The Smoker: A Proposal

The "smoker" has been getting a lot of bad press and deservedly so. See here for some of the relevant links. I have a proposal. Either members of the interview teams should not attend the reception/"smoker" or they should refuse to talk to prospective job candidates during the reception. They should, then, let all their interviewees know that they will not be attending (or talking to them during) the reception. This is what I would propose to my department if we were conducting APA interviews.

I take it that there is no point in getting rid of the reception. What's problematic is not the reception itself; rather, it's that many schools treat the reception/"smoker" as an extended part of the interview process. We should put an end to that, and it seems that my proposal would do that. What do others think?

33 Replies to “The Smoker: A Proposal

  1. I think this is a great idea. As I’m sure you know, it is better than just explicitly making the smoker “optional” because it eliminates competitive pressure. As a future job candidate, it will be a huge relief if the smoker were neither de jure required by interview teams, nor de facto required in order to compete with any candidates who did choose to attend.
    I can’t think of any other proposal that would reliably do both of those things while preserving the reception itself, except one that prohibits the candidates themselves from attending, which seems pretty clearly worse.

  2. I do think informal interviewing at the smoker is ridiculous (it may also be morally problematic). The problem is that if there is some kind of conventional ban on doing it, then departments who like the idea of extra informal interviews will just find other places to do them. I mean, if I really loved the idea of following up on an interview but didn’t want to embarrass myself by doing it at the smoker under Portmore’s disdainful eye, I would just let my preferred candidates know that I’d be hanging out at the lobby bar, or the sports bar, or at the Norcross party, or whatever. That would be equally stupid and I think morally worse (although in the last case it would have the mitigating advantage of entailing that I was at the Norcross party).
    In short, you want to be careful about driving these things underground.

  3. Is there competitive pressure to take the option of attending the smoker, Doug? I know lots of people think there is, but that’s different. When I was a job candidate, I never attended the smoker (or, if I did, I studiously avoided all of the tables containing faculty with which I’d interviewed), primarily because I was pretty shy and lacked confidence, but from my experience on the other end of the hiring process, I was right to do so. As far as I can recall, not one person we (members of hiring committees I’ve been on) talked to at a smoker was upgraded in individuals’ rankings as a direct result, but several were in fact downgraded as a direct result. That you could only do yourself harm would seem a very good reason to avoid talking to interviewers at the smoker.
    Of course, this is only anecdotal evidence, but I’ve talked to lots of others who have had the same experiences.
    But Doug is probably right: something on the part of interviewers, not just interviewees, should be done, and this proposal seems a good first step. Committee members could also dress up excusing themselves in the guise of a principled libertarian stand: “Until they allow actual smoking once again at the smoker, I refuse to participate.”

  4. Hi Dave,
    “When I was a job candidate, I never attended the smoker.” And it took you many years to land a tenure-track job. Q.E.D. 🙂
    “As far as I can recall, not one person we (members of hiring committees I’ve been on) talked to at a smoker was upgraded in individuals’ rankings as a direct result, but several were in fact downgraded as a direct result.”
    We’ve been on a couple committees together. And I don’t know about your claim about there being several such candidate, although I concede that at least one got downgraded. In any case, at least one member of the interview team (viz., me) downgraded someone for not showing up to the smoker — given that we made a specific point of inviting all candidates. There was at least one candidate who gave the impression that CSUN was just a back-up plan and that s/he would take the job only if s/he didn’t get a “good” job. The fact that this person didn’t come by our table only confirmed my suspicion that this person didn’t really have any desire to teach at CSUN. And I thought that there were some people that we talked to at the smoker who gave us the impression that they were genuinely interested in the job and might stay even if CSUN were their only offer. I think that this helped them.
    And, of course, if we’re talking about Leiterific schools, it may be that making a good impression at the smoker is very important for all you and I would know.
    So it might be important at some schools, because it shows that you really do have a good intellect and can talk philosophy over beers. And it might be important at other schools, because it shows that you are really interested in the position.

