Successful Interviewing

Linda Gordon, November 1989

The following discussion is directed both to interviewers and candidates, and rests on the assumption that these two parties need not have adversarial interests. Ideally, both want to exchange as much accurate and relevant information as possible about the qualities and credentials of the candidate and the nature of the job. Yet both face temptations that can lead to unproductive interviews.

One temptation for the interviewer is created by the fact that the interview often constitutes an occasion for conversing with colleagues; these occasions are unfortunately rare, especially in big departments, and in them we often discover that our department members are interesting indeed and want to talk with them. A related problem arises when interviewers want to demonstrate their own erudition. Interviewees on the other hand, face the problem that their anxiety and desire not to offend may make them suppress their natural personality and appear less interesting than they actually are. The more one plans and prepares for the interview, the less likely are these mistakes.

The most common mistake on both sides is inadequate preparation—often the result of denial that good interviewing requires a lot of work on both sides. If the interviewer does not know the candidate's work, revealing questions may not emerge until the candidate has left. Usually a candidate should not hesitate to send any reasonable amount of material, even beyond what is specifically requested, that may strengthen the case; the goal is to make oneself known.

Unfortunately, candidates must also be prepared to face search committees who have not read this material, and should expect to have to present condensed descriptions of work to other department members who may not even have read a his/her vitae. Candidates should be prepared to try to refocus a wandering interview on her or his work.

On the other side, candidates should study the department to which they are applying: its sex, age, and race profile, its areas of strength, the research interests of its faculty. Interviewers reasonably interpret this knowledge or lack of it as evidence of interest and sophistication.

Convention Interviews

These are grueling situations for everyone, as many people may be seen very briefly. It should be the goal of both sides to illuminate what is unique about each candidate, but to do this both sides must prepare to repeat themselves. The candidate should be able to provide capsule summaries of the dissertation or other current work, preferably in several versions: one less than five minutes, one a bit longer. Each version should begin with a summary of main arguments (not just a description of the topic) and should at least hint at, if not cover, sources, theoretical content, and what is new and important about the work. Women in particular, but many men too, have difficulty in asserting the importance of what they are doing, and construe their own work in the most insignificant possible terms. Avoid beginning the summary apologetically or negatively by describing what is omitted or what the work does not do. Do not be so cautious that you refuse to think and talk beyond the limits of the dissertation. Be prepared to talk about how your work will or should influence future scholarship in various areas: be prepared to answer the question, "So what?"

Interviewers will find it useful to draw out the candidates' views of their dissertations, in order to get an opportunity to see how they handle an historical argument, what they see as the relation between conclusion and evidence—tests of quality of mind. It is also useful to ask the candidates how they see the general development of the field (say, colonial U.S. history) in the last decade or two—can they see the big historiographical patterns, do they know the literature outside their dissertation topic?
Candidates should be prepared to discuss a long-term research agenda—if possible a project beyond the dissertation, at a minimum a vision of how the dissertation will be revised. Candidates should consider carefully whether to present themselves as continuing on the same topic or ranging further. If not asked this, devise in advance ways of introducing it. Again, women in particular have difficulty with setting the agenda and seizing the conversational initiative itself. Whet your courage in advance.

Although the hierarchical nature of academia, and its persistent sexism in particular, may induce patterns of deference, these patterns do not usually produce good interviews. Confidence is almost always an asset; if it isn't, maybe the job wouldn't be tolerable. This does not mean bragging, or listing all your honors, but it is reflected rather in your willingness to offer genuine opinions and to reflect on big questions.

Preparing for On-campus Interview

The more fully planned, the better the campus visit. Search committee chairs should produce detailed schedules, preferably in writing, for candidates' visits. These should include rest breaks. It is helpful to find guest rooms as near as possible to the center of activity so that candidates can retire for an hour if they like. Since it can be hard for junior candidates to ask assertive questions, it is kind to provide them certain information without being asked. Interviewers should offer information about the schedule and procedure for making the hiring decision; how many candidates are being interviewed; and what in general are the prospects and requirements for tenure. Interviewers should keep their questions exclusively to professional matters. Whenever possible institutions should try to include women and minority faculty among those doing the interviewing.

The candidates in turn should ask for detailed information about what will happen. Don't hesitate to ask very specific questions: what the schedule will be like, hour by hour if possible, where you will stay overnight, who you will see. If giving a talk ask the size of the audience, the type of room, the type of audience (e.g., largely students, largely faculty, open to the public), and exactly how long your talk is expected to be.

Candidates should beware of the following: many interviewers try to set candidates at ease by emphasizing the informality of the interview. Take these assurances with a great deal of salt. You are better off being overly formal. This means, for example, that if a talk is expected, you may be better off with a written paper, even if you do not actually read it word by word. (The notion that people perform better when talking informally from notes is usually a myth—most people perform better with a written text which they know very well and can deviate from without collapse.) Of course, the degree of formality may vary from place to place; question your inviters closely.

