This Can't Be Happening

Brian Taylor

May 16, 2012

Back in 2004, I was a newly minted Ph.D. I was also eight months pregnant with my second child and interviewing for tenure-track positions in my field. What I am about to reveal, dear reader, is the very true story of a job candidate's worst nightmare. And it happened to me.

When I began applying for positions in the fall of 2003, I was surprised to find out that I was pregnant again. I defended my Ph.D. dissertation in counseling and human development that October. Honestly, one of my biggest worries about my defense was that my suit pants would no longer fit. While I was practicing, I had to keep repinning them to prevent my burgeoning belly from popping out. Thankfully the defense went well, with no wardrobe malfunctions. After the celebrations, I was left to ponder what was next.

My husband, and various friends and colleagues, encouraged me to wait a year and let life settle before going on the job market. Ha!, I thought. Why not throw caution to the wind and send in my applications? My husband and I took out a map of the United States, crossed off our no-go states, and applied to any and all openings in the states that remained.

When December rolled around, I was in my third trimester and happy to attend my graduation ceremony (although it was damn hot underneath the regalia). Soon after, I began to receive invitations for telephone and campus interviews. The most exciting was a campus interview for one of my "dream jobs"—a department in the South that wanted to start a new doctoral program in my field.

The location was too far away for my husband to come with me (he stayed home to care for our 18-month-old). So I boarded the plane to Texas alone, wearing my newly purchased maternity interview suit. I was met at the airport by a faculty member in the department. It also happened to be Superbowl Sunday. Given that we were in Texas, I did as the Texans do and attended a Superbowl party at that faculty member's house rather than a traditional interview dinner. All in all, it was an interesting experience; and one that felt more familiar and familial than professional.

The next morning, I had breakfast with the search-committee chair. From there, we proceeded to the formal interview and my job talk about my research.

Now, let me set the scene for you: There I was, in my fancy $200 Pea in the Pod maternity suit, about to start a presentation on my dissertation research (the topic of which was the maternal-identity development of pregnant teenagers). I was feeling calm, cool, and collected.

Midway through my PowerPoint presentation, however, I began to feel a warm sensation creeping up from my stomach into my throat. Yes, I was familiar with that sensation. It was nausea. Not only was I nauseous, I was hot—really hot, all of a sudden.

The chair of the search committee, who was seated across the table from me, had begun looking at me curiously, as if to say, "Is everything all right?" Everyone else stayed the course and feigned interest in my presentation. But it became apparent to me that I was going to vomit, and soon. And not just a little bit but the full, belly-wrenching projectile type.

Before I could do or say anything, I leaned over the table and threw up—directly on the department chair.

Talk about mortified. I ran from the conference room, hand at my mouth, continuing to regurgitate. The search chair, remembering that I had no idea where I was or how to get to a bathroom, followed me out. She yelled "to the right" and "turn left" until I found the women's restroom. Once inside, she held my hair as I emptied the contents of my stomach into the nearest garbage can.

During that time, she was also introducing me to other college faculty members who were entering the restroom. It went something like this: "Dr. Reybold [on her way to use the toilet], this is Dr. Trepal [head in the garbage can] who is interviewing with us today."

After I was finished, the chair left me to recover, and I went into a bathroom stall and made a decision: I was never coming out.

I was embarrassed as hell. But then sanity returned. I had come all this way across the country and had the opportunity to interview for what sounded like a dream job, and I was not about to give up. I mean, it couldn't get any worse, right? So I took off my stained suit jacket, splashed some water on my face, and marched back into the conference room to finish my presentation. When I was through, I asked, "Are there any questions?" Mercifully, there weren't.

For the rest of that day on the campus, everyone I met seemed to have heard the tale. I was forced to relive it again and again for the next six hours. However, the whole calamity seemed to lighten the mood. Mostly, I began to laugh about it.

Friends have been urging me to tell my interview horror story for years because it has a happy ending. I was eventually offered the position, and I accepted, which shows job candidates that you can survive a major mishap on the market. Eight years later, I have tenure and am now chairing faculty search committees. Trust me when I tell you that I have "been there, done that" when it comes to interview nightmares.

What I want to emphasize to job candidates is that the experience, while dreadful, also proved insightful. Afterward, I was struck by the way in which the department's faculty members responded to me with empathy and kindness. They responded as human beings. Throughout the interview, they continued to check on my well-being; they understood when my feet were too swollen for my interview heels and I had to take them off. They brought water and called the next day to make sure that I had made it home safely.

I left there mortified. But I also left with a profound respect for the faculty as people and for the institution. It was a collegial climate where I could actually see myself working. And it has been that same spirit of camaraderie and collegiality that has gotten me through the tenure process.

In today's academic market, sometimes you just need a job, any job. But if you have options, listen to your gut. The place where you will feel most at home is the place where you are accepted and treated like family, even at your worst.

Heather Trepal is an associate professor of counseling in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Texas at San Antonio.