Thursday, December 06, 2007

A Chorus Line: Preparing for the Preliminary Interview

There are two songs that run through my mind at this time of year: one is the Blondie tune, with the blistering opening: "I'm in the phone booth/It's the one across the hall." Ok, graduate students have cell phones, but still. It conveys the sense of urgency that those of you who have job applications out there are feeling right now. You are waiting for the phone to ring but pretending you aren't while wondering if maybe someone else's phone......oh God, please let it ring.

But there will be interviews. There will. You have to believe that. Which is why my other song is from "A Chorus Line," but later for that. So I am going to take a little vacation from my unexpected engagement with the neocon world, and get back to what I do best: Giving Career Advice.

First of all, here's something you can control at this out of control moment. Do you have a message on your voicemail that is cute? Funny? Your favorite song maybe? Or perhaps it is your darling child who says, "Mahmee an' Daddeee an' - an' -- Fluffeee an' -- meee not home say who you are an' give a message. At da beep."

Get. Rid. Of. It. Now. Ok, it will not put you out of the running for the job: I want to emphasize that no little thing will put you out of the running for the job. But this piece of how you are perceived is something you can control without any significant damage to your essential self. A brief message like, "Hello, you have reached the cell phone of Marylou Graddie; please leave your name and phone number after the beep, and I will call you back as soon as possible," conveys the impression of a calm, serious person who is ready to be interviewed. And no, I am not a child hater, nor do I think it makes you unemployable if your essential self really is Mommy or Daddy: it's just that it is just as irrelevant as revealing your inner P!nk right up front in an interview situation. Your child is not being interviewed for the Cuteness Contest this December and January; you are in the first stage of being screened for the Intellectual Demolition Derby, where only one car drives away with the prize.

OK, now we have that settled. And the good news is, you have gotten the phone call, you are getting the conference interview! Now what do you have to think about? And since I just did a bunch of conference interviews with candidates who collectively did a stellar job, it has caused me to gather my thoughts about how you can prepare to do a good preliminary interview.

What to ask when you get the call. Let me just say -- all search committee chairs do not know what they are doing. So make sure to get the following information: Does the committee want to see more of your work before the interview? Should it be sent to the same address as the application? How long will the interview be and what other committee members will be there? What topics will the committee want to cover? What hotel will they be in and how will you find their room?

And by the way -- practice this, because when you get the call, your heart will leap and you will become momentarily dazed. What normally happens is the person on the other end says "Hi, this is Dr. Committeechair, and I would like to arrange an interview at the MLAHA," and the breathless candidate says weakly, "Oh -- hi." Try this instead:

"Why, hello, Dr. Committeechair," you say in a firm, confident tone. "I'm so happy to hear from you!" As if you expected to all along.

What should you wear? The most frequently asked question by female-bodied people who aren't particularly feminine in self presentation is, Do I have to wear a skirt? The answer is no, you do not: furthermore, I would argue that if you do not normally wear skirts, you should not even dream of wearing one because you will probably feel -- and look -- uncomfortable. For men and women, tailored trousers and shirts are basic items of apparel. Jackets are optional for both genders, and for my money a tie for men is optional too, although you need some way of making yourself look like someone who can be read as professional without one (a collarless shirt buttoned to the top is one solution.) Shoes should be polished and well-cared for. Female-bodied people who do like to dress in feminine ways, and effeminate male-bodied people, should also not butch themselves up for the interview: if feeling pretty also makes you feel smart and capable, go for it. Anyway, federal law prevents us from discussing what you look like, so the wise committee members will keep their opinions about your clothes to themselves or risk appearing unprofessional to their colleagues.

I have known men who have agonized about whether to take the earring out or whether the ponytail should go; women who worry about how high a heel will make them look like a hooker, or whether they need to invest in a suit. I think much of this, for a school like Zenith, at least, is irrelevant fretting, and that all clothing questions need to meet the following criteria: Am I comfortable in these clothes? Is anything I am planning to wear distracting to others -- in other words, am I wearing something that will cause the interviewers not to listen to what I am saying? And finally, does my physical self-presentation reflect the fact that I have prepared carefully for this interview?

