The Job Interview

January 21, 2002

The most stressful part of the job search is the interview. Candidates looking for jobs in English and foreign languages risk their scholarly reputations, career prospects, and self-esteem to be interrogated by total strangers in a hotel room at the Modern Language Association's annual conference. The conference always takes place between Christmas and New Year's, a time when any sane person wants be home, or vacationing, or at least planning next semester's syllabus

Just so we're all on the same page about this, search committees hate giving up that vacation as much as job seekers do.

Candidates and committees each have gripes about the interview process, though I remind our interviewers each year that no matter how much they resent sitting all day in a stuffy room, things are invariably worse for the job applicants. The MLA can attract more than 10,000 participants, and I knew one candidate who missed an interview because she found the crowds so disorienting that she couldn't find the interview room at the hotel.

Those who do find their interview rooms don't always come away with happy stories to tell. In the old days anything was fair game for interviewers, who regularly asked candidates about their marital status, their willingness to throw parties, or their fertility. One search committee asked a friend of mine whether he could embrace the variety of Protestantism at their sectarian school, since they had never awarded tenure to anyone who was not a member of their church. My friend's beliefs proved fungible, and his conversion shortly after joining the faculty assured his future there.

Interviewers can be combative as well as nosy. One graduate student reported that her questioners spent half an hour attacking her dissertation. Why interview her at all, she wondered, if that's how they felt about her work? An interviewer once accused me of socialist leanings because I avowed -- in response to his question -- that assistant professors worked as hard as full professors. "And would you pay them at the same rate?" he roared. I didn't get that job.

At another interview for a job I didn't get, one of the six search committee members in the cramped hotel room just lay back on the bed and fell asleep. This professor was so distinguished that no one dared wake him, and we proceeded to the accompaniment of his light snoring. Interviewers don't have to have beds to fall asleep: The woman sitting next to me on the plane when I returned from MLA last month told me that one of her interviewers closed his eyes and fell asleep in a chair while the other questioners continued. Insulted and unnerved, but with more presence of mind than I had mustered, she woke him up. But of course by doing so she didn't get that job.

Our committees try to keep our interviews friendly and fair. We also arrange the hotel furniture strategically, check the lighting and room temperature, and try out the candidate's chair to make sure it's not too hard to get out of gracefully. This year our suite in New Orleans, on the top floor of the Sheraton, presented an impressive view of the Mississippi riverfront, and we made sure our candidates had this pleasant prospect before them to put them in the right frame of mind. But one interviewee told us later that he was so transfixed by the view that it distracted him. So much for feng shui.

I begin our typical interview by describing the form that it will take. Then I devote five minutes to exposition, talking about the university, the department, the teaching load, and research opportunities on campus. I end this introduction with an outline of what recently successful tenure candidates presented for their sixth-year review.

The interview proper aims to be a conversation about the candidate's work. I start things off with what some people call the "So what?" question: "Briefly describe for us the contribution that you are making to the field of English studies. What do we know now, having read your work, that we didn't know before, and why is this worth knowing?"

Candidates come to the interview primed to summarize their work. In fact some seem so eager to talk that they squirm or look about uncomfortably while I wade through my opening remarks. My question asks them not for a prepared summary, but for a critical appraisal, and a candidate who attempts a self-assessment, rather than a dissertation abstract, will earn some points here.

The very few candidates who take my opening question as an invitation to solo for 30 minutes have made a fatal error. Our best interviews are, in fact, lively conversations, replete with turn-taking, stepping on other people's lines, back-tracking, false starts, digressions, and occasional thoughtful silences. In our questions we stay away from the "Where do you see yourself in five years?" that many interviewees anticipate.

Not all of our questions are focused to anticipate an answer. For example, we might ask this: "You've mentioned in your fourth chapter such and such an idea. Could you talk about that a bit more?" Another: "It seems to me you could look at this in a different way. What do you think about this interpretation?" Or, "How would you fit so-and-so's ideas about your topic into your argument?" Such gambits invite the candidate to talk beyond the page, to explore the ramifications of an idea, to elaborate those parts of their writing sample that may have seemed to us tentative or unresolved.