  5. As odd as it sounds to say it, I think Jamie has a point.
    I guess I think that as things stand, the wisdom of going to the smoker depends a bit on how the interview went. If, for example, you made a mistake that you want to correct or you only later understood a question, then I think as things stand it makes sense to seek out the interview team at the smoker.
    In my experience some candidates were helped by going but at least as many were hurt. I would say it is a mistake to think you must seek out an interview team unless you have a concrete plan for what you want to say that you failed to get out well at the interview.

  6. Jamie Dreier’s concerns could be mitigated to some extent if there were explicit APA policies against informal interviewing, right? Compare the ban on conducting interviews in hotel bedrooms.

  7. Informal interviewing, I take it, is but a single manifestation of a more general problem which is that the ability to schmooze, itself wholly unrelated to philosophical ability, confers a professional advantage on those who have it in contexts like the smoker. This itself wouldn’t be so terrible except that, um, not looking like most people in a crowd can make a person socially uncomfortable (to put it mildly) and feeling uncomfortable kills one’s ability to schmooze. So, the atmosphere at the smoker gives a professional advantage to those already professionally advantaged and a disadvantage to those who are already disadvantaged. That is what is essentially bad about the smoker.
    Unfortunately, there is no effective way to ban schmoozing, at least that I know of. So, as long as there is a smoker, I will recommend that my students go make themselves visible. And I will hope we all commit to treating each other like philosophers, not stepping stones.

  8. Jan: I agree with your diagnosis of the badness of the smoker, but I’m curious about your final suggestion. Which do you think would be more advantageous for your students, given that most schools won’t take up Doug’s proposal just yet: recommending that they go make themselves visible, or recommending that they mention, at the end of their actual interview, that they will unfortunately be unable to attend the smoker (“but I assume you won’t hold that against me, haha!”)?
    I’m not yet convinced that the risks of attending and schmoozing with interviewers are outweighed by the dubious “advantages” of doing so if you’re not one of the already advantaged. And I would find it pretty implausible that people on a committee would downgrade someone who “couldn’t attend” the smoker and made that clear up front. He/she wouldn’t get an upgrade, but I maintain that that’s pretty rare anyway.

  9. Just to be clear, the issue that I’m interested in is not so much what candidates should do under the present circumstances, but what conscientious interviewing teams should do under the present circumstances in light of the recent seemingly valid criticisms raised against the widespread practice of using the “smoker”/reception for informal interviewing. And it seems to me that the obvious answer is to refrain from using the “smoker” (or other venues) for informal interviewing and to inform the candidates of this principled stand. So, as I said, if I were on an interviewing team, I would suggest to my colleagues that we not attend the reception or that we at least agree not to schmooze with the candidates during the reception (or elsewhere — and, of course, it’s fine to say ‘Hello. How are you?’ if you run into one of them at the Book Exhibit). Furthermore, we (the interview teams) should make a point to tell the candidates this, so that they don’t feel any pressure (whether it’s valid for them to feel pressure or not) to attend the reception and schmooze with us there. They won’t feel any such pressure, either because we won’t be there or because we will refuse to schmooze them if we are there.
    I would like to encourage those conducting interviews to take up this proposal. The more interview teams that do this the better both for the candidates and for the integrity of the interviewing process. Of course, if you or your colleagues are not conscientious and would only go underground with your practice of informal interviewing, then there’s no hope for you.

  10. Just to be clear, I am in no way suggesting that Jamie or his colleagues are not conscientious. I take Jamie’s point. I just don’t know what to do about those in our profession who would be so unscrupulous as to take the practice underground.

  11. Good questions, Dave. It seems to me that when it comes to hiring or professional advancement in general, advantages are often comparative. Typically, we read the papers of/invite to conferences/invite to write papers for volumes/invite to apply for jobs people who are on our radar. The smoker is an opportunity to get on someone’s radar. A relatively unknown person who doesn’t go is potentially giving a comparative advantage to those in her cohort who do.
    What I was trying to suggest at the end was that those of us who go commit to trying to make the smoker an event at which more people can feel comfortable. This might mean, for example, chatting with someone who is looking lost or introducing someone who doesn’t know many people to others they might be interested in talking to. That would be conducive, I think, to making more people comfortable and so more evenly distributing the radar advantage.

