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December 20, 2018 4:10 PM   Subscribe

"During my presentation, a senior panel member put his head in his hands and muttered 'death, death, death.'" "The chairperson vomited into a wastepaper basket, slowly wiped her mouth before asking the candidate to describe a challenging experience he faced." Inside Higher Ed compiles "worst academic job interview" stories.
posted by Ralston McTodd (62 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
 
"On a hotel room bed" is just behind "in the back of a van down that dark alley" on the list of Sketchiest Possible Job Interview Locations.
posted by The Card Cheat at 4:16 PM on December 20 [14 favorites]


At dinner, the chair of the search committee declared, off topic given the discussion, that sign languages were clearly inferior to spoken languages. I paused, thought about whether I wanted to job or not, decided it didn't matter, and proceded to ensure I wasn't hired.
I'm pretty sure I can guess which sign she used to ensure she wasn't hired.
posted by clawsoon at 4:31 PM on December 20 [28 favorites]


The sexism and racism are disgusting...and not surprising, I have worked at two universities.

One of my grad school profs is in the article. He's a white guy. And it's the mildest of them all. *sigh* (He is, for the record, a lovely person.)
posted by wellred at 4:37 PM on December 20 [2 favorites]


So now that I'm 95% graduated I'm getting a ton of emails from SFSU trying to entice me into graduate school and I want to email them back with a gif of that cat yelling "no no no no no no no no no"
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 4:45 PM on December 20 [10 favorites]


In most US states you only need one party’s consent (i.e., yours if you’re in the conversation) to record a conversation. I’m sure there are many employment attorneys who would love to hear some of these interviews.

CTTOI, I guess that would torpedo one’s entire academic career, huh? Crap.
posted by Ampersand692 at 4:46 PM on December 20 [1 favorite]


"Sr male colleague: So, do you have a family?
Candidate: why yes, as it happens I grew up in a family."

I want to be friends with this Candidate.
posted by eviemath at 4:55 PM on December 20 [78 favorites]


"During my presentation, a senior panel member put his head in his hands and muttered 'death, death, death."

That's more or less what was going on inside my head during a few interviews for jobs I didn't actually want back in the day.
posted by The Card Cheat at 5:09 PM on December 20 [18 favorites]


Fwiw, I've been on many academic interviews and I've only been in a hotel room once and none of it went down. I've never had any of these inappropriate moments happen.
I'm not trying to disregard what these people experienced but based on my and my friend's experiences, this isn't typical.
posted by k8t at 5:10 PM on December 20


It varies by discipline; the hotel room thing has long been accepted (if not standard) practice in certain humanities fields, particularly in philosophy. Most of my friends and colleagues in humanities or humanities-adjacent disciplines who have been lucky enough to snag TT-position interviews have at least one horror story in this vein to tell; the more successful they've been in their searches, the more horror stories they have. Search dysfunction is the norm, and a surprising number of search committees either devolve into trainwrecks or are headed and staffed by trainwrecks from the start :/
posted by halation at 5:18 PM on December 20 [16 favorites]


My worst was the giant week of academic interview, where the head of department decided it would be "festive" to have all the interviewees come for a whole week, and hang out together, and do a bunch of interviews with different panels on different days, but also tourist stuff together, like bush walking (up a mountain) and dinners and things.

I was an internal candidate, so I didn't have to travel. It was the week the Icelandic volcano grounded European flights, so half the candidates were delayed until like the Wednesday, or something. My interviews had been scheduled from Weds-Fri, but I got a message on Sunday that they wanted to reschedule me to Mon-Tues, since the other candidates were delayed. So I lost a lot of my planned preparation time. But on the other hand, fewer of the "festive" events happened, so there was less awkward hanging out with the other candidates. The bushwalk got cancelled, which is good, because I never did figure out how to dress for interview + mountaineering on the same day. And it meant fewer opportunities to push the other candidates off cliffs to clear the field, which might have been a real temptation.

In the end the interviews were awful - I think that not including the job talk, there were four interviews across two days, each about an hour long, each with groups of 5-15 people (e.g. one had all grad students in the department, all of whom asked extremely serious theoretical questions. On the other hand, one just had members of an editorial board, and they mostly talked about cricket). In total I think I was interviewed by about 30 people, of whom two were women, and all were white. The chair of the main panel (whose interview was the actual deciding one, I learned later, since they hired someone the other panels recommended against), fell asleep during my interview. He also left the room for a bit to take a phone call, and didn't come back for about 20 minutes, while the questions proceeded without him.

