I've always had a problem with anxiety. Not in a debilitating sense; let's just say that during stressful situations, my tension is noticeable to the most casual of observers. As one professor told me before an important exam, "The gods didn't bless you with a poker face."
So my nervousness was visible when I went for my first interview at the 2007 meeting of the American Historical Association. It was my second go-round on the academic job market, but my first with Ph.D. in hand. I had attended a large Southern university with a fairly good academic reputation, so I was hoping for the best, but I knew to prepare for the worst, because my field is modern American history, supposedly one of the tightest in academe.
An undergraduate greeted me at the conference check-in desk -- undoubtedly asked by his professors to work the interview area in an effort to dissuade him from entering a graduate program. I was just one of many candidates he had processed that day, so he hastily dispatched me to a waiting area behind a curtain.
I had arrived 30 minutes early to give myself time to calm down and get accustomed to my surroundings. That is what the people on the H-Grad e-mail discussion group advised, but in hindsight I wish I hadn't listened. The room was eerily reminiscent of the sausage-grinder scene in Pink Floyd's The Wall -- but instead of British school children in masks, I was surrounded by guys wearing dark suits, red ties, glasses, and nicely polished shoes. Other than one woman at the front of the room intensely studying her notes and ignoring the world, there was little to distinguish one candidate from another, me included. You could have cut the conformity with a knife.
As I took deep breaths (in four seconds, hold, out four seconds), I reviewed my credentials and my career to determine what would set me apart from the rest of the crowd.
I had lived through most of the clichéd traumas of graduate school and emerged unscathed: My dissertation director had left for greener pastures six months before I completed my degree but had remained on my committee and actively participated in my defense. I had a career in student activism that, rather than angering school administrators, had actually brought about much-needed change at my university. I had failed miserably on the job market the previous year but landed an administrative position at my university that included the opportunity to teach as an adjunct. I finished my Ph.D. in just four years with a decent number of publications.
In short, I did everything by the book and managed to survive. I was determined that, come August 2007, I would be in a tenure-track job.
The minutes slowly ticked by as I made small talk with my fellow candidates. As the other job seekers were called forward and the room emptied, my anxiety got the best of me. I got up the courage to walk to the front and peek through the curtain into the interview booth. There, sitting with yet another man in a dark suit, red tie, and glasses, was the Interviewer.
I recognized the Interviewer from his picture on the university's Web site. I had done what the online academic community had suggested and studied the institution and the department religiously over the past few weeks. It was actually quite hard to miss him, as he was wearing a horrendous neon green sweater that overpowered the lesser man in his presence. I quickly returned to my seat to wait the final 10 minutes until my interview, feeling that I had somehow violated a sacred taboo by peering into the inner sanctum before my appointed time.
Ten minutes passed. Fifteen minutes. Thirty minutes.
It was well past my interview time and not so much as a sign from the Interviewer. "Had I written down the wrong interview time?" I thought as I checked my PDA. I sheepishly returned to the check-in desk to get an answer.
"I have an interview that was supposed to start 30 minutes ago. Does he know I am here?" I asked.
"Oh. I forgot to tell you," said my undergraduate friend. "He got off to a late start and is running 30 minutes behind."
Relieved that the crisis had been averted, I made my way back to my seat, but not before I went back to the curtain. There, indeed, was the Interviewer and the same candidate as before.
Ten more minutes passed. Twenty more minutes.
It was now 50 minutes past my scheduled interview time, and my anxiety had turned to annoyance. "I understand that we are at their mercy," I said to a sympathetic job candidate seated across the aisle, "but this is beyond ridiculous."
Rather than bothering the receptionist again, I went back to the front and glanced through the curtain to find one of the most horrific sights I have seen in quite a long time.
The Interviewer was gone.
The booth was empty.
Despite following all of the rules, I had missed my interview.
Frantically, I ran through the check-in area and into the hotel lobby. I scanned the room and there, about 100 feet away and proceeding to the elevator, was the Interviewer. Thank God for that neon sweater. I took off after him and caught up as he was waiting.
"Dr. X?" I asked.
"I'm your 5:30 interview."
"I don't have a 5:30 interview," he replied.
"Yes you do," I said rather boldly, "and it's me."
Admittedly, that response was a bit much. I half-expected lightning and thunder to rain down from the heavens as I violated the code and dared assert myself.
Fortunately, Dr. X was not a proud man. After quickly consulting his calendar, it became obvious that he had gotten the day of the week and the date mixed up and had me mistakenly scheduled for the following day. We had a brief conversation and I had another graduate-school cliché -- the job-market horror story -- to add to my collection.
Our subsequent interview went well, but I failed to make it to the on-campus stage.
You could take a number of morals from this story, such as "always sit near the curtain so you can see the interviewers if they try to skip out on you." But for me, the experience has changed the way I view the hiring process.
In this wired world we inhabit, our perspective on the job market has become skewed. Thanks to online forums and blogs, interviewing in academe has evolved into a series of sacred rituals. Tips for success have become hard-and-fast rules that can never be violated -- at least, not if you want to land the job.
While a good percentage of the advice doled out to new Ph.D.'s is probably worth hearing (if I hadn't done a little online reconnaissance, I would have never known the Interviewer had left the booth), some of it, and the sheer volume of it, serves no other purpose than to terrify job candidates. Stories of rude and unprofessional behavior during interviews are now considered the norm. Interviewers are no longer professors fulfilling a service requirement but villains out to trample the souls of those "lucky" enough to score an interview.
It is quite possible that the culture of the job market is as bad as it seems, but no one would dare try to deviate from the prescribed norms to find out. We have mountains of online evidence to prove that if you do anything the least bit objectionable in the interview, you can be replaced. When branch campuses of the University of Maine claim to have 260 applicants for one position, as happened last year, the tightness of the market takes on a whole new dimension.
As a result, job seekers are afraid to be different, to assert their individuality, or to expect even the simplest of professional courtesies.
Unfortunately the situation is not going to get better any time soon. My second time on the market allowed me to (literally) peer through the curtain, and I stubbornly refuse to believe that the only thing waiting at the end of my graduate-school career is misery and torture.
Even following the rules, though, does not guarantee success. During this job season, I hope to separate the truth from the urban legends that haunt all job candidates -- while controlling my anxiety and looking out for neon sweaters.