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‘Tis the season.

December 21, 2009, 12:01 am

[In what passes for a holiday tradition here at The Edge of the American West, I'm re-posting my thoughts about how to handle AHA interviews. If you want to see the previous iterations of this post, including some really useful comments, you can go here and here. Consider this my opening salvo in the war on Christmas.]

It’s the most wonderful time of year. No, not Christmas silly, the AHA. Or, as I’m fond of calling it, the world’s largest and least flattering mirror. The mere thought of thousands of historians gathered in one place warms the cockles of my heart. Particularly cockle-warming, of course, are AHA interviews, the preliminary candidate screening done by most history departments at the annual conference.

For the past few years, I’ve offered our graduate students a talk in which I’ve shared a few tips about how to handle the AHA interviews they receive. And, given the nature of this blog, I thought I’d pass along some of these ideas here. If you’re not a historian, I don’t know how useful this material will be, though I expect some of what I say is exportable to the AAG, the MLA, or most other three-letter waking nightmares. That said, much of what follows is targeted at graduate students in history. Also, although this should go without saying, I can’t promise that any of this will work for you. So let me know what you think. Or, if you’ve got an idea that’s missing from my list, by all means post a comment.

Preparation

1: Bear in mind that for all of your interactions with Prospective Employer (PE) your tone should be respectful but not cowed, enthusiastic but not crazed, and humble but not obsequious. Your goal is to convey several things with this tone. First, that you’re genuinely excited about the job at PE’s institution. Even if this isn’t entirely true, you’ll have plenty of time to relay that hard fact after you’ve received an offer. For the moment, though, remember that you’re eager to get the job. Second, that you’re not scared by professional obligations, including the job market. Third, that you’re exactly the kind of person PE will want to have working down the hall from her or him for the next three decades. And finally, that you’re prepared. Eric wrote a wonderful post about this issue last week. Read what he said and take him seriously. Even when he’s kidding.

2: Given all of that, the best piece of advice that I got when I was having my fifteen minutes of infamy following Katrina was this: don’t ever answer the phone unless you know exactly what you want to say. Hiding until you’re ready to talk isn’t an option when dealing with PE. But I do recommend, if you receive a phone call inviting you to interview at the AHA, allowing PE to say her or his piece, conveying your gratitude, and then making plans to talk again in the coming days after you’ve had time to think. In other words, let PE tell you what s/he has to say, and then reply with something like: “I’m excited about this opportunity. And I’m really looking forward to meeting with you in person. Is there a time in the next few days that we can talk, or correspond via e-mail, about questions that I might have?” Again, this will allow you to collect your thoughts, do research, and figure out which questions you do and don’t want to ask.

3: Before talking or e-mailing again, do your preliminary research. Learn a bit about PE’s department. Given that most of us apply to every job that makes even the tiniest bit of sense for us, including any job that we’d even consider taking (and likely several that we wouldn’t), we often know very little about the institutions to which we’ve applied. There’s no shame in that; there is shame, though, in not knowing about places that will interview you at the AHA. Shame typically followed by unemployment. So figure out, based on what you can learn from friends, friends of friends, or the internet, anything you can about the department: the curriculum; whether there are graduate students; what the undergraduates are like; the teaching load; where the position fits in their program; other holes in their department; whether, within reason, it’s a happy place; what their priorities are (teaching, research, a wintry mix); where the school is located; etc. The etcetera refers to anything at all you can learn using reasonable methods. No, reasonable does not include picking through the department chair’s trash.

4: After you’ve done that work, talk again with PE. You should be prepared to ask a variety of questions, including seeking clarification for what you might already know. For example, in which hotel will the interview take place? Will the interview be conducted in a suite? If so, does PE already know the suite number? And if PE doesn’t know that information, how will s/he let you know before your interview? If the interview won’t take place in a suite, where will it be? In the open-air stock pavilion that’s usually found somewhere in the bowels of the main conference hotel? That’s okay. (Not really, but what can you do?) But you’ll want to hear that news as soon as possible. Also, what day and time will the interview happen? Would PE like your cell phone number in case there are any last-minute changes? Is there a way of contacting PE at the conference should the need arise? And finally, who, other than you, will be present for the interview?

