On To The Conference Interview!

(This post is an update of an earlier post, “How Not To Fuck Up Your Conference Interview.”  )

You have submitted your cover letter, your c.v., and your recommendations. And lo! You’ve been long short-listed, and invited for a conference interview!  Congratulations. Now what?

The conference interview is about speed and first impressions. Generally this interview may be only 20-30 minutes in length. The interviewers are on a tight schedule, with a large number of candidates being hustled in and out of a small, cramped interview space.  It is awkward and exhausting for everyone.

If it is a 20 minute interview, and 2 minutes are taken up in taking your seat and greetings and 2 minutes in closing and walking to the door, that leaves 16 minutes for talking.  If the search committee members talk for half of that, it leaves you a sum total of 8 minutes of speaking time.  Brevity is key.

The elite departments from well funded schools will conduct the interviews in conference hotel suites reserved for the purpose, or at one of the search committee member’s own hotel rooms.  Broke departments will be forced to use the dreaded conference careers center, with its walls of tiny cubicles and humiliating lack of privacy.

Once I went to a conference interview for an Ivy League Anthropology department.  I entered the expensive suite in the conference hotel, to be greeted by a phalanx of Famous Anthropologists, with one of them, the most famous of all, stretched full length on the sofa, hand dramatically resting over his eyes.


The interview commenced, with Famous Anthropologist sighing his questions from his supine position.   As my snarkiness overcame my desire for the job, my eyes fell on a dirty, half-empty glass of water on the table in front of me.  “Is this the water for ALL the candidates?” I inquired.  “Oh! Oh, no, uh….”  Hasty scrambling ensued. Even F.A. half-rose in consternation.  A clean glass of water made its appearance.

I thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle. Needless to say, I was not invited to a campus visit.

I tell this story not as a model for emulation, but as an example for edification.  Conference interviews are bizarre and awkward.  Your task is to nevertheless appear “at ease,” to project an aura of calm and good humor in a stressful situation.

To succeed in the conference interview you must speak quickly and directly to your strengths, with no—absolutely no—digressions, and to dress and walk and talk and comport yourselfas little as possible like a graduate student, and as much as possible like a confident, experienced faculty member and future colleague.

Preparation is key. Prepare by learning who is on the search committee (it is ok to call the department secretary and ask), and checking to see if they will be in attendance at the conference.

Once you know the likely interviewers, spring into action. Research their work, and the profile of the department as a whole. Familiarize yourself with their course catalog, and review their website to see their recent accomplishments. Check on the large classes that young assistant professors are most likely to be asked to teach, and prepare ideas on how to teach them. Suss out the financial footing of the department, and the level of graduate support, and whether the department is in deep financial cutting mode.  If it is, be prepared to talk about how you will teach large classes, develop new popular ones that draw large enrollments, and seek external funding.

Be prepared, in short, to engage with those faculty as much already on their wavelength, as a potential colleague, as you can.

Do not ever forget the #1 critical rule of the job search:  They are hiring a colleague, not a graduate student.

Do. Not. Look. Or. Act. Like. A. Graduate. Student.

Be prepared to answer any of the following types of questions, in 1-2 minute responses:

  • How is your dissertation different from other work in your field?
  • What are your publication plans arising from the dissertation?
  • Who are the biggest scholarly influences on your work?
  • How would you teach a large intro class in your/our discipline?
  • Which textbook would you use for that class?
  • Can you name 3 classes that you would be interested to teach for us? Why?
  • How do you see your work fitting into our department?
  • How would you teach a foundational theory/methods graduate seminar?
  • What do you think the most important intellectual debate is in your/our field?
  • Can you envision any collaborations with faculty currently in the department?
  • What inspires your teaching?

Keep in mind the issue of time.   To reiterate, in all of these responses, you must be BRIEF and to the point. Any tendency to rambling must be eradicated.

To achieve this level of focus and brevity, practice is essential.  Write out the answers to questions like these and others, and practice them in front of a mirror and in front of friends, and at mock interviews in your department, over and over and over again, until they become second nature to you. Then and only then are you ready for the conference interview.