Getting to know the other candidates was a mixed bag. There was only one who I didn't know already, and she turned out to be great, and we ended up collaborating together over the next few years. On the other hand, one of the others and I had an argument over dinner one evening about whether street harassment exists. (His claim: he talks to women he doesn't know on the street all the time, and they are so rude because they don't want to engage in his conversational ploys. Me: probably they get harassed a lot and don't have any way to know he isn't going to be a creep. Him: that doesn't happen. He's never been harassed and never seen it and therefore it doesn't exist. Me: remembering this dinner is still part of a job interview, hmm, yes, your point of view is indeed interesting and you are no doubt correct. How about that weather?)
posted by lollusc at 5:19 PM on December 20 [34 favorites]


I'm a historian. Interviews in hotel rooms are (still!) very common, although since the crash of 2008 more and more colleges and universities are skipping the AHA interview and doing Skype interviews instead. I've had many interviews in hotel rooms and have endured many of the same inappropriate questions. This stuff isn't typical, but it's pretty common.
posted by pleasant_confusion at 5:27 PM on December 20 [4 favorites]


The academic job market is like someone took a normal job market and decided that what it was really needed was inconsistency, lengthiness, lack of choice, people who haven't really received HR training on how to conduct interviews, lack of respect for applicants, shame, and precarity. I hate it. I hate how little information there is at every step. I hate how arbitrary it feels. I hate how few jobs there are and how absurdly well qualified for them everyone I know is. I hate that there are no standards for notifying people when they don't make it to the next round so I haunt wikis that are occasionally updated by some number of people on the market. And, I hate that the next step can include these absurd interviews. Bah.
posted by ChuraChura at 5:49 PM on December 20 [44 favorites]


... and then you get the job, and it turns out to be not only nothing like the role description, what you talked about in the interview, or even the contract you signed, the department is a dysfunctional village of several stressed and overworked people who are terrified of losing their jobs at any moment, and two people whose main responsibilities seem to be avoiding any job functions at all. The students regard you as an amusing cross between a doting parent and McDonalds server, and that because they are paying your wages they are entitled not only to pass but to have the content handed to them on a platter. Meanwhile, the rest of the organisation pauses its own nightmarish disintegration only to mount a concerted ram raid on your departmental funding, office allocations, and/or course delivery, and the administration wilfully refuses to understand what you do and how you do it, while demanding compliance to a vast catalogue of internal regulations so bizarre and Byzantine that “53(A): Staff should ensure compliance with these regulations at all times. The text of these regulations can be found at item 53(A)” seems perfectly reasonable.

I am on holiday for a month now. I’m not checking emails.
posted by prismatic7 at 6:11 PM on December 20 [54 favorites]


IIRC, I managed to avoid all interviews in any room with a bed, and my department has always booked a suite. We've been talking about going to Skype for future interviews. I suspect I might have been a nightmare interviewer on a search about seven years ago, when I was on the tail end of a bout of bronchitis and had periodic WILD COUGHING FITS that forced me to leave the room (I did apologize in advance, but, yeah).

I did have one nightmare experience, at a small institution that shall remain nameless. They brought me and one other candidate out the same day (a no-no in the USA), then had the other person buy me a pretzel at the airport so I didn't starve to death (!). We were stuck at a kind of bad hotel within walking distance of precisely nothing. After my interview, I was left stranded unceremoniously in a parking lot, waiting for a cab. Meanwhile, after all that, the department hired a buddy of someone on the search committee who, among other things, was not actually in the advertised field. The chair called the aforementioned other candidate (who absolutely should have come first, btw--they'd done much more at that stage than I had) and told them to sue--which tells you something about the department's, um, collegiality. The other candidate later told me about all sorts of scary backstage stuff that kept coming out. I...was not sorry to have lost that job.
posted by thomas j wise at 6:16 PM on December 20 [11 favorites]


Being interviewed for a Masters spot by a relatively eminent prof. He proceed to spin round his swivel chair and got stuck with his back to me. Carried on the interview facing the window. He also told me I'd need to 'improve my accent' as he couldn't understand me (I'm irish)!!
Came for an interview, got stuck in a Monty Python skit.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 6:32 PM on December 20 [29 favorites]


Sorry - what am I not understanding about this industry? Why are interviews being held in hotel rooms?? Isn’t there a campus? Presumably campuses have some rooms one might reserve?
I’ve been in HR-adjacent roles for a very long time, and conducted many hundreds of interviews. I’ve never needed to sit on a bed while doing so.
posted by greermahoney at 6:43 PM on December 20 [4 favorites]


This thread is a fun mix of people who have been on or adjacent to the academic job market and people who have not and are rightfully completely gobsmacked by its conventions.

I hate it all and I’m not even the one on the market. My partner and I are extremely fortunate that I have a steady and relatively lucrative job that has been enormously understanding of my need for flexibility as he contorts himself through the various arbitrary and dehumanizing processes demanded of him.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 6:49 PM on December 20 [18 favorites]


My favorite interview story...so I’m interviewing at the Joint Math Meetings, which have a huge employment center section where everyone on the market does the equivalent of phone screens, but in person. I think I did 32 interviews over the 5 days of the conference. Most universities either rented a table at the employment center area, or just arranged to meet at some convenient table somewhere in the large conference venue. Fine, that worked out, no problem.

Except. This interviewer from this one university who I shall allow to remain nameless, decided it would be friendlier to have candidates interview in his hotel room. So, I got to walk 5 blocks, go up to his hotel room, do the interview, have my picture taken (!!) (so he could remember who was who...)...and it was extra sketchy because I was a short young-ish (at the time) woman, not even out of grad school at that point, and he was...not. And as I recall it was just the one interviewer.

