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Dealing With the Unexpected

My all-time favorite phone-interview story is not from the job market but from a professor’s radio interview, by phone, to promote a new book. The interview occurred at the same time as a bout of stomach virus. He was terrified that he would lose the long-scheduled interview if he asked for a postponement. He tried to juggle the phone in between the waves of discomfort, speaking as expertly as he could and trying not to laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation.

At least in a phone interview, people at the other end of the line can’t see you. The radio audience probably never knew what was happening in the background. But I’m sure that folks have had similar experiences on academic-job searches.

The bigger challenge occurs when the on-campus interview has finally arrived, only to coincide with a personal challenge or tragedy. I myself have awakened in a hotel room on the morning of an interview only to realize that I was as sick as a dog (I keep a variety of medications in my travel kit now). I have witnessed candidates pass out or excuse themselves due to ailments that struck at the last minute. I’ve heard of parents’ deaths, spouses’ divorce announcements, miscarriages, and other deeply emotional and significant tragedies that have intruded on the interview process.

Those events are particularly difficult because rescheduling on-campus interviews is challenging and can take two or three weeks in even the best circumstances. In searches I have run, we have been able to accommodate the one or two postponements we’ve experienced, but nothing makes me feel as bad as hearing later on that the on-campus interview had occurred in the days between a death and a funeral.

When the unexpected occurs, I would advise candidates to call their contacts (be sure to have cellphone numbers on the agenda sheets, as these thing happen after business hours!), and be honest. It’s one thing to say, “I have the sniffles,” and another to say, “My mother just died from a long battle with cancer.” To hirers, I would urge patience and understanding.

What advice (or personal experiences!) would you share with people who face such unexpected challenges in the interview process?

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