And because you have read the work of your interviewers, you will also be prepared to mention it in the interview. They will love you if you can respond, “I would certainly consider assigning YOUR recent article in an upper division class on political economy, because I think it provides an excellent case study from Eastern Europe.”

You have to be sincere, but if you can be, that is pure interview gold.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I cannot leave behind the conference interview without a word on clothing.I have seen unspeakable things, sartorially speaking, in the halls of the conference hotel, amongst the milling throngs of interview candidates.

Let us revisit the #1 critical rule of the job search: They are hiring a colleague, not a graduate student.

Do. Not. Look. Or. Act. Like. A. Graduate. Student.

Your task at this short interview is to give the overwhelming first impression of being a dynamic, successful young professional.

What does that mean? For MEN, this means buying a new suit fresh for the interview season, which fits you at your current weight, which buttons across your middle, and which you have tailored so that the sleeves and pants hit you at the proper spots.  And btw, blazer and jeans are not acceptable, men!  Addendum:  This suit does not have to be an ultra high-end suit that costs thousands of dollars!   A good department store suit from JCPenney’s or Macy’s that has been tailored by their in-house tailor to fit you is completely adequate.  We’re talking a cost of hundreds here, not thousands.  Just avoid the $99 suit from Men’s Wearhouse if you can.

In addition, you need a good quality, department store shirt, which you have ironed to remove the package folds! You also need  a classic tie of recent vintage (the last year or two), a new leather belt (no cracked leather), the best quality leather black oxfords you can afford, and socks that match either the shoes or the suit.

Men, you hair should be recently cut.  Facial hair continues to be acceptable in academia; just make sure you’re well-groomed.

For WOMEN (by which I mean, women who present conventionally as women [butch dykes and transgendered candidates will have other requirements]), this means you buy a new, stylish, well-cut, fitted grey or brown suit (not black, which can be too severe) fresh for the interview season.

This must fit you at your current weight! It must also fit you properly through the shoulders, across the bust, and hit you at the proper spot on your hips and wrists.  Find someone with fashion knowledge and taste to evaluate the fit of your suit.

Skirt or pants, it matters not.  You will need a stylish blouse in a not too bright color, stockings or tights in a neutral shade, good quality, stylish leather pumps with a 1-3 inch heel (for the height; less critical if you are 5’7” or above), and conservative jewelry.

Women, your hair should be cut and styled in an actual current style, not dragging or sproinging about in the stringy or unkempt clump so commonly seen in our graduate lounges. Also, no ponytails or barrettes.  You are not 9.

Neither man nor woman shall carry a backpack.

Both men and women will invest in the best quality leather or microfiber (but, emphatically, NOT fake leather) briefcase that they can manage.  Last season models are often on deep discount at office goods chain stores like OfficeMax. TJ Maxx and Ross are also excellent sources.

For both men and women, the cut and fit of the entire ensemble should be rigorously checked and rechecked by a reliable source such as your mother, or a trusted advisor who actually knows how to dress.  Suits are difficult to fit, and a poorly-fitting suit will hurt your chances on the job market!  Invest the time, and make sure your suit fits.

Why do all this?  Because these clothing rules mark you as “one of the tribe.”  In an ideal world how you look doesn’t matter.  But academia is far from an ideal world, as we know all too well.  You want to blend into the faculty “identity” as seamlessly as possible.  Yes, of course we all know that actual faculty dress like slobs. Nevertheless, interviews require interview-wear.  Marking yourself as looking like you are already employed and earning a regular income is the quickest way to do that.

One of the saddest sights in the hotel conference hall is not so much the sloppily dressed interview candidate, asthe ineptly dressed interview candidate—the one in the brand new, ill-fitting suit with too-short sleeves and too-long pants, rushing through the halls clutching a a beat-up old backpack.

That person smells of desperation. Don’t let it be you.


 


Comments

On To The Conference Interview! — 39 Comments

  1. Can you please elaborate on appropriate butch dyke wear? I recently tried to girl-up my wardrobe, and it was pretty much a disaster (ranging from Oh Hell No, to my shoulders don’t fit in any of these tops, to wtf women’s shoes (even the flats!) are dangerous). Not all was lost, but given that presenting as a “conventional” woman is pretty much out of the picture, any advice?