I’m still annoyed, and this was almost 20 years ago. It was *totally harmless*, and the department hadn’t hired anyone new in ages. But still.
posted by leahwrenn at 6:55 PM on December 20 [3 favorites]


Interviews in my department are overnight affairs -- candidate arrives one afternoon, is taken to dinner, does interview stuff all day the next day, leaves in the afternoon.

Except.

My interview was in mid-October 2006, which everyone in Buffamalo shudders to remember. Landed in the afternoon and it was snowing, was taken to dinner during which it was snowing, got back to the hotel and it was thundersnowing and the power was out. By the next morning, 20-odd inches had fallen and all the trees had exploded because they were still fully leafed-out. Nobody picked me up in the morning, because great piles of snow and the town had a driving ban, and my phone was dead, and the hotel's pbx was down, but luckily the last properly hardwired pay phone in America was in the lobby so I was able to talk to the department chair and confirm that I should hunker down, check myself back into the hotel, and it would get straightened out eventually. Later, I was able to cadge a (mildly illegal) ride to the nearest Wegmans to stock up on stuff what didn't need fancy heatin', and the power came back on that night, but by the time communications were reasonably restored and they got me back into the airline's queue my overnight interview lasted (IIRC) five days.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 6:56 PM on December 20 [17 favorites]


Why are interviews being held in hotel rooms??

In English and related fields, hiring goes like this:

1) Read through lots and lots of applications
2) Identify interview list (maybe ten people)
3) Interviews at the MLA, which is where all the hotel rooms are
4) Top three or so candidates get invited to campus (which is the stage at which I had my nightmare, mentioned above)
5) Hire! (or keep going, sigh)

One of the dirty secrets of this approach is that stage #3 involves candidates paying their own way to the interview, which is one of the reasons that many departments are moving to Skype. (Deans also prefer us being on Skype, as it costs several thousand dollars to send a committee to the MLA.) At stage #4, the campus is supposed to reimburse the candidate for everything (but, as the Twitter thread indicated, a lot of campuses...screw up this part).
posted by thomas j wise at 6:59 PM on December 20 [6 favorites]


Sorry - what am I not understanding about this industry?
tl;dr this industry is extremely, comically terrible and people who have never been introduced to even a vague and general notion of best HR practices are, all too often, left in charge of things, entirely without adult supervision

Hotel-room interviews have actually been presented as a courtesy, of sorts, to candidates, since they are often held during the major annual conferences in humanities disciplines (Modern Language Association, American Philosophical Association, etc.) They're usually held at the conference's host hotel. The idea is that people on the market are obliged to travel to this conference anyhow, to present and to network, so they won't have additional travel expenses -- not all institutions/searches even offer compensation. APA has set out guidelines prohibiting interviews in non-suite hotel rooms, with a reporting mechanism, to make it less unsavoury-feeling, but I don't know anyone in any field who's ever complained about being interviewed in a hotel room, since the stakes are far too high to have faith in the promise of anonymous reporting.

Hotel interviews are also, obviously, convenient for search committees, since they're made up of faculty members who are also probably there to present (and maybe also crashing in the interview room so they don't have to pay out-of-pocket for themselves -- or, worse, using the rooms for conference hookups). They can watch the candidates give their papers, and then do cattle-call style interviews at no cost or at little cost to the institution, and very lucky job-seekers might be able to get an interview with more than one institution -- though this is obviously stressful and exhausting for those candidates, since they may be running a gauntlet of interview suites while also prepping and presenting a paper and trying to talk to publishers and going to networking events and so on.

There's usually a second interview on-campus, which is why Skype has helped reduce the number of hotel interviews, but campus AV setups are notoriously terrible and faculty are notoriously terrible at using them and there's usually lots of freezing and dropped audio and Skype interviews basically kind of suck, so hotel interviews do still happen -- particularly if search committees are headed by older scholars who are used to that way of doing things.
posted by halation at 7:06 PM on December 20 [14 favorites]


Last year, I was rejected from a job at Universite de Montreal for which I didn't apply. I e-mailed them back and asked if they could clarify. They responded with a rejection letter, this time for the job I had applied for, but addressed: "Chere Monsieur ChuraChura" (I am at the very least a Mlle)!
posted by ChuraChura at 7:08 PM on December 20 [8 favorites]


Sorry - what am I not understanding about this industry? Why are interviews being held in hotel rooms?? Isn’t there a campus? Presumably campuses have some rooms one might reserve?

You've already gotten some explanation, but it might also help to know that tenure track jobs are national or even international searches, rather than local or regional. That's the reason why the big conferences are so important—in theory, people are already coming from everywhere to attend, and that's why colleges and universities do their first cut interviews there. (The reality is, however, that graduate students and newly minted PhDs regularly go to the conference for the sole purpose of being interviewed, and must pay all the costs just for the privilege of being there.) In the humanities, this usually means that committees interview about 10-12 people at the conference (cut down from a pool of applicants from than can easily number 100+), and then three or four will be invited to interview on campus.
posted by pleasant_confusion at 7:20 PM on December 20 [2 favorites]


Here's a reasonably concise explanation of how the academic job market works.
posted by pleasant_confusion at 7:22 PM on December 20 [4 favorites]


Conferences are the piece I was missing. I couldn't figure out, if they were fighting over who paid for a sandwich, how they were traveling around the world for interviews. It makes... more sense, now. But still.
posted by greermahoney at 7:47 PM on December 20 [3 favorites]


In my field, the conference interviews are dying out. I hear about them but I think most departments see the value in doing Skype.

