How Not to F**k Up Your Conference Interview

(Monday Post Category:  Getting You Into and Out of Graduate School)


[Today’s post is an excerpt from “Taming The Academic Job Market: The Professor’s Guide.”  The Guide is on sale in The Prof Shop.  Don’t forget to check out the 30% off discount code on the Facebook page.  Good only through 8/15]


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 Scholars, 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 on the sofa.   My desire to be snarky overcame my desire for the job.  My eyes fell on a dirty, half-full glass of water on the table in front of me.  “Are all the candidates meant to share one glass of water?” I inquired.  Hasty scrambling ensued. Even F.A. half-rose in consternation.  I thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle.

Needless to say, I was not invited to a campus visit.

I tell this story not as a model but as an example.  Conference interviews are bizarre and awkward.  Your task is to act “at ease,” to project an aura of calm and good humor in a stressful situation.  To succeed you must speak quickly and directly to your strengths, with no—absolutely no—digressions, and to dress and walk and talk and comport yourself as 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. You must 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 no $99 suits from Men’s Wearhouse.

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.  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 (not faux) 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.  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, as the ineptly dressed interview candidate—the one in the brand new, too-cheap, shiny, ill-fitting suit with too-short sleeves and too-long pants, rushing through the halls clutching a fake-leather briefcase.

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

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How Not to F**k Up Your Conference Interview — 21 Comments

  1. While I concur with most of the above advice (I’ve seen some very polished pony tails that look quite professional), I’ll also add the following: make sure that you know where you are going and that you get there on time! More than once, the MLA has had multiple hotels of the same “brand” (e.g. two different Marriotts), so be sure that you know which one to go to. Not only do you need to end up in the correct building, but usually (at least when I was interviewing), the SCs asked candidates to call for the room number once they get to the hotel. It might take a few minutes for a house phone to open up, and you might have to wait for the elevator. Be sure to allow yourself this time so that you aren’t late.

    • Oh my gosh, how did I forget to mention that??? Yes, even in the case of a single hotel, the conf. hotels are massive and the hallways labyrinthine. It is crucial to check out the locations ahead of time, or at minimum, start out on the journey early enough that you arrive in good time, looking calm and collected!

      OK, i grudgingly acknowledge that there can be chic pony tails… in theory.

  2. “the ineptly dressed interview candidate”

    …I actually don’t mind this. These people aren’t necessarily desperate, just not well heeled and from more working class backgrounds. Yes it would be nice if they could have better clothes, but what is actually bad is *sloppy* or too informal. I had someone, a man, arrive in an unironed pastel colored shirt, button down but collar open and no jacket / no tie, and he’d have had to do a lot to convince me he was serious about the job. But I’ve also had people show up dressed all too cheaply, yet still carefully, and my reaction is sometimes like this: “Oh, good! Ze is not going to be picked up by certain kinds of schools and it means we have a chance to get someone with the stellar skills ze has, ourselves!”

    • You know, I agree with you on this to some degree. The most important thing is to show that effort has been made, in the sense of respecting the importance of the interview. And a lot of this is quite classist, too, I fully realize. But what I learned on my own days on the market was that appearance DID matter. It mattered a lot. Not in the sense of being one of the “beautiful people” but in the sense of looking like “one of the tribe.” The things I list here mark you as one of the tribe, for better or for worse. There are ways to get the look while spending little money, and that’s always what I try to help people do.

  3. Thanks for this advice. One note from the vegetarian corner corner of the world: there are plenty of very nice man-made shoes these days, at least for women. By good, solid brands like Nine West. Check Ross/Marshalls/TJ Maxx/DSW. Also, the outlets. And when a lady academic needs a suit, the Ann Taylor outlet has some great deals — it’s where the people I know who work in places where they need to wear suits daily shop.

    • thanks for the vegetarian viewpoint. I did forget about that (mea culpa). And yes on Ann Taylor—the outlets and Loft always have good deals on excellent clothes.

  4. I think that this is great advice (and, also, there are so many “private” internet shopping sites now that sell great clothes for men and women for way less). My only concern (and this isn’t with you, but the hypocritical nature of academia) is that we show up to the interview “looking like a colleague” and yet, few of our professors dress that way, and once we get the job, that suit will go into the back of the closet, as we don’t dress that way anymore as a professor. Of course certain fields (business, law) tend to still follow strict dress codes, but most professors I’ve had, met, or work with don’t wear suits, ties, or any sort of business formal or even business casual attire. I think one of the reasons so many grad students show up looking like…well, like they do is because their professors do, in fact, dress that way themselves. They are looking like a colleague.

    Maybe that’s just my experience, but I find it so difficult to not call out the hypocrisy.