  12. I see — I thought the idea was to try to adopt some kind of convention, APA rule, or the like.
    Sure, I completely agree that ad hoc extension informal interviews are in general a bad idea. I also think formal official planned scheduled interviews are a bad idea.

  13. Huzzah. A more general proposal that departments not do any interviewing (at the APA or anywhere else) would entail that they wouldn’t be at the smoker either (at least qua interviewer). You may say I’m a dreamer, but I have serious doubts that such dreaming would be exclusive to me.

  14. I’m curious about the general consensus that informal interviewing at the smoker is a bad idea. Setting aside the question whether all interviewing is a bad idea, is the thought that informal interviewing is itself a bad thing or just that it’s bad at the smoker? Suppose I told candidates that I’d be hanging out at the local Starbucks from 5-8, and that they were welcome to stop by and chat if they so wished. Would that be problematic, or would it be problematic only if I were stationed in a large ballroom where the alcohol was flowing and the tension was palpable?
    And if the claim is that any informal interviewing is a bad thing, what’s the reason? Surely it can’t just be that some candidates are better than others in an informal setting.

  15. @ ABD2: Informal interviewing is a bad idea because the informality makes it difficult to combat implicit biases and separate signal from noise. See Antony Eagle’s review of some of the literature here: http://bit.ly/d0OtbN. Perhaps this would be less of an issue if it were equally hard on all candidates (though it would still interfere with the ability of hiring committees to do their work), but arguably it’s not, as certain individuals and groups of individuals (women, minorities, the disabled, those with children to watch or without the money to attend the APA, the very socially awkward, etc.) are more likely to be disadvantaged by the process.

  16. John,
    I can’t think of any aspect of the hiring process that’s equally hard on all candidates. Moreover, informal interviewing, or interviewing of any sort, obviously favors candidates that are better at interviewing. Now perhaps men are typically better at this sort of thing than women, perhaps whites are typically better than than blacks, etc. Or perhaps not. But even if that were so, why should it affect how we hire? An ability to communicate in an informal setting, after all, is hardly an irrelevant ability. You’re not just hiring a philosopher — you’re hiring a colleague. You’re hiring someone with whom you might be on committees for the next 30 years. After you hire them, nearly every interaction you’ll have with them will be in an informal setting. If they can’t handle that, it’s a strike against them.
    One last point. Your objections to informal interviewing generalize. If they count against informal interviewing, they count against formal interviewing as well. And they also count against fly-outs since these are basically a combination of formal and informal interviewing, only more extreme. Indeed, those who have a hard time navigating the smoker will probably have a hard time navigating the social events at any fly-out. So where does that leave us?

  17. ABD2,
    You’re right that the worries generalize. But the moral I draw from the paper Antony Eagle that I linked above is that in structured contexts, things can be done to combat these problems, whereas it’s in the very nature of informal contexts to make impossible the kind of consistency and rule-governedness that Eagle argues is necessary to interview well.

  18. Hi ABD2,
    Besides agreeing with John, I would add that the “smoker” seems particularly problematic given its late-night time and its association with the consumption of alcohol. Those candidates that have small children, are pregnant, are Mormon, or are recovering alcoholics may understandably not want to attend a late night event that typically involves the consumption of alcohol. So certain candidates (those who have legitimate reasons for not wanting to attend such an event) could be at a disadvantage if they will get less time to make a favorable impression with their interviewers. Or it may be uncomfortable for them to not be drinking alcohol while so many others are. And they may not want to be in the position of having to lie or tell their potential employers why they aren’t consuming alcohol.
    You ask: “Suppose I told candidates that I’d be hanging out at the local Starbucks from 5-8, and that they were welcome to stop by and chat if they so wished. Would that be problematic.” Well, suppose that you told candidates that you’d be hanging out at a strip club from 2-4 AM, and that candidates were welcome to stop by and chat if they so wished. I presume that you would find that problematic. The smoker raises some of the same issues (although clearly not all the same issues and not in such an extreme) given that some people will find it difficult to attend a late night event and will be uncomfortable being around so much drinking.