As a result, the timelines have changed, for the worse.

It used to be conference interviews in mid November, fly outs in early December, usually a decision by the end of the year, with negotiations in January.

Now some places scoop up the top candidates in early fall and it is far less predicitible when other interviews may be secured. It is just a mess for everyone involved.
posted by k8t at 7:58 PM on December 20 [2 favorites]


These are delightfully terrible.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:05 PM on December 20 [2 favorites]


Academic hiring in Japan is very different from the US in some ways, but in other ways not so much. I never had anything quite as horrible as these happen but a few weird ones.

Internalish candidate (teaching part-time in one department and applying for full-time contract adjunct in another) and after a lengthy interview ran into one of the three interviewers outside the building about half an hour later. He said hello and asked if I was a new exchange student.

Got that job, but left after one year. I did complete a full year and gave them almost six months notice. Went to the States.

But, back in Japan and interviewing at another university. One interviewer asks why I left previous place after a year. I explain that it was personal, two-body problem, spouse and I now fully in one place in Tokyo to which they replied, "Doesn't matter. Do you honestly think anyone will give you a full-time job again in this country? Huh?"

At another university applying to move from part-time to full-time contract adjunct I made it through the departmental and faculty interviews. This was followed by an interview with the president. So, I got a haircut and took my suit to the cleaners. Showed up on the appointed day to be interviewed by the president, a vice-president, and someone else. The president's phone rang about 30 seconds into the interview and he just got up and left us there. Silence for a while as we could hear him grunting in the hallway outside the door. Then, "So, ... um. Mr. Gotanda, um..." I got the job.
posted by Gotanda at 8:24 PM on December 20 [2 favorites]


look at this loveliness! and rightwingers say universities are out of touch?? seems to me it's the regular cutthroat capitalism we all face x1000.
posted by wibari at 9:59 PM on December 20 [1 favorite]


Yes, it's a bit different in Australia too. We don't have a "job season" but rather jobs are advertised as they become available, all year round. This does mean that no matter when you finish your PhD / postdoc, there is likely to be something for you to apply for in a short period of time. On the other hand, it also means there is rarely more than one or two jobs advertised in your field at a time, and everyone on the market will be applying for everything, pretty much. And of course, we are mostly applying to the international ones during job market season too.

Because there's no job market season here, we don't do interviews at conferences. But because it costs like $3000 per candidate to fly an international person out here for an interview (and most jobs shortlist at least a couple of international candidates), we don't usually do in-person interviews at all. The example I mentioned above was the only time I've seen an Australian university do in-person interviews, in about eight of my own interview experiences, and at least another 10 where I've been on the panel. Mostly it's skype.

Sometimes a university will do skype for the international people and in-person for the local ones, although that seems likely to be a bit unfair to one group or the other. Sometimes the final candidate, after they have the offer, will be invited out for a visit to woo them, particularly if they seem like they might be reluctant to accept.
posted by lollusc at 10:08 PM on December 20 [2 favorites]


(Of course, skype interviews can be their own special brand of terrible. I was on a panel for an interview once that no doubt the candidate remembers as the interview from hell. Our administrative assistant screwed up the time conversion, and invited them to interview at what turned out to be 3am their time. The candidate was too shy/nervous to point this out, but at least they actually really rocked the interview and got the job.

They said afterwards that the dead-of-night interview timing made them feel like they were being recruited by the mafia.)
posted by lollusc at 10:11 PM on December 20 [8 favorites]


I thought for sure the "POSTDOC_SUCCESSFUL_APPLICANTS" thing was a clever joke, mocking with hyperbole.

I was wrong.
posted by biogeo at 10:33 PM on December 20 [4 favorites]


My last two university jobs included being the person who sets up and manages the logistics of new faculty interviews. That part of it was actually kind of fun; it was pulling the necessary information out of the professors involved that made me want to bash my own head in with the nearest blunt instrument. Once I found out who all was attending, when which sessions were when and with whom, and when the thing would actually take place. Then you can start reserving conference and hotel rooms, making reservations with restaurants or caterers (if you've got the budget, leave some leeway for feeding hangers-on), reserve and set up any AV equipment, see to coffee and water service, arrange for visitors' parking passes, set aside pads and pencils, make name tags, prepare binders -neat and color coded - with itinerary, contact info sheet, resumes, job descriptions, campus maps, department brochures, our latest publications, and anything requested, if they're flying in arrange for ground transportation, take care of any miscellaneous requests (fitness center day pass, notary public, emergency IT services, etc.), Have travel reimbursement forms and a step-by-step guide to filling them out and returning them in candidate's binder, obtaining a small piece of swag, being an endless found of campus trivia, and knowing it's all going to be invisible. I should have just told the search committees to show up at the candidates' hotel room. In their PJ's.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:17 PM on December 20 [5 favorites]


My spouse's worst horror story:

I will preface this by saying that permanent jobs in my spouse's field are rare and hard to get. By the time this story happened, she was already on her fifth year of doing temporary postdoc positions after getting her PhD, and we'd moved from the U.S. to Germany for her then-current postdoc position. The clock was loudly ticking down on her time left before she needed to find a new job. This is a very common situation, and it meant that every interview was a very big deal.