    • I’m happy to, Digger. I may need a few days to get to this, but stay tuned, either in this space, or in a new post dedicated to the subject.

  2. Is there a way to suss out a department’s financial footing without knowing anyone connected to it? Is this just a word of mouth thing?

    • It’s probably worth surfing around the whole campus website to get a sense of what is being highlighted as the “big shot” departments; if you see that they’re almost all science and professional schools, then you can tell that the humanities and social sciences are languishing there. By studying the department website you can see to what degree the grad students are attending conferences, and that tells you whether they are being funded in that or not. You can also check to see if faculty are organizing high profile symposia and so on. If yes, there is probably some reasonable funding available. You can also check for the number and range of graduate seminars offered. If there are many, then the department is on sound financial footing. If there are few, then it’s probably suffering from contraction. These are just some ideas.

  3. As someone who did an undergraduate degree in Anthropology, your anecdotes about anthropologists crack me up!

    More on topic: I have received a few inquires about whether I will be at the big conference in my field to “chat” with faculty members in response to my job applications. Does this count as one of those conference interview situations you are talking about here? My advisor says no and that hardly anyone does official conference interviews, as it is too expensive. I’m part time (completing my dissertation) and therefore not eligible for travel funding, so I had not planned on going despite being co-author on two posters. But now I am worried that I am missing out on a good opportunity to make a positive impression (and land on the short list) and am wondering if I should use some frequent flyer miles or whatever resources I have to get there and talk to these departments. Perhaps this is field-specific; my field is Communication Disorders. Any advice is appreciated!

    • This is NOT a conference interview, which is a formal thing lined up ahead of time with specific people and sets of questions. I disagree with your advisor about conference interviews; they are quite common, although perhaps in your field that’s not the case.

      In any case, this kind of “chat” is tricky. I guess if you are an extremely charismatic person who interviews well in informal settings, then yes you should make an effort to go. If you’re awkward and scared and anxious, then no, give it a miss. The risks outweigh the possible benefits.

      All of this begs the point, why are you co-author on two posters, instead of being first author on an actual research paper? The year you’re on the market you should be pulling out the big guns, and ideally have organized a panel! This is your debutante year. You should always plan to not just attend your major conference, but make a huge splash at it. I bring this up for the benefit of other readers, since I know you can’t change course now.

      In any case, good luck!

  4. It’s worth reiterating one of your points: have clothes that fit. It does not matter if your suit is a good 1500 dollar suit if it does not fit.

    If you are interviewing in a suit, here’s a few things worth remembering:

    Do not get a black suit. Get a charcoal grey or navy blue. Navy blue will make you look younger, Karen knows better if that is good or not for your interviews. Both charcoal grey and navy blue will work for all occasions that require “dark suit”.

    People don’t have proper shoes. Other people can tell. A rule of thumb is that your shoes should cost half of what your suit costs. Yes, that is a lot. Yes, it is worth it. Not only will you be stunningly handsome, but your feet will also thank you for it. Take good care of your shoes and they will last 20 years. (Polish your shoes, let your shoes rest for 24 hours after wearing them and have good shoe trees for them).

    If you are conservatively dressed and have socks that match your shoes, that means you have black socks. Much better than having bright pink socks, but even better is to have socks that match your pants. Traditional business suits are dark so most people will not notice if you have black socks. Those who do notice the color of your socks are the ones that are likely to care, and they will appreciate that you bothered to match your socks to your suit.

    Also, get full calf socks. They stay up so you don’t have to worry about whether your hairy legs are showing or not. High quality merino wool socks are amazing: they are very comfortable, do not get smelly even if you wear them for several consecutive days and they can be washed and dried over night in the sink of your hotel room. If you have 10 pounds to spare for a pair of socks – Pantherella is a nice brand.

