Speed daters try luck in the salon

Universities and desperate job seekers hope their matchmaking efforts at the get-together bear fruit

January 13, 2011

The Modern Language Association's annual convention is not just a vast academic conference: it is also something of a meat market.

With universities often receiving 100 or more applications for a position, the conference is an ideal opportunity to carry out a dozen or so interviews in quick succession, explained Rosemary Feal, the MLA's executive director. Recruiters can then whittle the shortlist down to a final two or three who can be invited to a meeting on campus.

In a country the size of the US, the convention's matchmaking role is particularly important because of the difficulty of organising face-to-face interviews elsewhere.

However, there was little hope for those who, like so many aspiring actors, turned up in Los Angeles on the off chance of landing an interview and a job. The number of positions on offer seems to have "plateaued at the bottom of the canyon" after two disastrous year-on-year drops, Professor Feal said.

But despite the slump, delegates at this year's conference were still chasing about 1,100 jobs in English and 1,000 in other languages and literatures.

As a result, Los Angeles was inundated with ambitious and often desperate graduate students, supportive mentors from their departments and teams of recruiters.

The wealthier universities booked suites in the grand hotels: one head of department admitted that he was willing to pay over the odds for one without a bed because he felt that gave precisely the wrong message in a job interview.

The rest of the recruiters and graduate students were subjected to a more gruelling process, much like speed dating, in the huge Gold Salon of the J.W. Marriott hotel.

One young man due to complete a PhD on Spanish linguistics in May said he had applied for 20 tenure-track positions, was interviewed for six of them on the same day and had already secured one campus visit.

Far gloomier was an expert on 20th-century English, worried that the jobs she was up for might go to people who also knew about creative writing, postcolonial studies or queer theory. In any event, she said, only six suitable positions had come up this year - and each had attracted 600 to 700 applicants.

Other players in the process included a mother who waited anxiously for her daughter to emerge, wondering what the extended interview meant, and the wife of another candidate, who assured her husband that she loved him, then sat in the hotel foyer, uncomfortably picking pizza from a box, while he went to be interviewed.

Although candidates struggled to be cheerful, there was widespread acknowledgement that the odds were not stacked in their favour.

Was this not evidence of an overproduction of PhDs? Not at all, Professor Feal said. The real problem was "an under-production of tenure-track positions".

But however one looks at it, it is at the MLA that the realities of supply and demand become clear.

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com.

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