Be very certain, through practice in front of friends if possible, that your talk is the right length; the right volume; and is delivered with minimal repetitive mannerisms. Be prepared to answer questions concisely.

Above all choose to present your strongest possible paper, even if recently published. See that your paper hits all the scholarly requirements—above all a clear argument; good use of (preferably original) sources; critical standards of evidence; awareness of other relevant scholarship (particularly that written by members of the department); an inherently interesting and, if possible, important topic.

The specifics of a dress code are more problematic for women than for men, but they can be exaggerated. Academics in general (at least outside New York, and with other striking exceptions) are not as sensitive to fashion as many other professionals. It is appropriate to think "conservative." But it does not appear to be necessary, at least not in academia, to dress like a Wall Street broker. Be prepared to walk, as the distances across campuses can be great.

On Campus

Candidates are likely to have a series of brief meetings with individuals or small groups of faculty which will require repetitive descriptions of work and background. There will often be an interview with a dean. But now there may be more time. Perhaps divide your dissertation into chapters and be prepared to discuss the particulars of each—research problems and how you solved them; new sources discovered; and anecdotes from within the dissertation.

Now is the time to ask questions about the department and campus. Think about this in advance so as not merely to repeat the basics. Candidates should certainly inquire about the following: teaching load, research support, leave time, enrollments, promotion and evaluation procedures, department structure, future anticipated hiring, and library facilities. Try also to ask about the more basic issues and problems that all colleges have—is the institution well funded; are salary increases frequent; is the department congenial or factionalized; is there much interdisciplinary work for students or faculty, etc. It is also useful to ask about the community—its resources, schools if you have children, housing, etc. It is important that in asking these questions that candidates do not appear overly confident or disrespectful; this is to be avoided.

If you're a woman, direct special energy towards other women in the department. Their state of mind may tell you about conditions for women at this campus, although you should consider asking the interviewer directly about the numbers and status of women on the faculty. All candidates, of either sex, ignore the women faculty at their peril. The fact that women have a harder time getting jobs and promotions does not mean they're not respected once in faculty positions, and their opinions may count for a lot.

The same advice seems warranted in relating to minority candidates.

The evidence suggests that the situation of gays and lesbians is probably not parallel. Keep your eyes open but make no gestures to reveal yourself unless you are 100 percent certain of your safety.

Whether or not you are the top candidate, once at an on-campus interview you may find the chairperson or someone else drawing you into a practical discussion about your interest in this job and your requirements. Do not be misled—as the same discussion may be had with all interviewees. Don't hesitate to ask about what the job offer might include, but this is not a good time to make special demands that might privilege yourself above other department members, such as a lower teaching load or leave time. If you have other interviews, be sure to let them know this but do not exaggerate or stretch the truth.

You may also be a participant in many social occasions—from breakfast through evening cocktails. Don't be fooled—these are never simply social occasions—you are always being interviewed. You might wish to avoid drinking. Interviewers may use these occasions to fish for information about your personal or family circumstances. Feel free to discuss your situation if you like, but plan your responses in advance if you wish to retain your privacy.

One former interviewee suggests that you answer the question you wish had been asked. You might respond to an inquiry on marital status by saying, "I don't have any commitments that would prevent me from taking this job." On the other hand, don't feel that you must converse only about professional topics; it is useful to let people know your other interests in life. At any time, don't hesitate to ask for small breaks (before your talk, or between appointments) or to retire if you feel exhausted and need to go to bed early. Interviewers often empathize with the strain of it all and should be expected to sympathize with your need for a break or rest.

Women, homosexuals, and minority candidates may be asked inappropriate questions or offered barbed comments. To these there is never a simple response. Interviewers have a reasonable desire to assess a person as a potential colleague. It is often useful to begin by giving the interviewer the benefit of the doubt, interpreting personal questions or compliments on your appearance as charitably as possible. A useful device is often silence. Give yourself time to think, and the questioner time to reflect or change the subject. If the implied insult is negative, you may need to challenge it directly, but if you want the job, try to help the interviewer save face. If someone compliments you on your looks, you can assume the remark was meant as a compliment, acknowledge it with a smile or a nod, and change the subject. If that fails you can respond that you understand the remark was meant kindly but you would feel more comfortable concentrating on your academic credentials. To an inappropriate question you can respond that, while you know the questioner didn't intend it, the question could be interpreted as biased so you'd just as soon skip it. There is always a difficult choice here—those who make such comments are likely to receive these responses hostilely. Sometimes it makes sense to swallow your sense of justice and tell the interviewer what he or she wants to hear. The best solution of course is for interviewers to stick to academic matters.

No amount of good advice can obviate the fact that interviews are full of arbitrary, capricious interactions and unexpected events. Interviewees will make mistakes and a good interviewer can distinguish them from incompetence, so you need not think you must be perfect. Moreover, some of the best interviews will deviate from the "rules," exhibit some human oddities, but still honor the spirit and purpose of the event—that is—to keep the academic skills of the candidate in focus.

Linda Gordon is a professor of women's history at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.