surprise that they would rather be at a New York City Hilton than a Knoxville Holiday Inn. But job applicants are usually, well, unemployed. Many of them can’t even afford to park their cars in New York City. So not only do they have to suck up to potential employers during the day, or at the famously anxiety-inducing evening “smoker,” they have to commute to the Hilton from a Motel 6 out on the interstate.

For a profession that prides itself on critical thinking, the philosophical rationale for this particular hiring method seems remarkably thin. I’ve never heard an especially good reason for scheduling the annual meeting over the holidays other than the fact that hotels are cheaper then. There is a reason why hotels are cheaper at Christmas, of course: nobody in their right mind wants to be there. If the cost is so important, there are plenty of other options – such as hotels a step down in price from a Marriott or a Hilton, or even better, a city less expensive than New York or Washington. Other academic societies have their meetings in Nashville, Pittsburgh or Baltimore, and they schedule them in October or November. Why can’t the philosophers?

The other question, of course, is whether these preliminary job interviews are even necessary. Most philosophy departments appear to interview a “long list” of ten or fifteen candidates to the APA Eastern Division meeting in order to narrow the choice of potential candidates down to a “short list” of four or five to invite to campus for an on-site interview. But what can a search committee really learn about a candidate in these miserable circumstances? How badly they want a job? Why not just go straight to a short list and invite the best candidates to campus?

One of the good things about interdisciplinary fields is that people quickly realize that the way things have always been done in their own field is not necessarily the best way to do them. In bioethics and the medical humanities, the standard practice (even if a program is hiring a philosopher) is to invite candidates directly to campus without bothering to go to the APA meeting. As far as I can tell, the process works a lot better. It is less expensive, less stressful, and it has the virtue of allowing us not to humiliate our future colleagues. Best of all, it lets us all enjoy the holidays without the aid of anxiolytic medication.

– Carl Elliot

Published on: December 22, 2006
Published in: Professional Ethics

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