Archive for February, 2009

Court rules on autism

From CNN.com:

A special court ruled Thursday that parents of autistic children are not entitled to compensation in their contention that certain vaccines caused autism in their children.

“I must decide this case not on sentiment, but by analyzing the evidence,” one of the “special masters” hearing the case said in denying the families’ claims, ruling that the families had not presented sufficient evidence to prove their allegations.

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One way to prepare for an interview, whether by phone or in person, is to prepare (and study) answers to frequently asked questions.  This allows you to organize your thoughts in advance and minimizes the likelihood that you will be caught off guard (as I was when asked about my vision for a department).  The questions below have been drawn from multiple sources and, while they are slightly skewed toward liberal arts positions, many of them are relevant to academic jobs in general.

Frequently Asked Questions on the Job Market*


Why do you want to work here?/Tell us about the kind of job you’re looking for.

Why liberal arts?


What are you looking for in a job?

What is your vision for the department?

About You

Describe your teaching philosophy.

What unique qualities would you bring to this school?

What kind of colleague are you?  What are your strengths and weaknesses?

How would you describe yourself to a room full of sociologists?

Can you think of a book in sociology that you’d say has had the greatest impact on your thinking as a sociologist?

In your ideal job, what would be the balance between teaching and research?  What % of time would you devote to teaching and what % to research?

Can you tell me something about your interests and involvements beyond your teaching and research?

What kinds of support would you expect from the university?

Is there anything else you’d like us to know about you?


Can you tell me a little about how you use engaged learning in your courses?

What do you find the most exciting about teaching?

What do you find most frustrating in dealing with students in general?

What do you think are your strengths as a teacher?

What do you think are your weaknesses?

Can you think of a difficult situation that came up in a classroom that you handled well?

What is your favorite class to teach?

What is your dream class?

How would you teach (a particular course mentioned in the job ad)?

Which five classes would you most like to teach?

How do you usually go about developing a course on something that’s not in your specialty area?


Have you thought about involving students in research?

What do you plan to do with your research (publications, teaching, community presentations)?

Where do you see your research going?


How would you describe your dissertation to an undergraduate student?

Where do you stand with the project now?

What sorts of things are you finding?

When do you expect to finish your dissertation?

What broader literatures do you see your dissertation speaking to?

*Also available in PDF format.

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Perspectives on vaccinations

Drek recently posted the latest in his long line of work on popular vs. scientific conceptions of vaccinations.

As it turns out, not only has nobody been able to replicate Wakefield’s original research, not only has changing the MMR schedule in various countries not produced changes in autism rates, not only did most of the authors on Wakefield’s article later retract their interpretation of the results, it now appears that all of our failures to confirm an MMR/autism link are attributable to one simple problem: Wakefield made his data up.

Fabio also posted about this at orgtheory.

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Phone Interview

Phone Interview

Another mystery of the job market is the phone interview.  While some large schools forgo phone interviews, small and medium-sized schools often use them to help determine which candidates from the short list will be invited for on-campus interviews.  The mysterious part is that, like your application, you cannot know exactly what interviewers are looking for.  What you can do, however, is prepare yourself by practicing responses to commonly asked questions and researching the school and department.  You can also spread your notes about the school and department, job market materials, questions to ask, and even prepared answers around you, as the picture above demonstrates.

I had four phone interviews in my time on the market and each was of a slightly different type, which I discuss below.  From most preferred to least preferred, they were:

The one-on-one interview

While I assume that this type of interview ranges from formal to informal, my experience was at the informal end of the spectrum.  The chair of the search committee engaged me in a wide-ranging conversation about my interests, the school, and his own experiences.  There was no time limit and I was free to ask questions.  I was also fortunate that my interviewer was forthcoming about the perceived positives and negatives of the school.  Our conversation lasted over an hour and I left the conversation with a much better impression of the school than I started it.  I was later invited for a campus interview.

The one-on-group interview (group members in their individual offices)

My third phone interview experience was of this type, which may appear similar to the type below.  While I might have preferred this type because the interviewers were friendlier or more talkative, I believe that there are advantages to having phone interviewers in separate rooms.  For starters, there is increased comfort as a candidate because you know that interviewers cannot see each other’s reactions to your answers.  This means that if one interviewer is rolling her eyes at the fact that your interests exactly match the job ad, others will not be influenced by her reaction.  Another benefit is that this type effectively levels the playing field in terms of nonverbal feedback.  While group phone interviews are always difficult because you cannot be sure if somebody is done speaking or merely pausing, isolating interviewers in their own offices means that everybody shares this problem with you.  I was later invited for a campus interview.

The one-on-group interview (group members on speakerphone around a single table)

As I noted above, group phone interviews are always difficult, but in my experience the presence of interviewers around the same speakerphone compounded the difficulties.  While I’m not sure how the interviewers reacted to my statements, the knowledge that they could see each other but I could not see them added to an already stressful situation.  I also felt that I was at a disadvantage because I was the only person who couldn’t rely on nonverbal cues to tell when somebody was done speaking.  I don’t know that these factors affected my performance, but they definitely reduced my confidence.  I was later invited for a campus interview.

