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“How Are You Diverse?:” How the Academic Job Market Aggravated my Racial Insecurities

by Keisha Ray, Ph.D.

Last year on the academic job market I had 59 interviews (skype and telephone interviews). That means that 59 times I had to fit a 30-60 minute interview into my insanely busy adjunct teaching schedule. Fifty-nine times I had to prepare for an interview: know the school’s and the department’s mission statement, research the department’s faculty and their areas of specialization, prepare answers to questions that the search committee would likely ask me and make many other preparations. Fifty-nine times I donned my interview attire, set up my computer, made sure that I had proper lighting (when the interviews were not telephone interviews), and prepared to tell a committee of 3-7 people why they should hire me. Fifty-nine times I had to be prepared to convince a committee to hire me despite the multiple technological difficulties that I often encountered (in one interview, one person was shown on my computer screen, but there were the voices of 5 interviewers, each asking multiple questions and because they could not hear each other, I was often asked a question multiple times and on top of that the system was walkie-talkie style, complete with a button that functioned similar to the walkie-talkie vernacular “over”). The academic job market is tedious and at times absurd, but manageable. No matter what curve ball came my way I was able to handle it gracefully and with ease. This is in part because I love what I do and partly because my mentors and others in the fields of philosophy and bioethics prepared me for what I would face while searching for a job.

All of this was true until the first time an interviewer asked me “how are you diverse?” Until this point I could answer any question that I had been asked. But the first time someone asked me, a twenty-something, black woman how I am diverse in the profession of philosophy during a skype interview, where I assume these features were visibly obvious, I couldn’t hide the look of shock on my face. No one prepared me for this question. Admittedly, I answered the question horribly and I’m not even sure I actually answered the question. But after the interview I didn’t think twice about it because until that point it had been an interview anomaly. That is until the next interview when another interviewer asked me how I would make their department diverse and the interview after that one that included a Human Resources representative whose only purpose was to ask me one question: “How will you add to the university’s diverse environment (based on my interpretation of the university’s website the university was not racially or culturally diverse).”

Next I began to encounter job applications that required applicants to write a 1-3 page statement explaining how we are diverse. How do you write a 1-3 page statement answering a question that you believe can be answered with a few words or a few phrases at the most, or even with just a picture of myself, given the acknowledged lack of diversity in philosophy? Any combination of the words or phrases “black,” “woman,” “American Philosophical Association statistics on the profession’s racial make-up” could answer the question. But because I wanted a job I found a way to honestly and candidly write a 1-3 page paper explaining how I am diverse and how this diversity can positively contribute to the goals of higher education. But, I can’t get over the number 59. Considering the number of interviews, I still believe that many interviews were conducted under false pretense and the diversity statements were a formality.


Am I here to fill a quota?

Answering questions about diversity forced me to confront the very likely possibility that I was used by philosophy and bioethics departments to satisfy HR requirements. For some of the positions that I interviewed for I was only somewhat qualified for, as displayed in my dossier, but I am what I like to refer to as a “double whammy diverse job candidate” (I satisfy multiple diverse categories). So sure, the reason why I was not offered some of the positions that I interviewed for could be that I was not qualified for them. But if I was not qualified for the position then why was I interviewed? When you are different and you are aware that departments are increasingly being required to at least show they have made an attempt to hire diverse faculty, you start to question why you are really conducting an interview. Am I here so faculty can show their dean or HR department that at least they interviewed someone diverse? Or the question that all diverse people ask themselves in situations like this: “Am I here to fill a quota?” In many interviews, I believe the answer for me was yes.

What I believe to be further evidence to support this belief, out of 59 preliminary interviews, I was offered 3 campus visits and I was offered 3 full-time positions (not the same schools as the campus visits). Someone who is not what the profession calls “diverse” could look at these numbers and think that I did pretty well on the market. Three campus visits and 3 job offers is pretty great, especially with the competitive nature of the academic job market. However, when you are on the other side of the diverse threshold and you’ve experienced racially motivated situations your entire life, you could look at these numbers and think “shouldn’t I have had more follow-up interviews if I was offered 59 preliminary interviews?” Again, this could just very well be the nature of the beast. There are so few jobs and a lot of job candidates. But my point is that the nature of the beast makes you question if you are being used to satisfy a quota even if you are a qualified candidate. The beast asks you to prove that you are diverse and then makes you question if being diverse actually hurts your chances of getting a job (see research on implicit bias or implicit social cognition).


“Oh, Shouldn’t You Be Able to Get a Job Anywhere?”

I accepted one of the jobs that I was offered and I am grateful for the opportunity. But my position is only for 1 year so that means that I began my new position in August and in the following month I had to start the job search process all over again once schools starting advertising open positions in September. I was in my new job for one moth, getting acclimated to moving across the country, getting to know faculty and students at my new university, etc. and I had to start writing statements about my diversity for a whole new batch of applications almost immediately.

Since getting a job and not being homeless is something rather important to me, being on the job market is a big part of my life so I frequently discuss my job market experiences with friends, family, colleagues, and on social media. One frequent response to my musings on the job market from my colleagues who have been on the job market is “oh, shouldn’t you be able to get a job anywhere?” There are certain contextual clues that lead me to believe that what they really mean when they say this is “you are diverse, shouldn’t that give you an extra edge over the competition?” I doubt this is true. If it were true there would likely already be more diversity in bioethics and philosophy. There are many qualified and diverse applicants so why aren’t these people in full time academic positions? Why is there still a need to make applicants write statements proclaiming their diversity? Probably because there is still a need for diverse faculty.

What is more important is how these kinds of remarks make me feel about the good that has come from my job search. I feel very fortunate to even interview for jobs that will allow me to do what I love but the sentiment that my diversity gives me an advantage over the competition makes me question if my only qualification for some academic positions is my diversity. People of color frequently have this doubt in many other areas of their lives. Did I get this [insert really great opportunity] because my employers believe in my abilities to do the job well or because they needed a brown face on staff?

I could be receiving job opportunities because I am qualified and search committees believe in my ability to perform the job well or they believe in my ability to perform the job well and I am diverse. When you are diverse and colleges and universities have made it clear that diversity is something that they are actively pursuing (or so they say), you never know. But the possibility that you are being used to satisfy either an interview quota or a hired faculty quota adds a unique component to the job search for diverse applicants that deserves more attention.             Applicants who have been deemed diverse are thrown into a system that seemingly values their diversity but then that value is determined by individuals with biases and individuals who are forced to meet certain standards determined by their bosses and HR departments. We’re asked to identify, prove, and convince others that unchosen features of our being adds to the value of our candidacy when those very same unchosen features can be used against us. And in the instance that our unchosen features contribute to our appeal as a scholar and colleague, then we are left wondering if our unchosen features override our accomplishments. If this is the nature of the academic market and despite my accomplishments I am merely a box to be checked by a search committee, then my value is not as a productive colleague but rather as a quota.

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