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Keep on Script

Written by: David D. Perlmutter
Published on: Feb 7, 2016

Afriend described the exact moment his interview went sour. Two members of the search committee started to bicker, then argue outright. The skirmish ended in shouts, a thrown pen, a slammed door, and a long, awkward silence broken only when the chair asked with a grimace, “So, do you have any questions for us?”

Our profession has many peculiarities, some of which — like intellectual autonomy — are positive. But during job searches some of the problematic features of academic culture can emerge, and typically the candidate is the victim. In this series on the less-than-pleasant aspects of job hunting, so far we have surveyed fake searchesbad fitsinappropriate questions, and scheduling challenges.

Now we turn to the part of the job search that most candidates dread and that, indeed, is the most fraught with peril: the interview.

Job interviews are, in theory, straightforward. Those conducting the interview — from deans to search-committee members — have a set of questions, and usually will pose the same ones to each candidate with few surprises or stumpers. The standard queries (“Which of our courses do you see yourself teaching?” or “What is your research plan over the next five years?”) should leave you neither flummoxed nor stupefied.

On the other hand, academic searches are conducted by humans. Their fairness and competence will vary. Interviews, perhaps because of their open-ended and personal nature, are a minefield of possible misdirection, upset, and error. Considering what might go wrong will help you get it right.

You are always on stage. Interviews come in many varieties: face-to-face, Skype and phone, conference and campus. You may face a committee or an individual, sit in an office or at a restaurant. During your campus visit, some interviews are official (like the one labeled “entrance interview with search committee”) while others are surreptitious (like the drive with a real-estate agent, who might be fishing for intel about family and fit).

A basic rule of thumb: You are always “on.” One stray remark or misspoken phrase can sink your candidacy, so speak carefully any time you face someone — anyone — related to the search in any way. Here are some “fails” that have resulted from candidates who forgot that rule.

  • On board a puddle-jumper to interview at a small college in an isolated area, a candidate struck up a conversation with a stranger, and admitted, “I have a hard time seeing myself living in [isolated area] for longer than a few years.” The stranger turned out to be a professor at the college who dutifully informed his colleagues on the search committee that the candidate was unlikely to commit to them and their locale.
  • At dinner after a very successful day of formal interviews and presentations, a candidate relaxed with some of the department’s assistant professors. They began to gossip about the quirks of some of their senior faculty. After several bottles of wine, the candidate began to feel — and behave — like “one of the group.” Unfortunately, someone at the table, seeking to ingratiate himself with one of the silverbacks, repeated the candidate’s uncharitable comments. That senior professor was not interested in adding any new members to the gossip squad.
  • A graduate student attended a major conference, where she had multiple interviews. On an elevator with a friend, she ranked the departments to which she was most and least attracted. The elevator’s only other occupant was a man in casual clothing who looked like a tourist. The next day, she found herself at a conference interview for a position she’d ranked at “medium attraction.” She faced the man from the elevator, who was chair of the search committee. His blank expression did not divulge whether he remembered her. But she was not asked to a campus visit and to this day wonders whether her elevator indiscretion was the reason.

In short, anywhere you may be seen or heard by your interviewers, keep on script.

Medium and setting matter. In many interviews, you have little choice about the staging. But of course, the increasingly popular Skype exchange necessitates some thought about the mise-en-scène of your background. I saw a Skype interview where the candidate sat before a set of shock-horror movie posters with titles along the lines of “Zombie Sorority Massacre 7.” Unless you are interviewing for a relevant position — in this case, perhaps “assistant professor of erotic horror movie studies” — you do not want anything that is distracting or even disturbing to frame your visage. Try and stage the setting: For example, sit in front of bookshelves (preferably with books related to your field), and make sure the lighting is flattering. Your appearance should not detract from what you are saying.

For face-to-face interviews, your manner and tone matter as much as what you say. It is always good to have some honest friend practice asking you interview questions. Try to identify any personal tics or distracting mannerisms. A friend of mine hiring for a rhetoric position interviewed a candidate whose speech was littered with “ums” and “you knows.” As my friend put it, “He wouldn’t have much credibility teaching our basic speech class.”

