The MLA Interview: Pack Snacks

In the interest of interest, I’ll zoom ahead (as much as I can zoom) to MLA interviews. Yesterday, I detailed distance interviews. I have a number of things to say about the MLA interview, most of them negative.

When I describe the MLA process to my private-sector friends, their responses develop thusly: Stage 1: Shock (“They expect you to pay to interview?”). Stage 2: Disbelief (“Now why do you have to go to Los Angeles at Christmas?”). Stage 3: Skepticism (“You’re going to sit on someone’s bed? In a hotel? What kind of job is this?”). Stage 4: Resignation (“That’s a shame and quite ridiculous.”).

MLA interviewing isn’t sustainable, and I’m excited to see more schools move to distance interviewing. But for now, it’s what some schools prefer. I’ll skip the travel talk, since there’s just no remedy for it. Wait to buy a ticket, when prices skyrocket during the holidays? Buy far in advance, assuming that you’ll get something? Perennial questions with no good answer. I will say, and maybe it’s common knowledge, that flying non-stop, even for a slightly higher cost, is the way to go. There’s less wear and tear on your luggage and on you.  

I’ll start just before and just after the plane touches down. 

1.       Clothes are important: Invest in at least one good suit. I followed Hume’s advice of buying a suit the season before, when they were on sale. By the time I needed it, it didn’t fit right. My quest in the fall of my search year was to find just one decently fitting suit.  (And I finally did, at Victoria’s Secret, but I also found many nice suits at Marshall’s, Nordstrom’s, and Macy’s.) I chose basic black, which when you get to MLA, you’ll see is the overwhelmingly popular choice. I didn’t care overmuch about fitting in. I just wanted something that wouldn’t draw attention to itself.  You’ll use the suit for campus visits, too, so my advice is to drop the cash on a good one that fits well and lets you sit in comfort. I know many women who swear by longer skirt suits for MLA interviews. I chose pants because I didn’t want to worry what might happen if they asked me to perch on an ottoman for the duration of my interview. Avoid wrap skirts. They only lead to heartache. Practice sitting. Practice crouching. Practice balancing uncomfortably on the edge of a bed. If you're able to maintain even a grain of professionalism, that suit's a winner.

I’m hesitant to prescribe too much here in the way of “Women, don’t wear this!” People love to natter about what women wear to interviews, because clothes can call attention to bodies, which can make some people very uncomfortable. Since I am not, by nature, a suit kind of person, I felt like a drag queen the entire time. Embrace the performance. Wear a fun necklace or scarf. Be you, only in a suit. 

2.       Packing those clothes: I packed one black suit and three camisoles. (All black suits look the same. Don’t think you need multiples.) Button-downs take up more space and wrinkle easily, so I opted for “Seamless Suiting” camisoles from JC Penney. (Hi, JCP! Send coupons!) Just before I traveled, I had my suit dry cleaned, and I folded it lightly into my luggage, on top of everything else, still in its dry-cleaning bag. This method reduced wrinkles and kept my suit looking fresh. I hung it up as soon as I arrived. 

3.       Other things to pack: In addition to your luggage and carry-on, you’ll want to pack some sort of business tote to take to the interviews. It doesn’t have to be huge, but it should be able to carry a few folders, a couple of granola bars, your wallet, and your phone. I organized individual school information in color-coded folders. I included a copy of the job ad, a one-page “info sheet” on the school and department, a list of committee members, and copies of sample syllabi. I worked up dream course syllabi and handed those out at the end of the interview, even if they weren’t requested. I wanted to leave the committee with something tangible. The folders are color coded because interviews are sometimes scheduled back-to-back, and you’ll want to maximize efficiency in terms of reviewing your materials. I also wrote the day, time, and place of each interview and contact information on the outside of the folders.  Print and pack everything you may need, because facilities can be scarce and they’re always overcrowded. Pack a laptop if you have access to one, for email and to refresh your research. Finally: make room in your luggage for quick foods like granola bars and instant oatmeal. You’ll be surprised at how much time you don’t have, and waiting in line for 45 minutes at Starbucks may not fit into your schedule. Snacks are also cost effective. All you need is a coffee maker for a decent breakfast. I bunked with Diss Buddy, and we paid a little more for a room with a fridge. We stocked it with yogurt, fruit, and other portable snacks. 

