Job Interviews – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Job market season is in full swing as hopeful candidates find out whether the applications they poured their hearts into will get them first round interviews and whether those interviews will produce campus visits. I applied to a handful of jobs this year…I think eight total…and heard within the last 48 hours that I’ve been invited for a Skype interview at two of those institutions. The idea of preparing for a Skype interview sent me reeling as I began to entertain mentally the work that would go into getting ready to entertain a room full of strangers via a digital platform. That, in turn, caused me to reflect on prior experiences interviewing…some of them great and others horrifying.

Before proceeding too much further, a brief note regarding my field: it requires proficiency in more than one language. This is often the case with jobs in the Humanities, area studies fields, or positions with any kind of international breadth to them. i.e. A business school might look for a professor of international business who has proficiency in Chinese, a history department might seek a Latin American historian with proficiency in at least one Latin American language, an international studies department might aim to hire someone who can speak Russian, and/or a comparative literature professor might be expected to speak 3-4 languages, including English.

The Good.

Two interviews I’ve had stand out as particularly humane. (Pay special attention search committee members!)

For the first, I received an email from the search committee chair to schedule the Skype interview and then a follow-up email with the names of the committee members and the list of seven questions they would be asking me. The email also indicated which question would be asked in a language other than English. This interview didn’t go well and I didn’t get invited to a campus visit, but I at least admired the committee’s tactics. Knowing ahead of time what I would be asked was disarming and removed the anticipation I felt as a candidate. I knew going into the interview that the committee wasn’t going to try to “trap” me with a question.

In the second interview, the search committee members introduced themselves and then the chair invited me to find a pen and paper. They then listed the questions I would answer in the interview and told me I’d have 5-8 minutes to jot down any notes I might have before starting from the beginning with question number one. This interview went exceedingly well…I felt the format allowed me to think through responses without over-preparing them and sounding too canned. I got invited for a campus visit.

I’ve had one other great interview experience and it wasn’t because the committee did anything particularly transparent or ethical. The interview was in person, at a national conference. The committee was very warm. The seating in the room was arranged in a circle and they offered me water. However, the people clearly had a great rapport and, while they took notes, we just had a conversation. It felt less structured than other interview experiences and they were very disarming in their approach to my research and teaching experience. Got a campus visit for this one too.

The Bad.

I reserve the category “bad” interview for situations where I just royally put my foot in my mouth.

In one, I was asked over Skype how I would teach intellectually demanding material to undergrads. I blacked out my response, but I know it was terrible. The individual who asked the question clearly felt that the material in question could *not* be taught to undergrads and was visibly miffed with my response. (It’s bad when you can tell someone is miffed over in a pixelated video-conferencing platform.) From there, the situation devolved as I desperately tried to recover.

In hindsight, I should have verbally jiu-jitsued my way out of the question altogether. If I were answering the question today, I would start by acknowledging the challenges of teaching the material. Then I would affirm students’ ability to conquer it and I would suggest both a strategy I could use to help supplement their learning (some kind of bridging the gap idea) and methods for communication with students about their challenges. I would structure my response as follows:

“It is true that students often find reading X challenging. I believe one of the main reasons for this is theoretical nature of the text and the lack of concrete examples. I believe undergrads are capable of understanding this work if it delivered in a way that meets them where they are. I would accomplish this by breaking the reading down into manageable chunks and by supplementing it with concrete examples to help ground the challenging theories.”

Another bad interview occurred in person at one of these awkward interviews that happens at a folding table with folding chairs. The power dynamics of the interview are very clear in that situation. I remember feeling really small and wishing I had had a glass of wine before approaching their awkward table.

This interview went poorly because, in hindsight, I hadn’t done sufficient research about the institution that wanted to talk to me. They asked how I felt about teaching night classes…which I didn’t know they offered. I did my best to respond enthusiastically but probably failed miserably at it because I didn’t feel enthusiastic at all. Instead, I was thinking about how hard it would be to do that with a personal life.

Next time, I’ll make sure to do the research necessary to know what pieces of an institution’s curricula might be unconventional. If I find something about the job description off-putting, I’ll make a list of potential positives, pros, or silver-linings to whatever it is I don’t like. Then, I will make sure to cite one or two of those advantages in my response to a question about the obstacle.

The Ugly.

“Ugly” is for job interviews that went poorly and instead of kicking myself, I blame them.

At a national conference interview, I got asked about the theoretical underpinnings of my syllabi for a 101 level class. What. The. Eff. The question came across as pompous or even self-righteous. For an interviewer to pretend that they deploy a set of theoretical underpinnings when designing a 101 course felt asinine. The question may have just been a test as to whether or not I was willing to say, “um no.” I sat through the rest of the interview drafting my thank you for the opportunity to interview with them… “Dear ma’am/sir, I no longer want to work at your institution.”

I was invited to a second national conference interview less than a week before it took place. I felt like the B string and wondered whether someone had cancelled so they were filling their newly open slot with me.

There was only one interviewer present. He scribbled notes furiously the entire time which made me wonder if he wasn’t paying attention or if I had just given my course design ideas to the lowest bidder. I’m not opposed to note-taking, but he was transcribing what I was saying. The fact that he rarely looked up from his notepad also made it really hard to see my responses register on his face — did he like what I was saying or vehemently disagree with it? No clue. Would not recommend to a friend.

In sum:

So here I am…staring down the barrel of two more interviews. Luckily I’m at a point in my life where the Bad and the Ugly make me snicker rather than cringe. So hopefully if/when these next two fit the criteria for Bad or Ugly I’ll be able to laugh it off with a beer in hand.

For those of you interviewing for the first time this year, the big takeaway is YOU ARE NOT ALONE. No matter how poorly it goes, I’ve probably done worse.

PRO-TIP: In the two interviews I cited above in the “Good” section (the ones that resulted in campus visits), I was most myself. So I’d say there’s anecdotal evidence for relaxing and staying true to you. If they don’t want you for a campus visit, their loss. And maybe your gain…

A few other concrete takeaways include:

  • research the institution you’re interviewing with thoroughly
  • create a pros list for everything that gives you pause or wherever you feel resistance
  • develop a list of key phrases you want to use
  • ask your committee if they’re willing to do a mock interview with you
  • talk about your research with someone who doesn’t know anything about it; it’s the best way to see how your explanation lands with a stranger
  • come up with a baller question or two for the end; I got great advice about this once… “ask a question that allows the committee to show off / brag…they’ll walk away feeling great about what they do”

SEEKING: Your anecdotal evidence. Do you have interview stories to share? Let’s benefit from one another’s Good interview experiences while bonding over Bad and Ugly.

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