Above all, try to put yourself in the shoes of people who have never met you before. Are they seeing a competent professional?

It’s OK to repeat yourself.It shouldn’t be much trouble for you to write up and commit to memory a set of stock answers that render you in the best possible light for standard interview questions. Your answers will vary depending on the type of institution and the nature of the position. Job ads often help you out by listing the required qualifications.

Use the list as a prompt. Have ready responses to how you fit the job (“My dissertation focuses on Chaucer’s philosophy of astrobiology, just as the position requires”), the department (“I know you are trying to improve your grant outcomes in Roseate Tern Migration and I was twice a co-PI on major funded projects in that area”), and even the locale (“Since childhood I have dreamed of the bright lights of Buffalo”).

In terms of tactics, you want to make sure that your talking points are heard, and heard again. Obviously you inserted them into your cover letter, but don’t be afraid to repeat yourself. Humans, including academics, lack powers of complete recall and will not necessarily remember what you want them to remember. In addition, the key deciders for your hire may be spread across many interviews. Just because you have highlighted your federal funding success to one does not mean all the others have noticed it. Sounding fresh and enthusiastic when you may very well be sick of repeatedly being asked the same question is common for job candidates — whether the position is assistant professor or provost — but it must be done.

On the other hand, you don’t want to come off like a slick career politician. If your answers sound rote — too much like memorization and too little like conversation — the interviewers may wonder if you really have any special interest in their department. There is a balance here that is difficult to achieve in practice.

So don’t overdo it  or underdo it. For academics, thought and nuance are part of our pattern of talking. If you force too much self-aggrandizing propaganda into your answers, especially at inappropriate moments, that will hurt you. You must answer the questions you are asked, not twist them unrecognizably into what you wish you were asked. Likewise, don’t create a non sequitur in response to a query that has nothing to do with your talking point:

“Would you like the Blooming Onion appetizer?”

“Yes, as much as I like prepping for teaching ‘Micro Economics 101’ — where I got great student evaluations!”

Good candidates have a “long answer” and a “short answer” to common questions. Read the room to figure which to use in any given interview. No one appreciates the sort of job candidates who seem in love with their own words. Yes, in theory you are the star of the show; they should be interested in what you have to say. In practice, they are hiring a colleague and so are gauging your interest in them and ability to listen to them.

Don’t pick a side in a mud fight. Probably the most troubling experience is when an interview begins to resemble a dysfunctional family dinner. The conflict can range from the mild (committee members disagree on which questions to ask) to the frightening (a shouting match). I was once sitting in front of a search committee for an administrative position when testy words between some members progressed into an outright argument. The topic was me. It turned out that some members were pulling vigorously for another candidate. By then, I’d heard many a job-interview horror story, but I was astonished at their impropriety.

Sometimes the dispute will occur during the research talk — which is, after all, part of the interview. The most common scenario is when a faculty member or a doctoral student cannot pass up the opportunity to showboat, interrupting your time to wax on about her or his own brilliant insights. The situation can further unravel when another preening swan swings into action — or even counterattack. You hope some adult in the room would try to cut them both off and request, “Can we please hear from the candidate?”

Your only recourse in such awkward moments: Wait them out and then try to politely get back on topic, hoping to score some points for being professional.

Interviews can be fun. You may hit it off immediately, and intellectually, with future colleagues and think, “Hey, these are great folks; I would like to continue the conversation … possibly for a lifetime.” By contrast, sour interviews leave you trembling, sometimes with self-doubt, sometimes with rage.

Through the hundreds I have participated in as interviewer or candidate I have learned that at some point you have to take a Zen attitude to survive the interview process. Even though you are the interviewee, the problems that occur often have nothing to do with you. So if things go awry, learn what you can, keep your cool, and enjoy the blooming onion.

David D. Perlmutter is a professor in and dean of the College of Media & Communication at Texas Tech University. He writes the "Career Confidential" advice column for The Chronicle