Post Academic


Interviews You Don’t Want to Have #1

Posted in First Person by Arnold Pan on November 18, 2010
Tags: , ,

The scene of "Inappropriate Academic Interview#1" -- "The Grand Hyatt San Francisco" by Eric in SF (Creative Commons license)

I know, it’s a little early to start thinking about MLA interviews, especially since the first notifications probably aren’t happening for  almost a month.  And who knows how things are gonna work this year, when MLA is a few weeks later — or, at least, I don’t know, because I didn’t go on the market?  What, could they be notifying you after New Year’s this go-round?

Anyhow, I’m gonna start strolling down memory lane with a series of posts about my MLA interviews, ranging from mildly annoying to writing’s-on-the-wall uneventful to ego-crushing abysmal.  I figured that the sooner a hypothetical would-be interviewee could learn from my mistakes, the better prepared s/he might be — though I would hardly say that I gained too much from experience, because new problems would pop up the next time.

Before we get going with the first post, here’s a sample of coming attractions…

* See my dream job interview turn into a nightmare when I’m told that I should’ve focused on a different book for a diss chapter and that the premise of another chapter was completely wrong!  And that’s before the search chair got confused about which UC that I came from…

* Then experience how I totally called it in for my next interview, because I didn’t really see the point…

* Watch me climb about 10 stories from lobby to hotel suite for an interview, because all the elevators were jammed up…

* Try and fathom why I decided *not* to go to MLA, just because I had only one interview for a school I didn’t really want to apply to in the first place…

* Feel my jitters as I go into my very first interview, where I’m so tongue-tied I can’t even spit out the formalities without stuttering.

Rather than start chronologically, I’ll begin with the interview I found the most perplexing and inappropriate.  I wrote about this a while back, but what better way to kick off the “Interviews You Don’t Want to Have” series than with “Inappropriate Academic Interview #1”, which I’ve cut-and-pasted in its entirety after the jump…

I was a bit nervous preparing for “Inappropriate Academic Interview #1”, 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.

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. 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.

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2 Responses to 'Interviews You Don’t Want to Have #1'

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  1. You know, I almost regret I never had one of these truly terrible interviews, just to have the story to tell. The worst I had was a variation on The Office in its milder moments. But I’ve heard the bed thing from a lot of other candidates — seriously, how out of it do you have to be not to know this is creepy?


  2. […] That is my confession of the day. I am a post-academic tease. It’s what I’ve been reduced to. Or, rather, it’s what I have been driven to. Apparently, I am not the only one. […]


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