Interview Season

by Jonathan Sterne on January 11, 2008

Over at Sivacracy Siva Vaidhyanathan has dispensed some very useful advice to those people who have campus interviews coming. But there are a couple places where I’d add and one where I’d heartily disagree. It’s a little awkward to make this post since there’s a big round of interviews coming up at McGill, and I’d hate to be looking like I’d be giving instructions to our interviewees (or interviewees in the other departments where I might be showing up for cross-appointments and the like) but here goes:

Siva says:

They are never fun. Never.

This is where I completely and totally disagree. For me, they have almost always been fun and learning experiences. The best interviewing advice I ever got from a mentor was to have fun on the interview. Partly it’s because, as Siva says, if they’re interviewing you they want to know if they like you. If you have fun and they have fun, there’s a better chance of them wanting to hire you. But there are other reasons to have fun. First, however gruelling the interview is, it is a special opportunity and a special occasion. Interviews are hard to get. Regardless of the internal politics of the department (some are very political, some are very collegial; don’t trust the rumor mill too much), it’s a tremendous acheievement and you should enjoy it. Sure, you’re trying to get the jobs, but the institution is trying to woo you. Let them do it. Enjoy the fact that they’re taking you to a nice restaurant and making you the center of attention for the day (okay, that may be easier for me to enjoy than some people, but still). Last, but not least, interviews are a chance to make friends and connections regardless of whether you get the job. You’re going to spend quality time with people who find your work interesting. By making friends, you may pick up some great colleagues whether or not you get or take the job. All of that is easier to do is you loosen up and have a little fun. Plus, you’re supposed to love doing the research you do. That should come through when you present it.

That said, Siva is abolutely right that the whole interview is an interview whether or not you want it to be. The job talk doesn’t end when the Q&A begins — sometimes that’s the most important part. It is an exhausting process, and there is a lot of stress involved.

Okay. With that out of the way. A couple footnotes.

Siva says:

They will be hunting around for hints about your family/relationship situation. They are not allowed to ask you outright. But they want to know whether your partner is an academic, which would mean major headaches trying to generate another job. So if you see an opportunity and feel comfortable about it, talk about him/her and what he/she wants to do for a living. They should be relieved.

Sorry Siva, this only works for straight people coupled with non-academics who have the kind of job where it will be easy to find work in the area of the school [exhale]. There are lots of schools that now have a system in place where it is possible to accommodate academic couples. There are lots of schools where faculty are hip to people in same-sex relationships. There are also lots of schools where this is not the case. Many schools are located in places where it may be difficult for partners in certain fields to find jobs. Tread carefully here.

Siva says

They think that you are interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you.

This is actually true. It’s very true for faculty members who already have jobs, and you never know when a candidate will get multiple offers. So yes, you are interviewing them a little, so you’re going to have to think about what you really want to know about the school. If it’s of a different size, style or scale from a school at which you’ve worked, you should ask about everyday life at the institution for professors. You’ll get a different picture from different people.

One other thing, especially for grad students: faculty want to see you as a colleague, not as a grad student. It’s hard to know how to pull that off if you’re never been a faculty member before, but think about it for a moment. Faculty are solidly middle class. Some have kids, some own property. If either of these things interest you, it’s fair game to ask about buying a place or what the schools are like. Keep in mind they may or may not be research active if you’re interviewing at a teaching school, and that there are different ways of leading a fulfilling life as a scholar. At the same time, it’s important not to be too presumptuous. A common mistake is to assume that what you’ve learned about “how the field works” or “how the university works” at your doctoral institution or even later at a postdoc will translate to the new institution. For instance, in my graduate program, my teachers in Comm Studies seemed to think the main division in the field was the split between political economy and cultural studies. At Pittsburgh, the debate was about media vs. rhetoric. At McGill, neither of these splits seem to interest anyone as points of discussion or debate, and at the many schools I’ve visited these issues rarely come up in the same way. Similarly, university bureaucracies and procedures can work very differently from place to place.

Also, there are a number of places where Siva sounds like he is suggesting that one go along to get along. “Order steak at the restaurant” (I’m a vegetarian and would never advise someone to be fake about this kind of thing; OTOH, if you love steak, you’re probably going somewhere where you’ll get a good one). He talks about fake smiles. I would be very, very reticent to suggest anyone be fake on an interview for one simple reason. If they hire you but they think they’re hiring someone other than who you really are, you are going to have a difficult time there. Possibly a very difficult time. Obviously, you want to be polite, you want to make friends, you want to impress them, and you want to get the job, but don’t let these things turn you into someone you’re not, as you’ll then have to occupy that position for quite awhile. I realize it’s harder if everyone there is white and you’re not, or they’re all men and you’re a woman, or they’re all straight and you’re queer, or they’re all “able” and you’re disabled, but those kinds of differences can be overcome in the workplace (indeed, they ought to be) if people are comfortable talking about them, all the better. i’m not telling people to come out or self-disclose indiscriminately, I just think that too much going along to get along hurts the candidate more than the committee if he or she actually lands the job.

