A Galling Interview

January 06, 2004

I went on the job market in the social sciences last year with low expectations. After hearing plenty of horror stories, I had a sense that things would be difficult for newly minted Ph.D.'s like me in search of a university teaching job. When I was fortunate enough to land a campus interview I proceeded to overprepare, war-gaming every potential: every question I could be asked, every issue I might be quizzed upon, every teaching technique I found useful.

What I did not focus on was the nature of the department itself. I figured that since getting a job was so hard, if I was lucky enough to land one, I should gratefully take it. If the department was stocked with curmudgeonly simpletons, it was simply my bad luck, because any job, I was told, was a good job. So I perfunctorily breezed through descriptions of the department's faculty members on its Web site, and set off to impress them with my breadth of knowledge, my style, and my teaching abilities.

I arrived at the university at noon, chock-full of vim and vigor. A few hours later my vim began to wane, followed shortly by my vigor. I should have sensed that something was wrong when I felt woozy at the interview dinner that night. I ordered pasta, ate very little, and chalked it up to nerves.

Pushing forward, I entered Day 2 to meet more faculty members and teach a class. Heading over to the lunch/job talk, I started to feel woozy again. But who doesn't get queasy at the thought of talking about your research methods with strangers over luncheon meat?

I sat down in front of my food, took a bite, and excused myself to go throw up in the bathroom. Stepping out of the stall, I came face to face with another woman in a nearly identical interview suit looking horrified. "Oh my God! Are you OK?" She seemed very sweet. "Yes," I answered, "I'm just a job candidate here on an interview." "Me too."

She now seemed very happy to see a friendly (albeit wan) face. We chatted about the process as I rinsed out my mouth. I realized then that I could be oversocialized, since I was asking someone else how her interview was going -- for a different position in another department -- as I myself faced complete professional catastrophe and personal affliction.

I was in agony, and I was flummoxed. The ache in my stomach was increasing to a searing pain and standing upright was terribly uncomfortable. I had no idea how I was going to finish the rest of the day, which including meetings with the provost, the dean of the college, and the department head. In theory, I had to actually remain upright for these interviews and this was something I was unsure I could pull off.

I bid my new buddy good luck and farewell, and set out to try and give my job talk again. I started twice more -- I'll spare you the gastric details -- and then sat back down. "I can't believe I'm saying this," I started, "But I can't go on. I'm so sorry."

The folks around me could not have been nicer. People offered Tums and water, and two said they would walk me back to my car. They told me not to worry, I could reschedule, and everything would be fine. I wasn't so sure of that, but I smiled and asked them questions about the institution as we headed across campus to where I had parked my car.

We never made it to the parking lot. We veered off into an academic building so I could use the facilities, and once secluded in the restroom, I lay on the floor feeling the cool tile against my face. The only thought I had was that these very nice people would never venture in to find me until it was too late. No one else in the building even knew who I was. What if I died on the floor of the bathroom and was discovered by a flabbergasted sorority girl? (Having done my research I knew that there were six sororities on campus.)

I had to move. Out in the hallway I lay across a bench, heaved into the wastebasket of another department head, and begged for help. Clutching my cell phone to my chest I was evacuated out of the building just as the class period ended. An astonished group of students watched as I was loaded into the ambulance and sped away to the local hospital. One of my would-be colleagues took my briefcase and drove my car to meet me there -- the other got the chair of the department and sped off in pursuit.

Oh the pain! As soon as I was admitted to the emergency room and the search committee was out of earshot I begged for drugs. Tests were run, blood was drawn, X-rays were taken, and the best medical minds in a small college town determined that I had passed a gallstone. Right in the middle of my job talk.

The most amazing thing to me was not my bad luck (although that in itself was pretty appalling) but rather the good luck that I was being taken care of by these really terrific people. They were warm, helpful, and genuinely concerned for my well-being. I didn't know them very well, but I already liked them. And it made me incredibly sad that I had upchucked before their eyes and ruined my chances of ever working with them. They all gave me their cell-phone numbers, offered assistance, and stayed with me at the hospital until the doctors gave me the drugs I so richly deserved.

Frankly, I don't really remember much after that. My sister drove three hours from her home to meet me at a hotel where I was under sedation, having been sprung from the emergency room but told to stick around for more tests the next day. I could have gone on a speaking tour extolling the virtues of Percoset, but I was too tired and too depressed.

My sister let herself into my hotel room and sat on the edge of my bed. I said: "This was awful. I threw up in front of two members of the search committee." Her response was kind and gentle: "It could have been worse. You could have thrown up on two members of the search committee."

A week later, I went back to finish the interview that had gone so incredibly wrong. I needed to show that I was a woman of good humor, academic integrity, and (most of all) intestinal fortitude. Everyone in the department showed up for the second job talk. I figured they were waiting to see what might happen next (academics are like that) -- either I was going to burst into flames or be arrested by a SWAT team.

But once again everyone was very nice and supportive, funny and smart. I got over my incredible embarrassment and finished my job talk. I met with the dean, the provost, and the department head and genuinely liked them all. Everything felt right, especially for an interview that had gone so haywire.

And then the coolest thing happened: I got the job.

Yes, I know. They probably felt sorry for me. But the fit seemed right, and when I was not heavily sedated or vomiting, I had done a fairly respectable job of interviewing. Now I'm a new faculty member, and I love the place. What could have been an unmitigated disaster actually turned out all right -- and my dissertation adviser got a great story to share. (By the way, my bathroom buddy was hired as well and we had a hearty chuckle together during the orientation for new faculty members. Happy news all around!)

The lesson here is always to listen to your gut and to your heart, as well as your brain. But most importantly get a feel for those with whom you might one day work. While I do not recommend hospitalization as a test of collegial support, assessing how comfortable you'll be with your co-workers is a pretty good idea. The support of others is a valuable asset, and let's face it: The life they save might be your own.

Lisa Ann Gosed is the pseudonym of an assistant professor in the social sciences at a university in the East.