Just to reiterate, your tone should always be respectful, enthusiastic, and humble. So, here’s an an example of an appropriate way to ask the final question of those listed above: “I hope I’m not overstepping, but would you be willing to let me know who else will be interviewing me. That information would really help me prepare more effectively.” The worst PE can say is: “Sorry, we’re not yet sure.” Or: “Sorry, but I haven’t told the other candidates. And telling you who’ll be there might give you an unfair advantage.” But chances are PE will tell you. Which will allow you to:

5: Figure out as much as you can about the composition of the interview committee. No, this does not mean reading everything they’ve ever written. But you might want to know the arguments of their major works. And, at the very least, you should know what they’ve written about. As Eric said, scholars like to be flattered. At the same time, the AHA interview, in a perfect world, turns into a conversation between peers. That’s much more likely to happen if you know what PE and company have to say about the past.

6: Almost every AHA interview follows the same basic form. “Tell us about your research,” says a member of the hiring committee. Then other people on the committee follow up with specific questions about your work. After a set amount of time, another member of the committee asks some iteration of: “What about your teaching?” So be ready to answer those questions. Know what your work is about, focusing on the so-what question. You should have good, and relatively short, answers ready that explain what you’re writing about, the significance of your dissertation, your main argument, where it fits in the literature, when you plan to finish, and what you’ll be writing about next. Understand that even the most professional hiring committees will typically have at best one person, usually the chair, who knows your work. It’s your responsibility, then, to tell the rest of the committee why your scholarship is important. You want them to remember you and your project when they go to the bar that evening to talk over how the day’s interviews went. And you want them to remember the key points when they return to their department and report on the status of the search to their colleagues after the winter break.

7: You should also have a polished response explaining what you’d like to teach (recognizing that their needs not your desires should inform your answer), how you teach (methods and the difference between your introductory, intermediate, and advanced undergraduate courses, as well as, if relevant, your graduate courses), and what courses you’ve taught in the past. You should prepare an answer in which you detail how both your research and your teaching will complement what PE’s department already has on the books.

8: Practice your answers. Which is to say, find a friend, have them ask you a series of questions that are likely to come up at the AHA interview, and make sure that you have replies that are both true and plausible. And finally, please, please remember not to give answers that drone on for too long. How long is too long? More than a couple of minutes, I think, but this varies from person to person. So experiment.

9: Decide what you’re going to wear. Then pack carefully, making sure that you have all the materials you’ll want or need. About attire I have little to say beyond: be comfortable and appear professional. For me, that means wearing a suit. But that’s because suits are easy for me; they’re grown-up Garanimals. Maybe you want to wear pants and a sport coat. Or a dress. Or a kilt. Fine. Whatever. Just make sure that you feel good about what you’re wearing and that your clothes aren’t going to distract the committee from your brilliance. So maybe skip the kilt.

Performance:

1: You’ve made it through the hardest, though not the scariest, part. Now all you have to do is to figure out a way to do your best on the day of the interview. You’ll want to start by continuing to prepare, as tragic as that may sound, once you reach the conference. Make sure that you know where the interview is located. The AHA is usually spread out over many hotels that sometimes occupy several linear miles of the host city. Find the hotel and exactly where your interview is taking place. Recently, in Atlanta, there was more than one hotel owned by the same company. Several job candidates, apparently, missed interviews because they went to the wrong place. Eeek! Don’t allow such a thing to happen to you. And while we’re in full-on control freak mode, find out if the floor on which you’ll be interviewing is accessible by elevator. If you’re interviewing in the communal interrogation chamber, take a look at it in advance. Familiarize yourself with the smell of fear that permeates the place. Also, figure out how long it will take you to walk or cab or bus or teleport from where you’ll be before the interview to the interview hotel. In sum, cover all of your bases, so that on the day of the interview you don’t have to worry about any of this nonsense and can focus on substance. Speaking of which…

2: On the big day, make sure that you maximize the chances that you’ll feel good. Need a big breakfast in order to have energy? Then eat. Coffee makes you irritable? Don’t drink it. Exercise is a must for you to feel human? Go running. Need your meds in order to keep from howling at the moon? Me too. Make sure you take ‘em. In sum, take care of yourself.

3: Make sure that you’re a bit early to the hotel where you’ll be interviewed. Then, relax in the lobby until it’s time to head upstairs. (Or, perish the thought, downstairs if you’re to be grilled at the cattle call.) Might you run into another candidate for the job while you’re waiting? And if so, will the interaction be strained? Sure and sure. But be nice anyway. Bear in mind that s/he may be on a prize committee reviewing your book some day.

