A Chorus Line: Preparing for the Preliminary Interview

December 6, 2007, 2:22 pm

There are two songs that run through my mind at this time of year: one is the Blondie tune, with the blistering opening: “I’m in the phone booth/It’s the one across the hall.” Ok, graduate students have cell phones, but still. It conveys the sense of urgency that those of you who have job applications out there are feeling right now. You are waiting for the phone to ring but pretending you aren’t while wondering if maybe someone else’s phone……oh God, please let it ring.

But there will be interviews. There will. You have to believe that. Which is why my other song is from “A Chorus Line,” but later for that. So I am going to take a little vacation from my unexpected engagement with the neocon world, and get back to what I do best: Giving Career Advice.

First of all, here’s something you can control at this out of control moment. Do you have a message on your voicemail that is cute? Funny? Your favorite song maybe? Or perhaps it is your darling child who says, “Mahmee an’ Daddeee an’ – an’ — Fluffeee an’ — meee not home say who you are an’ give a message. At da beep.”

Get. Rid. Of. It. Now. Ok, it will not put you out of the running for the job: I want to emphasize that no little thing will put you out of the running for the job. But this piece of how you are perceived is something you can control without any significant damage to your essential self. A brief message like, “Hello, you have reached the cell phone of Marylou Graddie; please leave your name and phone number after the beep, and I will call you back as soon as possible,” conveys the impression of a calm, serious person who is ready to be interviewed. And no, I am not a child hater, nor do I think it makes you unemployable if your essential self really is Mommy or Daddy: it’s just that it is just as irrelevant as revealing your inner P!nk right up front in an interview situation. Your child is not being interviewed for the Cuteness Contest this December and January; you are in the first stage of being screened for the Intellectual Demolition Derby, where only one car drives away with the prize.

OK, now we have that settled. And the good news is, you have gotten the phone call, you are getting the conference interview! Now what do you have to think about? And since I just did a bunch of conference interviews with candidates who collectively did a stellar job, it has caused me to gather my thoughts about how you can prepare to do a good preliminary interview.

What to ask when you get the call. Let me just say — all search committee chairs do not know what they are doing. So make sure to get the following information: Does the committee want to see more of your work before the interview? Should it be sent to the same address as the application? How long will the interview be and what other committee members will be there? What topics will the committee want to cover? What hotel will they be in and how will you find their room?

And by the way — practice this, because when you get the call, your heart will leap and you will become momentarily dazed. What normally happens is the person on the other end says “Hi, this is Dr. Committeechair, and I would like to arrange an interview at the MLAHA,” and the breathless candidate says weakly, “Oh — hi.” Try this instead:

“Why, hello, Dr. Committeechair,” you say in a firm, confident tone. “I’m so happy to hear from you!” As if you expected to all along.

What should you wear? The most frequently asked question by female-bodied people who aren’t particularly feminine in self presentation is, Do I have to wear a skirt? The answer is no, you do not: furthermore, I would argue that if you do not normally wear skirts, you should not even dream of wearing one because you will probably feel — and look — uncomfortable. For men and women, tailored trousers and shirts are basic items of apparel. Jackets are optional for both genders, and for my money a tie for men is optional too, although you need some way of making yourself look like someone who can be read as professional without one (a collarless shirt buttoned to the top is one solution.) Shoes should be polished and well-cared for. Female-bodied people who do like to dress in feminine ways, and effeminate male-bodied people, should also not butch themselves up for the interview: if feeling pretty also makes you feel smart and capable, go for it. Anyway, federal law prevents us from discussing what you look like, so the wise committee members will keep their opinions about your clothes to themselves or risk appearing unprofessional to their colleagues.

I have known men who have agonized about whether to take the earring out or whether the ponytail should go; women who worry about how high a heel will make them look like a hooker, or whether they need to invest in a suit. I think much of this, for a school like Zenith, at least, is irrelevant fretting, and that all clothing questions need to meet the following criteria: Am I comfortable in these clothes? Is anything I am planning to wear distracting to others — in other words, am I wearing something that will cause the interviewers not to listen to what I am saying? And finally, does my physical self-presentation reflect the fact that I have prepared carefully for this interview?

