In the spirit of letting it all hang out from the point of view of the academic job interviewee, Associate Professor Alice survived her interview at Blunderland University–just barely. Regrets? She’s got a few:
I just had to write you in solidarity with Freddie from Ft. Lauderdale. I don’t care what you call me–just don’t call me unprepared for a job interview, unlike the department that interviewed me for a senior appointment in January. Since I’m complaining to you–spoiler alert!–you probably have figured out that I didn’t get the job.
The whole search was marred from start to finish by the search chair’s truly breathtaking a$$hattery. Either he’s suffering from an undiagnosed medical condition, or he deliberately sabotaged the search–I can’t decide which scenario is more plausible. Maybe your readers can help. From the first day he called me on the phone, he was like the stereotype of an abusive boyfriend: he sounded reasonably personable and interested in my application, but then started immediately demanding a commitment: how serious are you about this job? Because we’re very serious about you. Are you in a position to relocate?I was flattered but completely confused–why was I being hounded to offer proof of my commitment to a job I hadn’t even interviewed for? I sent him an application–I didn’t realize that a blood oath was required at this stage. I have a new baby, and had to check the interview dates with my partner’s work schedule, so I asked him to get back to me with a list of possible dates.
A few nights later, he called me and said “Your interview is all set up for X date!” Shocked, I told him (truthfully) that my partner had a business trip that weekend, and reminded him that I had asked him to run some dates by me before setting anything up. He responded angrily: “You told me this date was okay for you! I set this up with the understanding that your calendar was clear! I can’t change everything now!” Instead of saying “clearly, you’ve mistaken me for another candidate. We never discussed specific dates. Here are three dates that are good for me,” I meekly apologized and let it drop. And that was just my first mistake!
It was a bad omen when I arrived at the hotel to check in, and was informed that they didn’t have a reservation for me. When I called the search chair and the department office trying to clear up this misunderstanding, I was told to just put the room on my credit card and they’d get the charges shifted to their university account later. After a cross-country flight, I wanted to check in, so I handed over the plastic. Several members of the department took me out to dinner that night, and they seemed quite comfortable with each other, and were very friendly to me. That night in the hotel, I reviewed the itinerary for the next day carefully, and thought it was strange that the whole interview–for a tenured professorship–was squeezed into one day, and looked like the generic interview day my department offers to junior people. No separate interview with the untenured faculty, no interview with the senior faculty–how strange, I thought.
The next day when I was picked up at the hotel by the search chair, he continued with the abusive boyfriend act. Upon my prompting, he talked to me endlessly about his own research and several books, but never got around to asking me any questions about my work. In fact, it felt rather like I was interviewing him–except for the times he lectured me on how I organized my C.V., and that it was inappropriate that I, as a tenured professor, no longer listed all of the adjunct teaching and visiting lectureships I had before taking my Ph.D. He implied that it looked to him like I was “hiding something.” (Later when I met with the Chair of the department, I provided him a full list of my adjunct positions, in the interest of full disclosure upon the advice of the search chair. I played it straight, but I was pleased to see that he rolled his eyes apologetically and said it really wasn’t necessary.) When we got to the department office, I consulted with the administrative assistant about the hotel reservations and bill, and she apologized for the mix-up, saying “I’m sorry–I was unclear as to what the exact dates for your interview were.” You and me both, sister.
The whole interview day I felt like Alice in Wonderland–specifically, the scene at the Mad Hatter’s tea party in which Alice is invited to have some wine, and then is scolded for sitting down at the tea table without a proper invitation. It was like that all day long. I had several nice conversations with people, many of whom seemed perfectly pleasant, but they didn’t act like they were interviewing me for a job. They seemed to know it wasn’t a real interview, but for some reason they weren’t allowed to let me in on their secret, and I had to go along pretending like I was on a job interview. I got the odd feeling that people recognized that the search chair had screwed up big time, and that people were shunning me in an attempt to distance themselves from him. (Me, lumped with that guy like I’m his special pick? That added insult to injury!) Maybe I’m just projecting.
When it came to the research talk, I felt like I did well–at least, I thought, no one could fault me for being unprepared. All I got was some limp applause. I looked around the room–no questions, apparently–and this was a department at a prominent state institution with a Ph.D. program? Finally, one faculty member spoke up to ask a question–which he could have answered himself with a cursory glance at my C.V. and application letter, and which moreover indicated a great deal of hostility to my chosen fields of specialization which, interestingly, were the exact fields specified in the job description. (Did I really need to back up and explain that they invited me to campus?) A few graduate students asked a few reasonable graduate-studenty questions, and then I was whisked off for a 5 p.m. interview with the Dean. At exactly 5:50 p.m., I was kicked to the curb at my hotel, without so much as a coupon for the IHOP down the street. Not that at that point I really wanted to spend any more time with those people–but I felt dirty. Really dirty. Oh–and last month as I reviewed my credit card statement, I saw that I got stuck with the full bill for the hotel. Nice touch. Perhaps you won’t be surprised to hear that the search failed.
I will keep this interview in mind when my department invites job candidates to campus. All I can think is that the department was deeply conflicted about this search from the start–clearly, they shouldn’t have bothered to do the search at all. The one major lesson that I hope I’ve learned is to stand up for myself better. If someone is rude and isn’t making any sense–it’s OK to tell him that the conversation is over. Nothing good will come of it if you indicate that it’s acceptable for people to treat you the way I was treated by this search chair and this department. I cringe when I think about how I apologized and felt bad about their inconsideration towards me. How I wish I had just asked them why they bothered to fly me across the country to be treated like this! The other lesson I learned is that nobody reads anything you send–not even the first page of your C.V. I spent more time reading the books and articles and researching the careers of the search committee members than anyone in the interviewing department spent reading my application materials and book.
Interviewing–if you do it right–is time-consuming hard work. My mistake was in thinking that everyone approached it that way. I should have stayed home to work on my sure-to-be prizewinning next book, instead.
My, my, my: two stories, two days in a row. What are the chances? Of all the luck! It’s interesting once again that metaphors from romance–or, rather, romances gone bad–that come to mind so easily as Freddie (bad blind date) and Alice (search chair as abusive boyfriend) tell their stories.
Are there really departments that don’t actually want to hire anyone? What a waste of time and money–it seems like an expensive and not-very-fun habit. I’ve heard about seriously dysfunctional departments that deliberately sabotage searches–have any of you visited or been a part of departments like this? Why do they do that? What’s your analysis? As another Alice–Alice Roosevelt Longworth–used to say, “if you haven’t got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me.”