It’s that season again: Skype and Zoom links are being clicked through in email inboxes, along with actual phone numbers being dialed, in order to participate in preliminary academic job interviews. Many friends and colleagues I know and love are aching through the process of those interviews (as well as on-campus interviews–go, peeps, go). I too once carefully created a convincing-enough library behind me, selected my shirt and jacket much more carefully than the pants no one could see under my desk, and tested my Wifi connection about a thousand times while shakily breathing over my Mac. I wished this process would be easier and, eventually, I found it to be easier by approaching the interviews differently and with different preparation techniques. In fact, once I figured out and then took up a handful of practices, I felt a greater sense of trust in myself as a scholar and determined more of my self worth rather than letting someone on a screen do that.
To that end, I want to share some advice to soothe your aching souls / bodies / senses of being, in the face of the sometimes all too destructive, depressing, and/or disjointed process of the academic job search. A dear colleague asked me yesterday what advice I had for someone doing one of these interviews and I offered some ideas. With eyes wide, he generously said that was the best advice he had ever heard about this form of interviewing, and I should share it. So here we are. May these five ways of slightly creating control out of a somewhat uncontrollable situation help any of you readers as much as it helped me. And, as always when I offer advice, should these ideas not work for you, know that my sincerest answer is: great! Now, use them to find what does work for you. That’s the bliss I wish for all of us: our own best way forward.
First, you should know that the faculty doing these interviews are looking not only for a strong scholar and teacher but someone they can work with. Therefore do not think about getting the job in this interview, think about getting the on-campus interview. In other words, you are not convincing them you want or deserve the job; you are convincing them they want to meet you to see if you are a fit. I know this sounds weird but you’re already in a small, select pool (say six to twelve interviewees) (yes, that few! how much time do you think we can all find to agree to meet during and then discuss these interviews?). Expressing that fit for them means showing them that you want to be there by relating every or almost every question back to their campus, department/program, college/university, vision, and/or position description in some way, shape, or form. You need to be engaging and smart not just about your work and pedagogy, but you need to be an engaging and smart person who may work with them. By relating your work/ideas/experience back to your interviewers, you’re practicing what they experience to be active listening. Humorously enough, you may be too agitated to actually do any active listening, but you can cover that up by conveying who you are in relation to who they are. To that end, you are articulating your best version of your office mate / collegial self.
Second, practice interviewing with friends. I always say to practice about four to six times if it’s your first time through fifth time, and two times if you’re a pro. Why? Because you need to know how long your answers should go on before you sound dull or boring, or if they’re too short that they don’t understand what you’re getting at it and you come off vague. With a few practice sessions, you will find your sweet spot where you a) answer the question, b) add something smart to it, c) tell a goodly timed tale as an example, and, in so doing or in another sentence, d) show how this smartness + tale answers their question. Tell your faux interviewer–at least most of the folx interviewing you for practice should have been interviewed themselves in this fashion–how long the interview will be so that they can get the right amount of questions in. While you are interviewed, ask them to keep time for the answer of every question, and ask which questions were Goldilocks right on: not too long, not too short, but just right.
Third, most interviewees have told me they feel nervous when they do these interviewees so you need to help yourself remember what you’re talking about. I felt nervous after an interview–my adrenaline would turn on and I would be charming and funny and witty, interviewers would later tell me. But, sadly–and I would never tell them–I never remembered what they asked me because the adrenaline took over. Oy. As a result, I would fret that I hadn’t done a good job because I actually couldn’t remember. Eventually, there was the time I got asked a question and blanked on an answer. Ugh, it still feels a tad gross to this day. I also came to realize that faculty doing these interviews often got bored asking the same question so that, in my experience and the experience of those I know, they tend to put two questions together to liven up the chat. For example, I was once asked, “How does the argument of your book fold into how you shape the content and pedagogy of a senior seminar?” How the hell could I pull that out of a hat at an anxious moment’s notice?!?! I scribbled down the question and replied as best I could. So this is a simple and perhaps obvious piece of advice, but for every question asked, carefully write it down on a notepad in front of you, and put down any keywords or phrases that come to mind to help you build an answer. It’s basic interviewing tactic but it let’s keep you on point–and in order to keep on time too, you’ll need to stay on point.