Your entrance. Hopefully you will get to the hotel room door a little bit before the interview, but after the previous candidate has departed. It’s hard to know whether your timing will be right, and if you should run into another candidate in the hall, smile graciously, as Bette Davis would if she were in your pumps. Before you enter the room, the following items should be stowed: hat and gloves, cellphone (turned off), iPod and water bottle. Even your Dr. Radical has capitulated to modernity to the extent that she walks around campus with white wires hanging out of her ears or pockets, but she wouldn’t walk into a meeting of the dreaded Tenure and Promotion Committee that way, or leave the impression with New President that talking to him was a momentary break from listening to Pink Floyd or hydrating properly. These things are Distractions. Eliminate them. And you need to be able to walk into the room with at least one hand free for the conve
ntional manual salutation, not fumbling with your various belongings.

The interview. This is a tough one, because there is actually no training that faculty receive in interviewing people, and some do it badly. I once became nearly hysterical during the course of a preliminary interview when the individual asking me the questions could not seem either to frame them coherently or to stop talking, and I saw my time to leave a good impression dribbling away as the odd interrogation proceeded, uninterrupted by me or anyone else. At the fifteen minute mark, I interrupted, seized the initiative and said, “Excuse me — we haven’t got much time left, and I’d like to make sure I tell you about my dissertation and some of the courses I would teach for you.” Which I did. I then left the room and cried inconsolably because I had really wanted that job. And to my astonishment they gave it to me, and thus launched a Radical career.

But let’s assume the interviewers know what they are doing. You should:

Have practiced a five-minute version of your scholarship, in which you describe your research, why it is important, what it does for the field, and its current state of completion. Why so short? Because after you give them the basics they will ask questions that speak to the specific intellectual requirements of the job and the department you might be hired to work in. They will get more of the information they need if you allow them to seek it in their own way.

Know something about who they are. This allows you to connect to them and convey that you are interested in working with them; it also demonstrates that you are not entirely self-absorbed, which is an attractive quality in a future colleague.

Talk about several courses you might teach. This can sometimes be the moment to remove sample syllabi from your backpack or briefcase: there is no reason you need to speak about courses without notes. This shows that you have done your homework about where you fit in the department, and that you are ready to teach next fall. At the end of your course descriptions say “I’m sure you have lots of stuff to carry home — I can give these to you, or I could send them on later if you would prefer.” You should absolutely be prepared to talk about courses mentioned or inferred in the ad, but also — particularly for a school like Zenith — a course out of your dissertation research that gives them a sense of your creativity and your potential as a teacher-scholar. It also gives you a sense of them: if you have a fabulous course in your head, and they don’t respond by saying “Our students would love that!” you have important information. Because I hate to put this thought in your minds, friends, but in the end you might have choices too.

Make sure you pay attention to everyone in the room. Even if a member of the committee doesn’t have much to say, make eye contact, or deliberately turn to that person and say “I noticed that you teach a course on….” Silent people are not necessarily people without influence; candidates who don’t seem to care what women or scholars of color or untenured scholars think can be misperceived as self-involved, or sucking up to the most powerful person in the room. And the person who is the most powerful might be the one who is being self-effacing.

Keep your eye on the clock. Although you are not responsible for running the interview, make sure that you leave the room satisfied that you have told the committee what you want them to know. And finally…..

Be yourself. I understand why the question “What do they want?” haunts so many job candidates. But really, you wouldn’t have gotten this far if there weren’t a lot of things right about you. The strongest candidates will present in a genuine, not a contrived, way: some are a little shy, but articulate and thoughtful; others have an intellectually traditionalist, conservative or radical bent (departmental diversity comes in many forms you know); some don’t know the answer to a question that has been asked and ask the questioner what s/he thinks; a really relaxed candidate might be able to share a laugh with the committee and cause them to say after s/he has left the room, “I can really see X in our department, can’t you?”

But no one little thing will get you the job either.

OK, so here’s the other song, the one from Chorus Line, that I think about at this time of year, because this is how I remember being you: no, it’s not “Dance 10, Looks 3,” silly. You know it — the last verse goes like this:

God, I hope I get it, I hope I get it!
I’ve come this far, but even so:
It could be yes, it could be no.
How many people does he…?
I really need this job
Please, God, I need this job
I’ve got to get this show.
I have to get any moment
I knew I had it, from the start

Who am I anyway?
Am I my resume?
That is a picture of a person
I don’t know.
What does he want from me?
What should I try to be?
So many faces all around and here we go
I need this job
Oh God, I need this show.

I hope you get it. Good luck.

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