  19. Surely the best reason for the rule that Doug proposes is that after interviewing people all day you’re entitled to have some job-candidate free time to relax with your friends and/or colleagues.

  20. What Doug said. Also, I didn’t pick up on this:
    “Now perhaps men are typically better at this sort of thing than women, perhaps whites are typically better than than blacks, etc. Or perhaps not. But even if that were so, why should it affect how we hire? An ability to communicate in an informal setting, after all, is hardly an irrelevant ability.”
    There’s a big misunderstanding here. The problem is not that men, whites, etc. are “better” at interviewing than others, but rather that they are likely to be favored by implicit biases, and so will end up looking better than members of other groups even when they’re equal or worse — an effect that, if I am right, is magnified in informal settings. There’s a vast empirical literature on this sort of thing, and it should strike fear in the hearts of search committees everywhere.

  21. Doug,
    Candidates that have children, are pregnant, are deeply religious, or are recovering addicts might well have a harder time in virtually all aspects of the job search. They’ll probably have a harder time in grad school as well. Is that unfair? I don’t know. Some of these disadvantages are due to lifestyle choices, others are beyond a candidate’s control. But the most important question, I think, is whether it’s reasonable for hiring committees to see how well candidates perform in an informal setting. I think it is reasonable since we’re hiring colleagues and not just philosophers, and I suspect you think it’s reasonable as well. Of course, I agree that not just any informal setting will do (strip clubs, for instance, are out); you want to interact with candidates in the sort of informal setting that’s fairly typical for people like us. And I don’t think that rules out a setting in which alcohol is available.
    Look, I’m not crazy about the smoker. But I think the criticisms are way over the top.

  22. If it were possible to “see how well candidates perform in an informal setting” in a way that were fair to all candidates and not dominated by implicit biases, then it *might* be reasonable for search committees to try to do this. But it’s not possible, so it’s not a good idea.
    And yes, having children is due to a lifestyle choice. Does that mean that job candidates who are traveling with small children should have the pay for late-night babysitting so that they can schmooze with their prospective employers, all for the (supposed) good of determining “how they perform in an informal setting” (possibly while worried that their children have woken up crying)? The cost-benefit analysis does not seem very complicated to me.

  23. John,
    I’m not all that familiar with the empirical literature on interviewing, but, as I’ve already noted, the problems you point out infect every aspect of the job search. Should candidates traveling with small children have to pay for daytime babysitting? And what about flying them out for a campus visit? Doesn’t that impose a greater burden on the breeders among us?
    No matter how we structure the hiring process, some will be more burdened than others. Interviewers, I think, have an obligation not to impose undue burdens on interviewees but they don’t have an obligation to equalize burdens (that would be an undue burden on the interviewers). If that’s right, then the question is whether giving candidates the option to talk informally at the smoker is an undue burden. Frankly, I don’t think it is. For one, candidates needn’t attend. It’s not even clear that they are better off attending. And if they do attend, what’s the harm? Sure, they might have to mingle. They might have to talk to someone who, God forbid, has a drink in his hand. They might have to spend an evening away from their kids. The horror.