The session may resemble a Ph.D. oral, but our queries are not posed combatively, nor are they in any sense a knowledge test. Instead, they help us see how the candidate will fit into the intellectual life of the department. The University of Illinois is a research institution, but we place great emphasis on excellence in teaching as well as cutting-edge scholarship, and we won't hire someone who seems likely to bomb with our students.

We usually begin to explore teaching about halfway through the interview. Our department's courses are general enough that instructors can shape them in terms of topics, genres, and authors to fit their own interests. So our teaching question tends to be of the "teach your dream course" variety, with the payoff that the candidate may actually get to do just that. Here, as before, we're looking for conversation, not lists. Candidates display their teaching style during the discussion of their scholarship, but the teaching question allows them to demonstrate both some coherent thinking about pedagogy and some enthusiasm for the classroom.

I conclude the interview by inviting a candidate-generated question -- usually there is time for only one. The questions we get range from details about the retirement system to further inquiry about the life of the mind on campus. It's fair to say we like best those thoughtful queries that open up discussion between the candidate and the committee, just as our own questions are designed to do.

At the end of the interview, I explain our schedule for decision-making, and invite candidates to call or send an e-mail message if they have further questions, or if they'd like to know the status of our deliberations and where they stand in our rankings. Then we say goodbye.

We build in some free time between interviews, and we rarely let interviews run into that 10-minute gap. We don't want to keep the next candidate waiting in the hallway, or negotiate that awkward dance where one candidate leaves as the next is entering. But mostly we need those 10 minutes to discuss our reactions to the candidate and review any information we think we need from the next person on the schedule. We share our comments standing up -- it's our one opportunity for a little physical activity to counter the effects of all the sitting that we do.

Just as candidates have problems with interviewers, we sometimes have problems with candidates. There was the candidate who had a panic attack and had to breathe into a paper bag. He eventually calmed down enough to answer questions, but his interview had ended before it ever got the chance to begin. Another candidate calmed herself by chewing ice. One candidate told us that the topic of her first book would depend on which job she wound up getting. Sorry, but we are not looking for converts to our brand of scholarship. We need someone who is inner-directed enough to have already started on that first book with assurance and conviction. Another candidate charged through the interview with so much assurance and conviction that our presence in the room seemed unnecessary. Sorry, again, but we need someone with a sense of audience. And there is the occasional candidate who makes me feel very, very sleepy. But I'm not going to go there.

When all the interviews are over, our committee meets to sort things out. Considering all the energy that both the committee and the candidates have put into interviewing, we must take care that our response to the interviews doesn't skew our sense of a candidate's strengths and weaknesses. As we select the finalists for the position, it's all too easy for us to fall for a candidate who is a brilliant, charming talker, but whose writing sample is on the weak side. Or to downgrade too far a fine writer whose interview proved unfocused or lackluster.

So we step back and remind ourselves that assistant professors get tenure at our shop largely on the basis of successful writing. We have found that insisting on the highest writing standards at the hiring stage leads to fewer negative decisions further down the line. So we try to look at the interview as an illumination -- not a rehearsal -- of the writing sample.

Of course the interview is also an important indicator of collegiality. We will have to interact with the person we hire on a day-to-day basis, and while there is plenty of room for people with rough edges in our department, our success depends on cooperative as well as individual effort.

In selecting who to hire, our search committee proceeds according to one of two plans. If, after careful deliberation, we are agreed that there is a strong first-choice candidate, when I get back home I will ask the dean to offer that person a job (only the dean is empowered to offer a tenure-track job). We then invite that person to campus to look us over. This visit involves meeting lots of faculty members and students, some wining and a fair amount of dining, even a real-estate tour. The visit gives us a chance to persuade that finalist to make the University of Illinois his or her professional home for the foreseeable future.

If we don't have a unanimous finalist, but feel instead that there are several strong contenders for the position, then we go to Plan B, choosing three candidates (or two, or four) to bring to campus for the more traditional campus visit, involving a lecture, more interviewing, meeting faculty members and graduate students, and of course the wining and dining, to offset all that stress. I'll write more about the campus visit in my next column.

Dennis Baron is chairman of the English department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is writing a regular column this academic year on how the academic job search process works from the hiring side of the table.