The one-on-one non-interview

One school requested a “phone conversation about your application” before narrowing their list further.  Not knowing what they wanted to discuss, I called the school from the airport on the way to another interview.  Because of this, I did not have the opportunity to fully prepare by researching the school and department and I was not ready to answer questions about whether I had relevant experience in a particular subfield.  I stumbled through a few statements before realizing that I did, in fact, have relevant experience in that subfield.  By that point, the damage was probably done.  If this discussion had been presented as an interview rather than a conversation, I would have approached it differently.  If this contact had come at another time and not on a day that I was preparing to leave for an interview I also think that I would have handled it better.  I was not invited for a campus interview.*

In the end, the interview type is only one variable in your phone interview experience.  Time limits can change the tone of a conversation dramatically by reducing your ability to ask questions and prohibiting more casual discussions.  Another important point is that you should be sure to ask about the commitee’s timeline.  The time between my phone interviews and invitations for a campus visit ranged from hours to two and a half weeks, while a friend was recently invited for a campus interview a month and a half after a phone interview.  A month and a half is a long time in nearly any circumstance, but it can seem like forever on the job market.

*I was invited for one campus interview without a phone interview, resulting in four phone interviews and four campus interviews.

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Amazon's Kindle 2 e-book reader

Amazon's Kindle 2 e-book reader

Amazon announced the Kindle 2 e-book reader today, which goes on sale February 24 for $359.00.  It looks to be thinner and slightly lighter than the original, released in November of 2007.  Unfortunately, you still need a cover to hold it like a paperback (as this person is doing with the original Kindle).  I’ll start to get excited when it is slightly smaller, a lot cheaper, and has two screens (as demonstrated by my imaginary Kindle 4 below).  I’ll really get excited when e-books are a viable option for students looking to save on the cost of textbooks and grad students looking to avoid printing thousands of pages of PDF journal articles.

The imaginary Kindle 4

The imaginary Kindle 4

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There are lots of people in the US who are happy to point to efforts to increase diversity and claim that they are “reverse discrimination.” In academia, this has ramifications for a number of areas, including admissions and hiring. Maybe because the job market sucks, we try to find justifications for our success (or lack thereof). Those who fail sometimes turn to scapegoats such as reverse discrimination. As the process wore on, these scapegoats popped up on the Sociology Job Market Rumor Mill, as evident in posts like this:

The bottom line is that we were lied to and sold a bill of goods about the viability of an academic job in sociology. Clearly, many of us come from top departments, have numerous solo authored publications in good journals, teaching experience, etc., yet nothing. I don’t think it’s just a bad job market this year — the funding for this year’s jobs was largely in place before the economic crisis. Next year, we’ll really see the effect. So, we were lied to. I seriously and honestly wish I had gone to law school or B-school — where being a white male might actually do me some good instead of ruin any chance I have at getting a job. So much for fighting the good fight. Fuck ’em all — time to use my gender and race for my benefit for once, time to get paid.  December 3, 2008 6:36 PM

My favorite part is the statement that it is “time to use my gender and race for my benefit for once,” as if being a white male has been resting below the surface of his life for years with no effect on his experiences, and only now rears its head to crush his opportunities on the academic market.

Strangely, I was able to find a job as a white male. Maybe this is because the institution that hired me is private and thus less affected by the rash of reverse discrimination that has affected public institutions like the University of Michigan Law School, but I doubt it. Maybe my superior c.v., personality, interviewing skills, and intellect overpowered the fact that I am a white male, but I doubt that, too. In fact, looking back at my life I cannot identify any situation in which my background as a white, middle-class male hindered my ability to progress through life in terms of education or employment.  It may be surprising, but I think that the fact that I shared the same cultural references and experiences as my teachers, professors, and employers helped me in ways that I will never fully know. Maybe I’m the exception, but thanks to my sociological training, I doubt it.

*Bonus: this post has a soundtrack.

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There is an interesting article on Inside Higher Ed about the desire of graduate students to find employment at “family friendly” institutions, which they typically define to exclude research universities.  The article itself summarizes the findings of a report available on Academe.  “Family friendly” institutions are said to offer a better work-life balance, though Tina at scatterplot has an insightful post about why balance is probably the wrong metaphor in the face of ever-increasing obligations on both fronts.

The ability to have more time for family was one of many factors that led me to seek employment at a liberal arts school.  I have also watched a number of junior faculty members go through the tenure process in my graduate program and have had enough experience with the publication process to know that I do not want my future to rest solely on how many journal articles I can publish in the next six years.

While the Acadme authors take an extreme position by stating that “If this sentiment is broadly shared among current and future student cohorts, the future life-blood of academia may be at stake, as promising young scholars seek alternative career paths with better work-life balance,” anybody who has recently been on the sociology job market knows that this is not the case.  Despite the ASA’s recent conclusion that the job market is good, the current state of the market (i.e., it sucks) is such that candidates are told to apply for all types of jobs and encouraged to take whatever they can get.  While some candidates will have multiple offers, many will not, ensuring that “the future life-blood of academia” will be squeezed from those working long hours under the regime of publish or perish.

