Post Academic

Postacademic MLA Interview Survival Tips

I’m putting the smartphone series on hold in the interest of those who are participating in the MLA. Although I strongly advise anyone going to the MLA to develop a backup plan and brace for a career change, I know that some of our readers are giving it one last shot. This one’s for you!

Arnold has been weaving horror stories of MLA interviews, so I’ve gathered together a link roundup of our past interview tips and tales for quick reference:

Top Grad Student, Round 4: Convention Interviews With Soul-Sucking Vampires
Inappropriate Academic Interview #1
Transfer Your Skills: Interviews in the Hamster World
Look Like You Want the Job

A caveat: The MLA interview is a completely different animal from the Hamster Interview. As Arnold’s posts have shown, you are more likely to encounter crazy during the MLA, and you can’t reason with crazy.

So, in the face of irrational interviewers, here is the only tip you need: Do not show fear. Keep your face completely still, or at least with a slight smile. Some of these MLA interviewers are sadists who want to tear you apart, and you shouldn’t let them. By not breaking character, you might impress one of the interviewers with your professionalism, or at the very least you’ll fry someone’s circuits.

Remember: There’s nothing wrong with effi-ing with their heads. Why not? They’re eff-ing with yours.

Interviews You Don’t Want to Have #6: Dream School Turned Nightmare

Posted in First Person by Arnold Pan on January 4, 2011
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Happy New Year all!  I’ve been meaning to put a little closure on our Interviews You Don’t Want to Have series, but, as with all things academia-oriented, that’s probably never gonna happen.  But seeing as MLA is about to kick off — I think folks will be arriving in downtown L.A. for MLA by tomorrow — I guess it’s time to finish up recounting MLA war stories with my best/worst one.  The stakes with this one were high, or I at least thought so going into it, since it was for pretty much a dream situation: a tenure-track position that fit my interests to a T at a top, pretty-much-Ivy research institution in my favorite non-California city (hint: it’s not NYC or Boston).  So of course, I felt a lot of pressure going into the interview, rather than seeing it as an I’ve-got-nothing-to-lose scenario, since the candidates I’d be up against would be pretty stellar.  (More about that later.)


This is where my nightmare interview took place. "Hyatt Regency Chicago" by Atomic Taco (Creative Commons license)

After doing a pretty good job sequestering myself from the temptations of MLA gossip and catching up with old friends, I worked studiously to anticipate possible questions, prepared my sample syllabi, and learned the best walking route to the interviewing hotel in the snow and slush.  But unfortunately, I could tell you that all the prep and nervous energy would be for naught right from the first obnoxiously nitpicky question — and the interview only got worse and worse after that.  Here’s a recap, after the very brief, obligatorily flattering small talk:

Question 1: “Why do you use the word ‘demographies’ in the title?”

Response: The real, unspoken answer was simply that it sounded good!  Still, I was able to gain a little footing talking about race and space, which was the focus of my dissertation.  At least I could repurpose my diss spiel here.

Question 2: “If you are writing about demographies, which didn’t you use this other book by Author X instead of the one you did?”

Response: The real answer is that I read the one I worked on and I didn’t read the other one!  But I suppose you can’t show any ignorance in this situation, so I stammered out some summary of the chapter in question, which wasn’t so bad because I could recall my specific argument pretty well.  Still, no one could suggest that things were going well, when a “friendly” questioner was asking me why I used a specific word and why I didn’t focus on one text instead of another.  At this point, I felt like my whole 400-page diss had been discredited — or that maybe my questioner should’ve just written it for me.

I say that this questioner was friendly, because things only got more and more hostile, which you’ll see after the jump…


(Unofficial) Interviews You Don’t Want to Have #5: The Mock Interview

Posted in First Person by Arnold Pan on December 17, 2010
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So I guess my first interview wasn’t really a real interview to begin with: It was a mock interview with my advisor and one of my other diss committee members, along with one person I didn’t know.  Normally, I passed on the dept-sanctioned fake interviews, in part because I didn’t really want the powers-that-be in my business–for instance, there’s always one *really* nosy professor who likes to take credit for your interviews/job even when s/he’d totally ignore you otherwise–and in part because I was too cool for school. But my faculty peeps set up their own ad hoc alterna faux interviews for us self-identifying outsiders, so there was no excuse not to do them.  Here are what ended up being the pros and cons from the experience…

PRO — Practice makes better: I had never been under the intense scrutiny of a job interview, with the closest thing being the qualifying exam orals.  The mock interview at least gave me a chance to give my dissertation spiel, even though I probably ended up giving it less than half the time in my real interviews.  But the experience was useful in helping me tweak my answers, mostly through a process of elimination, since I learned more about what I shouldn’t be talking about.

CON — Role playing is only playing: The thing is, though, I didn’t find the role playing plausible.  For starters, I’m a bad bluffer, and even more so in front of people who know me.  So try as I might, I found it hard to ham up my answers in front of my faculty members, whom I kept worrying had their BS detectors on.  I know they weren’t there to check on the progress of my dissertation, but that’s how I felt.  I’m just not a good enough actor or an imaginative enough person to pull it off.