  24. They might have to talk to someone who, God forbid, has a drink in his hand. They might have to spend an evening away from their kids. The horror.
    The things people will say behind the cloak of anonymity never cease to amaze me. Perhaps the real reason why we need the smoker is because after a few rounds of drinks, we might get to find out what people really think …

  25. I think that informal interviewing at the Smoker is hard to defend, in part because of the reasons offered by its critics in this thread, but also because if it goes away, who really cares? It’s just one practice at one event and if its disappearance is at all a loss, it certainly isn’t a big one.
    But I can see how the push to eliminate informal interviewing at the Smoker might be objectionable if it is seen as part of a broader trend to formalize our interactions with one another, or to limit the scope in which our interactions with one another are not restricted by additional layers of explicit rules of conduct. Despite the benefits such “formalization” may bring, it doesn’t seem to me an entirely happy development.
    Perhaps one sees the problem with formalization more clearly if one imagines it in extremes. So imagine if all of your interactions with your colleagues had to take place under the watchful eye of a vigilant human resources officer and an employment lawyer. There might be some benefits to such an arrangement, but I think even the most well-intentioned of us would find it problematically constraining, if not oppressive. Of course, banning informal interviewing at the Smoker affects just a tiny part of our professional lives, so by itself such a ban would not be significantly problematic. But that is true of each tiny part of our professional lives, taken singly.
    Seeing a problem with formalization is compatible with recognizing the problems that lead people to seek formalization. And in the case of Smoker interviewing it may be that the problems owed to a lack of formalization outweigh the problems that might arise from formalization. That said, it would be nice if we could tackle the first set of problems without bringing about the second.
    Along those lines, I wonder if, as an alternative to formalization, there are positive steps we can take to decrease whatever undue burdens informal interviewing places on job seekers. Some of these steps could be part of graduate student training. I’m not suggesting we put “Introduction to Schmoozing” in the graduate curriculum, but perhaps some mentoring with respect to professional socialization should take place -– not in a haphazard way, like when a professor invites his favorite students out for a drink -– but in a more systematic and egalitarian manner. Other steps could include educating people on hiring committees about implicit bias and other problems. We could also call for subsidized childcare for job seekers travelling to the APA with children.
    These suggestions attempt to deal with the problems by providing opportunities, information, and resources, rather than by restricting kinds of interactions. I don’t know how well these suggestions would turn out, or whether they are practicable, but generally I think we have good reasons to explore non-restrictive solutions before we jump to restrictive ones.

  26. John,
    The real travesty is that such views have to be said behind a cloak of anonymity. In our profession, the forces of political correctness are quite strong. They’re not as strong as they are in the other humanities, but we’re catching up. I suspect (or hope) that the majority of philosophers think it’s ridiculous that people complain about having to schmooze at the smoker or about being interviewed in a room with a bed, for instance. But, for obvious reasons, they’re unlikely to protest. And a silent majority, alas, is often no match for a shrill, strident, and self-righteous minority.

  27. ABD2,
    Please realize that this is not merely political correctness. You’ve said that you don’t know the literature on interviewing, but if you look at it, it presents good reasons to worry about interviews on beds and at things like the smoker. I assume that the rest of us are not a silent majority on your side, but people who simply take for granted what has been shown by, you know, actual research and discussed ad nauseum on blogs: much interviewing doesn’t work well, and certain (informal, unregimented) conditions are much worse than others. And that’s just on the interviewers’ side. If you really care about undue burdens, you’ll also be concerned that unfair practices are deciding candidates’ fates without generating any real evidential value, including the value of showing how candidates will actually perform in the informal aspects of the job (your concern).

  28. Anon,
    I may have overstated my ignorance of the empirical literature! In any case, my understanding of this literature is that it calls ALL interviewing into question. I wasn’t aware that there’s research showing that interviewing in the vicinity of a bed is especially problematic, or that following up a formal interview with a brief informal one distorts an already distorted impression even further (indeed, if the Antony Eagle article mentioned above is to be believed, a second interview should help with reversion to the mean). If there is such evidence I’d appreciate a link or two.
    Regarding the smoker, I just don’t see the undue burden. As a candidate, you don’t have to go. There isn’t even any real pressure to go since you’re just as likely to benefit as you are to shoot yourself in the foot. Most of your interviewers have already made up their minds. And if you go, I’ll admit that it’ll likely be somewhat awkward. You’ll get stuck talking to people you’d rather not talk to. Extricating yourself from a boring conversation can be difficult! Some people will ask you dumb questions. Some might even be offensive or rude. You might find yourself wandering aimlessly between tables. But that’s the social world. Deal with it.

