A New View on Interviews

January 16, 2002

As I prepared for a round of interviews at the American Anthropological Association meeting, I received a lot of advice.

My grandmother sent clippings from her hometown newspaper describing the appropriate wardrobe for a job interview (dressy but distinctive). A fellow postdoc pointed me to a Web site with a list of sample interview questions. And an adviser recommended that I research each department's needs then tailor my answers accordingly.

Since this would be my first experience talking about my research and teaching with potential employers, I readily accepted every suggestion. Why risk violating some unwritten protocol and dooming my chances for landing a tenure-track position?

So, in the week preceding the conference, I scrutinized the job announcements and mined departmental Web sites for clues about what specific classes they would want me to teach. I practiced responding to the sample interview questions and sharpened my 30-second explanation of my dissertation's larger significance. Before packing my suitcase, I selected a tie and shirt combination sufficiently colorful to make me stand out yet not so brash as to appear unprofessional.

In my mind, these preparations were worthwhile because I wanted to make as good an impression as possible. When I had mailed off two dozen applications for tenure-track jobs in October, I could only imagine what the process looked like from the perspective of those who would have to read the piles of cover letters. Mindful of aging eyes, I chose a legible font and laser-quality printing. I pictured how the search committee would scan my CV, so I experimented with bold letters and italics to highlight the most salient achievements.

A month later, six departments contacted me to arrange interviews at the annual gathering of anthropologists, this year in Washington. I approached the interviews with the same zeal for pleasing the search committees, certain that they were looking for any reason to disqualify me and winnow down their piles.

I had heard about the assembly-line nature of conference interviews, with one candidate following another in endless half-hour blocks. Getting called for an interview indicated some level of interest in my candidacy, but it also meant I was competing more intensely against a select group of highly qualified applicants. More than anything, I wanted the interviewers to like me.

What had not occurred to me at the time was that the departments were equally concerned about making a good impression on me.

In my first interview, with a private research university, I was relieved to find the atmosphere so congenial. We met in a plush hotel suite, not in the crowded exhibition hall ominously called the "Placement Center."

The committee chairman invited me to sit down. I immediately headed for a highly polished table with stiff-looking chairs. "Not there," he said. "Let's sit in the comfortable couches."

When I had settled in the couch, I braced myself for the questions about my dissertation and rehearsed a concise answer in my head. "Ive been following your career search in The Chronicle of Higher Ed," he began. I didn't know how to respond. This hadn't appeared on the list of sample interview questions.

He complimented me on my first-person article that had just appeared that week. I thanked him warily, figuring that his politeness foreshadowed more trenchant questioning. Instead, he segued into a description of the anthropology department there. The two more-junior faculty members present attested to how they were treated with an appropriate balance of autonomy and mentoring. The chairman assured me that their campus lacked the dense bureaucracy that had characterized my graduate institution.

By the time the questions about my research came, I felt at ease. We had interacted not as suspect and interrogators, but as colleagues. The conversation was going so smoothly that when my allotted time ended, I was disappointed that we could not continue talking.

In the course of the interviews that followed, I came to learn as much about the hiring institutions as they learned about me. I abandoned my eager-to-please posture in favor of a frank exchange about how my strengths would complement the department's needs. Search committees were not waiting for any misstep to eliminate me from consideration. Rather, they were interested in telling me what the working environment would be like in their department so we could both determine how I would fit in there.

During another interview, I sensed that I might not be a good fit with that institution. The department, from a large public teaching university, had sent just one member of the committee to meet with the candidates. Like my other experiences, the committee chairwoman was unfailingly friendly, but she seemed overworked. Her repeated references to "the administration" gave me the impression that the faculty there did not share the same priorities. At one point, she admitted that some of her students were not particularly motivated.

As we spoke, my doubts about whether I would be suited to the department grew. Although she stressed the relevance of the "teacher-scholar" model there, it struck me as a euphemism for a demanding courseload and imperious deans.

The highly competitive and often arbitrary nature of the academic job search had conditioned me to greet any sign of interest in my candidacy with immediate accommodation. So grateful was I to be called for an interview, that I was prepared to accept any requirements for employment. I viewed the conference interview as an opportunity to market myself as the ideal candidate for each position.

After the first few interviews, I changed my approach. I treated the interview as a chance to learn about the character of the department and the particular expectations the faculty held for the new hire. I came to appreciate how being an assistant professor at a research university would mean a very different life from teaching at a liberal-arts college and how within those categories there is a significant diversity of experiences.

The climate of scarcity that we job applicants face can promote an indiscriminate search for employment wherever it can be found. As I wrote in my last dispatch, I do not plan to limit my career prospects based on geography, but having interviewed with several campuses, I do plan to make distinctions based on the nature of the department. In the end, my goal should not be to get just any job, but the job that achieves the best fit between the department's and my interests.

Peter S. Cahn, who holds a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of California at Berkeley, is regularly chronicling his search for a tenure-track job this year.