More pros and cons of the mock interview and making a mockery of yourself, below the fold…


Interviews You Don’t Want to Have #4: The One I Didn’t Want to Have

Posted in First Person by Arnold Pan on December 9, 2010
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You know the trainwreck I hinted to last time?  I’m gonna get to that for our series finale, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have more to write about.  The one I’m describing today was an interview I felt totally ambivalent about, not because the job, the school, and the people there weren’t fine, but because of a confluence of circumstances.  To blow the ending in advance — as if you didn’t know already — I didn’t get the job.  What’s different, though, was that I basically gave up on it before the interview, which I more or less tried to pull the plug on by asking the search committee to reschedule my MLA tête-à-tête as a videoconference.   The crazy thing was they agreed to it, which was very nice of them, although I almost think that I ended up just going through the motions anyway.

"Gesto Communications Videoconference Room" by Gesto Communications (Creative Commons license)

Here’s what went into my kamikaze mission decision…

Cost-Benefit Analysis: The main reason I begged off the convention interview was that I didn’t have any others lined up, so I couldn’t justify the $1000+ expense, multiple connecting flights, and days cooped up at a hotel for a single 45-minute meet-up for — let’s be real — a job that I wasn’t super-psyched about .   I know, I know, beggars shouldn’t be choosers, but still.  So when December 20-ish rolled around, I called an audible and emailed to ask if I could do a phoner instead, because there was really no reason to keep hope alive that a bunch more interviews were going to come through.  I guess the moral of the story here is that search committees are more humane and more accommodating than you’d expect, so you might as well tactfully ask for you’d like if you don’t really mind totally blowing it.

More factors below…


Interviews You Don’t Want to Have #3: You Need an Entrance Strategy

Posted in First Person by Arnold Pan on November 30, 2010
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This installment of “Interviews You Don’t Want to Have” actually recalls one of the best interviews I’ve had at MLA.  I thought I hit my marks, got my dissertation spiel off as cleanly as possible, and received compliments on the nice bright pink tie I wore.  I really did my best, but, contrary to what they say, my best just wasn’t good enough.

So why am I writing up this relatively positive experience as an “Interview You Don’t Want to Have”?  Well, it began as a comedy of errors which may have thrown me off my game without me even knowing it — after all, I couldn’t exactly judge how well I did, could I?  Take it from me, you need an entrance strategy to your MLA interview.

You can kinda see the Philadelphia Museum of Art from the Embassy Suites, aka the site of the IYDWTH #3 ("Philadelphia Museum of Art" by su1droot, Creative Commons license)

Don’t get there too late — or too early: I’m chronic worrier about time, especially when it comes to making it to appointments.  First, I worry about whether I actually got the date, time, and place right, after one of my friends from grad school actually missed one of her MLA interviews because she missed transcribed the info.  Second, I hate uncertainty when it comes to directions, so going to a city I don’t know and having to be at a place I’ve never been always puts me on edge.  As a result, I tend to overestimate how much time it takes to get to the hotel where an interview is taking place.  The one thing I’m not is cheap about these things, so I always take a cab to get me where I’m going — which also means there’s less of a chance that the nice bright pink tie will be bird-pooped on or my suit will get messed up by whatever.

The problem is that getting to the MLA interview hotel early isn’t exactly the most relaxing thing in the world.  While you might think that having a little extra time before the interview to unwind might help, it doesn’t when it comes to any MLA hotel lobby, since there’s a bunch more more nervous people stressing themselves — and you — out.  What’s even more nervewracking is running into people you know, either the dept gossip who wants quid pro quo about interviews or someone in your field who may or may not be interviewing for the same positions.  At this particular MLA, 2006 in Philly, the situation was particularly bad, because the Embassy Suites was pretty much the only hotel with suites and was housing most of the interviews.  So the concentration of nervous nerds was even denser than typical.

More about the structural problems of the Philly Embassy Suites, after the jump…


Interviews You Don’t Want to Have #2

Posted in First Person by Arnold Pan on November 23, 2010
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The site of my first (bad) MLA job interview, D.C.'s Mayflower Hotel ("Mayflower" by D.F. Shapinsky, Creative Commons license)

This post goes out to all you bright-eyed, bushy-tailed dissertators who are full of hope and, probably for good reason, looking forward to a bright future in academia.  Of course, I’m not entirely sure why you’d be reading this blog if that describes you, unless you’re just wasting time on the Academic Jobs Wiki and you unknowingly stray here from there.  In any case, maybe you can learn something about what NOT to do when you land your first MLA interview, from what happened to me five years ago in DC.

Here’s the backstory: In my first real go-round, I got one interview request from a pretty elite SLAC (Small Liberal Arts College, if you’re not in the know) for a job in what’s now my area of specialization — except that it wasn’t my field of expertise then, unless 40% of my diss counts as “expertise.”  Suffice it to say that I didn’t get the position, though I didn’t actually think I had much of a chance to begin with and looked at the whole thing as a learning experience.  Which leads me to my first piece of advice for first-time jobseekers…

Don’t waste opportunities: Only in academia do you tell yourself that it’s okay to spend about a thousand dollars and waste the days off between Christmas and New Year’s just to make yourself a better job candidate *next* time — or the next time or the next or the next.  That’s the attitude I had going in, which I suppose might’ve been a defense mechanism for my self-esteem or a not-so-great way to try to take the pressure off myself.  But it’s a bad gameplan to go into something thinking that you’re going to lose.  So even though I had better possibilities and fits later on, there are never enough opportunities for you to just to write one off.

More things not to do, below the fold…


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…