To be clear: My point was *not* that “recreational” interviewing at AALS (a characterization that appears in the comments to Ethan’s post) is a good idea. I don’t quite agree that I was urging candidates to go on the market “early and often.” But I’ll stand by my opinion that candidates who feel that they have a shot should not be afraid of taking that shot, knowing that they need to be prepared to test the AALS waters more than once, and that no one should accept a job unless they’re confident that it’s the right one at the right time.
It’s certaintly true that the process is stressful, time-consuming, and expensive. (Been there, done that.) No one should be cavalier about the process, and if you can afford to participate only once, then make sure that your candidacy is as strong as it’s going to get. But a lot of candidates don’t know if they’re “ready” for the market, and despite all the best intentions and good advice from people who have been through the process and come out successful on the other side, there’s no sure way to predict how any but a handful of candidates will do. Note that lining up 20-25 interviews at the meat market is *not* the norm. (I recall one senior Harvard faculty member whose pep-talk to Harvard candidates about to go to DC amounted to how to navigate the shoals of competing offers from Stanford, Chicago, and NYU. If you’re competing at that level, you shouldn’t be taking advice from me.) If you can afford the time and the money, my view remains: go to the meat market this year and see what happens. If you go back to the meat market next year, will any of the schools that interviewed you a year ago want to talk to you again? Very unlikely — not because the same folks are necessarily populating appointments committees, but because most of those schools will have filled the slot that you were angling for. (Is this what Ethan means by suggesting that someone returning to the meat market is “disadvantaged” by failure to get an appointment during the prior season?) But there are other schools out there. I went to DC three times in all, and each time I went, I had more interviews than I had the year before, and on the whole, they were with “better” schools.
I also agree that you shouldn’t take a job talk invitation from a school if you’re certain that you have no interest in an appointment. (Been there, done that, too.) But with a lot of schools, you won’t know enough about a school to make that judgment unless you take the job talk invitation and go meet the rest of the faculty and see the school in person. Go; be sincere; if you get an offer and you’ve concluded, after the visit, that the school is absolutely wrong for you, then say no. We’re disappointed when our first choice turns us down, but we’re not spoiled children; we have second choices and back up offers, and we only hire people that we believe will make great scholars and colleagues. And it usually turns out that they are.
Finally, adding to the job talk advice by Orin (and don’t miss the comments), and Dan and Christine:
Style point: Whatever you do, don’t simply read your paper or your presentation.
Substance point: Both as a job-talking candidate and as job-talking audience member, I’ve found the most successful talks to be those where the candidate held the group’s attention on both non-specialist and specialist levels. Both during the talk and during the Q&A (and especially during the Q&A, for faculties that spend a lot of time with this), keep both audiences in mind. In my experience, good talks get the non-specialists intrigued by what their specialist colleagues do (as a teacher, the candidate can draw in the novice) and assure the specialists that the candidate is someone who is playing at an appropriately sophisticated intellectual level.