Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Academic Job Search III - First Round Interviews

For other posts in this series:
Beginning a search  Networking      On Campus Interview      Contract       Rejections

So you got a phone call or email inviting you to the first round of interviews.  Excellent.  First hoop jumped through.

Much angst has been lived by graduate students worrying about whether their scheduled first interview time is "good" or "bad" for their prospects.  That is, if the main conference is held from Thursday to Sunday and your interview is 9:00 am Sunday morning, that's got to be "bad", right?  This is on the assumption that later in the conference people are tired and less likely to want to hear you.

That may be so. Truly I have no idea here, but this is, again, one of those things over which you have no control. 

There are two things that matter most, regardless of interview time:
1. First impressions do count.  What my dad always told me is true, even though he's an engineer and not "in academia".  Philosophy PhD Husband did not want to believe what my dad told him at first, because "obviously academia cares about your thinking first and foremost."  Not really.   

2. The hiring committee wants to know that you are "normal."  Read: Your presence in their department will not make extra work for them and, all around, you are the interesting person that they first met in your cover letter and other dossier materials.   In other words, they already suspect these things: confirm and develop them.

Luckily, these things relate to each other.

How to Convey Good First Impressions and Normalcy
You are on display (but only for about half an hour!), so consider carefully how you want to display yourself. (If you prefer a more academic tenor here, consider "performance" a la Judith Butler.)  From the committee's point of view, preferably the "you" that you are should match up with what they read in your cover letter.  (And yes, assume that they've read your cover letter...)
This is the one time where a suit is a good thing even though academic culture, for the most part, does not require suits.  

So what can you tell about someone on first impressions, especially in something as high stakes as a first round interview?

A) How well you deal with nervousness...can you press on despite your self-doubts, your anxiety, and the voices of your spouse/mother/children/friends screaming that THIS HAS GOT TO LEAD TO A JOB because you're broke.  Can you smile like you mean it, even if the rest of you is shaking?  (Cue Kipling's "If" poem here....)  Can you show your courage, your stamina, your ability to go with the situation as it is even though you have no control over it?

This is actually a key test in academia. I've been talking with graduate students over the last couple weeks about "Imposter Syndrome", the idea that one doesn't belong here, or deserve to be here.  The feeling never goes away, at least not for me.  I wonder, if it does go away, that might be just as detrimental as misplaced nervousness because you come across as too aggressive and sure or yourself.

But also consider - there will be many times on the job when you'll have a similar kind of situation: facing students in a new class, meeting the tenure and promotion committee, hobnobbing with the trustees, interacting with media calls (those rare times when non-academic media want sound bytes for their articles on homelessness or politics or women in the workplace or whatever).  Can you be the "expert" the world expects you to be because you have a PhD, even though you know, as Socrates did, that you really know very little?

In my very first first-round interview, I totally bombed it because I was so nervous that I spent the precious little time asking questions about people who were in the department but not in the room.  NOT a good strategy.   They thought I was just interested in the "big names" in the department and all my talk didn't give them a sense of me as a teacher or researcher.

B) How organized and/or prepared you are....  

The members of the hiring committee will likely ask three categories of questions:
  • Teaching questions: How do you see your teaching role?  How would you teach _______ class?(usually they'll specify a class you'd teach in the ad or in the phone call inviting you to the interview) How do you teach writing?  How do you teach with technology?  And other specific questions related to the teaching paragraph and/or teaching philosophy you sent in your dossier.
  • Research questions: Be prepared to discuss your dissertation in 3 minutes, pitched to educated lay people.  Don't presume your committee knows all of the big names you've studied for your dissertation, even if Mr. Studies Big Names himself is on the hiring committee.  Also be prepared to discuss further research directions.
  • Institutional questions: have you looked beyond the job ad?  Do you care about the school for itself, or are you just looking like someone who applied for every.single.job advertised, regardless of potential fit?  Can you at least describe how you would fit into the school?
Prep those questions, write out the answers, and perhaps even put them in a nifty folder so that you can quickly review them before your interview because you will be too nervous to remember the cool answer you wanted to give.

One help for the nervousness that also makes you look amazing:
Bring handouts: extra CVs in case the committee needs them, copies of a potential syllabus or book list of a class, list of future research projects, abstract of a dissertation, and similar.

The All Important Post-Interview Tips:
1. Send a thank you note to the committee chairperson.  Email is fine, especially if that's the way they've been communicating with you.  Hand written is always nice, though may not arrive before the committee makes its decision, if that matters to you.

2. Indulge in post-interview review with friends, preferably ones who will tell you to let all the mistakes roll off your back, especially the ones that loom so large in your own eyes.  Learn from the big mistakes, forget the small ones.  One of my own big gaffes was answering a question about technology and teaching by giving a mini-lecture on why powerpoints are not a great thing in the classroom.  Not my finest hour and perhaps one of the reasons that they didn't call me back for a second round interview.  But it reminded me that the first round interview is NOT the place to give those mini-opinionated lectures!

The committee will probably see between 10-20 candidates, all of whom will be nervous, and all of whom will make some mistakes.  Will the hiring committee remember those mistakes?  Maybe, but they also remember the total picture that you present. If you did your research on the school and if you answered as positively as you could (and gave no stupid mini-lectures) you should at least be able to hold your head up high.  At this point, it is, yet again, not about you.

Special for Women/Moms: I'll just reiterate what I said in my "Networking" post about being able to speak to feminist concerns.

There is at least one special additional situation to consider, though: what if you're pregnant at that first round interview?  This has happened, and actually it happened to me... I was not able to attend the conference where all the hiring was done because I would have been 36 weeks along - no airline would take me - and of course, I knew this when I sent in my dossier.  In the cover letter, I mentioned that I wouldn't be able to be at the conference but would be happy to speak by phone further.  I did not mention the specific reason at that point, but I did mention it once they called for the first round interview.

How much do you say?  It's a bit of a tense situation to negotiate because you don't want "Might Immediately Take Maternity Leave When She Arrives Here" as a reason for them not to hire you.  It's illegal anyway, but the hiring committee may ask the gauche questions anyway.

I think it depends how far along you are. If you're in the first trimester, don't worry about saying anything at all, since it's fairly standard in the culture at large not to mention pregnancy until the highest danger for miscarriage has passed.  Bring along all the things that prevent you from having morning sickness or be prepared to excuse yourself quickly if need be.

If you're in the second trimester or early third trimester, and especially if you're showing, someone might actually ask the illegal questions.  They shouldn't but it happens.  You can elect not to answer.  You can take whatever action you might be able to take in that case.  You can also try to come up with a bland answer like that shows that you are (or seem to be) in control of the situation: "I am pregnant and we are developing a plan about the baby once I am working."  No need to give details.

Any other tips out there?  Things I've missed?  Please send them along....

1 comment:

  1. Liked the end comment... my husband had a first-round interview with a school he really liked and the interview was going really well. Then at the end, they mentioned that the on-campus interviews were going to be in mid-December. He froze up, since I was due with #2 in mid-December. So they asked if there was a problem, and he told them he might not be able to make a mid-December on-campus interview.

    Well, he wasn't offered one anyway. And that probably wasn't due, after all, to his wife being pregnant. But then again, it is interesting...