Sunday, December 07, 2008

Receiving the Call: What To Do When Scheduling A Conference Interview

There has been so much heartbreak and angst lately about the state of the job market, here and elsewhere, that the Radical has neglected one critical function of this blog: professionalization. This post is aimed indirectly at search committee chairs and mostly at the people who love them. That's right, this one's for you, you lucky folk who will be called to a convention interview sometime between now and the first of the year, primarily in the fields of History and Literature, both of which have their Big Annual Meetings in the next month. What follows is information that you need to elicit in that first telephone contact, or if you haven't --- which is fine -- follow up with an email tomorrow and get it.

Let's begin. You are a person who has applied for a job, and you are at home playing Minesweeper -- er, I mean working on your dissertation. Is that the telephone? (Imagine sound of phone ringing -- brrring! brrring! - or more likely, your cell's ring tone, now cued for the season to the first lines of Culture Club's "Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?") Yes it is! You look at the caller ID. It's the area code for Los Angeles/New York/Ann Arbor/Duluth! Omigod. Ok. You answer.

How do you begin crafting their impression of you? What information needs to be exchanged, other than when and where?

Who is on the search committee? While not essential information, this does give you some way of preparing for the interview. Look them up; figure out if you know their work, and think about how your research relates to -- preferably in a complementary, not a redundant way -- their fields of interest. Other than providing the grounds for small talk, knowing who they are will allow you to strategize what to say, and perhaps not say, about yourself. It will also prepare you to connect to people on the committee in the interview itself by crafting logical, conversational connections with them. "As you know from your work on the Cold war, Dr. Strangelove...." might be one verbal gambit for beginning the process of allowing them to imagine you as a colleague. Yes, they are calling because they are interested in you, but you will create a better impression if you appear to be interested enough in them that you have done your homework. They know you want a job next year: what they don't know is if you will be a good fit with the department. As a candidate, the fruits of this labor will not even be apparent to you. When the hotel room door clicks behind you, you want someone on the committee to say something inchoate and spontaneous like, "I can really see him teaching our students," or "Wouldn't she really fit into our department?"

How long will the interview be and how will it be structured? This is the moment to learn as much as you can about how the committee will prune the list of semi-finalists and how much you need to tell them about what. Will it be a half-hour interview, equally divided between teaching and scholarship? Will teaching be the top priority -- or will teaching be one of several topics? If I were you, I would keep a folder by your telephone so that you can look up the precise wording of the advertisement as you are talking to the person who is calling to schedule the interview. If it says "French Revolution" as one of the fields, say maturely, "I'm assuming you will want someone to teach a course on the French Revolution -- would you like me to bring a sample syllabus? Would you like me to sketch it out as a seminar or a lecture course? Or try it both ways?" Then follow this up with: "Are there any other courses I might be regularly responsible for that I should think about prior to the interview? Perhaps the Modern European History Survey?" Ask if they want syllabi faxed in advance. They probably don't, but it makes you sound businesslike, and it would make for a more substantive interview if the committee did review your courses in advance.

As for your scholarship, every search committee will want to hear at least a little something about your research, but this is the time to ask about whether the committee will be interested in talking about your research trajectory as well. Sure, you are finishing your dissertation and your idea of a trajectory may be the path a crumpled page of a draft takes on its way to the waste basket, but there's no time like the present to think of that next project -- particularly if they plan to ask you about it and give you three minutes to answer the question.

Don't act like you are the busiest person in the world and that you are doing the committee a great favor to make time for them. Yes, it's a good idea to slip in that you are giving a paper at the meeting, and that you will be meeting with a series editor from Fancy Eastern University Press. Why not? But don't be elusive or act self-important; don't find some way of letting them know that Ken Wissoker is on your speed dial, or leave the impression that this search committee just got in under the wire of a very busy conference schedule. If you need to reschedule with an editor do so. S/he will understand, believe me, and it's better to do that than make a search committee think you are a diva before they have even met you in person. And don't let slip that you have multiple interviews -- now is not the time to make a school that may end up being your best or only option feel like they may already be your second choice, or worse -- that you are so desirable that it is hardly worthwhile to bring you to campus because you will surely get a better offer.

Make sure you get the search chair's cell phone number. Candidates get lost -- particularly when there are several hotels involved. Several search committees from one place may be using a suite reserved in the name of only one person -- who might not even be on your search committee. It happens. Be prepared.

Make sure that before you start jumping up and down, whooping and hollering "Yabbadabbadoo," that you have actually hung up the phone.


Anonymous said...

Good advice, TR. I would also add one more bon mot: Be sure to remove all embarassing or offensive photographs of you on your social networking pages.

Not only is Ken Wissoker not on my speed dial, I don't know who he is. Can you please enlighten me? Would I really want him on my speed dial?

Ahistoricality said...

After you ask how long the interview will be, how it's structured, ask where it will be. Then look at the map of the conference sites: since you may be interviewing in several different hotels (while official interview suites and Cubicle City are usually in one hotel (though sometimes not always), there are almost certainly going to be interviews at other hotels, and not always official ones.

Before you get any calls you need to have some idea how long it will take you under less than optimal conditions, to get from one site to another, so you don't overschedule yourself. (Even if you only have one or two interviews, you can overschedule yourself by not leaving enough time to get to the interview.) Believe me: arriving late is not going to look good; your interviewers have anywhere from one to two dozen interviews to do: if they start getting backed up, it will snowball like an airport shutdown, leading people to be late to other interviews, putting other committees behind schedule, etc.

By the way, TR, I have always tried to remember to ask who's on the committee, and looked up department members on the web, and I honestly don't recall ever being able to work someone else's research into my conversations. But I'm an Asianist, so the connections aren't always as obvious.

squadratomagico said...