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Labeling Phelps

Phelps inhales

Phelps inhales

Michael Phelps:

  • Millionaire
  • Olympic champion
  • Role model
  • 23-year-old

Your take on the photo of Phelps taking hits from the bong likely depends on which of the above labels you ascribe to him.  Becker tells us that no acts are inherently deviant, rather it is the label that we ascribe to an action that determines how that action is viewed by society (or a subset of it).  Thus, for some millionaires and 23-year-olds, smoking marijuana is seen as a “normal” part of life.  However, many claim to be shocked that a high-paid role model such as Phelps could partake in the use of an illegal substance.

While nobody would be surprised by a photo of Phelps drinking a beer, some are outraged that he smoked marijuana at a party.  Based on reports, Phelps didn’t injure anybody or put himself in a position that he could have injured somebody, unlike his previous DUI, so the legality of the substance itself seems to be the primary issue.  The legality of smoking marijuana returns to the crux of Becker’s argument.  Because drinking alcohol is defined as something that, while potentially harmful to the body, an adult has the right to do, it is not considered deviant.  Marijuana, on the other hand, has a long history of illegality, despite widespread availability and continued use, and is thus considered deviant by many nonusers while being considered nondeviant by many users.

For his part, Phelps has apologized for his “bad judgment” and “regrettable behavior” and it appears that his sponsors are willing to continue seeing him as a high-profile Olympic champion and role model, despite the fact that he sometimes behaves like a 23-year-old millionaire.

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How I Met Your Mother is one of my favorite comedies (definitely better than the hackneyed show that follows it in CBS’s Monday night lineup), but as is the case with lots of popular media I sometimes feel uneasy about certain jokes.  Last night’s episode featured a side story about Marshall being diagnosed with Dancer’s Hip, leading to all sorts of gender-related jokes playing on the fact that women can be associated with masculine things but men cannot be associated with feminine things.  In fact, both male and female characters on the show make fun of Marshall’s diagnosis.  A sample:

  • Robin: Do any of the other little girls in your class have dancer’s hip?
  • Ted: Is it easier to dance when you don’t have external genitalia?
  • Lily: Clearly, the stirrups were set a little too wide during his last trip to the gyno.

And later…

  • Ted: Hey Marshall, I got you a light beer. I know how you dancers are always counting calories.
  • Marshall: It’s not funny, alright? The doctor says if it gets any worse I might need surgery.
  • Ted: Vaginal rejuvenation surgery?

Seeing the world from a sociological perspective can make it hard to enjoy movies and TV shows that reinforce the stereotypes sociolgists have worked to expose.  Sometimes, these stereotypes are enough to cause me to stop watching a show.  In the case of How I Met Your Mother, however, the show is redeemed by jabs at corporate America such as the following after viewing Barney’s video resume:

  • Lily: Barney, I don’t get it. You don’t do a damn thing in any of these clips.
  • Barney: Exactly, because that’s who corporate America wants. People who seem like bold, risk takers, but never actually do anything. Actually doing things gets you fired.

In a way, How I Met Your Mother is like your liberal friend who makes jokes about racial and gender stereotypes because he is “enlightened” enough to make them ironically and you are “enlightened” enough to interpret them that way.

Update: Here is a post from Salon that discusses sexism and violence in Super Bowl ads.  I guess that if How I Met Your Mother is your liberal friend, the Super Bowl is your drunk, sexist friend who you only put up with because he throws great parties.

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I have been on fellowship for the ’08-9 academic year.  Aside from various revisions and completing other projects, I have two major tasks during this time: getting a job and finishing my dissertation.

The completion of task number one leaves me with a single major task for the current semester.  Unfortunately, I have been clinically diagnosed as a procrastinator per the DSM-IV* definition of the term under the “Work Disorders” heading:

Major Procrastination Disorder

The problem, my doctor tells me, is that I don’t have enough work to do.  While this seems counter-intuitive, I have found that my most productive periods have been when I am extremely busy with other things.  I need to become a structured procrastinator, which is defined as “shaping the structure of the tasks one has to do in a way that exploits this fact.”  An illustration may be helpful:

The key idea is that procrastinating does not mean doing absolutely nothing. Procrastinators seldom do absolutely nothing; they do marginally useful things, like gardening or sharpening pencils or making a diagram of how they will reorganize their files when they get around to it. Why does the procrastinator do these things? Because they are a way of not doing something more important. If all the procrastinator had left to do was to sharpen some pencils, no force on earth could get him do it. However, the procrastinator can be motivated to do difficult, timely and important tasks, as long as these tasks are a way of not doing something more important.

Thus, while some may see starting a blog in the midst of dissertation writing to be counterproductive, I am actually trying to use my wasted time more wisely.  And if the blog becomes a chore, I may find myself working on my dissertation to avoid it!

*For those who cannot find this disorder in the DSM-IV, you probably checked the book when you should have checked your gut.

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