She got on a longlist for [Institution That Shall Remain Nameless] in Chicago and had a phone interview. After the phone interview, she got a message saying she'd made the shortlist, and suggesting some possible dates for an in-person interview. Great! She wrote them back in an effort to nail down one of the dates and set things up.

I say "in an effort" because then ... nothing.

Nothing from them. No word. No response.

My spouse wrote them a few times, as the weeks and months rolled by. Is the date she requested OK?

She eventually got back a short note from an administrative assistant which said something vague which was basically, "We're working on this, we'll get back to you."

Then, nothing. No word. No response to any e-mails. The proposed interview date came and went with her never hearing back from them.

She later learned, from a secondhand source, that [ITSRN] had decided -- after the shortlist had already been made -- that they no longer had sufficient funds to fly in candidates from outside the U.S.

And for some reason, they decided that the appropriate way to deal with this was to GHOST THEM. It happened to another candidate in Australia (who is now moderately famous, incidentally) as well as my spouse.
posted by kyrademon at 4:28 AM on December 21 [7 favorites]


One of my job applications got the reply.

Interviews at the Managers.

It was up to me to find out that "The Managers" was the nickname for the pub that the team went to on a Friday lunchtime and that was the aptitude test - amongst other things.
The job was mine when I fetched my own darts from the glovebox of my car.
posted by Burn_IT at 4:46 AM on December 21 [10 favorites]


Reading some of those stories gave me flashbacks! I would starve to death before I worked for any university/college/school again.
posted by james33 at 5:07 AM on December 21


I've had several hotel room interviews. They were uneventful except for one, which went fine until I was leaving and the chair of the committee got up to show me out. In my nervous state I opened the door to the coat closet instead of the door of the hotel room. Trying to save the situation I said, "I hope I'm not the only candidate to have done this." She replied without smiling: "Well actually you are." Did not get job.
posted by Morpeth at 5:09 AM on December 21 [2 favorites]


I thought for sure the "POSTDOC_SUCCESSFUL_APPLICANTS" thing was a clever joke, mocking with hyperbole

Ha, no, I’m not that witty. Should have made more clear that was a real thing in the article that actually happened.
posted by Ralston McTodd at 5:36 AM on December 21


She got on a longlist for [Institution That Shall Remain Nameless] in Chicago and had a phone interview. After the phone interview, she got a message saying she'd made the shortlist, and suggesting some possible dates for an in-person interview. Great! She wrote them back in an effort to nail down one of the dates and set things up.

I say "in an effort" because then ... nothing.

Nothing from them. No word. No response.

My spouse wrote them a few times, as the weeks and months rolled by. Is the date she requested OK?

She eventually got back a short note from an administrative assistant which said something vague which was basically, "We're working on this, we'll get back to you."

Then, nothing. No word. No response to any e-mails. The proposed interview date came and went with her never hearing back from them.

She later learned, from a secondhand source, that [ITSRN] had decided -- after the shortlist had already been made -- that they no longer had sufficient funds to fly in candidates from outside the U.S.

And for some reason, they decided that the appropriate way to deal with this was to GHOST THEM. It happened to another candidate in Australia (who is now moderately famous, incidentally) as well as my spouse.


If this is the same [Institution that Shall Remain Nameless] in Chicago that I applied to for a admin job in 2013, then yeah, they did the same to me. Phone interview, request to send times for in-person interview, then nothing. I was seriously paranoid that my boss was deleting my emails because I've never just NOT heard back from a place even if they lost funding or whatever.

Then I actually did land a job there in a different department but never had a background check done or had an official offer letter sent or...anything. Just a verbal offer, a start date a month later, and then silence. I thought I was just ghosted me again and that this institution, despite being one of the top universities IN THE WORLD, didn't have its administrative shit together. So a few days before my start date my potential new boss emails me, while I'm sitting in my apartment in another state applying for other jobs, asking if I'm ready for my first day on Monday. I was dumbfounded and replied stating that I really had no idea if I was even employed there as I haven't received or signed an official offer letter or anything official from HR. He asks his HR rep and her reply was "She's good to go." Ok?

That also doesn't include the job offer that was rescinded from another university after HR and the provost got wind (somehow) of me being fired for "not being a good fit" from a 6 month, non-academic job (the only blemish on an otherwise stable resume) and subjected me to a series of private follow-up interviews where I basically had to defend myself like I was being investigated for child rape.

I also recently had to turn down a job at another university across the country for being inflexible about moving my start date until my background check cleared.