Your entrance. Hopefully you will get to the hotel room door a little bit before the interview, but after the previous candidate has departed. It's hard to know whether your timing will be right, and if you should run into another candidate in the hall, smile graciously, as Bette Davis would if she were in your pumps. Before you enter the room, the following items should be stowed: hat and gloves, cellphone (turned off), iPod and water bottle. Even your Dr. Radical has capitulated to modernity to the extent that she walks around campus with white wires hanging out of her ears or pockets, but she wouldn't walk into a meeting of the dreaded Tenure and Promotion Committee that way, or leave the impression with New President that talking to him was a momentary break from listening to Pink Floyd or hydrating properly. These things are Distractions. Eliminate them. And you need to be able to walk into the room with at least one hand free for the conventional manual salutation, not fumbling with your various belongings.

The interview. This is a tough one, because there is actually no training that faculty receive in interviewing people, and some do it badly. I once became nearly hysterical during the course of a preliminary interview when the individual asking me the questions could not seem either to frame them coherently or to stop talking, and I saw my time to leave a good impression dribbling away as the odd interrogation proceeded, uninterrupted by me or anyone else. At the fifteen minute mark, I interrupted, seized the initiative and said, "Excuse me -- we haven't got much time left, and I'd like to make sure I tell you about my dissertation and some of the courses I would teach for you." Which I did. I then left the room and cried inconsolably because I had really wanted that job. And to my astonishment they gave it to me, and thus launched a Radical career.

But let's assume the interviewers know what they are doing. You should:

Have practiced a five-minute version of your scholarship, in which you describe your research, why it is important, what it does for the field, and its current state of completion. Why so short? Because after you give them the basics they will ask questions that speak to the specific intellectual requirements of the job and the department you might be hired to work in. They will get more of the information they need if you allow them to seek it in their own way.

Know something about who they are. This allows you to connect to them and convey that you are interested in working with them; it also demonstrates that you are not entirely self-absorbed, which is an attractive quality in a future colleague.

Talk about several courses you might teach. This can sometimes be the moment to remove sample syllabi from your backpack or briefcase: there is no reason you need to speak about courses without notes. This shows that you have done your homework about where you fit in the department, and that you are ready to teach next fall. At the end of your course descriptions say "I'm sure you have lots of stuff to carry home -- I can give these to you, or I could send them on later if you would prefer." You should absolutely be prepared to talk about courses mentioned or inferred in the ad, but also -- particularly for a school like Zenith -- a course out of your dissertation research that gives them a sense of your creativity and your potential as a teacher-scholar. It also gives you a sense of them: if you have a fabulous course in your head, and they don't respond by saying "Our students would love that!" you have important information. Because I hate to put this thought in your minds, friends, but in the end you might have choices too.

Make sure you pay attention to everyone in the room. Even if a member of the committee doesn't have much to say, make eye contact, or deliberately turn to that person and say "I noticed that you teach a course on...." Silent people are not necessarily people without influence; candidates who don't seem to care what women or scholars of color or untenured scholars think can be misperceived as self-involved, or sucking up to the most powerful person in the room. And the person who is the most powerful might be the one who is being self-effacing.

Keep your eye on the clock. Although you are not responsible for running the interview, make sure that you leave the room satisfied that you have told the committee what you want them to know. And finally.....

Be yourself. I understand why the question "What do they want?" haunts so many job candidates. But really, you wouldn't have gotten this far if there weren't a lot of things right about you. The strongest candidates will present in a genuine, not a contrived, way: some are a little shy, but articulate and thoughtful; others have an intellectually traditionalist, conservative or radical bent (departmental diversity comes in many forms you know); some don't know the answer to a question that has been asked and ask the questioner what s/he thinks; a really relaxed candidate might be able to share a laugh with the committee and cause them to say after s/he has left the room, "I can really see X in our department, can't you?"

