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01/06/2015

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Jason Chen

As a person who doesn't drink, I found that comment to be frustrating. I can understand that people want to work with a person who is fun, but I don't think "personality" would affect my decision to hire someone unless that person were vicious somehow.

In light of this issue, is it a good idea to get on good terms with everyone at conferences, to up one's chances of getting hired in the future?

Marcus Arvan

Hi Jason: Thanks for your comment!

In terms of your question ("is it a good idea to get on good terms with everyone at conferences, to up one's chances of getting hired in the future?"), I think the answer to this really depends on what you're trying to achieve.

On the one hand, it might be instrumentally advantageous to try to get on everyone's good terms, as it's well known that people in hiring positions tend to favor candidates they know and like over those they don't know or don't like.

On the other hand, do you really want to try to get on good terms with *everyone*? Indeed, should you? As in every line of work, there are some bad apples--people who behave badly, are mean-spirited, etc. Although it might be instrumentally advantageous to cozy up to these people, should you, all-things-considered? I'm not so sure.

It's also worth mentioning, I think, that trying to cozy up to everyone can be practically self-defeating. Suppose you try to cozy up to Philosopher X but there are a lot of other philosophers who think (rightly, let's say) that X is unprofessional and unethical. In that case, if you try to cozy up at X at a conference, you might alienate other people whose good opinion might be more worth having.

I say all of these things not in a cold, calculating spirit. Personally, I'd advise just to be kind and helpful to any and every person you meet in the profession who treats you and others with good will (or, at least, decent-enough good will). Treating people around you with genuine help and kindness is not only intrinsically good. It is also good for the soul, and in my experience, only good can come of it.

Jenny S

Last year I had a fly out at the beginning of the second trimester of pregnancy. People who knew me would recognize that I had put on weight, but I didn't yet have the 'obvious' pregnant shape. And I did not want my pregnancy to play a role in the committee's decision. So, I didn't say anything. I passed on wine at dinner. (I quietly spoke to the wait staff to ask about certain courses in the prix fixe). And I hoped that ^ this guy wasn't on the hiring committee. (The search was eventually cancelled, so I didn't get to find out whether my discretion was worthwhile/successful).

Trevor Hedberg

Hi, Marcus. As someone who very rarely drinks (in large part because of knowledge of my family history), I'm quite sympathetic to your post. On the bright side, I have never encountered a single situation in a professional setting where it was considered "weird" or an indicator that I am "no fun" when I declined a beer in a social setting.

On the more general point about not wanting to hire "weirdos," I would describe the vast majority of philosophers that I have known as "weird." It almost seems like you have to be a little bit weird to find abstract philosophical ideas intellectually tantalizing.

I have heard of some folks being labeled "weird" by a hiring committee because of general social awkwardness and an inability to communicate clearly, but in these cases, reservations about the candidate are not really about their "weirdness" (whatever that would mean). The real concern is the candidate's communication skills. Interpreted charitably, the reasoning might go something like this: "We do not want to hire someone who has significant problems communicating effectively, since that could hinder their ability to interact well with other members of the university (especially students)." This concern seems like one that a hiring committee could justifiably give some weight in their overall assessment of the candidate, but they shouldn't describe it in terms of a candidate's weirdness. In fact, "weird" is such a vague and potentially off-putting label that it should probably just be avoided in these contexts.

Kris McDaniel

I also almost never drink alcohol or caffeine. I hope that wouldn't be held against me. I'm a fun guy, I promise.

Finally, Oasis?!!!!!! NO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Marcus Arvan

Hi Jenny; Thanks for sharing your story! I think it really underscores some of the subtle ways in which seemingly-innocuous ways of judging candidates (e.g. wanting a person who is a good "fit") can amount to implicit (if unintended) forms of discrimination, including gender discrimination.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Trevor: Thanks for your comment. The problem is that "general social awkwardness" may be nothing more than introversion, or Asperger's syndrome, etc. Consider for instance someone who is very reserved (introversion), or someone who has trouble looking people in the eye (a common element of Asperger's). Such people may initially come off as "generally socially awkward", but actually be great teachers and colleagues. The problem here is especially acute in the case of interviews. Some people (extraverts) are much more at ease--and better communicators--when meeting new people than others (introverts), even though the latter may well be excellent communicators in the normal case, on an ordinary day-to-day basis.

Indeed, who among us hasn't met a shy person who comes off awkward or poor-communicator at *first*, but who, as they become more comfortable with their surroundings, turn out to be just wonderful communicators? I know I have!

Marcus Arvan

Kris: Thanks for your comment. Okay, okay I know Oasis isn't everyone's cup of tea--and while I don't like a lot of their work, I *love* "Whatever" and think their first album (Definitely Maybe) was pretty awesome.

Trevor Hedberg

Hi, Marcus. Sorry for the belated response. I agree with much of what you say, but I'm trying to put myself in the hiring committees' shoes. They have to make a decision about who to fly out to campus and (later) who to hire on the basis of relatively limited information. It's certainly true that people who are extremely introverted may be at a disadvantage during the interview stage. At the same time, if I were on a hiring committee, I would definitely want to meet the person before making a judgment about whether to hire them or not, and if two candidates had comparable credentials with respect to all their other application materials (CV, letters of recommendation, etc.) but one interviewed significantly better than the other, then I cannot see how I could avoid favoring the better interviewer. It's definitely possible that the person's poor interviewing skills are not indicative of a more general inability to communicate clearly, but given the importance in our profession (especially with respect to teaching courses in it) of presenting ideas clearly to others, could I really justify taking a chance on the candidate who interviewed poorly? I'm not sure I could.