4: When you arrive at the interview itself, shake hands. Make eye contact with every member of the interview committee. Convey to them before you do anything else that you’re very pleased to meet them, very excited about the chance to talk about your work, and really thrilled about the opportunity the job represents. If they aren’t polite enough to tell you where to sit – not impossible in the anti-social world of the academy – ask where they’d like you to locate yourself. Then sit down. Open the bottle of water that you’ve brought for yourself. Did I fail to mention that you should bring your own water? Sorry. You should. Take out the pad of paper on which you’ll make notes, as needed, throughout the interview. I forgot to mention the pad also? Can’t you think of anything on your own? So, now it’s time to sit back, subtly take a deep breath or two, and try as hard as you possibly can to relax. The questions will begin shortly.

5: You should have practiced quite a bit for this next part. So the answers should come readily enough to you. That said, remember that you don’t want your responses to sound canned. And should PE pose a question that stumps you, there are several options at your disposal. You can ask PE to repeat a question. And if you’re still uncertain about what PE is after, or you don’t know what to say in response, you can paraphrase the question and ask if that’s what PE means. This will buy you time. Or, you can say, “Hmm, that’s an excellent question. Would you mind if I think about that for a minute?” Or, if you really have no idea what to say, admit that you have no answer. Never, under any circumstances, pretend that you know something that you actually don’t. I was once asked which five ecologists I would use as case studies in a class on the history of that discipline. I could only think of three, tried to bluff my way through the rest, and made a complete fool of myself. Don’t put yourself in a similar position.

6: Here are some strategies that, if possible, you might want to employ during the interview. Make connections between answers. “That’s a wonderful question Professor X, and it reminds me of something that Professor Y asked earlier.” It’s also nice if your answers demonstrate that you know something about the hiring committee’s work or the curriculum at their institution. “Given that you have three people teaching courses about the post-war period, it seems likely that you’d want me to teach a class on the Progressive Era. Which I’ve done before.” “I know that you, Professor Z, have written about Truman’s dentures. And I’d love to talk to you some time about the next project I’m planning, which focuses on the history of dentistry.” Or whatever.

7: Remember to convey, with body language and eye contact, to all of the members of the committee that you respect them. I’ve seen candidates crash and burn because they never looked at one member of a committee or they turned their back on another.

8: When it’s time for you to ask questions, make sure that your inquiries are innocuous but demonstrate that you’ve done your homework. “I’ve noticed that you have a senior thesis requirement. Will you tell me a bit about that?” “I’m curious to hear more about the methods class that you offer your graduate students.” That sort of thing. You don’t want to ask any questions that will put PE or other members of the committee on the defensive: about sabbatical policies (there might not be any), teaching load (it might be high), pay (it could be low), and many others. Again, you want to leave them with the impression that you’ll be a good colleague – not a high-maintenance jerk – and that you really want the job. If it turns out that you don’t, the best time to decide that is after it has been offered to you. Keep in mind that hiring committees, no matter how good their home institution, are terrified that their favorite candidate is going to take a job at Harvard. Or Yale. So while you shouldn’t lie about your level of interest, you should make sure that you stress the positives. “Oh, XU is located in a pestilential swamp. Well, I had yellow fever as a child and really love alligator meat.” You don’t want to take this too far. But it’s a killer if they leave saying: “She’ll never take the job. There’s no point in bringing her to campus.” One more thing: it’s appropriate for you to ask about the committee’s timetable, when, in other words, they’re likely to be in touch about their decision.

Post-game:

1: Don’t beat yourself up about your mistakes. There will be mistakes. You’ll feel lousy about forgetting the title of Richard Hofstadter’s second book. Oh well. Move on. But don’t forget your errors. Consider how to do better next time. Make notes.

2: Share information with friends or acquaintances. This sounds counter-intuitive, I’m sure, but it’s the right thing to do. Even if you’re competing with classmates for the job of your dreams, behave like a good person. You’ll feel better about yourself. And what goes around comes around. Again, remember that your competition today may be your colleague tomorrow, the person sitting next to you on a hiring committee at a national conference.

3: Send a brief and heartfelt note of thanks to all of the committee members.

Good luck.

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