    If you can not be bothered with ironing your shirts, hand them in to dry cleaning or get shirts that you can get away with not ironing. Personally I use Eton shirts, for the simple reason that I can just hang them on the hanger immediately after washing and they will be mostly wrinkle-free when I use them. They do not feel plastic. These are mid-range shirts with a hefty price tag, so you definitely pay for your convenience.

  5. Just wanted to add a couple of notes on “proper” attire if you are interviewing while pregnant and/or nursing. To some degree this depends on how far along you are. While there are maternity suits, you may or may not actually fit into one at 8 or 9 months pregnant. I have found, interviewing both while pregnant and while nursing (and therefore pumping during the interview marathon, a whole other post) that an A-line skirt or nice maternity pants (spring for the pea in the pod or sometimes Target rather than the cheaper Sears ones because they will have a better style to them) works on the bottom. The top is trickier, best bet is a blouse without buttons. A solid color blouse that is form fitting over the chest and then blouses out looks good with a suit jacket over it, but still stands on its own should you get extremely hot or otherwise too uncomfortable to continue being stuffed into a jacket. If you are nursing this also is much more comfortable as you will likely not get to choose when you can pump and therefore don’t want a shirt with no wiggle room. This also allows you to pump under your shirt, just in case you get stuck in an adjunct office with no lock pumping and hoping the sc doesn’t walk in.
    Another option while pregnant is a nice dress in a solid color with a suit jacket over it. Two dark colors work well to not just scream “pay attention to my belly instead of what I am saying.” Do not, however, wear a dress if you have to pump. Aforementioned pumping space…. you don’t want to have to take the whole dress off to get to the pumping.

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  7. Many thanks for the crucial wardrobe pointers above. I am going to the American Historical Association in Chicago in the first week of January (shiver) and have applied to a lot of schools in the colder parts of the US. I have nothing suitable for a Chicago/New England blizzard and need to buy a heavy-duty coat, hat, scarf, gloves and boots in order not to freeze (never mind perhaps replacing the gorgeous Italian suit I bought half price nearly 6 years ago, even though it still fits?!). How does one keep warm enough tramping round a winter campus while still looking smart? Can such boots/shoes ever match a suit? And if you are tramping in boots that do not match your suit, can you ask for a moment to go and change your shoes when you go indoors? Any advice would be much appreciated!

    • OMG, this needs a post!!!!! I lived in Illinois for 7 years. Here’s what you need to do. You need to wear pants, not a skirt. You can wear tights under the pants if you’re a person who gets cold. You can wear a turtleneck under your suit jacket. You buy a really terrific stylish down parka (I’m impressed with Patagonia’s offerings like this [although pricey at the interview stage]: http://www.zappos.com/patagonia-womens-downtown-loft-parka-black, as well as Michael by Michael Kors parks, but go on Zappos and search women’s parkas for some ideas.)

      And then, this above all: buy La Canadienne boots! They are insulated and ridiculously warm, they have a gripping rubber sole, and they are totally chic! I wore mine through the depths of a midwestern winter, and STILL wear them in balmy Oregon because they are so cute (and I get endless compliments on them). If you wear heels, look at these: http://www.zappos.com/la-canadienne-mazy. If you don’t, look at these: http://www.zappos.com/la-canadienne-shane. There are many, many other styles as well. They also have arch support and will keep your feet happy in a day of tramping around, and last forever. Expensive and worth every penny for winter job interviews. (No I’m not affiliated; I just LOVE these boots!)

  8. Thanks for so many great tips! In the conference interview and in all interactions, how should we address the committee and other professors we meet? When I’m introducing myself to someone (and have my act together), I like to repeat the person’s name as I’m shaking their hand and looking them in the eye. Is it first names for everyone, all the time? How about in email salutations? First and last name? Dr.?
    I’m trying to avoid acting like a grad student, so I’m assuming that calling anyone “Professor” is out.
    Thanks for any advice!

  9. I am but a fresh PhD, but am skeptical about wearing a full-blown suit to an interview. At my first conference experience last year, those milling about lobbies and sitting in the interview hall wearing suits uniformly looked to be the most nervous and wide-eyed – i.e., like grad students – while those in slightly more casual jacket and pants tended to be more confident and at ease. Suits just look overdone (at least for English Lit interviews), marking you off as either an amateur or a businessman. Can a sharp sport coat, dress pants, and tie not be worn successfully, in your opinion, Karen?

