Defending the job talk

See Dan Nexon on the Duck of Minerva kicking off the discussion and Nate Jensen’s defense of the job talk. This then moved to twitter with interesting nuggets but with too few characters to discuss them, e.g.

Daniel Nexon ‏@dhnexon

@jerometenk @tompepinsky @irfan23 @natemjensen point of post was to get ppl to brainstorm cost/bens of alts. w/o discussant might work?

Job talks need no real defense as they are dominate the process by which junior faculty are hired in political science. Job talks are also frustrating and seem to fail along a number of dimensions–pushing style over substance, the ability to give a job talk over actually producing excellent research, etc. Yet these 30-45 minute presentations of research followed by roughly an hour of questions are the center of the typical campus visit. And I’m unconvinced that there is a better alternative.

The principal alternative to a job talk shaped 2 hours is a pro-seminar format. [While one-on-one meetings could be expanded, it is unclear whether these could really replace a public presentation. Already most of a candidate’s time during a visit is spent meeting with faculty or students in one-on-one sessions or with just a few faculty sharing a meal.] I see three difficulties with the pro-seminar format as replacing the job talk.

  1. The starting of the conversation. If the candidate herself is not starting the discussion, then the options are to either have a chosen discussant–who has prepared remarks about the research and gets the ball rolling–or to open the floor for questions and discussion without any prepared statements at all. Having a discussant induces potential difficulties for job talk purposes. Is the same discussant going to serve for all candidates for a given position? Should the discussant spend the same amount of time preparing remarks across cases? Having a seminar without a discussant though might be even more problematic. Will the conversation take off at all and even if it were to do so, would it be in a direction that is useful for evaluating the candidate? I’m dubious.
  2. Putting the work in context. Specialization is the name of the game in the academy. In particular, job talks happen when a faculty are looking to bring in a colleague that likely fills a gap in their ranks. As such, the discussion is unlikely to go deep into the weeds of a given research project and is more likely to focus on the connections between the candidate’s research and general topics (or more directly, the research topics of the faculty in the room). The job talk format allows for the candidate herself to present the work and make obvious potential connections. In a seminar format such connections might be drawn, but they likely would be from the audience rather than from the candidate, which undermines the purpose of figuring out more information about the candidate.
  3. The work. It has been noted that faculty are not the most reliable readers of a candidate’s dossier. Changing that norm would be difficult but desirable. That is not the problem that I see. The seminar format would likely push a single piece of research over a full dissertation or research trajectory as the material under discussion. Asking the faculty to read a paper is one thing, but to read a set of papers or a full dissertation is quite another (especially as usually 3 visits are scheduled per position to be filled). As such, a seminar is likely to focus on a given piece of research that everyone has read rather than the broader research projects of the candidate.

Improvements on the form of these presentations can be made. Mostly, I would like to see them shortened. 30 minutes is plenty of time in a prepared talk to show a research trajectory, some interesting findings, and lead into a fruitful discussion. A 45 minute job talk can sometimes drone on into nearly an hour inevitably followed by an exhausted faculty wondering what just happened. Secondarily, job talks should discuss more than a single research paper. Discussing the connections between the different pieces of a candidate’s work is the first step to connecting to the broader audience in the room and in the discipline.

In the end, academic hiring at the junior level is a difficult problem. A diverse faculty is attempting to fill substantive gaps in their coverage, build to the strengths of the department, and make assessments about the future productivity and citizenship of the candidates as colleagues. All at the same time with limited information and contrasting preferences in a competitive environment. 

2 responses to “Defending the job talk”

  1. […] has produced some longer-form responses at other Political Science blogs. Jeremy Wallace defends the institution. Tom Pepinsky goes further and argues that “there is no alternative to the […]

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