    • I was reflecting on this myself. You are absolutely 100% correct. Noone dresses this way in actual departments. It is a weird thing–I’m not quite sure I’d call this particular thing hypocrisy (and god knows I’m prepared to call most any thing in academia hypocritical!) I think it’s a kind of sartorial code-switching. Faculty understand that the job search requires “job search clothes.” Day to day teaching, meanwhile, requires day to day faculty clothes. For faculty, this code switching is natural. For candidates who haven’t been briefed adequately, the two-code system is not clear. Where it differs from hypocrisy for me is in the intent—The goal is not to mislead. Rather, I think formal clothes genuinely signal a seriousness of purpose. Job candidates just aren’t told that this is also a core element in their process. Does that make sense?

  5. Actually I have always dressed for work and in most departments I’ve worked for, people and especially women, do. In graduate school I did it for authority, some students were older than I — especially at the beginning (I started being a TA at 21 and there were 23 and 24 year olds in my class, i.e., big kids, that really was how I saw them).

    The advice on interview clothes I got from a smart professor was, wear what you’d wear to work and I got it. She was always comfortable but polished. Also from my dissertation director I got an interesting tip on how to not buy a briefcase: carry a manila envelope with syllabi and things in it to hand out, and little notes written lightly in pencil that nobody could see but that you could glance at on your way to the (conference) interview. I wanted to wear a fancy skirt to the conference and my dissertation director would not permit it because it was made of fancy dark gray *denim* and had diagonal stitching. “Not a hint of sex,” she said. Unable to face a suit I wore a fancy black sweater and taupe skirt and black pumps and I looked boring but I got 3 on campus interviews and 3 job offers.

    In my first job people dressed like bankers. I was less conservative and they said I “dressed like a rock star.” For my spring job interview here in the tropics, I bought an off white linen suit in a very good cut. It was exactly right and I wore it to work at that place until I wore it out. I had other clothes like that, too.

    Where I am now, many people are much more casual, as described in this post, even sloppy sometimes, and I have relaxed too. But not too much. I don’t have as many blazers or silk blouses as I did at one time and I don’t have as many heels. I look more as I did in graduate school and at my first job. I buy Joan Vass skirt and sweater sets when they are 75% off, ditto Eileen Fischer. The shoes of authority in my region are tooled deerskin cowboy boots, must be genuine, no chair, dean, director or VP is without them, and I wear them with dresses.

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  8. I think you should add navy blue to the list of colors women can wear as interview suits. I remember wearing a very stylish, but black pants suit once and it felt too severed, I’m glad you mentioned that.

  9. Can I add: be aware of what your hands are doing? I’ve interviewed several candidates who scratch themselves in inappropriate places (then want to shake hands) or reach inside their intimate clothes to adjust something—and a couple of candidates who, in the middle of answering questions, picked their noses. Everyone’s nervous, certainly: so if you’re a nervous scratcher/picker, think about sitting on your hands. Maybe literally.

  10. I have something interesting to add to this. I am a man, and had an interview at a prominent Ivy League school; I came with a brand new suit, and guess what? I LEFT THE TAG ON IT. I had no idea the entire time. No one told me this fact until, more than a year after the interview, after I got the job, a colleague at a lunch for a prospective student told me that I had left the tag on the suit during my interview (someone else chimed in, “Don’t tell him”). He said that in fact, leaving the tag on is what got me the job. Apparently they thought it was endearing and they said, “someone who would do that is exactly who we want in this department”! Of course, I wouldn’t suggest leaving the tag on your new suit on purpose, it just goes to show you that people are actually a lot more forgiving than they appear in the above post! So my advice to grad students: do your best to look nice, but be yourself, even if the result is a bit grad student like and/or disheveled – if I had actually looked like I belonged in that suit, I wouldn’t have gotten the job, nor would it have been the department for me.

  11. First time commenter long time reader: So I didn’t f’up my conference interviews but I want to remind the departments of who I am and how amazing it was to chat with me. What are your recommendations for a follow-up note? If I were a woman raised in the south (I am) I would certainly send a hand written thank you note. What is the etiquette in a professional academic setting?

  12. There’s nothing worse than a cheap suit. Please buy wool! Lining is also essential, especially for women. For both men and women, a suit in the right shade of blue for that person looks very smart, I think.

    Men wearing a blue suit should be wearing *brown* or *cognac* leather oxfords (or wingtips), not black! Men should also go for a bespoke suit, if possible. I’ve seen them starting around $500. A Macy’s suit can easily run $400. This extra $100 is worth it. Bespoke shirts make a huge difference too, and are less costly than you think. Most ready to wear men’s shirts are extremely ill fitting. The sleeves are routinely too big and the torso puffs out when tucked in. If you do need to buy ready to wear, go for the more European (read: slim) fits and get them tailored. Looking polished is at least 75% about fit.

    One more thing: there are some of us who do really look better in black. I have a black suit which I love. I’m keeping my eye out for a blue or gray suit (I’m a woman) but finding the right shade of either color has been elusive. Brown is a no-go for me!

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