How To Succeed At Your AHA Interview Without Really Trying: Looking Smart

December 26, 2008, 6:57 pm

Last year around this time I posted my guide to novice American Historical Association Annual Meeting attendees. This year we go to New York! So much better than Chicago, which is only good for the Chicagoans, since none of the rest of us are ever allowed to arrive or to leave on our flights as they were originally scheduled, so cursed by the goddess is Chicago and its weather.

This year you can find me at the reception thrown by the Coordinating Council for Women in History. Saturday evening I will be receiving at the soiree held by the Committee on Lesbian and Gay History, an organization that is soon to be called something else (add Transgender and stir), but for now look for CLGH on the program. However, I won’t get to wander ’round the book exhibit or the convention as much as I like to because over the course of three days I will be locked in a room with a jury of my peers conducting interviews with aspiring employees of Zenith University. Which leads me to a recent question asked by a reader: “Would you consider, oh wise Radical, offering advice for a Successful Convention Interview?”

Of course dear. How can I resist, when you put it that way? Let’s begin with your appearance, and later in the week, we’ll proceed to preparing for the interview itself.

What should you wear? Business attire is the general answer to this question; leave your fancy jeans and sexy miniskirts at home. Do not, however, wear anything that makes you explicitly uncomfortable and if you need to slide over to the “business casual” column to do this that’s okay too. To answer a perennial question, I think it is generally accepted nowadays (particularly in our post-Hillary for President world) that no woman ever needs to wear a skirt again in a business situation if she does not wish to. As for neckties, I think there are two rules: butch lesbians, it doesn’t necessarily signal to others that you are “dressing up” if you wear a necktie, although it does signal “I’m gay!” if that’s what you want (please remember that this is not the MLA.) For men of all descriptions, I would argue for the tie if you know there will be other men over the age of sixty (who are not Howard Zinn) in the room. But if a necktie really makes you uncomfortable, go with the fancy tee-shirt/sweater under the jacket thing. Bow ties are pretentious, but can be cute on some folks, like Malcolm X or Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and if you are trying to achieve that effect, go for it. What I would advocate against is anything high concept, or anything in a startling color. You don’t want to be remembered as “the guy in the plum pants,” or have everything important you said in that hotel room eclipsed as the door shuts behind you and the committee explodes with laughter over shoes they last saw on Sex and the City.

The important thing to signal with your outfit is: I am a professional and I care what you think of me. The important thing not to signal is: “I’m weird!” It’s not necessary to go out and spend a lot of money on interview clothes, but what you wear should fit properly, be neat, well-pressed and comfortable. Shoes should be polished and not run down at the heels. No need to buy new ones: you still have time to refurbish an old pair, or even jet out to the Goodwill and buy a really nice pair of shoes and have them polished or re-heeled. And take this memo: if all you need is a shine, there is no better place than a New York airport or Pennsylvania Train Station to get a quick one from an old pro.

Hair. Same as above. Get a trim; nothing high concept, and nothing you have to fool with endlessly between interviews. If you have facial hair, do not play with it. This may be very difficult for you, because most people who have facial hair touch their beards and mustaches constantly. Every transman I know strokes his face non-stop, whether he is bearded or clean-shaven; and most people who are born as men and grow beards can’t keep their hands off them. It has an effect on others similar to sitting in a room full of fifth grade girls sucking on their pigtails, pulling apart their split ends, and braiding/unbraiding their hair. You can’t pay attention to anything else, and it is uncomfortably personal.

Earrings and other jewelry. Again, nothing distracting if you can avoid it, like eight gold rings in on ear and none in the other. Earrings that dangle are fine, but neither they or a bracelet should tinkle every time you move. Many people over the age of forty find eyebrow, nose, lip and tongue jewelry to be a big distraction, unprofessional and a little juvenile. I happen to be one of them, and although I am aware that this is undoubtedly a function of my advanced age and I banish the thought, other people who are not so queer as I will not be aware that what they are experiencing is intolerance. On the other hand, if the alternative to facial jewelry is a huge, gaping hole in your forehead or nose, do fill it with something low-key.

Gay men often agonize over whether to remove a single, tasteful earring stud for an interview: as far as I can tell, this concern never occurs to straight men who wear earrings and studs, and they don’t seem to worry that this could make them “seem” gay. So I would say, wear that earring with pride, boys. And anyway, you can’t hide, even if you take out the earring. People like me always notice the empty ear lobe hole and think, “Hmmmmm…..I hope he’s gay.”

Try not to smell unpleasant. I’m not talking about body odor, although that is to be avoided. There are three main offenders: bad breath, cigarette smoke, and bottled scents of various kinds. Ordinary bad breath (I can’t deal with the transcendentally bad breath that accompanies various forms of gum disease in a short post) can be avoided by carrying around a Zip-Loc bag with mouthwash, toothpaste, and floss in it, as well as by carrying a little pack of breath mints, one of which you will crunch quickly as you approach each hotel room door. Make this part of your interview ritual. Also, don’t put anything in your mouth or body that is bound to linger. Practice saying “No onions please!” Know that if you get really soggy drunk the night before your interview, in addition to being hung over and stupid-feeling, a boozy smell will emerge with every exhalation as your body attempts to rid itself of alcohol in every available way.

If you are a habitual smoker, it’s going to be hard to avoid smelling like it, I’m afraid. While I wouldn’t advise anyone to stop smoking at a moment of stress (in fact, in my experience, it can cause memory glitches), if you are just a party smoker, knock it off until your interviews are over.

And whatever you do, do not wear scent, of any kind. Buy unscented or lightly scented anti-perspirant and a travel-size bottle of some shampoo that does not smell like fruit. Something you think is charming may be repulsive to someone else, who then will have a hard time listening to what you are saying as they do their best not to gag, sneeze and wish you out of the room. I find most men’s colognes revolting, for example, and they linger in the room long after the person has departed. I would prefer the smell of perspiration on anyone, any day of the week, to most scents
designed to cover it up. We on the committee expect you to be nervous; we don’t expect you to smell like a tart.

Remove all animal hair from your clothes. I don’t think I need to say more than this, do I? If you have pets that shed, bring some kind of very effective clothes brush with you, because there are multiple transfer points at which even the cleanest clothes pick up fur. In fact, if you have pets, you can avoid the whole problem by wearing grey. There isn’t a pet hair in the world that shows up on grey. You may, of course, be remembered as “The Woman in Grey” or “the Man in the Grey Flannel Suit,” but it’s much better than being remembered as the dowdy person who was covered in pet hair.

I do want to close this post by saying that, contrary to advice you will find on the wiki from other graduate students, I have never been on a search committee in my life where a candidate has been consciously disqualified or downgraded because of a fatal fashion error. But the point remains: you have somewhere between 30 and 40 minutes to impress these people, and your job is to make them listen. They will listen better if they have nothing else to think about but what is coming out of your mouth.

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