• October 1, 2014

Preparing for the Conventions

Question: Interviewing at the annual convention is a big part of the job-hunting process in my field. I'm going on the market this year and want to know what to expect and how I need to prepare myself for the convention interviews.

Answer: In most disciplines, attending annual scholarly conferences or conventions is an important part of an academic's life. It is your opportunity to hear discussions of recent research, give a paper, prepare a poster session, meet scholars with similar interests, and learn about new publications and online resources in your field. And for some, it's also the place to interview for faculty jobs.

Most scholarly associations include what is often called "placement" or "employment services" as part of their annual convention. In some cases, the association provides space for the search committees to use for interviewing; in others the members of the search committee provide their own space, sometimes the hotel room of one of the members.

As an academic-job candidate, the first thing you need to learn is the date of the next convention in your field. Then find out how you can apply to participate in conference interviews. Some annual conventions, such as the American Sociological Association and the American Statistical Association, are held as early as August, while others, such as the College Art Association, aren't until February. If yours is one of the meetings held in the late summer or early fall, you need to prepare now.

Make sure your application materials are ready to go. That means updating your CV, polishing your research statement, and writing a summary of your teaching philosophy. Start reading job announcements to see what types of application materials are needed in your discipline.

Each time you apply for a position, familiarize yourself with the institution first. Be sure your cover letter or e-mail inquiry not only describes your cutting-edge research and your engaging teaching style but also shows why you'd be a good fit for that particular institution. And let the hiring committee know that you are planning to go to your field's annual conference.

Let's focus on the idea of "a good fit" for a moment.

It's important that you understand the nature of the institution to which you are applying. Last fall in Perspectives, a newsletter published monthly by the American Historical Association, David Allen Harvey wrote an article on applying for jobs at liberal-arts colleges. In it, Harvey, an assistant professor of history at the New College of Florida, said that graduates of doctoral programs at large research universities are often unprepared to apply for jobs at smaller colleges. He wrote that having "a narrowly focused research-university mentality causes many graduate students and new Ph.D.'s to make serious errors, often inadvertently, which sabotage their candidacies."

Applicants must understand the differences between liberal-arts colleges, master's-level universities, research institutions, and community colleges, and then they must understand that every institution of higher education sees itself as unique. You, the candidate, need to show why you are a good match for that institution.

Do a mock interview. If you are a doctoral student, get some of your faculty advisers and fellow graduate students to ask you lots of questions. As one successful candidate told me, "It is one thing to know the questions in your head -- and we all pretty much know them -- it is another to actually answer them in conversation with people."

In some departments, mock interviews are regularly provided to doctoral students going on the job market; in other departments, you might have to set up the practice interview yourself.

If you are no longer geographically near your department, practice articulating your answers in front of a video camera and give yourself feedback. Or see if you can find a professional to help you. An earlier column I wrote with Mary Morris Heiberger on sources of career counseling might give you ideas on where to turn for help.

If your practice interview doesn't go well, don't despair. Another successful candidate told me that she found her convention interviews easier than her practice ones. At her real interviews, she said, everyone was trying to discover the same thing: "I wanted to know whether I would fit in with the institution interviewing me." Meanwhile, her interviewers, she added, "wanted to know if I would fit in with their institution."

With your materials in hand and your answers to potential questions fine-tuned, you're ready for the conference. My first bit of advice is to resist the urge to overschedule yourself at the meeting.

I spoke with one job candidate who had had multiple conference interviews and ultimately landed a job. He advised against giving a presentation or helping to organize an event at a conference where you are interviewing. On his first day he had six interviews and barely had time to get lunch. He didn't attend a single scholarly panel. It is far too draining to give a talk and, at the same time, be prepared and "on" for interviews, never mind the more mundane scheduling conflicts and complications that can arise from too many commitments.

Know what you want to tell the hiring committees. One new assistant professor always went into convention interviews with some supporting paperwork, such as copies of student evaluations or some exercise that she had made up for her students that she thought was particularly clever. She also went in with the attitude that "that particular job was the very one that I wanted."

"Never apply to a job that you can't imagine taking," she said. "And never decide before you have been offered the job whether you want it or not. If you have applied, assume that you want it."

You need to be prepared to talk about your research and about the classes you would love to teach. It's important that you are able to speak briefly and in an engaging manner. Here, too, it's important to know something about the institution or department that is interviewing you.

At the same time, keep in mind that the interviewers may have many questions they want to ask you and all the other candidates, so pace your answers so that they are informative yet not too long.

What you experience in one interview will help you with each subsequent one. You will learn to read the interpersonal dynamics of each interview. One successful candidate said, "The best way I can describe it is when the sessions went well, I felt like a conductor, interacting with individuals and asking questions and paying close attention to how everybody was interacting with everybody. I think this interpersonal dynamic is as important as any content that gets traded in these sessions."

Expect the unexpected, but don't let it rattle you. One candidate who completed the job-search process with two offers described his worst interview: "The first two [interviews] had been great, really fun, and I was feeling jubilant (both ended up being offers down the road) -- comfortable, confident, etc. But then you walk into a suite and from the first moment it's just all wrong. I don't know why. It felt like they didn't like me from the beginning. There's four people, only one of whom is actually speaking to you. Your answers aren't satisfying him, but at least he's making an effort, asking follow-up questions, etc. The others are looking at the ceiling or out the window. You are strongly tempted, after about five minutes, to say, 'Let's not waste each others' time. Thanks and goodbye.' But of course you can't."

Some candidates have had the unfortunate experience of having an interviewer who has had too much to drink. If the interview seems unsalvageable, you might go through with it as best you can or suggest that it be continued at another time.

Finally, don't forget some crucial items: Get a couple of new outfits that make you look good and feel good, but don't forget to bring noninterview clothes and whatever you need for relaxing, like running shoes, a swimsuit, or a yoga mat.

Be sure to bring multiple copies of your CV, statement of research interest, statement of teaching philosophy, and dissertation abstract. You might also bring copies of your articles and of syllabi for courses you have taught. If you tailored each cover letter to the institution (and I hope you did), refamiliarize yourself with it before the interview.

If you're finishing your Ph.D., leave your graduate-student persona at home and instead go to the conference thinking of yourself as a future colleague, a potential department member, and a peer. The tone of your interviews will be much better if you do.

And try your best to enjoy the interviews. If you're prepared, that should be possible.

Julia Miller Vick is a graduate career counselor at the University of Pennsylvania. She is one of the authors of "The Academic Job Search Handbook" (University of Pennsylvania Press), along with Mary Morris Heiberger, who was associate director of career services at Penn and passed away in December.

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