Image: Gabriele Seyfert in the Figure Skating Compulsory ladies competition at the German Championship of the GDR, 1967, Berlin.
I’ve served on numerous hiring committees and chaired two recent searches, yet I have to admit that what makes for a successful conference interview is still largely mysterious. In many ways, the whole episode is like a semi-blind date—without alcohol to soothe jangled nerves—and with one party, the interviewers, possessing (for the most part, in today’s crowded market) the power to make a second date happen.
I can’t offer fail-safe advice that will work in every search or in every field. I can tell you what I look for when do interview candidates in my field, history, and for my department. Everything depends on the “fit” of the interviewee to the specific needs of our department that year, and the ever-changing peculiarities of myself and my colleagues. If we didn’t hire you in 2012, that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t do so in 2015. It’s as unpredictable as romance. But here’s how—for me at least—you might think about making a good impression.
1. DO show me that you’re ambitious—for yourself, your future department, and your prospective students. That doesn’t mean you should promise to do everything if hired, or pretend we can rival Princeton. But show me that you want to write important books, talk to interesting people, and teach our students great stuff. Have a second and even third book project in mind, and make them significantly different (at least in theme or time-frame) from your dissertation. Show me that you’re not just falling across the graduate-school finish line exhausted and panting for air, but that you loved doing the research and are eager to do more.
2. DO show me that you are amiable, that you can get along with just about everyone, and that you like people, especially students.That doesn’t mean you have to tell jokes in the interview or speak too colloquially. But you can laugh at yourself or relate a funny anecdote about the Middle Ages (do not make jokes at the expense of your mentor, your current university, your current students, or your grad-school friends!). You need to show that you are a serious scholar, but also a friendly person. No school needs (or wants) a malcontent. And why become a college professor at all if you don’t like undergraduates?
3. DO show me that you are capable—that you can and will take on different roles and cheerfully do your bit. I might be looking for someone to direct the History Honors Club, or serve as undergraduate adviser. I might want you to team-teach “World History” or to prep our grad students for their general exams. Show me you are competent and efficient, uncomplaining and diligent. Intelligence is great; but all-around capability is what most departments really need.
4. DO engage me in describing your research. Remember that neither I nor anyone on the committee probably have much expertise in your subfield (check on that ahead of time, if possible). So give me the “big picture” and intrigue me with your research process. Tell me why I should think your work is important, not just for Spanish history (to take a random example), but for all fields of history.
5. DO show me that you are curious, about history of all types, about the committee members’ research (though do not ask us directly about our work; there is no time for that, and it sounds like pandering), about the department’s offerings, about our students’ abilities. Be sure to have some specific questions prepared for committee members that they will find interesting to answer, such as: What types of courses do the department’s students like best? Does the department have a writing group, or a grad student colloquium? Do your homework about the department and the position so that you can ask pointed questions.
6. Do bring sample syllabi for courses you might teach. But don’t foist them on the committee if it doesn’t seem to want them.
Now for a few DON’Ts:
1. DON’T talk too much. Be ready to describe your dissertation research in three to four sentences, including the “take home” message and the historiographical significance of your work. Pause for questions. If there are none, then briefly describe your archival or source work, and then what stage the manuscript has reached. Answer other questions efficiently, making sure that all committee members get a chance to engage you, if you wish.
2. DON’T suggest in any way that this position is your “fall back” job. Maybe it is, but if your top choice slips out of your grasp (as it easily could), you will be sorry you weren’t more enthusiastic about this one.
3. DON’T allow yourself to be rattled by questions that seem to come out of the blue. Ask for clarification if you need to buy some time, then do your best to give a short answer. The questioner may be fishing, or just addled by too much coffee and too many interviews.
4. DON’T beg. You may really want this job, but pleading makes you seem too desperate.
5. DON’T pander. You don’t need to agree with everyone on the committee about everything, or keep saying how you would love to teach every course to everyone. Just say, “That sounds interesting—I’d be glad to try it!”
6. DON’T fail to do your homework. Make sure you know the size of the institution, department, and the city. Know the course offerings or special features of the department that are described on its website, or easily accessible. If you can figure out who you might be replacing, and which courses they have taught, give some thought to how you might teach them in a fresh way that suits your special skills or areas of interest.
It’s a tough market out there, but perhaps some of these tips from a veteran may be useful. Good luck.