But no one little thing will get you the job either.

OK, so here's the other song, the one from Chorus Line, that I think about at this time of year, because this is how I remember being you: no, it's not "Dance 10, Looks 3," silly. You know it -- the last verse goes like this:

God, I hope I get it, I hope I get it!
I’ve come this far, but even so:
It could be yes, it could be no.
How many people does he...?
I really need this job
Please, God, I need this job
I’ve got to get this show.
I have to get any moment
I knew I had it, from the start

Who am I anyway?
Am I my resume?
That is a picture of a person
I don’t know.
What does he want from me?
What should I try to be?
So many faces all around and here we go
I need this job
Oh God, I need this show.

I hope you get it. Good luck.


gwoertendyke said...

as always, it is so good to hear something of the process from the other side. so thank you! i especially like intervention in the interview.

i did get an interview the other day, from a job i really want, and i was so excited on the phone i worried a bit that the committee chair thought maybe i was twelve or something.

most importantly, i used to act and dance out the entire chorus line with my friend when i was a kid--i know every song--and now i will be singing that one for the rest of the day. dammit.

Tenured Radical said...

Good for you AW! Kick butt in that interview.


GayProf said...

I just, at this very moment, came from a meeting with grad students on the market who needed such tips. Alas, I wish that I had read this first.

Bardiac said...

Great post! I hope you don't mind if I link to it.

I honestly wouldn't worry about sounding excited. Yes, professionally excited is best, but we all know how rough the market is, and we do want you to be excited about coming to us if we hire you.

Paris said...

No interviews. No interviews. No interviews.

I have not changed to area code of my cell phone, so it is the same as one of the places to which I have applied. I do periodically get wrong numbers from that city and the one this morning gave me a fucking heart attack.

Belle said...

I'd like to add my thanks, but from the other side; an interviewer-to-be. Remembering the horror of the meat market, I need these kinds of reminders to keep me going.

TR's da bomb. And no, I'd never say that in an interview. Except, of course, to TR!

Anonymous said...

I've just discovered this blog...and in good time as well, as I am one of those grad students on the job market. I'm exhausted at the moment, trying to find time to write my dissertation, to prepare for the one interview I have so far, and to teach a fairly decent course... but I'm also cheered by your latest post.

Tim Lacy said...

So, I don't know much about A Chorus Line (The Sound of Music is perhaps my favorite musical---if I have one), but I ~do~ appreciate the advice given her. It seems that the problem with interviewing on the whole is one imagines it to be an in-human experience, when in fact it's just another very human interaction. Good luck to all interviewers out there reading this great post and these comments! - TL

Anonymous said...

I've just sent this to my students on the market. It covers the whole terrain, and then some. Thanks Claire for caring about how the process feels, not just what it is.

Susan said...

These are great tips. It's a great reminder of what happens at these events. I'd add just one comment to the "what to wear" issue. I think you're totally right about being comfortable. But being comfortable is not incompatible with neat and professional. Know something about the place that's interviewing you, because if it's a suit and tie kind of place, then you should look as if you'd fit in.

Also (and this is obvious, but still) if you know you look young for your age -- as in "You don't look any older than our students", you probably need to be more formal in your presentation.

Anonymous said...

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing
About the dark times.

- Bertolt Brecht

Anonymous said...

You left out the job talk, so perhaps you don't do one in your field. The job talk is crucial in mine. Candidates should ask who will be in the audience (students or faculty or both), what the AV equipment is like, and whether they need to supply a title and synopsis (or paper about it). The talk must be well-rehearsed. For our purposes, we expect some teaching flair so it should also be representative of your teaching style. Other places want it to showcase your BEST work and thus be technical and convincing. Bad talks torpedo otherwise strong candidates at teaching institutions. You should supply the person introducing you with facts and make sure you can handle the logistics of the AV (and that it is working) by playing with it at least 10 minutes before the talk. If you ask, they will give you time to do so. You will be blamed for any malfunctions (unfair though that is). Smile a lot but don't laugh or giggle. Make eye contact. Answer questions you don't know by admitting you don't know (but praising the question), etc.

