Inappropriate academic interview #1
Since Caroline posted the wonderful primer on how to prepare for non-academic job interviews, I can’t help but offer my own experiences with academic job interviews. As the #1 in the title suggests, I’ve had more than one inappropriate academic interview, though most of them have been thoroughly uneventful. This story is pretty hilarious in hindsight, but it’s definitely not some kind of academic casting couch scenario that the Wiki photo might imply. If the experience I’m about to recount in probably less-than-prudent detail inspires you, please email us or contact us in the comments box below with your own wonderfully crazy academic job interview experiences!
I was a bit nervous preparing for this interview, because it was probably the best match (at least for me) of any position I applied to in that year, in terms of area of expertise, location, and the academic quality of the institution. When I entered the very small hotel room where the interview was held, I was a bit surprised to see how cramped the quarters were–so tight that one of the interviewers was seated in a bed! That was strange enough, but, as I would learn, it augured even more inappropriateness and dysfunction to come. Still, I was totally focused and unphased, so the interview started pretty well. I was able to discuss my teaching experience as well as I ever had, both with my prepared talking points from my sample syllabi as well as a deftly improvised response about teaching writing.
But things were about to take a turn for the inappropriate, below the jump…
Somewhere along the way, though, Prof-in-bed received a cellphone call–and answered it, engaging in a brief conversation. At this point, all the weirdness involved in the interview started to become obvious, and it pretty much devolved into an example of what not to do on the part of interviewers, starting with the obvious:
1. DON’T use the bed: It might make you feel more comfortable, but it totally makes your candidate uncomfortable. Also, there was no acknowledgement of the weirdness, something like, “Sorry, there aren’t enough chairs” or “I injured my back.” S/he just acted like it was a completely normal thing. I mean, is it that hard to call up the front desk to get another chair?
2. DON’T answer your cell phone. Every job candidate knows to turn off her/his phone for an interview, so shouldn’t the search committee be held to the same standard? It’s not just rude, but it completely breaks up the flow of the interview, unfortunate when things are going well and plain unnerving when the candidate can’t gauge the situation. Bonus demerits for making lunch plans while on the phone!
3. DON’T put the outgoing prof who will be replaced by the candidate on the interviewing committee: The fact that the Assistant Prof currently holding the position that was being advertised really performed a mindf*ck on me, at least. The situation was suspicious in the first place, because a dept of this size would never have 2 specialists in the relative narrow, multi-culti field we both worked in. During the interview, I was informed by said professor that I would be replacing her/him if I got the position, as a preface to a question about my perspective on the field. I guess it’s best to answer how you want to answer and to highlight one’s own strengths, but, in the back of my head, I was wondering whether I should be impressing the outgoing professor or somehow outdoing her/him to impress the more senior faculty in the room. While it makes sense to have someone in the field vet the candidates, it just places the interviewee in an awkward situation talking to the person being replaced, while having no clue why it is s/he is leaving the position–Better job? Couldn’t get tenure? Leaving academia? And so on and so on.
4. DON’T play out what seem to be personality conflicts during the interview: The interview became even more uncomfortable to me as it went along because there seemed to some simmering tension between the Prof-in-bed and the (obviously) more professional, no-nonsense search committee chair. The most senior faculty members there, they were definitely not on the same page. I got a bad vibe from Prof-in-bed, but the search committee chair seemed a lot more interested in my work and we even had a bit of a conversation over specific texts we were both interested in. I don’t know how you navigate interpersonal dynamics you aren’t privy to beyond doing the best you can, but my antennae told me something was up between the two power players in the room.
5. All-in-all, DON’T display behavior you wouldn’t expect from the candidate: The interview probably wouldn’t have been too memorable, if not for the bed-sitting/reclining interviewer, although I still think it’s somewhat weird to have the outgoing prof at the interview. The moral of the story, for interviewers, is that you should be as polite and courteous as you expect your candidate to be. Alas, there aren’t really enough academic jobs to say that schools are selling themselves as much as jobseekers are, but we can at least maintain the illusion, right? But we know already academia is full of examples of do as I expect you to do, not as I actually do myself.
Again, please feel free to chime in, especially if you have similar or completely different academic interview stories to tell!
“Hotel room of the Renaissance Hotel in Columbus, Ohio” by Tysto from Wikimedia Commons, public domain