Maybe you'd propose that we do away with interviews altogether, in part because they put certain candidates at disadvantages and in part because the information that they provide not a reliable indicator of a candidate's actual abilities. If that's the case, I suppose I just wonder what we would replace them with. Hiring people based solely on their application materials (and never discussing these materials with the candidate directly) does not strike me as a desirable alternative; doing so would make it even more difficult to make judgments about which candidate to hire, since some of the central criteria for differentiating between candidates would be eliminated. Do you have an alternative solution in mind?

Marcus Arvan

Hi Trevor: Thanks for your comment!

You write: "It's certainly true that people who are extremely introverted may be at a disadvantage during the interview stage. At the same time, if I were on a hiring committee, I would definitely want to meet the person before making a judgment about whether to hire them or not, and if two candidates had comparable credentials with respect to all their other application materials (CV, letters of recommendation, etc.) but one interviewed significantly better than the other, then I cannot see how I could avoid favoring the better interviewer."

This is *precisely* the problem. You're telling me that if two people were exactly the same--same publications, same teaching quality--you could not avoid hiring the person who "comes off better." But this is just to say that you would tend to prefer the person *not* on the basis of job performance, but (as empirical psychology bears out) *arbitrary* characteristics such as height, weight, good looks, deep speaking voice, extraversion--all this despite the fact that decades of research consistently show better hiring outcomes using algorithmic means using purely quantitative data.

The problem, in other words, is that (A) you're defending status quo intuitions about what good hiring involves, even though (B) those very intuitions contradict decades of empirical evidence to the contrary.

To which I would add: there's a reason why Princeton hires people purely on the basis of their body of work with no interviews. Princeton is doing exactly what the psychological research supports, and so should we all. Even the kinds of intuitive things one wants to know about a person one might hire for 30 years (e.g. are they are a jerk?) are too easily confounded in face-to-face interactions. Genuine jerks can easily put on a good face for a day or two and then make your life miserable for 30 years, whereas an introvert might appear standoffish (a "jerk") but actually be a great colleague.

We should hire not on the basis of what commonsense tells us any more than we should do physics on that basis. We should follow the empirical research where it leads.

Trevor Hedberg

This topic has been revisited elsewhere: http://philosopherscocoon.typepad.com/blog/2015/02/more-news-on-the-interviews-are-worse-than-useless-front.html

Also, with respect to the above comment, I think my position is misrepresented. I don't think the view expressed reduces to picking the person who "comes off better" on the basis of characteristics that are not related to one's job performance because I think that oral communication skills are extremely relevant to job performance. (I suggest as much in the last sentence of that first paragraph.) If you can't communicate your ideas clearly to students and professional colleagues, that's going to impair your ability to do your job well. So the reasoning above applies to cases where you're confronted with two candidates who have comparable credentials, but only one of them has demonstrated to me the ability to explain philosophical ideas clearly and carefully. In other words, one candidate has this ability, and it is uncertain whether the other candidate has this ability. Thus, hiring the candidate who clearly possesses this ability is the safer choice: given the importance of clear communication to teaching philosophy well, it would be unwise to gamble on a candidate who might lack that skill.

Also, I'm not rigorously trying to defend the status quo in spite of empirical evidence against it: the point of the comment was to try to play devil's advocate from the perspective of a member of the hiring committee as a way to teasing out the considerations that might count in favor of the interview process. That's what I meant when I said, "I'm trying to put myself in the hiring committees' shoes."

Marcus Arvan

Hi Trevor: Thanks for your reply.

I'm sorry if you think your position was misrepresented. My point, however, wasn't that the view expressed reduces to "who comes off better", but rather, that in reality this is what the empirical evidence indicates happens. Interviewing committees *think* they are responding to objective evidence--not merely "who comes off better"--and the empirical studies show they *are* mostly responding to who comes off better.

In terms of the point that oral communication skills are relevant to job performance, this is certainly right: the ability to communicate orally with *students* is super-important (at least for teaching jobs, if not research ones). But the relevant question is whether interviews reliably track oral communication skills. I think the empirical evidence suggests otherwise--and my anecdotal experience is similar. The kinds of questions one is asked in an interview are almost nothing like the kinds of interactions one would have with students. What's worse: one-off interviews are subject to deviations from standard performance. For example, I had a bunch of interviews this year, and consider myself a strong oral communicator. Despite that, like most people, I have bad days. Some of my interviews went swimmingly, a few were abject disasters. This is a reason why long-term, objective data is better than single-instance observations. Long-term performance regresses towards a "true mean" indicative of normal performance--whereas one-off performances can (and statistically will) involve outliers *not* indicative of normal performance.

I recognize that you're trying to play devil's advocate and put yourself in the shoes of search committee members--but this is actually part of the problem. The empirical data shows that people on selection committees (A) consistently *think* they're more reliable than algorithmic processes for selecting job candidates, but (B) they are consistently wrong. The very point of the empirical data is that our self-conceptions are unreliable--and that putting ourselves in anyone's shoes, including our own, is the wrong way to go.

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