Tenured Radical said...

You are so right about these things -- I did, however, leave out the job talk because I was attending to the preliminary interview, not the campus visit, or "fly back," as it is now called.


Anonymous said...

I've served on many interviewing committees and would like to add just a bit to the wardrobe advice. "Test drive" your whole ensemble before you wear it to an interview. Put on your interview outfit and walk, sit down, stand up, shake someone's hand, wave your arms in your normal gestural pattern. Make sure that the blouse doesn't gap in the front, the skirt doesn't ride up, the pants and shortie boots don't, while you sit, expose the fuzzy pink striped socks you've worn. Your lucky socks, no doubt, but they'll distract the interviewers.

And for god's sake, cut the store tags off those brand new clothes.

Anonymous said...

This is all good advice, and I want to underscore your point that most interview committees are not very well functioning machines. Interviewing is just not something faculty do normally, and the committee is often composed of people who do not have a natural dynamic (sometimes because they represent different constituencies). So two things are important: Don't try to worry too much about reading the committee while you are in the room; if they are awkward and stilted, it's them, not you. Also, don't try to judge too much about the dept. as a whole (or even the people on the committee) from the interview.

Another point to underscore: Don't get rattled. At one of my hotel interviews, the door opened just as I knocked, and one of the search committee members came barreling out, saying he felt ill and needed air. I went into the room, and the first comment the committee made was about my age -- someone noticed that I graduated from the same college as his son, only more recently. The rest of the interview was dull and lifeless. I eventually got that job, and have been here nearly 10 years!

On the other hand, my best interview was from Tenured Radical's institution. But I found out later that the committee was looking for someone doing something very different than what I was. The committee liked my work, and we had a great conversation -- but there was no way I was getting the job!

Anonymous said...

also, when you finally reach that point in the interview when they say, "now, do you have anything you would like to ask us?" it is of course tempting to starting asking questions about teaching loads and tenure standards. but in a recent interview i decided that my first question would be, "what are the students like?" at least a couple of the committee members perked right up, visibly pleased with the question, and proceeded to tell me way more than i really needed to know. demonstrating that the students are already on your mind leaves a good impression.

Anonymous said...

I also ask "What do you like best about working here?" and "What was the biggest surprise to you when you first started working here?" Avoid the negative.

Morgan said...

I'm no where near the market, but I appreciate the advice. I started reading the blog after the AHA blog mentioned the resume/application tips, but the one on giving paper gave me the confidence to feel like I could give a paper--and I just found out I had a paper accepted! Thanks for the e-encouragement!

Anonymous said...

also, according to an editorial printed today in the washington post ( ), you should not state your political views (at least, not if you're conservative). TR: any thoughts on the editorial?

-- student at Oligarch U.

Tenured Radical said...

Anonymous 11:41 --

The link is incomplete, so I can't access the editorial, but I would say that regardless of one's political bent, liberal or conservative, making a point of one's politics in an interview situation would raise a flag for me because I would wonder why the candidate wanted to be the center of attention in that way, when a more complex conversation about scholarship is what is being asked for. It also seems like a risky strategy, in that moving to one's politics potentially puts the candidate at odds with people who might be unprofessional in their prejudices.

One good rule of thumb: look at the best practices on your professional association's website, and don't ask them any questions that they aren't permitted to ask you, or volunteer information that it would be unprofessional of them to seek.

Of course, if you are interviewing at a very religious school, have no scruples about nudging out others on this basis, and you really are a believer, let them know up front. Many religious institutions seem to think it is their right not to hire people whose beliefs and sexual preference do not reflect doctrine. There is an ongoing debate about whether this should be so, but right now it seems to be legal in most places.