4.       Don’t check a bag: Especially not your interview-wear bag. Practice packing to maximize space; the one-black-suit approach facilitates this idea, since everything coordinates. 

5.       Other clothes: My advice is to stay business casual at MLA, even when you’re not interviewing. On my way to dinner one night, I ran into a committee member from an interview that morning. I was glad that I had left my I Can Haz Cheezburger shirt at home. I likely played it too safe, but you can’t anticipate someone’s quirks. 

6.       Once you’re there: Stay out of the bar areas/hotel lobbies if you’re going to kvetch. In fact, kvetch only in the privacy of your room and make sure to check the hallway first. You may be venting to a friend that one of your interview schools is a dump in the middle of Cowtown. That woman frowning at her drink at the table next to you? That’s the search chair. You’ll meet her tomorrow during your interview. She’ll remember you.

7.       En route: Just finding the interview suite may be a challenge, if the hotel’s not used to hosting the conference. I was 10 minutes late for an interview because the desk gave me the wrong room number. The committee understood and brushed off my profuse apologies. Here I’ll pause to note that you can meet some fantastic people while interviewing. Keep in mind that they’ll become your colleagues in one way or another—if not in the same department, then maybe in the same discipline—so be friendly and (as impossible as it seems) relaxed. Make sure any materials you plan to hand out are at the top of your bag. Turn off your phone. (Duh.) Not silenced, but off. Know how you can hear a student’s cell phone vibrate in his bag? Avoid that. 

8.       Awkward!: You may meet your competition as they exit the hotel room before you go in. Be nice. They’re keyed up, too. A smile goes a long way here.

9.       Meeting the committee: Pop a mint before you walk in. You’ll be swilling coffee and stale breath isn’t the kind of impression you want to make. If you’re wearing a coat, drape it over your left arm because they’ll want to shake your right hand. If they offer you coffee or water, say no. The cups are cumbersome. It’s a symbolic formality in most cases, though I do think that many committees want candidates to be comfortable.  Make eye contact and use their names. They’re exhausted, too. 

10.   Be a colleague, not a candidate: Remember that committees are looking for a colleague, someone they wouldn’t mind seeing day after day, someone they could picture themselves chatting with in the mailroom.  They also want a professional in the field, so don’t dodge tough questions. Do keep in mind that there are questions that are unlawful to ask. Gracefully sidestep those and move on. It is my belief that most committees are made up of thoughtful, engaged scholars who are looking to build their department or program. However, the job search process can bring out troublesome personality quirks in even the nicest people. If someone says something rude (and it happens, a lot) or strange, my advice is to file it away and proceed with a different line of inquiry. Having a set of scripts (“That’s an interesting question, but I’m not comfortable answering it.”) is handy. It’s my experience that, if one committee member ventures into Weirdness Territory, someone else on the committee will run interference. 

11.   Post-interview: I’ll sound like your grandma here: Send a thank you email to the committee chair. They’ll likely give you a timeline for campus visits at the end of the interview, but it’s good to touch base in the day or so following the MLA interview. I also sent thank you emails to phone, Skype, and video-conference interview committee chairs, though, so maybe I’m just old fashioned like that. Just like your grandma. 

One other point that I wish I would have known going into things: I shouldn't ever inherit other people's anxiety. MLA is thick with it. Hanging out in the lobby can make it worse. Get out if you can, see the sights, take a jog, join friends for dinner. Just don't let yourself soak up all the negativity and stress that permeates common spaces.

Just when you think process can’t become more convoluted than interviewing in a hotel room, I give you: The Campus Visit. (Tomorrow, since I think I’ve used up the Internet’s word limit today.)  

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