A long time ago, on a flight to a conference, a friend and I discussed the psychology of search committee members. We noticed that even people who thought they were exceedingly fair and open-minded might unconsciously make decisions that don’t seem fair, but do, from a certain point of view, seem rational. So, when faced with two equally talented and promising job candidates, the committee members might opt against the one with visible signs of “a life” (such as children, a partner, even a serious hobby) and for the one with no visible signs of a life. Why? Well, which candidate is more likely to come in every day (maybe evenings and weekends, too) to bust his or her butt for the job? Which is less likely to be distracted from teaching, research, and service to the organization? Which is less likely to need time off for someone else’s medical crisis? Which is less likely to leave suddenly when a partner gets a job offer elsewhere?
The candidate with no life.
For the job seeker, then, we decided the best strategy would be to hide all traces of “a life” from the search committee. Once you had a job offer, though, you could safely ask questions about childcare facilities, employment opportunities for a spouse, etc., because once the committee was at the point of offering you a job, the committee members had a stake in convincing themselves they had made a completely rational decision that you were the best person for the job. Believing themselves to have made a rational decision to hire you, they could accommodate the knowledge that you came with some baggage; not to do so would force them to engage with the possibility that maybe their decisions were not always based on qualifications for the job.
Four months pregnant with younger offspring, as I prepared to fly, alone, to New York for philosophy’s major job-seeking convention, I couldn’t help but recall this earlier discussion on a plane. I was going stealth with my baggage.
As far as I can tell, none of the six schools that interviewed me at the convention had a clue I was pregnant. The feedback my advisor was able to get from them at the “smoker” in the evenings was largely concerned with their perception of how well I fit what each department was looking for. (This means that I got to hear, in the space of 30 minutes, that I was liked but was “too historical” and “not historical enough”.) In other words, it felt like I was being treated, essentially, like just another candidate.
Was it wrong for me to conceal my pregnancy (and, you know, the fact that I had a better half and child at home, too) from the departments interviewing me? Well, consider that it would have been illegal for the search committees to ask me about my marital or parental status. I took that as a reasonable indication that I had no duty to disclose either while I was interviewing for the job. My assumption was that neither was especially relevant to the skills I would need as a philosophy professor, nor likely to interfere with my doing the job well if I were hired.
Besides, by the time I got my (one) campus interview a few months later, my pregnancy was no secret to anyone with eyes. I did not get offered that job, but my sense is that this was another issue about “fit”, compounded by the search committee’s feeling that I didn’t come across as terribly enthusiastic about the job. (The “lack of enthusiasm” was actually a head cold cum sinus infection from hell for which I could not take any drugs because I was pregnant. In that sense, perhaps, being pregnant cost me a job. But the philosopher who ended up getting that job a few years later is the friend with whom I discussed search committees on the plane years earlier.)
Luckily, there was still another year in my postdoctoral teaching fellowship, so I still had employment (and benefits) for one more cycle of the job market. I had defended my dissertation just before younger offspring arrived, gotten my revisions in just after, and now had “degree in hand”. I also had the experience of having gone on the job market the year before, which probably meant that my cover letters, CV, teaching portfolio, and other application materials were more polished that the first time out.
But with younger offspring on the outside — and nursing — as the next year’s job-seeking convention rolled around, I couldn’t really go stealth anymore. I was bringing my baggage with me.
It’s a good thing I didn’t hold out any hopes of keeping my better half and offspring hidden while at the convention, because we managed to bump into someone from every single committee that interviewed me, at some point or another, in the hotel. They all knew I had a two-year-old and a baby. That was just how it was going to be.
Tips for conference interviewees with baggage in tow: Check with any local contacts you have about babysitters who might be available. My cousin, who works at a university in the city where the convention was held, was able to recommend an undergraduate student assistant to help my better half wrangle the children while I was off being my professional self. I’d imagine this would be even more important for couples who are interviewing at the same convention and have children to wrangle. (It might be important enough to see if you can arrange to bring a trusted babysitter from home with you. Yes, it adds expense, but it removes a whole set of worries you just don’t need while you’re out there looking smart and promising.)
Also, if you’re still the primary source of nourishment for a very small child, be sure to schedule your interviews to leave ample time to nurse or pump. (Keep your calendar by the phone.) It’s possible that negotiating for a different interview time will convey the impression that you are very much in demand.
The year the baggage was out in the open, I had around eight conference interviews (my memory is a little fuzzy on this — I had kids underfoot). I ended up with four campus interviews and three offers.
So, were my friend and I completely wrong about the wisdom of keeping one’s life out of sight until a job offer has been made? I have no idea.
It’s possible that my greater success on the job market my second time out was purely a matter of the practice I got the first time out. Maybe having the degree in hand was the additional positive factor. Maybe the jobs that were available my second year out were just a better fit for my interests and talents.
But maybe the jobs that were a better fit for me were also in departments that recognized that having a life might make positive contributions to one’s professional abilities. (For example, at a university with lots of “non-traditional” students — including students who are themselves parents of small children — having some appreciation for the balancing act this requires might make one a more effective and sympathetic teacher, or an advisor able to give better advice on how to optimize the use of the time available to write a thesis.) Maybe seeing me do well in the interviews and then seeing me riding the glass elevators with my kids convinced some of the committee members that I was the kind of person who could handle professional responsibilities and family responsibilities rather than letting one get in the way of the other. Maybe seeing a female candidate who was already getting that balance to work was more reassuring than seeing a single (or apparently single) female candidate and wondering whether she’d be able to balance family and career. (It turns out this is still a question women in the academy have to face. I just happen to have schlepped my answer with me.)
My sense is there are some universities for which being seen with my kids at the convention hotel would have knocked me right out of contention. I was not interviewing with any of those schools, and frankly, I don’t think I’d enjoy working at them. And, it may be that in the sciences it’s harder to convince people that you really can find a balance between setting up a research lab, securing grant money, and launching excellent research, since there still seems to be an assumption that more hours in the lab amounts to better research. But possibly, having a confident presence and conveying the sense that you have the childcare under control — even in a city you are only visiting for the duration of the convention — will persuade the search committee that you are a problem-solver and you know what you’re doing.
I’d welcome any reports from the trenches from those who have been on the academic job market in the sciences, especially reports that bear on how evidence of “a life” might be received by your standard search committee.