Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Ask the Administrator: Late-Night Calls from Deans...

The female reader who wrote a while back to ask about convention interviews (and clothing tips!) writes with an update:

You and your readers were so helpful when I was preparing for the Major
League Convention interview that I'm back with another question.

The interview went well and now I've been asked for a campus interview. A
few days ago, a few days after arrangements for the campus interview were
finalized and one week before the interview itself, the dean of the college
called me, at home, on a Friday evening. He wanted to talk to me about my
ABD status. We discussed the particulars of my situation (I am ABD not
currently enrolled in a PhD program, but if I had the opportunity, yes, I
would prefer to finish my degree). We ended the conversation with him
reassuring me that we'd discuss this further at the interview itself (so
the interview is about what I would need to do to finish? rather than why
I'm a good candidate for the job?). The job announcement specifically
stated that although a PhD was preferred, it was not required. I checked
with a friend who works in this system (but different dept. and campus) and
she found out that members of this dept. do make tenure without the PhD
(including the current chair, who interviewed me at the conference). I
also checked and only a couple of the faculty members in this dept. have a
PhD. That said, all but a handful of faculty at this particular campus
have a doctorate. So I went ahead and applied. Although the conversation
was very friendly the entire situation troubles me. I'm hoping you might
offer me some insight from a dean's perspective.

ps The clothing advice was great! I hope the chair has no recall of what I
wore because I'll be wearing the exact same thing for the campus interview.

I’m glad the convention interview went well, and I agree that my readers are uncommonly brilliant, charming, witty, and good-looking. Happily for me, their sartorial advice is far better than my own, as The Wife could attest.

Questioning ABD’s is tricky. In this office, I get lied to at least twice a day. “There’s a perception out there” means “I think.” “It’s not what you did, it’s how you did it” means “I don’t like what you did.” “How was this decision made?” means “I disagree with this decision.” And “I’m almost done with the dissertation,” well, you get the idea.

Some of us, having been burned by terminal ABD’s many times, start to discount excuses. That’s not to say that we don’t hire ABD’s at all – sometimes you have to – but it does mean that you probe the excuses more aggressively to see if there’s actually any merit to them. Not currently being enrolled would certainly raise a red flag.

One of the frustrations of the academic job market of recent years has been the rapid ratcheting-up of requirements for new hires, relative to the people already there. It’s mostly a function of supply and demand – if you can get a good Ph.D. for about the same price as an M.A., why the hell not – but it does create some weird dynamics in hiring, in which people who never got doctorates require new hires to have them.

A term like ‘preferred’ in an ad allows the institution some wiggle room. In an odd way, it’s actually honest: all else being equal, someone with a Ph.D. will have an edge, but sometimes all else isn’t equal. Depending on the needs of the college or the department at a given time, it can be a heavy preference or a light one.

For example, at my previous college, we moved from a two-year school to a four-year school fairly rapidly while I was there. Meeting the state regs for four-year status required hiring some bona fide Ph.D.’s, post-haste (which had a lot to do with how I got hired in the first place). Once we crossed the magic threshold, the Ph.D. dropped from a requirement to a preference. At my current college, which is content to remain at the two-year level, we like Ph.D.’s, but we care mostly about good teaching.

If a Dean called you at home on a Friday night, I’ll assume the college sees this as a relatively important issue. (In five years of deaning, I’ve never called a candidate at home on a Friday night.) Why it’s important, I don’t know. I’ve been in negotiations before where I’ve been told that hiring the M.A. candidate I really want this time will require me to hire someone with a Ph.D. in hand next time. There may be an accreditation issue, or a union issue, or a salary issue (which could actually work in your favor). More nefariously, there could be a favored internal candidate without a Ph.D., and the doctorate was the leverage the Dean was using to break the inbreeding. There’s really no way to know at this point, and it probably wouldn’t help if you did. At this stage of the game, there’s nothing to be done pre-interview except to figure out how best to present the strengths you actually have. If the Ph.D. were a deal-breaker, they wouldn’t have invited you to campus. They did invite you, so you should assume they take you seriously. Show your real strengths, don’t apologize for anything, and ask lots of questions. Make sure they’re worthy of you.

As for wearing the same outfit the second time, could you maybe accessorize it differently? Again, I appeal to my female readers for advice on this point.

Good luck!

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.