(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 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. 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, as the 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.