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Tell Us About Your Dissertation: And Other Commonly Fumbled Interview Questions

December 27, 2010, 5:37 pm

Photo credit.

As has been frequently indicated over the four years of Tenured Radical‘s existence, Interviewing R Us. Why? Well, it is probably not too modest to say that over the years we have interviewed a great many people in hotel rooms, been interviewed by more than a few hiring committees ourselves, and have hung out in the bar afterward talking to other hiring committees about what they saw that day.  Over time, we have developed a perspective on what works and what doesn’t.  It isn’t the only perspective, but to paraphrase Monty Python, it is the perspective which is ours.

So for those of you lucky enough to have AHA or MLA interviews, here is our list of the most frequent fumbles and how to avoid them.

Know how to talk about your dissertation.  You nubies out there would be shocked to know how many of you blow it coming right out of the gate.  When you can’t talk intelligently about your own work, my friend, you have a 98% chance of being absolutely dead in the water for the rest of the interview.

It is a lead-off question understood from the perspective of the hiring committee as an icebreaker.  It is a big, fat softball that we toss up there, gleaming white, intended to set you at ease as you triumphantly hit it out of the park and then relax, showing us your very best self for the rest of the interview.  And yet, so many of you — probably half of the people I have met in a hotel room for this purpose — get this deer in the headlights look, and before you know it I can hear my beloved Phillies announcer Harry Kalas in my mind saying:  “It’s a… SWING! andamiss.”   

So don’t sit there with a look on your face that says, “Huh?  Dintcha read my letter?” Don’t, if you are a historian, go off on a long, rambling narrative that is some combination of an extended, muddled  chapter outline and a nighty-night story that happens to be historical. Don’t talk to me about the IWW as if this is something I have never heard about and you are rescuing it from the ash bin of history. Do have the following prepared:

  • A concise, five-minute statement that identifies the specifics of the topic; any interesting people who are part of the project; the archives you are using that are either new or that you are reinterpreting; why your archives are new/in need of reinterpretation; the scholarship that influenced your choice of topic; and a statement on how you are improving on or adding to that scholarship.
  • A sentence about how far along you are and when you will be finished that matches what your dissertation advisor has said. 

That’s all:  five minutes, then stop. Remember, the whole interview is between half an hour and forty-five minutes, so if you ramble on about what they have already read they won’t have any time to get more information about you, which is what this interview is at least partly about.

Next comes the opportunity for the committee to ask you questions about your thesis:  this is what you are leaving all that extra time for.  You have no way of anticipating what they will ask except to do your homework on the faculty in the room ahead of time and making informed guesses about what their interest in your work will be.  But as part of this phase of the interview, you should make sure you squeeze in:

  • A statement about methodology;
  • Reasons why you chose this particular topic to write about that you can link to your enthusiasm for the field more generally;
  • A reference to some feature of your research that allowed you to do something creative in the classroom;
  • A name-dropping opportunity.   Feel free to mention one scholar who doesn’t work at your university, and with whom you have discussed your research or appeared on a panel, but make it substantive.  This doesn’t make you look connected:  it means you are connected.  Extra points if you are a male bodied person and the scholar you name-drop is a woman.

Know how to talk about the courses you will be asked to teach.  Seems like a no-brainer, eh?  But here are the ways I have seen this portion of the interview tank:

  •  When asked about a period survey, the candidate talks about one small part of that period.  This is a particularly egregious interview flaw if you are an Americanist, because whatever else might be challenging about our field, the amount of time we must cover in a semester tends not to exceed 200 years.  There is one excellent graduate school that seems to kick out candidates who all interview as if they are prepared to teach the period of their dissertation and no more.  It is just stunningly weird to hear someone talk about the colonial history survey, for example, as if it only had to cover the years between 1688 to 1724.  But it also reveals you as narrow in your interests and knowledge — narrower, perhaps, than you actually are.
  • A candidate being asked why s/he chose a particular book and not being able to say.  This makes us think that the syllabus you are talking about is from a course you T.A.’d for, or worse, a course you pulled off the web. Yes, I have heard of people on search committees being handed their very own syllabus by a complete stranger. This, by the way, makes you look like a psychopath.
  • A candidate saying sincerely that s/he believes in the Socratic method (which in and of itself makes it sound as though you have never actually taught at all) and not being able to say what that means in a real live 21st century classroom.

    Prepare at least two courses you would like to teach.  Common ways people screw this up?

    •  Not having thought about this at all.  True.
    • Proposing a course that is a slight variation on the survey they will be responsible for.
    • Proposing a course that someone, perhaps someone who is actually in the room, already teaches and seeming to be completely unaware of that.

    Particularly if the interview is going well, you should fall into a happy, general conversation in the last ten minutes or so, so that even if you aren’t specifically asked about new courses, these are good to have in your hat to show them an aspect of yourself they might not have seen.

    Don’t trash a search committee that evening in the hotel bar.  Leave the hotel and go far, far away if you must trash a search committee, and even then make sure you have your back against a wall and a good view of the door. 

    Extra points if you don’t go on the job wiki following the interview to leave a few observations about what $hit heads the interviewing committee was and how unappreciated you felt.  There are two good reasons you should not report on your experience, other than the fact that it is childish and you probably don’t even really believe that you are giving other candidates infor
    mation that they need (if you did think you were helping them, would you give it to them?  Really?) 

    • Your view of the interview could be very different from the committee’s view.  Not only are academics not always aware of it when they are treating people badly (you knew that!), but the people who behaved badly may be marginal to making the decision.  Why is this important?
    • Because we read the job wikis too, and bitching out the committee could cost you your campus interview.

    On that note, good luck young folk, and I’ll see you in Boston.  The Radical Panel is at 2:30 on Friday.  Be there or be square.

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