But back to politics. Being eager for conflict is not an attractive quality, and raising your politics will surely be perceived as out of context: we all have colleagues who are too quick to fight, and we don't want more of them. There once was a candidate at Zenith -- years back -- whose opening line to a number of people was "So what is the state of the culture wars at Zenith?" As it turned out, one of the quirks of the place was that there weren't any -- not because we didn't have a politically diverse faculty, but because we did not have a core curriculum. Does one really want to hire someone, of any political description, whose idea of how to fit into a department is to back up any constituency in a culture war? Or start a culture war? Oy

On the other hand, when one's intellectual and public politics get played out in a civil way around real issues in a department there is an opportunity for mutual admiration and respect to develop among people with differing views. Finding subtle ways to show that you are *that* kind of person, rather than a polarizer, strikes me as worthwhile.


ortho said...

It's a good idea to not make your political views (liberal, conservative, apathetic, cynical pomo hipster, etc.) overly obvious during the quest for an academic job. In every department there is at least one unprofessional individual, who for whatever reason, dislikes a candidate because of his or her political ideology. Despite the candidate's impeccable teaching and researching skills, the unprofessional, elder academic will state, "This candidate's argument is obviously ideologically driven. The candidate knew what she wished to argue before she consulted her primary source evidence. The candidate's political ideology prevented the evidence from empirically 'speaking' to her. Do we want someone in our department who's scholarship is ideologically driven?"

The unprofessional, elder academic hides behind a mask of "objectivity" to play the ideology card when he is unwilling (or perhaps unable) to debate the quality of a candidate's scholarship. Unfortunately, his dubious arguments often sway a few people in the room to scan the candidate's folder for negatives. In the end, the elder academic's comments often contribute to the torpedoing of a candidate's job chances.

Lastly, I agree with Morgan Leigh, TR and her blog are sources of valuable advice on how to navigate the strange world of academia. I recommend the blog to all of my friends who fantasize about becoming tenured professors.

zombieswan said...

Thank you for these tips!! I just made note of them and, although I knew the one about future courses this summer, I had forgotten to prep them like I had planned. So now, something else to do before....

Now, though, I am totally going to be thinking "Dance 10, Looks 3". :) I hope I at least get "Looks 5." It reminds me, also, of the chili pepper system on Rate your professors and why I am sad I don't have a rating yet. :) (Not really sad. But why they even put the chili pepper in there-- "just for fun" whatever).

Anonymous said...

What does the Tenured Radical think about job-rumor sites? And what about those ‘malicious deleters’ who try to prevent the circulation of such rumors?

Tenured Radical said...

You know, this is probably deserving of a whole post, but I'm going to refrain, because I don't know enough about it yet. I took a quick look at the IR one, and it looked like the hosts have a set of rules for vetting the rumors -- but I'm not sure the information, even if reliable in a sense, is reliable in the end. At Zenith, we recommend candidates to Academic Affairs and they approve them -- but if they disapprove them, we might have to go back into the applications. So a rumor that we have sent candidates forward is not reliable until they are actually approved.

I tried to get on the wiki and failed -- I did go on it last spring and was a little taken aback at the kind of information that was being shared about actual people -- one person's marriage in collapse and getting a job in another town, so the t-t position cancelled, and whatnot. I thought that level of discussion was kind of awful, but maybe it was because I knew the individuals involved.

I think for those who are considering using these sites: you need to decide whether you are the kind of person who needs information, regardless of whether it is useful to you or not. If not having information makes you nuts, use them -- knowing that the information you get may make you another kind of nuts. And the one feature I think is a little off is that a rumor isn't reliable if it is sourced to an anonymous person -- and most seem to be.

Lisa Dunick said...

Man, I'm not even doing this until next year-- but it is so good to hear someone put it in terms that make this seemingly-crazy market thing into a quasi-normal reality-- Thanks!

The Constructivist said...

FYI, I got the to don't list covered.

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voncookie said...

I thought *I* was the only one who got that song in my head when I got an interview! Nice to know I'm not alone.

Thanks for the advice re: Skype and traditional interviews. Very helpful, especially in this market!