That said, being a professor is a job that our occupational ideology says is a vocation. Obviously, I’ve bought into that one. But at some schools, it is more like a job, either because you don’t fit in with your colleauges (not every dept is a community, and something you’ll have a bunch of people in their late 50s hiring a 20something, which may mean some distance — though I find age differences matter less and less in this business) or because everyone in the department punches in and punches out. It may come to that, if you are looking for something else, an interview is not a time to try to be someone else.

Short of personal injury, harassment, or other trauma, there is no such thing as an interview disaster. You go in without the job, you leave without the job. Your worst case scenario is that you won’t have the job, which means you’ll be the same person you were before you got the interview. I recently spoke with a student who was worried because he might get hostile questions on the interview or the job talk. There’s nothing to worry about. If they’re good critiques of your work, you learned something. If they’re lame, the criticisms probably aren’t about you. They’re probably about something going on at the school. This is why I say you can and should enjoy the event. The bad stuff if usually stuff you can’t control (well, you should buy some comfortable dress clothes and practice your jobtalk), and there’s a lot of good stuff that comes out of the process whether or not you land the job.

Finally, there’s more on interviewing at http://sterneworks.org/Academe/

Siva Vaidhyanathan January 11, 2008 at 11:38 am

Jonathan:

Thanks so much. I did update a point:

UPDATE AND NOTE ON THIS POINT: What I wrote in point number 8 is specific to my students’ family situation and the rather conservative place to which she was seeking a job. It is not generally true that candidates should hint about family situations. In fact, the more I think about it, the less I like this advice. It lets straight couples in which the other partner is a non-academic get an unfair advantage in the hiring. I will add something about my experiences here. One chair asked me straight up if I were married and if he would need to find a job for my wife. I was stuck. This is an illegal question. But my marital status and my wife’s professional success are well documented. So a few clicks and a visit to Sivacracy would have answered his question. Still, I was alarmed at his question. His tone revealed that he would consider such a challenge a burden. Needless to say, I answered him and did not get the offer. Alas, many chairs will ask younger candidates this question. Often the question is motived by classic sexism (“She is not going to need maternity leave soon, is she?”) or heterosexism (“I hope he does not bring his ‘partner’ to department functions!”). But more often it is about the spousal hire challenge. Now, Melissa and I just went through a nationwide senior search in which we were very clear up front that we were married, needed two jobs, had a child, and needed to move somewhere we could afford to buy a house and raise our kid. So all that information worked to alert some schools to avoid the dance if they could not envision coming up with two jobs. It also sent a strong signal to a couple of schools that do partner hires rather well that they could definitely get us both if they could make two offers. But for most newly minted academics this is not the case. I don’t think there is a general rule for handling partner situations. Maybe Ted has advice on this. He did the partner thing at the junior level. Ted?

Phaedra C Pezzullo January 11, 2008 at 7:02 pm

Jonathan–thanks for this clarification/response to Siva and for your link on academia. For a few years now, I tell all folks I know on the job market to read your website on interviewing; it’s a great resource.

I agree with all your amendments, particularly appreciating the veg shout out, the desire to keep it real, and the nuance you offer of the various implications of outing one’s personal life early on in the interview process. This is not to diss Siva, but to point out that I also advise folks to gather as many perspectives as possible, because the more people one asks about this, the more stories one hears. Interviews are hard to generalize at times; it can be a quite different experience for a range of reasons.

Jonathan January 12, 2008 at 10:50 am

Thanks to you both for the replies. Phaedra — I think the multiple perspectives thing is important since there is some radically different advice which depends, I think, on personality. Siva and I disagree more on the “fun” issue, which probably has more to do with our personalities than objective differences in the interview process.

Siva — Thank for updating your post and thanks again for starting the conversation. On the two body problem, I’ve had the same thing happen too, and one chair (at [cough] Wisconsin) outright badgered Carrie about her marital status and — because Carrie was evasive at first — her sexual orientation. Completely lame. I’ve got a long essay on the two body problem on the Academe page above, but basically what I’ve learned is that it’s different everywhere. And, once you’re established as you two were, if you’re seriously looking to move, there’s no point in not being completely above-board on the dual career front.

Andrew Piper January 17, 2008 at 12:34 pm

My favorite (personal) interview anecdote was when I was interviewing for a job and our son was about 6 months old and one of my interviewers spent much of dinner talking about his two young boys. I finally couldn’t keep it in anymore — being an absurdly proud new dad — and just blurted out that hey I had a son too and wasn’t it great blah blah blah. He suddenly looked very pained and the conversation stopped. I couldn’t figure it out — it’s like the freemasons, don’t all dads like talking about their kids? — until I didn’t get the job and realized (from some background info) that I was never going to get the job. I think I had just made him feel really bad — now he knew there was this whole family, and not just a grad student, who was going to be rejected. In any case, my take is always keep the filter *very* high.

But of course the real problems with having kids on the market do not start when trying to get a job, but once you have a job. Try finding some understanding for the fact you’re frazzled from people whose kids are in college and who probably never had to do very much the first time around.

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