I just....academia what is your actual fucking problem?
posted by Young Kullervo at 5:43 AM on December 21 [3 favorites]


My only experience with this sort of thing is, like Gotanda, with a Japanese university. A coworker suggested the job, which she had heard about from a foreign housewives mailing list. I was massively under qualified for the position, and the interview consisted of the heads of the English department (two older Japanese people) and two foreign teachers at the university. Later, I found out the two foreigners were locked in a death struggle over who would be in charge of the six foreign teachers at the school. They’d done their best to keep word of the two positions open from spreading too widely, so they could get their friends into the school. The Japanese teachers asked me questions about my teaching philosophy and experience. The two foreign teachers kept asking me how I’d heard about the job. When I ended up getting the job, it took me a little while to realize that by taking one of the two jobs essentially promised to a buddy, I’d made an enemy in the school before I even started. Good times.
posted by Ghidorah at 5:48 AM on December 21 [6 favorites]


About a decade ago, we were interviewing a prospective faculty member who had a very young baby (she was quite pregnant during early interviews and then we had to reschedule her later interview around the birth). At the later interview, one of our older faculty members decided to make small talk by grilling the candidate on whether or not she was breastfeeding.

I've been involved with a few searches now and none of these stories surprise me. Here are a few reasons that this crap happens:

Departments go years (if not decades) without getting new faculty lines, sometimes no one in the department knows anything about the hiring process.

When new faculty lines are released, multiple departments are hiring at the same time, overwhelming the HR department that might keep faculty from doing stupid things.

HR departments are often incompetent. Once I found a lot of typos in a published job description I'd written. I checked the original Word doc and it was error-free. I realized that the HR rep printed and retyped the entire job description instead of copying and pasting.

Current faculty sometimes resist hiring new faculty and try to jam up the process at every step. Shared governance can this very easy.

Sometimes very smart people do very dumb things.
posted by Drab_Parts at 6:18 AM on December 21 [6 favorites]


Metafilter: Sometimes very smart people do very dumb things.
posted by Barack Spinoza at 6:32 AM on December 21 [12 favorites]


... and then you get the job, and it turns out to be not only nothing like the role description, what you talked about in the interview, or even the contract you signed, the department is a dysfunctional village of several stressed and overworked people who are terrified of losing their jobs at any moment, and two people whose main responsibilities seem to be avoiding any job functions at all.

Every single academic job. Without exception, in my 20 year experience.

tl;dr this industry is extremely, comically terrible and people who have never been introduced to even a vague and general notion of best HR practices are, all too often, left in charge of things, entirely without adult supervision

QF fucking T.

Also, I had to tell my PIs that we didn't get funded last week. No one has spoken to me since. I am the only person 100% on the grant. This is fine.
posted by Sophie1 at 7:10 AM on December 21 [8 favorites]


Also being a professor doesn't require being smart.

My favorite example of this was in my intake process into SUNY. Like a lot of state schools, SUNY offers faculty a choice between retirement plans: you can get into the state employee retirement plan, or you can get into a 403b which is a 401k for nonprofits. New faculty almost always pick the 403b because (a) if you don't get promotion and tenure you leave either without ever vesting in the system, ugh, or you eventually get the tiny pension that flows from five or six years of service. Oh, I forgot --- see, not smart?--- (b) if you take the 403b the contributions immediately become your money instead of having to worry about how generous voters in 2040 feel.

ANYWAY, the point is I'm in the intake process and we've gone through the health insurance and are going through the retirement process and the HR person says in clear and distinct English that we don't have to make the choice between the systems right now, but we will have to make it before $DEADLINE and our choice is final and irrevocable except for a few weirdo circumstances.* So naturally a new faculty member raises his or her hand and asks

"So this choice is final and irrevocable?"
"Yes."
"Okay, I understand. If I'm in the 403b and later I want to move to the pension, how do I do that?"
"You can't. The choice you make when you join SUNY is final."
"Yes, I understand. But if I want to change systems later, how do I do that?"

*Those mostly being if you quit from your UUP faculty job and eventually take a State of New York job in a bargaining unit that doesn't offer the 403b, there's some flexibility.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 7:13 AM on December 21 [3 favorites]


To add to the list: A job I interviewed for a month ago just emailed me asking if I am still interested to which I'm thinking "yeah NOT REALLY." Because the amount of humiliating garbage I've had to endure has sucked all the passion I have for higher education and these vacancies and my being in "high demand" for them currently is starting to make me realize that this may be the case for everyone else with my skill set with any professionalism and dignity.
posted by Young Kullervo at 7:16 AM on December 21 [1 favorite]


In another job, I was once filling in for the admin who supported a particular hiring committee. The chair had to rebuke two of the committee members, because they were looking at a smartphone and giggling while the candidate was trying to answer questions. In a group of about eight people, all seated around a small table.

It was really awful, and I felt terrible for the candidate. We didn't actually have many super-strong candidates, as it was for a very specialized position, and this person was the weakest one. However, I spent a lot of time in that school, and I don't think the candidate would have done a bad job.

I think that the faculty acted so badly because that person was the weakest one and they didn't want to hire them, not just because they were being randomly awful. But you know what happened? The school extended the offer to the strongest candidate, who quite wisely didn't want it, the hire was dropped and the tenure line was lost. It would have been better to hire the weakest candidate, who was really only missing one piece of the background, help them get up to speed, and keep the tenure line. No one who had enough relevant experience to get to a campus visit would be unable to do the job.
posted by Frowner at 8:42 AM on December 21 [9 favorites]


This morning while dozing after hitting snooze, I dreamed that my PhD advisor told me if I didn't get a job this cycle, Hitler had won. So it's not like my subconscious is laying on the pressure or anything!
posted by ChuraChura at 9:11 AM on December 21 [12 favorites]


My stories pale in comparison to my wife's.

