Image by Tim Foley for The Chronicle
By Mark W. Pleiss
I asked my mentor for advice before leaving for my first campus interview. It was 2015, I was about to finish my dissertation, and I was off to interview at a small liberal-arts college in the lower Midwest. In all truth, I was expecting to hear some traditional bit of wisdom: "The interview starts the second they pick you up," "don’t drink at dinner," or "don’t talk about money until an offer is made."
Instead, he responded with a sigh.
"Always be the professional in the room."
I didn’t know what he meant, so I asked him to clarify.
"Whatever happens, just always be the professional in the room."
When I arrived on the campus for my interview, the air smelled like dog food. The factory was down the road, and it specialized in wet feed. My wife had joked that I could pick up extra hours there if the college didn’t pay well, and I started to wonder if I could get used to the smell.
The interview dinner was at a restaurant in a strip mall outside of town. The members of the search committee were silent. They seemed hungry, which made me wonder about the pay. One of my potential future colleagues was far more interested in his phone than in this strange guy in a suit sitting beside him.
I began to assume my interview was a formality. They already had the candidate they wanted, and I wasn’t him. I guessed it was the guy who was on the itinerary they had sent me a few days earlier. Someone forgot to switch the name of another interviewee with my own, which led me to wonder what he looked like, if his dinner was equally uncomfortable, and if he had wondered the same things I was wondering now.
I had prepared answers to all the common questions, and initially I had passed on the wine. This was my big moment, but it wasn’t going as I had imagined. Nobody was talking, and the head of the search committee was taking pictures of his ice-cream parfait.
From there, the usual: teaching sample, small talk with professors, lunch with undergrads, coffee with administrators, and the contract terms (under $45,000 a year and a high-deductible health plan). Maybe the factory had a pension, I thought.
I didn’t want the job, but it didn’t matter. I was about to finish my dissertation, and I wanted to feel like a professor for at least a year. I didn’t want my previous eight years to seem like a waste. Would I be happy with a tenure-track position in a small town? Would my wife be happy? Could we stand to live apart for awhile?
I was going to reject the offer, but I never got one.
My second campus interview was different. A private car took me from the airport to a swanky private college on the East coast. Dinner was at a fancy restaurant with a pair of interesting people, conversation was easy, and everyone kept their phones in their pockets.
Later I was standing before a group of students in my suit and tie — a truly absurd thing to be wearing while teaching — and I was introduced as Professor Pleiss. Nobody had ever called me that, and I liked it, but the presenter didn’t just give me the floor to do my teaching demo. She first issued an apology to the students: "I’m sorry again that we have had so many people come through to do this. But please be patient. Tomorrow is the last one."
It shouldn’t have thrown me off, but it did.
The class went poorly. Maybe it was my preparation, maybe it was that introduction, or maybe it was the six professors in the back of the room grading papers and texting while I taught. I don’t know what it was, but it didn’t matter. You only get one shot.
From there the experience would have ceased to be memorable, but it took a surprising turn.
A man approached me — I don’t remember his name, but he had a beard and a flannel jacket — and told me he was my ride to the airport. He pointed to a hatchback from the early ’90s with a rusty paint job and a shaky hubcap.
I followed him to the back of the car where he insisted on taking my things because he didn’t want "Cocoa" (a pseudonym) to stir. There was an animal carrier in the backseat, and I just assumed there was a dog in it.
We talked about sports and weather as we drove toward my ultimate destination, but I couldn’t help but focus on what sounded like the noises of a small primate resonating from the back of the vehicle.
"Shut up back there," the man yelled.
"I usually don’t bring her," he assured me as he looked in the rearview mirror. "But she’s been in her cage for —"
Suddenly the car was brought to a halt. The man got out, opened the hatch, growled something unintelligible, and then handed me my bag.
"Better hold onto this," he said. "I think she likes your computer."
At this point I had to ask: "Is there a … monkey in the back?"
"Of course," he replied nonchalantly, as though I had asked about the spare tire.
Over the next hour I learned that Cocoa and the driver were a promising act on the Eastern Seaboard. The man was a magician and a performer, and his partner used her opposable thumbs to help with the tricks. The man shared insights on monkey ownership, training, and even revealed a few secrets about his routine (which I promised never to reveal).
In some cultures, it is common for the patriarch to reject a suitor by sending him home with a pumpkin or a gourd. I wondered if going home with the monkey was something similar, but at least it was an interesting gesture. It was my favorite experience of the interview process, only second to the parfait (which was delicious).
During the following months, I had more interviews, mostly for short-term positions in the Midwest. I dined at Chinese restaurants, answered sly questions intended to reveal my marital status, interviewed for a job that was downgraded to a one-semester contract a day before my flight, and put over $2,000 on my credit card to fly to Vancouver for an interview at the MLA — for a job that was canceled a few weeks later.
I eventually accepted a one-year position at a liberal-arts college in the upper Midwest. There was, of course, a factory in town, but it was a cereal factory that emitted smells of fresh wheat and sugar.
Entering any job market is ultimately a helpless and anxiety-ridden endeavor, and being on the academic job market is much worse. The process is frustrating, and the decisions often seem arbitrary and fickle. But it does have its moments.
Mark W. Pleiss is a lead coordinator for the graduate-teacher program at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he advises graduate students on teaching and preparing for the job market.