    • Yes, they can, Shakespearean. In the case of male candidates, the full blown suit can sometimes be overkill. It depends on the guy, of course, and the job being interviewed for, but there are occasions in which the excellent sport coat, dress pants and tie can project exactly the right image. I don’t think the suit is, in and of itself, inappropriate. It hinges on how broken in is the suit, how appropriate in formality level/style/pattern it is to an academic conference, and how comfortable is the man wearing it. Done right, the suit is the gold standard of male style. But at the conf. interview stage, the WELL-STYLED and CURRENT contemporary sport coat can also be fine.

  10. These are all great pieces of advice! I was wondering if the white shirt is obligatory, for a male candidate? This is the advice one gets when one has a professional interview and I was wondering whether the rules of the game are the same for academic professional interviews…

    • gosh, no, I don’t think white shirts are at all obligatory in academic settings, and in fact, I would suspect they’d be the exception not the rule.

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  12. I’ve read your sartorial advice for butches and I’ve read the one for what I gather is non-butch women. I was wondering if high femmes need to follow the standard advice? Or if there is sartorial advice specific to high femmes? I specify ‘high femme’ because it’s not standard femme: I typically wear 11-11.5cm heels and pencil skirts or tailored dresses. My style is this: http://www.kurtgeiger.com/women/along-2.html and this http://www.asos.com/ASOS/ASOS-Midi-Pencil-Dress-With-Pleat-Waist/Prod/pgeproduct.aspx?iid=1934307&SearchQuery=pencil%20dress&Rf-200=4&sh=0&pge=0&pgesize=200&sort=3&clr=Black My gender/sexual identity as a high femme is as much an integral part of me as a butch’s is for herself, but ought I take it down a bit and pretend that I am not high femme when I go to conferences and job interviews? Is it inappropriate/costing myself jobs to be myself?

    • Such a good question. I’d be inclined to say this. The high femme look is one that specifically manipulates an overt, visible “feminine” sexuality to make a point about identity and power, and to play with assumptions and categories. Sexuality of all stripes, however, is basically antithetical to the academic persona, because of the mind-body dualism that prevails. When sexuality enters an academic environment it makes people profoundly uncomfortable. Therefore, for everyone, I recommend leaving overt signals of your sexuality at the door when you arrive for the interview/conference. While the butch identity is equally sexual, as we know, the primary buttons that it pushes for those not in that world are of gender, not sexuality. But the high femme identity is read as sexuality, pure and simple. So I’d button it up, if you are serious about maximizing your chances for jobs. Later, with the job, you will have far greater scope. Although, i’d be lying if I didn’t say that it could continue to have an impact on how your students and colleagues view you, in terms of evaluating you as a mind rather than a body. that is not a reason not to do it, mind you, just my observation.

      Having said all this, this will also vary substantially based on your dept. If you’re in ARt History, people are more likely to “get” your gender-play references. Mathematics, they’re going to be utterly bewildered. History or some such–probably treacherous. But these are just impressions; you’ll be the best judge of your own field.

      • Thanks very much for such a considered response. My work is scattered across a few disciplines and I suppose the answer is that when attending a conference about sex research, I can probably wear the high heels and tailored dresses. Conversely, when I’m operating in Computer Science or Sociology I should be more conservative. Thanks very much: this gives me time to invest in some muted shoes and sensible dresses before next week’s international conference :)

  13. Do you have any tips for visiting the dreaded open “job fair” room at a national convention? There are a few schools I’ve sent applications to that will have a table set up in this large and foreboding room. What are you supposed to do and say when you approach such a table?