She flew down for an on-campus interview and was greeted at the airport by the search committee chair. He drove her to the hotel where they had put her up for the multi-day interview. He left and she goes to check in, but there is no record of her reservation. By the time she realizes that he took her to the wrong hotel, it was late at night and she had to figure out 1) which was the correct hotel and 2) how to get there. The next day, they insisted that *she* was the one who was wrong about the hotel. (She withdrew her application.)

After a successful on-campus interview, she received a letter saying "We're happy to also offer your husband a job in the english department!" We were not married and I am not in the humanities.

She received an offer letter for a job. The letter was addressed to a different person. She had to contact the department chair to clarify whether or not she was indeed being offered the job. (She was; the addressee was a previous candidate who had been offered the position but had turned it down.)
posted by cyclopticgaze at 9:22 AM on December 21 [11 favorites]


After a successful on-campus interview, she received a letter saying "We're happy to also offer your husband a job in the english department!" We were not married and I am not in the humanities.

Do you know how many people with PhDs in English just thought, "WAIT, NO, TAKE THE JOB AND I'LL MARRY YOU!"
posted by BrashTech at 9:30 AM on December 21 [19 favorites]


Do you know how many people with PhDs in English just thought, "WAIT, NO, TAKE THE JOB AND I'LL MARRY YOU!"

I was looking for a job at the time, too, and it definitely crossed my mind like, "could . . . could I pull that off? Like just for a year or two?"
posted by cyclopticgaze at 9:57 AM on December 21 [9 favorites]


Any time supply and demand are way out of whack for a job, the default is misery and degradation. Take the movie industry, there are millions of people who want in but only 130,000 people are in the union that covers film, TV, and radio. So your average person has a sense of how bad it's likely to be. The academic market doesn't seem like it should be that way at all, being run by sober, scholarly types. Plus you need a PhD, so how could there be a surplus of candidates? But when you realize how many teaching and research assistants are required to do the grunt work at universities, versus how many tenure track faculty there are, it might be harder to break into academia.
posted by wnissen at 10:22 AM on December 21


I've been very lucky with my jobs and interviews in academia.

But I did receive a pro-forma rejection email once. This was after receiving and signing an offer and turning in my notice for my previous position. Fortunately I was otherwise occupied, so I first saw HR's urgent email telling me to disregard the previous message and they were so very sorry. Everything else about the position (including HR here in general) has been great, so I really can't complain.
posted by ghost phoneme at 11:21 AM on December 21


> "... it might be harder to break into academia."

Speaking as someone formerly in the performing arts married to someone in academia, the performing arts is, I think, still harder just in terms of number-of-bodies-applying vs. number-of-paying-jobs, and certainly worse in terms of number-of-bodies-applying vs. number-of-long-term-jobs.

This is not to say that academia is necessarily easier overall, given the much higher bar for applying in the first place -- my wife had four years of undergrad plus two years working at a low-level job in her field plus five years of grad school before it was even possible to apply for a long-term job she wanted, and then six more years of postdocs before she got one. Whereas I have an undergrad degree, but it's never been necessary to have one for any job I've ever applied for or gotten.

So it's hard to compare the two, but if for some reason your only career choices are movie actor or tenure track professor, I'm not sure which I'd recommend. For what it's worth, of the people I know who tried for one or the other, more seem to have managed the second one.
posted by kyrademon at 11:34 AM on December 21 [1 favorite]


Speaking as someone formerly in the performing arts married to someone in academia, the performing arts is, I think, still harder just in terms of number-of-bodies-applying vs. number-of-paying-jobs, and certainly worse in terms of number-of-bodies-applying vs. number-of-long-term-jobs.
I’m in performing arts academia. The statistically significant worst of both worlds.
posted by prismatic7 at 2:01 PM on December 21 [15 favorites]


... and then you get the job, and it turns out to be not only nothing like the role description, what you talked about in the interview, or even the contract you signed, the department is a dysfunctional village of several stressed and overworked people who are terrified of losing their jobs at any moment, and two people whose main responsibilities seem to be avoiding any job functions at all.

This, I can't. It rang so true for me that I had to stop and walk around for a minute.

I can tick off a few of these such that they really seem mundane (arguing over the bill in front of me, inappropriate questions, hotel room interview that skeeved me out).

The only one that I can really point to being weird is I was on a committee wherein we were interviewing a candidate by phone and one of my colleagues fell asleep. He was also calling in-- so we heard a soft, gentle snore for a bit, and we all tried to ignore this as the candidate soldiered on during their questions. It was at the legitimate buzzsaw that another committee member interrupted and shouted into his phone "What is going on? Jesus, wake up!!"
posted by oflinkey at 6:42 PM on December 21 [3 favorites]


Ok, oflinkey. I was on a conference call with research oncologists and suddenly, Someone. Flushed. A. Toilet. Loud and clear. This was no more than 10 years ago. The person, whomever they were, had access to mute, but noooooo. We all just went on with the call like nothing had happened. But there was absolutely no mistaking what we had all heard!
posted by Sophie1 at 10:35 AM on December 22 [1 favorite]


Gotanda, I loved your story but I remain baffled. Is there some connection with the important academic who went out into the hall with his phone and then you getting the job? Because I don’t get it.

