Margaret Thatcher Naked On A Cold Day! Or, The Austin Powers Theory of Academic Interviewing

February 24, 2012, 9:20 am

We at Tenured Radical have been reminded lately that the higher education industrial complex is well into flyback season.  So this post carries a warning for those of you criss-crossing the country to interview for tenure-track jobs and residential postdocs:

The people who are interviewing you are Fembots. Or at least they should be.  Let me explain.

A conversation with someone who had just had a great time visiting a potential employer reminded me that, over the course of my life, I have had at least six flybacks and I have been on the hiring side of countless other searches.  Prior to my first campus interview ever (the one where I was driving up the West Side Highway before I realized I had left my interview clothes on a hanger in my bedroom), my Good Enough Dissertation Advisor gave me sage advice.  ”Remember that it is their job to recruit you, Radical:  if they do their job well, you should leave believing you got the job. But it doesn’t mean you did.”

She knew whereof she spoke, having been on the sagging job market of the 1970s for some years prior to snagging the post that brought her to a set of grateful graduate students at Potemkin U.  Seducing a candidate, unfair as it may feel, has its logic.  You may be their #1, and they don’t want you to leave campus and get hired by Dr. Evil. Even if you aren’t their first pick, they want you to feel the love anyway because you might become their top candidate when the #1 turns them down! Hence, the art of running a good on-campus visit is to persuade the candidate why s/he not only wants to work there, but must work there.

Their job is to be Fembots.

While this may seem like a higher order theory of interviewing than you yourself may have encountered, it is my experience that it is best practice across a range of institutions to seduce candidates to the extent that is possible. This can have the bad effect that people feel stunned and betrayed when they don’t get the job. Although the Academic Job Wiki has numerous tales of bad treatment at on-campus interviews, I don’t think it’s the norm — I think it’s the norm that shows up on the Internet. While I have picked up the occasional “bad sign” on a job interview — the grumpy prof who asks a question that is clearly designed to trip you up and create evidence that you are a poorly trained idiot (by comparison to the candidate ze prefers), disengagement from people who ought to be engaging more closely (like the senior person in your field), I have always been treated to well-coordinated, generous interviews.  During some of them I have struck up acquaintances that later blossomed into real friendships.

But do keep in mind that it is a seduction scene:  they are the Fembots, and this is what Fembots do. If you, as I have, leave campus interviews believing deep in your heart that you got the job it is in part because that is the outcome of a well-orchestrated campus interview.

In response to this, you have no choice but to become the Austin Powers of Interviewing.

Now, Austin’s clueless egomania doesn’t work in an interview situation if you don’t have another un-Austinish skill set:  asking questions, being genuinely interested in the answers, and treating every person with whom you are interviewing as if they were just as important as the last.  This latter category can be quite important, particularly if you are moving to an unfamiliar institutional context. People like the Vice President of Residential Life, for example, can teach a potential faculty member an awful lot about how the place works — information that becomes useful in subsequent meetings, and in making a final decision if you do get an offer.

As you may recall, Austin Powers triumphs over the Fembots’ attempt to derail him from finding Dr. Evil. He snaps himself out of the erotic trance they have put him in by reminding himself of things likely to suppress the libido.  While I don’t recommend shouting “Margaret Thatcher naked on a cold day!” in the middle of the candidate dinner, I do recommend that you find ways of letting your hosts know that you are very clear that you are a very desirable candidate.  As the search committee, students and your potential future colleagues construct the shimmering image of the institution whose potential offer you cannot resist, you must be unafraid to turn the tables.

When the Fembot search committee says:  ”You can’t resist us, Austin,” your response?

Au contraire, Baybee. I think you cahn’t resist me.”


Hat tip to Jack Halberstam, without whom I never would have watched Austin Powers in the first place, much less engaged with his theory of life.

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