Academic Conferences

The conference interview as cattle call.

In academia, for those not in our small world, job applications in many fields work as follows: 1) Submit applications 1a) Get request for more materials. 2) Go to first-round interview at national conference (10-15 people) 3) Get on-campus interview (3-4 people) 4) Get job.

Below follows something of a manifesto, perhaps even a rant, though I have tried to stay calm.

Phase 2, the conference interview, has to go. Skype works. The current system is exploitative, helping fund national organizations by taking money from the poorest members of our community who have no choice but to pay if they want any chance of academic work. It’s not right. And we can stop it tomorrow.

All of these conferences are very expensive. You have to join the organization first then buy conference membership. Then you have to travel. Maybe you’re lucky and the conference is in driving distance, but I’ve been to my annual meetings in Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and San Diego. This year is Washington. Travel is expensive. Hotels and food follow, and so forth. One can easily spend well over $1000 for a 1-12 chance of getting a second interview, which is pretty hard on a graduate student stipend (mine was less than $12,000 most years). And sure, if you are lucky, you might have multiple 1-12 chances, which makes it a little less awful, but only a little.

And costs for the people who DO have at least one interview at least have that 1-12 chance. The travel arrangements have to be made either BEFORE you find out if you have an interview or you risk the high prices of last-minute airline travel (plus loss of the conference room block). So applicants either have to book hotels and arrange for travel long before they find out whether they have any interviews, or wait and find plane tickets skyrocketing.

I don’t have the data on how much money job applicants bring to their respective organizations, but I suspect it’s not a small amount. It would hurt to lose this revenue, and surely they have already lost some as colleges and universities swap to Skype in order to save their money. But they should lose more. No applicants, in this world of debt-ridden grad students, broke universities that don’t offer travel funding, and tenuous adjunct employees, should ever be expected to shell out a penny for the right to maybe interview for a job.

Of course, I’m not the first person to talk about this problem. Here’s Sarah Kenzdior, a former academic and one of my favorite writers on economic justice, class, and its many tragedies: 

The American Anthropological Association meeting is held annually to
showcase research from around the world, and like thousands of other
anthropologists, I am paying to play: $650 for airfare, $400 for three
nights in a “student” hotel, $70 for membership, and $94 for admission.
The latter two fees are student rates. If I were an unemployed or
underemployed scholar, the rates would double.

The theme of this year’s meeting is “Traces, Tidemarks and Legacies.”
According to the explanation on the American Anthropological
Association website,
we live in a time when “the meaning and location of differences, both
intellectually and morally, have been rearranged”.  As the conference
progresses, I begin to see what they mean. I am listening to the speaker
bemoan the exploitative practices of the neoliberal model when a friend
of mine taps me on the shoulder.

“I spent almost my entire salary to be here,” she says.


 Why is my friend, a smart woman with no money, spending nearly $2000 to
attend a conference she cannot afford? She is looking for a way out. In
America, academic hiring is rigid and seasonal. Each discipline has a
conference, usually held in the fall, where interviews take place. These
interviews can be announced days or even hours in advance, so most
people book beforehand, often to receive no interviews at all.

I’m a little less grim about academia than she is in some ways, and I think we both agree that the problems with academia mirror the larger patterns of class-war and social injustice that have taken over the allegedly “first” world. It’s just that academia once seemed an exception, and now it’s not.

Well, I don’t have solutions to the big structural issues in Higher Ed, including: How to reverse the tide of adjunctification. The use of computers to replace professors (rather than enhance classrooms). The destruction of our public universities. The encroachment of teaching “experts” who have never taught and just want quantifiable data (this has already happened in secondary ed, of course). Student debt, surely the biggest one of all.

But this small injustice is easy to fix. We can stop making the vulnerable, poor, hopeful, desperate members of our community pay to attend a conference in order to have a chance at a job. We can just change it. We can change it this afternoon.

And yes, I’m sure it’s better to talk face-to-face with an applicant than to use Skype or other video-conferencing. But how much better? $12,000 (assuming the low cost of $1000 per applicant)? However much money your university spends sending you to a conference, a conference which as an interviewer you will not really see in a city which you will not have much time to enjoy, as the interview pace is frenetic and exhausting.

Save the money. Invite an extra candidate to campus. Use Skype or other video conferencing. Show you respect your applicants and understand that their world is hard. Make it just a little easier.

8 Replies to “Academic Conferences”

  1. Andrew says:

    I can't speak for all sciences, but most science disciplines I'm involved in (physics and acoustics) do NOT do conference interviews.

    1. Andrew says:

      I've heard of some skype interviews, but usually not for assistant professor level positions. It will be interesting to see if that changes in the coming years.

    2. Andrew says:

      I've seen some skype interviews, but not many. It's usually not done for assistant professor level positions. This might start to change, I suppose.

  2. Kirsten Silva Gruesz says:

    I couldn't agree more. In addition, the current system disadvantages candidates from West Coast schools: because of the geographical concentration of universities on the East Coast, national conferences are more likely to be scheduled there, and job candidates have at least a decent chance of landing an interview site within a train or car ride from the conference. I've been on interview committees that used all three methods–conference, voice phone, and Skype–to narrow down a pool of 12 or so to the 3 or 4 who'd be invited on campus. While voice-only has significant drawbacks–you get no sense of the person's skills at face-to-face communication, which are important clues about teaching–Skype is just as good as meeting someone in the artificial conditions of a hotel room. The ACLS should take up this question and make a recommendation to their member organizations.

    1. David Perry says:

      Absolutely. I'm going to write it up for one of the academic publications in the next few days and hopefully will keep spreading this message. Thanks for commenting.

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