Pre-Interview Preparation: Six Points

In my last two posts, I detailed my strategies for controlling the stress of the Academic Job Search and for (sanely) managing multiple job applications. I would like to add one point that I left out, because it's a practice  I found incredibly useful: I *scheduled* blocks of time for the following five activities: sleeping, exercising, job searching, teaching, and dissertating. God bless Google Calendar. Much like grading, job searching can expand to fill the time it's given. Setting realistic goals allowed me to aim for consistency over time. A marathon pace is always a little under a 10k or 5k time because 26 miles is a long haul. Sprinters end up bent double on the berm.

In these next three or four posts, I'd like to share what I learned about academic job interviews. I had read the book everyone reads prior to entering the market,  Hume's How to Survive Your Academic Job Hunt, and while I found her checklists of "things to do" to be helpful, I still had some uncertainty about how to best present myself to prospective employers. Hume doesn't cover distance-interviews in any depth, a gap that Claire Potter addresses on her fantastic blog, Tenured Radical. Here's the thing about the job hunt: September and October, even November, can be disquieting. I had sent out probably 40 applications by Thanksgiving and responded to 10 calls for additional materials. As autumn shifted to winter, I became ever more convinced that I was unemployable. (Understand that I am not a negative person, but the market has a way of making you question--way deep down--your goals and your worth. These blogs come from a place of empathy and also from a little bit of vigilantism.)

The protracted nature of academic hiring makes each step critical; at the same time, candidates and committees grow Ever. More. Exhausted. By the time the high-stakes moves are made (interviews and then campus visits), everyone's busy with the end of the Fall semester, holidays, and the beginning of the Spring semester. (The timing of the job search still, to this day, baffles me.) It helped me to think about interviews and campus visits--which are essentially extended interviews--like high school dating. (Apologies here to my high school boyfriends). Every situation must feel fresh. Each one is your only one.(Don't extend that metaphor any further than it needs to go, okay?)

Candidates will likely encounter four types of pre-campus-visit interviews: phone, Skype, video-conference, and in-person MLA. Each situation presents distinct challenges while providing important benefits, if you know how to hack the format. I'll talk about the first three--phone, Skype, and video-conference--in the next installment and follow with a separate (invective-filled) post about in-person MLA interviews.MLA doesn't play nice and needs its own space.

Do This First
1. Before sitting for any interview, it's a good idea to practice due diligence. Review the materials you sent so you remember what you highlighted and how it meets the needs of the advertised job. The interview invitation will list the members of the search committee. Know those people. Know the school. Know the department. Become familiar with the local contexts, geographically, demographically, and institutionally. Know the classes you may teach and work up answers to common questions. Many institutions make their student demographics available. (Search for "Office of Research" or "University Analytics" on their homepage.)  Candidates who understand--or who work to understand--local contexts move from outsiders to potential colleagues. If you've gotten as far as the phone interview, chances are that you can see yourself actually working at that university, with those people. Let your collegiality come through.

2. If you're finishing your dissertation, have the two-minute description at your command, and be able to articulate a timeline for finishing. (Many departments, I hear, hesitate to hire graduate students who seem in danger of not finishing.) Have ready a 1-year, 2-year, and 5-year plan. (For TT jobs, particularly, 3rd-year review and tenure-review deadlines are important to consider.) Also consider a "dream course" you'd like to teach and make sure it fits into the school's curriculum and mission. Potter (who, I think, should update Hume's book) details some of these short yet vital scripts here.

3. Prepare 2-3 thoughtful questions to ask the committee. These questions should demonstrate that you've pictured yourself in the position, as a colleague, and are thinking about the contributions you can make to the department or program. Committee members are tired. Candidates can begin to blur. These strategies may be the points that bring your dossier to the top.Be memorable, but not bad memorable.

4. Understand that there are some questions that the committee cannot, by law, ask you. Questions about age, children, marriage status, race, religion, and sexual orientation are all off limits. The Chronicle detailed strategies for dealing with some of these "left field" moments in regards to campus visits, but candidates may have to gracefully navigate these choppy waters at the interview stage.

5. Never, ever, under any circumstances, speak negatively of your home department. It reflects poorly on your sense of discretion and may alert committee members that you'd be a likely conference gossip. Grace and the high road: Always safe options.

6. Finally, and I mention it because I've watched it in action: Be nice to the administrative staff. First, it's just good practice to be kind. Second, no one wants to be around someone who is high maintenance or dramatic.

The format of each interview necessarily constrains how each of these points will be taken up. I'll address each genre in turn in the next two posts, beginning with the distance interviews and relegating MLA interviews to where they belong: by themselves, alone and lonely.

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