Fourth and continuing on from the point above, writing down the question and some answers helped me remember what happened, but it didn’t intervene in the stress I felt as I entered my second year (of five years, yeeghads) of interviews. I wished, as I lay in bed at night surely with better things to think about, that I could have the darn answers right in front of me when interviewed. So, get this, I had this realization: I COULD WRITE DOWN THE ANSWERS AND HAVE THEM IN FRONT OF ME. I can hear you gasp and stutter in awe, reader, but, truly, it was like the light shone down from the heavens on this one. While I have never waxed on about my love of an index card on my blog, my partner attests she can find a trail of them (and half-eaten apples) wherever I wander. To that end, celebrate the index card with me! Grab a stack (lined or unlined = live your best life) and on these index cards answer every question they might ask you, each question/answer on a different card. You can look around the internet for these questions but some come to mind such as: what existing courses can you teach? What courses can you create? How do your courses grow the major? How would you work with grad students? What’s your book about? What’s your pedagogical approach? What’s your five year research plan? What grants will you apply for and when? I wrote out about 20 of these cards out with answers for myself. When interview day came, I spread them out in front of me where the interviewers couldn’t see them. I kept my trusty notepad in view (it does help to look like you’re listening and don’t academics love to be listened to?) and recorded their questions. But when it came time to answer, I grabbed whichever cards their question related to (say, book argument + pedagogical approach for that question that wowed me previously) and looked down quickly at the cards to put them together in a reply that fit the time. Then I moved the cards over to the right so that I didn’t use the same answers again. Sometimes I even practiced versions of pairing weird cards together and it came in handy and relaxed me for the actual interviews. (Note: I was single that semester…)
Fifth, it was when I was entering my third year of interviews (yeeghads again, what stressful memories–but at least perhaps useful for you, dear reader), I realized I still felt out of control in these interviews. I knew how to do a good interview but only because those I practiced with said I was good at it. I always turned off Skype feeling like I was never grounded or–and I think this is what the British mean by this–sorted. I talked about this haunting feeling with friends and colleagues who said they felt the same. Then, quite suddenly, it occurred to me when I was teaching students how to do a good presentation, that I had not listened to my own mantra / ye olde saying: “Tell them what you’re gonna tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them.” In other words, why in the living heck did I not choose what I would tell them in advance? We were in what was supposed to be a conversation, not an interrogation. I had to shape that space too, or I would leave every Skype/Zoom/call/whatflippingever feeling undone. And so I decided I would choose three things I needed to tell them and get across no matter what happened, points that had until now lay across the stack of 20 or so index cards. In this way, I shared my version of myself on my literal own terms. I still remember how the Big Three index card, as I called at, sat in all its orderly glory against the screen while the rest of the answer cards laid flat, ever so gently listing key facts x, y, and z and centering me sweetly. The interview would go on and I watched (and was relieved) as two of these points would always emerge during our interview conversation. When asked what else I wanted to add, I would say, “Well, I’ve covered x and y so it’s important for me to share z. Here’s why I want you to know that…” Then, again, I’d relate it back to their campus / department / college / vision / position description in some way, shape or form. I would keep on time. I felt, and I kid you not, a tad okay with it all.
I hope you can feel any of the confidence in yourself that I eventually found, and I hope you find it faster than I did. You deserve it. After all, you got that interview, didn’t you?
With many thanks to my dear colleague, Nick Lally, who thought my advice was useful, and to Nari Senanyake and Elizabeth Williams who encourage me to write about these things so that we all feel a little less alone in the academy. I also express the deepest gratitude to the hundreds of scholars, if not more, who generously shared their stories and tips over the years, and helped me shape my own path.