Thursday, December 02, 2010

Academic Interviews

by J J Cohen

In Ye Olden Dayes when I was on the academic job market, very little was offered by my university to prepare for the arcane rituals involved.

The Director of Graduate Studies looked at my cover letter and CV, declaring them OK. A kindly woman at the Career Center was in charge of collating letters of recommendation into a mailable dossier (yes, my job search predated Interfolio and electronic submission; as I recall I had to skin a sheep and cure its hide into vellum for my professors to compose upon). She glanced at my collected letters and told me one of them had numerous spelling errors and and a stain from a coffee mug or shot glass. The only advice I was given about MLA interviews and campus visits was at second hand, and consisted of words supposedly uttered by a Famous Shakespearean: don't accept water or coffee when you enter the hotel room unless you have a table to place the beverage upon, otherwise your ability to gesture will be constrained; at the campus stage don't order anything with spinach because it will stick to your teeth and people will look at the dentally adhering green blob rather than listen to you.

In my three years of being interviewed for academic jobs I sat with committees from perhaps fifteen schools. Some of these interchanges were disasters: one, for example, where five minutes into the proceedings the chair hesitantly announced that Father X was going to ask a question. Everyone went silent. "Our college is a Catholic college, Mr. COHEN," Father X stated. "What is it that you can offer a Catholic college?" Though I suspected I could make an ecumenical gesture that would save the day, I declined to do so. I knew I'd been eliminated, but that was OK. And then there was the interview in the very small hotel room where two of the faculty were in bare feet. When I offered to take my shoes off also they said I had better not, and also the salary advertised for the job had been reduced by five thousand dollars and did I still want to talk to them? Weird.

I learned the hard way during my first year of interviews what I wish someone had told me before I started, something which perhaps is obvious but had never occurred to me: scholars are not trained to give good interviews (why would they be?) and often stumble through the form. Some academics are -- and I know I am speaking a deep dark secret of the field, and will now be assassinated by that  henchman the AAUP sends out when secrets are disclosed --  socially awkward. Interviewees must therefore ensure that (1) the committee is at ease and knows that they'll make a good colleague, and (2) all the points that they want to cover do in fact get covered. In other words, the interview is a performance during which you cannot trust you'll be taken care of; you need to be active, have an agenda, and make sure that you see yourself from the point of view of the committee.

Common sense, I suppose, but no one told me these things and I was too dense to know them in advance. I learned a great deal from that first year, and try to carry it over into the times when I am interviewing someone as part of a committee: making sure that candidates are at ease through a joke or ice breaker at the beginning, but also by not being superficial: diving deep into the materials that have been provided, asking engaged questions out of real intellectual curiosity (if the candidate made it to the list of ten from the pool of 200 applicants, they have a great deal of interesting material to converse about), giving them space to speak about anything they feel we didn't cover.

At GW we also give our graduate students mock interviews before they go to MLA for the real thing. I have one scheduled for this afternoon. How the interviews are administered varies according to who is on the committee, but I find the most useful way is to start with a 15 minute "typical" interview that covers research, teaching, and other basics. We then talk about the performance (in a supportive way), and then move on to role playing more challenging situations: belligerent and unclear questions; interviewers who haven't done their homework; socially awkward moments and how to handle them. The idea is never to scare candidates, but to get them to have a little bit of distance from the interactions and make them realize that (yes, within limits) there is some control they can exert to get their messages across. That way when they knock on the hotel room door and the room inside is so filled with anxiety that it's tempting to ask for a Xanax to go with the customary glass of water ... well, maybe it won't be so frightening.

Of course, now that Skype interviews are becoming more prevalent, I may need to update my advice.


ThisWas said...

Jeffrey wrote: "scholars are not trained to give good interviews (why would they be?)"

Can it be that scholars no longer master the trivium of grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric?

Anonymous said...

Thanks Jeffrey - this all rings very familiar and true. I can remember being interviewed in a very small room on uncomfortable patio furniture dragged in from the deck, and one of my colleagues recalls being interviewed in a room so small that one of the interviewers (the department chair I think) reclined on the bed with his shoes off.

We also do mock interviews (a term that sometimes leads nervous candidates to think they'll be mocked), in full role-playing mode. That is, the interviewers pretend to be Profs X and Y from U of Z. The interviewees always find this weird, stilted, and very awkward, but it's necessary in order to reproduce a nervous situation, and to minimize supportive vibes that probably won't be there in the actual interview. Afterwards, interviewees have agreed that the weirdness served its purpose.

Budget cuts are making Skype interviews particularly common this year - a relatively new form that may require other kinds of prepping. Students should also be prepared for the "interview hall," that ghastly format where you're in a queue with your competition to interview at a table in a cacophonous ballroom.

I'm interviewing candidates at the MLA this year, for the first time since my own job search, and I've resolved to make the whole thing as normal and not-weird as humanly possible! To lighten the mood, I often send people to the rather brilliant, which I'm proud to say was made by two graduates of my institution.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

I'm always surprised that we need to remind search committees of what they can't ask, or that it's a good idea to have a set of questions we will ask all the candidates. Even though SLAC is private, and we don't have to use the same sort of script that most public institutions demand, it's still a good idea. But I'm also really surprised by interviewees who know little about our campus, or have no questions other than about benefits and pay.

PEOPLE, please think about the job you are interviewing for. The interview is a date. Really, you should be interviewing each other, but since the applicant is looking for a job and competing with many others, it just makes sense to be able to talk about what you are able to bring to the institution -- how can you complement what's there? How can you serve the institution's purpose?

I don't think any institution expects people to stay around forever, but we need to feel that you actually want to work with us, rather than that you just want a job.

Rick Godden said...

The mock interview really is an important thing to do. My institution does them (though we now call them practice, not mock). And while I didn't think I wanted to do one at first, partially because of the nervous, stilted nature of role-playing, it turned out to be very helpful. My interviewers threw me some curveballs, both contentious and jovial, and while uncomfortable at the time, I am terribly glad that they did.

Hopefully it will help with my very real, and hopefully not mocking, interview at MLA.

Stantoro, I love the 9interviews videos. Makes me feel that it can never be that bad!