  14. Hi there, Karen –

    I’m loving your blog. Thanks a million for all of this. Some more queries about women and appearance at conference interviews — what if you’re, well, pretty? I mean, I’m no Megan Fox or [insert whoever you think is really hot here], don’t get me wrong, but I am slightly concerned that maybe I’ll give off the wrong impression. I don’t wear things that are very revealing, so it’s not that either, but I’m just curious about how fairly attractive, young (still 20s) blonde women tend to get received? Especially by other women on the interview committee? I feel most confident in heels and a pencil skirt suit, but perhaps that would not be the best idea? Any thoughts from anyone would be most welcome.

    • You have to work extra hard to look sober and serious and not smile too much. (i’m serious). And make 120% sure that you’ve banished ANY kind of girl-talk habits. You must not trust yourself pr your friends on this matter, but get a reliable and severe faculty mentor to put you through a mock interview and tell you.

  15. This is a kind of panicky last minute question, but I’d appreciate a response if you have the time. I’ve come from the UK for a conference interview, which is tomorrow morning, and discovered that my suit jacket was torn slightly on the way. There are now small holes in the sleeve. Do I ignore them and wear it anyhow? Or should I just wear a jacket, trousers, and tie?
    Thanks for the post, by the way. I’d have been completely lost without it.

    • If the holes are visible to others, not just you, then wear a jacket, trousers and tie, which is generally a fine option for men in most situations anyway (but remember that disciplines differ and try to take an accurate temperature of yours—poli sci and econ might consider a suit de rigeur more than ‘softer’ fields like comp lit or cinema studies….)

  16. If anyone knows where to find a nice-looking, relatively large, affordable men’s black microfiber messenger bag, I would be much obliged for the tip. I can only find two online that fit my needs, neither of which I like:

    http://www.amazon.com/Microfiber-Lightweight-Business-Briefcase-Messenger/dp/B00BPYOVLE

    http://www.ebags.com/product/lexon/airline-laptop-boarding-bag/240771?productid=10206936

    Would bags described as polyester or nylon ever be Karen-approved?

  17. What do you think about a blue skirt suit for a woman– not exactly navy, something between navy and royal blue?

    • Fashion is always practice over theory, or in other words—I’d have to see the suit! But the color sounds ok–maybe borderline bright but again it would depend on the cut and style and context…

  18. Hi Karen,

    I’ve found your blog incredibly useful during my first round of academic job searches. I am presenting a single authored paper at a panel I’ve organized this year and have set up some conference interviews. However, last week I was in an accident and now I will be in a leg brace and on crutches for the conference. What is your opinion on how this could impact my chances at the interview? Also, I had a great fitting suit (I’m petite so I had paid to get it tailored) and now I’m thinking it will not fit over my leg brace. Thoughts?

  19. Hi Karen, I can’t express how helpful your website is. I’m waiting to defend my phd and have just started applying for jobs. By following your advice on cover letters and statements I’ve managed to make it through the first round and have been asked to two conference interviews. BUT, I live in Europe and they are in the USA. There is no way I can afford to fly to the USA, and I’m thinking this is going to be a continuing problem (I’m a part-time student, so don’t qualify for my uni’s conference travel fund). Do search committees tend to then ignore the candidates that can’t make conference interviews, or am I still in with a realistic chance? Also, is it ok to say in my reply email that I’m won’t be attending the conference for financial reasons (not because I’m not an enthusiastic conference goer!).

    • Skype is more and more commonly used for this reason. I think that you still have a chance. Don’t disclose anything about why you aren’t attending any partic. conference. If they want you, they’ll finnd a way to do a pre-int. with you.

  20. Hi Karen,

    Your website has been so useful through the job-search and otherwise. Any time I have a question I look it up here. I can’t wait for your book to be ready. I will definitely buy it.

    I had a question about the dress code for women. I have black pants and a navy blazer. Is it ok if I paired them? I am in a language department and have never dressed formally in my life. I already feel strange wearing the blazer.

    I also have a black blazer but I understand you it’s better not to wear all black.

    Thanks!

  21. Karen,

    What advice would you have for a creative writing/film studies candidate? A gray skirt suit feels so far away from what I usually wear (tights, boots, a nice knee-length skirt, a cotton top that covers my bosom, and a cardigan/drapey sweater thing). I don’t want to seem too stiff, but also want to make the best-ever impression.

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