Asking about the length of the interview is good advice! I recall interviewing someone for an hour at AHA once, who began nervously checking his watch with great frequency in the second half of the interview. We speculated that he must have assumed the interview was only half an hour, and that he was missing another appointment (perhaps another interview, perhaps a meetup with a friend or editor, who knows.) He stayed throughout our process, but the nervous watch-checking was the thing I remember most about him now.

Paris said...

Last year I was super-tense every time an unfamiliar number popped up on my phone, but my conference interview requests all came by email and were kind enough to provide all that information in their first contact.

This year has had no phone calls so far either - it makes sense to announce that the search has been "postponed"* via email or letter anyway.

*This is a euphemism on par with the one where applicants rejected in the first round are not contacted until a finalist has been hired.

Tenured Radical said...


Do people actually say that the search has been postponed as a way to notify you that you won;t be interviewed? How childish.


Anonymous said...

I can't imagine they're using that as an excuse to blow candidates off. I think it's euphemistic more along the lines of "we're shutting down the search for this year, but the dean says that when the money comes back, we'll get to do it. Probably. We hope."

Paris said...

Yes, what JJO said.

My point was the nature of much of my contact with search committees so far has been concerning the collapse of their hiring efforts rather than the interview process.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

All right... I got my first ever interview request on Friday, but it wasn't until Saturday or later when I read/heard that you should ask who else is going to be interviewing you. (The caller did not specify.) Would it be a bad idea to email this person and ask who else would be interviewing me? Or should I just take a look at the very small department online and get a feel for everyone? (The whole department consists of about 9-10 people.)

I'm really excited about the interview! I hope it works out well, so I don't want to do anything weird or unprofessional before it even gets underway. My instinct is to just stay cool and wait for the chair to contact me again with the location of the interview, and then ask him who else will be interviewing. Would that approach (waiting), be more appropriate? Or would a quick email be fine?

Incidentally, I found out from looking at the online information that the search chair and I have a ton of geekiness in common. He sounds like someone I would want to be friends with, so I am very encouraged.

Ahistoricality said...

very small department

Yes, look at the whole department. Also, you might want to be aware of the fact that most history departments (at least of the ones I've worked in and been interviewed by) are this size or smaller. Most jobs aren't in Ph.D. granting institutions.

Anonymous said...

Dear TR,

I'm wondering if you might comment upon the ethics of conducting an early search (prior to AHA, APA, MLA) and then requiring a response from the candidate before the field's major conference? There have been several discussions of this matter on the job wikis and in the Chronicle of Higher Education's forums. There is also a discussion going on front and center on the Chronicle's website now. What are your thoughts?

As for me, I've been on both sides of the table. I've been involved in a search as a faculty member that was conducted early purely to try to "steal" (SC chair's words) a hot candidate--BTW, I vehemently disagreed with this method because of what I write below.

I was also hired this way by my first institution, and I never got over the bitterness because I turned down an interview for my dream job to take it. Should schools be sanctioned for doing this or should job seekers just be glad that they are offered any job?

Tenured Radical said...


Well, I just did it, so I don't think its unethical -- on the other hand, the peculiarity of my search was that it was in American Studies (our conference is in October), but we had to hire with English (their conference is in, I think, late December.) So in a search like that, where the practices are different, you pick one -- and our schedule was picked, in part because it was a position we took to them, and in part because they have 3 other searches to complete. But there was nothing skeevy or underhanded about it, and we had no candidate in particular we had targeted.

I understand that it disadvantages a few candidates perhaps in that they do not get to compete in the full market. But very, very few. And in the case of my search, upon receipt of the application, we sent out a letter to all of them detailing our schedule, including the date an offer would be made, and if they didn't want to participate under those conditions, they weren't obligated to do so.

That said, the problem with the hiring ritual as it stands is that some candidates receive multiple offers, and there are searches that close (although that probably won't happen this year) because departments do not find other choices acceptable. So in a sense, you could flip this scenario and say that a more staggered hiring season would benefit a larger number of applicants.


Brian Ulrich said...

OK, but how do you avoid letting on about multiple interviews when they all want to interview you Saturday morning?

Anonymous said...

Hi TR,

Thanks for your input. I think that going to ASA is something different though--I'm not familiar enough with the rules of that organization to really know one way or the other, and I didn't know interviews were conducted there.
It just felt unpleasant when it happened to me, but I was still grateful to have a job. Providing the answer to this question is definitely above my pay grade!

Ahistoricality said...

how do you avoid letting on about multiple interviews

I don't think there's any reason to be secretive. You just say, "I have another committment at that time" and everyone understands that you're talking about other interviews but nobody cares; it's all part of the market dance. It's in the actual interview itself that you don't go on about interviewing elsewhere: it's OK to look elsewhere, but if they think you're playing them against each other (before they're really committed to you) then they'll look elsewhere.

the ethics of conducting an early search

It's intuitively easier to justify for a top-level school, for sure, since people rarely second-guess themselves for taking those jobs. But lower-tier schools do it too, sometimes: it's a risk, because your preferred candidate might try to string you along, and then you don't get anything; but the reward is that you get someone for sure, and you get a decent look at the field, and someone gets a job. Then, all the other schools on the conference schedule can fill another interview slot with a deserving person, and life goes on.

It feels unfair, to be asked to choose between an offer now or the chance of a better offer later. But science has shown that we usually overestimate our chances at those later offers (sometimes by orders of magnitude) and that we also tend to inflate the desirability of those things we didn't get in retrospect. But it's a competitive market, and if a school has its act together and the money in place, a clear idea of what they want and a fair offer to make, then they have every right to run the search on their schedule. Candidates have every right to turn them down, or try to negotiate for more time, or take the job and apply for "better" jobs next year.