  29. I take the upshot of the research summarized by Antony Eagle to be twofold: first, that all interviewing is of questionable value; and second, that the best way to improve the value of one’s interviews is to make them very structured and consistent across candidates, to take and compare careful notes, and so on. Clearly this sort of thing is entirely impossible at the smoker or in other informal contexts. And beyond this there is the literature on implicit bias, showing how women tend to be judged more negatively, interrupted more quickly, heard less easily, etc. than men, all of which — as I understand it — is more likely to crop up in informal contexts, especially in one-on-one interactions where individual biases are essentially unchecked.
    As a candidate, you don’t have to go. There isn’t even any real pressure to go since you’re just as likely to benefit as you are to shoot yourself in the foot.
    Is it so complicated? When a hiring department says to you, “We’ll see you at the smoker”, there is pressure to go. When you know — or believe — that the general practice is to stop by hiring departments’ tables to chat, there is pressure to go. When you worry whether failing to show up at a hiring department’s table will send a signal that you’re just not that interested in them — because of course many of the other people that they’re interviewing will do it — there pressure to go. And when you are tired, or sick, or jetlagged, or have small children to tend to, or can’t afford to stay in the conference hotel, etc., this pressure clearly isn’t fair.

  30. John,
    Eagle suggests we make interviews more structured by asking everyone the same questions. But if we were to do that we couldn’t ask the candidates about their research, since no two candidates work on exactly the same thing (I suppose we could ask them to tell us about their research, but we wouldn’t be able to ask follow-up questions). Frankly, if you look at his suggestions you’ll see that they’re mostly inapplicable for philosophy interviews.
    As for implicit bias, I don’t yet see an argument that a second, informal interview will exacerbate whatever biased reaction an interviewer had to the initial, formal interview. Indeed, as I mentioned in my previous post, by Eagle’s logic a second interview should help with at least one of the biases he describes — the one having to do with a small sample size.
    So look. Suppose I spend 45 minutes in a suite talking to a candidate about his or her research. Then I talk to that candidate for another 10-15 minutes at the smoker, also about his or her research. Is there any reason to think that this additional time will distort my view of the candidate even more, making me an even less reliable judge of his or her merit? Perhaps there is, but I’m not yet convinced.
    On the matter of fairness, all sorts of things could undermine a candidate at the APA (or in grad school, or on a campus visit, or in life). Perhaps he just got into a fight with his mother or his girlfriend. Maybe he has a cold. Maybe he’s nervous around strangers. Maybe his alarm didn’t go off, or the mattress was saggy, or the water pressure in the shower was less than ideal. Is that unfair? Maybe. But these are not the kinds of unfairness you can reasonably ask interviewing departments to correct.
    Lastly, on the question of pressure, most departments, in my experience, mention that they’ll be around at the smoker and they invite the candidate to stop by. So what should a candidate do? Well, if you don’t stop by, it might be taken as a sign of disinterest. On the other hand, if you do stop by, you might shoot yourself in the foot (this is, I believe, the more likely option). Frankly, I think it’s a toss up. They’ve already formed a judgment, and there’s not much you can do to rise in their estimation. You can, however, quite easily lower yourself. If it’s that inconvenient, don’t go.

  31. The main problem with interviews is that they give low-grade information, which search committees then pay too much attention to. The low-grade information dilutes the good information they have; it adds noise to the signal. Adding another, informal interview will make it worse, by further diluting the high-grade information.
    The suggestions Ant gives at the end of his guide would be impossible to implement in an informal interview. Maybe his suggestions are useless anyway, but if they are useful and implemented then informal interviews are even worse than formal ones. (I strongly suspect they are worse, because interviewers are likely to be more distracted by details that are irrelevant to predicting how good a professor the candidate will be; but this is just my impression.)

Comments are closed.