I also don’t get just generally how people manage to complete PhDs and post docs without just throwing in the towel. I had three male post docs and one adjunct professor (maybe) who were serial boarders at my place before I left California. They were all at UC Berkeley and they all worked nightmarish hours. I would periodically ask them if they were aware of the graduate student union as I heard stories about what their advisers and/or bosses required them to do.

One guy had a boss/department head who insisted that no one needed more than six hours of sleep. He demanded the post grad come in on weekends and work late at night. When I suggested gently that perhaps my housemate should find someone to complain to, he told me the department head was also a foreigner and would never pay any attention to whatever the rules were here anyway.

All these guys were in science; the last one was working in theoretical physics. Because I am outside the system, their stories shocked me every single time. I expect the people who work at Walmart to be treated badly. That does not surprise me. That post docs were being treated badly at Cal was an unpleasant surprise. Apparently, though, that is pretty normal. How did y’all survive it?
posted by Bella Donna at 6:16 AM on December 28 [2 favorites]


Should note that the first border I had was an American. Of the others, one was from China, one was from Iran, and one was from Egypt.
posted by Bella Donna at 6:18 AM on December 28


All of this. And FWIW the chaos continues during the tenure and promotion process with faculty loyalties to their minions working to get personnel committees to disregard mediocre records and tenure/promote anyway or on the reverse working to get personnel committees to downplay strong records to keep non-minions from being recognized for their accomplishments. It's a shit show people.
posted by bluesky43 at 9:13 AM on December 30


Apparently, though, that is pretty normal. How did y’all survive it?

a lot of us don't, tbqh. the system relies on a constant stream of newcomers to do the bulk of the teaching, the research, and the publishing; most of these burn out and eventually leave, replaced by new cannon fodder. tenure-level people transfer between departments to get better pay and perks; when they leave or retire or pass away, their tenure lines die with them, and their job duties are portioned out to the contingent faculty and grad students.

FWIW the chaos continues during the tenure and promotion process with faculty loyalties to their minions working to get personnel committees to disregard mediocre records and tenure/promote anyway or on the reverse working to get personnel committees to downplay strong records to keep non-minions from being recognized for their accomplishments

the behind-the-scenes machinations i saw going down during the election of a new chair made Game of Thrones look like a children's pantomime
posted by halation at 12:52 PM on December 30 [6 favorites]


halation, in re: chair elections: the English department at a large and criminally underfunded state school where my partner got his Masters (in the year 2000), the chair is actually the same person now, in this year of 2019. There has been no change in chair in more than 20 years! HOW?!

(Because, in this department anyway, it's a job that nobody wants, is how.)

They have a whole system of hiring permanent non-tenure-track faculty that my partner opted the hell out of (he did teach there for 5 years after graduating.) The process of becoming retained faculty is just as grinding as the tenure process with sweet fuck all to show for it, if you ever want to do more than teach a 5/4 load at least three of which are composition sections. No course relief, no funding for research or conferences, no respect. A friend of ours who did get retained finally left a few years ago for a better paying non-teaching alt-ac gig - she told us that in the 10 or so years she'd had the job, she had not gotten one. single. raise.

I think that in a department with at least 20 retained people, there are maybe 5 tenured lines. They advertised a TT job this year and we had a good laugh about it.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 7:09 AM on January 2


Bella Donna - the way I read it, Gotanda aced everything including the interview, and the President was an ass who either didn't care whether Gotanda got the job or not, or already knew that Gotanda got the job and didn't care either.

I'm shocked, but not surprised that leaving a position in Japanese academia after a only year is blacklist worthy.

That post docs were being treated badly at Cal was an unpleasant surprise. ... How did y’all survive it?

Yeah, a lot of us don't. There's a Stockholm syndrome/ abusee mentality plus in most programs, not getting a TT at a (good!) R1 is tantamount to abject failure. We used to share the horror story around the campfire that the GM/custodian of a local curling rink was a decently published inorg chem PhD. [true]

In the sciences, people "age out" of post-docs and either need a PI to employ them as an associate researcher or white-knuckle it from year to year as "junior faculty" (non-TT) hoping to have enough grant money to last long enough to publish enough to score a TT position. Every additional year makes it that much harder.

At some institutions in Canada, there are "TT" "research only" (non-lecturing) positions becoming more common. A little less prestigious, how much research you can do depends on grants, but there's some stability and the pay is significantly better than adjunct and sessional teaching positions, if not as high as "teaching*" TT positions.

*You can buy "protection" against teaching by bringing in more grants, and do graduate/med school teaching (a few hours a semester) instead of teaching full semesters.
posted by porpoise at 7:43 PM on January 2 [1 favorite]


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