Successful Strategies for Interviews at the Annual Meeting
Lucy G. Barber and John Wood Sweet, December 1998
Editor's Note: The following essay offers advice especially useful to candidates whose interviews are prearranged. Interviews arranged on site necessarily tend to be brief and are thus more general; nevertheless, they too offer opportunities for useful exchanges of information, and some of the strategies set out in this essay can also be applied in such contexts.
Every year at annual meetings of professional associations job candidates and search committees gather to participate in a crucial stage of the hiring process: the preliminary convention interview. Such interviews allow committees and candidates to learn more about each other's needs, styles, and ambitions. Everyone wants these interviews to be successful, but the scenario can be intimidating. Many candidates and interviewers leave the encounter exhausted and anxious about how their searches will turn out. This may be inevitable. Unfortunately, many candidates also end up feeling frustrated and disappointed in their own performances. This is unnecessary.
Not every job candidate can have star quality, but everyone can prepare carefully, master a few practical strategies, and give a dynamic interview.
Here, we'll try to suggest how. Many publications offer advice for job candidates. Some narrate horror stories from job searches past; others remind us to do things like dressing comfortably, making eye contact, and sitting up straight. Here, we focus on the dynamics of interviewing and their special implications for academics.
As an interviewee, your challenge is to communicate effectively. To do so, you need to (1) discover what the committee wants and what it needs to hear; (2) anticipate how they'll evaluate your qualifications; and (3) learn how to translate your qualifications so that the committee can understand and appreciate them.
Because you're a historian, it may seem obvious to begin with some research that will give you information about what the interview committee might want. If you still want the position, you will be able to tell them what they need to hear.
Your research begins in earnest when a representative from the school calls to arrange an interview. Your impulse may be to set up an appointment and hang up. Don't. Seize this opportunity to question the chair of the search committee. If you are on the line with the chair already, ask if she has time to answer a question or two. Very likely, the answer will be yes.
You will want to determine basic information about the interview: Who will be present? How long it will last? Where it will take place? But don't stop there. Often, the best question to ask is what role the advertised position will fill in the department. Chairs always have an answer. They've spent months repeating this answer to colleagues and administrators to justify the job search. Their response can reveal much about the department's previous experiences and future ambitions. Listen carefully. Take notes.
After this foray into oral history, turn to written sources for some basic facts. What kinds of students attend the school? How big is it? What kind of town is it located in? A good source for such information is often the school's web site. Look also at guides to colleges designed for high school students. They often give you insights into recent accomplishments and controversies.
You also want to know about the history department specifically: How big is the department? What is the structure of the undergraduate major? Does it have a graduate program and what degrees does it offer? Look for answers in course catalogues, the AHA's Directory of History Departments, or on the World Wide Web. Also, check out the publications of search committee members, department chair, or faculty in your field. What kind of work do they do? Do you share common interests? Write down what you learn. Keep a file for each school.
Knowing What They'll Ask
Once you know something about the school, you'll want to know what they'll ask. Fortunately, the convention interview is extremely conventional. Three basic topics form the backbone of almost every interview.
- Tell us about your dissertation/current project.
- Tell us about teaching.
- Do you have any questions?
Naturally, there are variations on the three basic questions and all sorts of follow-ups. A good set of examples is available on the World Wide Web. So, to avoid being caught off guard in an actual interview, anticipate the specific questions you are likely to face. Make a list. Then work on figuring out how to answer them.
In developing effective answers, don't depend exclusively on mock interviews. Such trial by fire is rarely helpful if approached cold. You might begin by writing scripts of possible responses. In addition, working with a partner can be a huge help in rehearsing for the actual interview. Practice fielding questions for a while, then switch positions and pitch questions for a while. Reversing roles is revealing. You get to feel what it's like to ask questions and listen to answers. This experience will convince you that not all answers are created equal. So why are some answers better than others?
Giving Better Answers
To communicate effectively in interviews, target what you're saying to your listeners and respond dynamically. Many candidates assume that the point of interviews is to show how smart they are. In reality, a committee won't ask you to interview if they don't find your credentials impressive and your written work interesting. The convention interview is more like a ritual of courtship. An interview does not simply establish qualifications and assets. It helps each party explore complicated emotions and try out interactive relationships.
For these reasons, effective answers honor three basic principles.
1. Keep it short, short, short. All answers should be short. Long answers are boring. They also don't take advantage of the special opportunities that the live interview presents. Imagine you've asked your friend about his thesis and he's now in his fifth sentence of explanation. Are you still really listening? No. Either you've zoned out or you've had some bright idea you want to ask him about. If your friend doesn't stop soon, you will feel either bored or frustrated. Don't let interviewers feel that way. Instead, let them ask questions.
In addition, their questions will be revealing. If you keep your answers short and allow interviewers to ask more questions, you will quickly discover what aspects of your project they find most interesting. That gives you the opportunity to address what matters most to them.
2. Organize your thoughts. Begin strong with a topic sentence and structure your answers logically. A clear order helps your audience follow your train of thought. It also emphasizes your poise and coherence.
The simplest way to organize answers is with a numbered list: "I consider two major questions in my conclusions. First… Second.…" Another approach is to think in narrative terms. "I got interested in the project because…then I encountered…and decided.…" The format of a mini-story about your intellectual development can add personal interest and keep the interviewers' attention focused on the crucial point.
You might want to pause for a moment to reflect. Or begin your response with a moderate compliment, like "I'm glad you asked that…" or "What an interesting question." As your mouth delivers the compliment, your mind has a few seconds to plan an organized response. In addition, committee members spend a good deal of energy thinking up what to ask candidates. Appreciating that fact reveals that you are courteous and collegial.
3. Emphasize your goals. Whenever possible, explain why you made the professional choices you've made. What you've done in your research or in teaching may be relevant, but much more interesting and important is why. How you define your goals and alternatives provide a much better sense of your qualities of mind and future potential. Strategic answers might begin: "I decided to focus on…because I wanted to…" or "I taught this course this way in order to.…"
Emphasizing goals can redeem even disastrous experiences. "In this case, I was trying to accomplish…and I went about it this way…The result was not so good so in the future my strategy would be.…" Even if you didn't succeed in the past, you can show that you had good intentions, are flexible, and will continue to strive for excellence.
Mastering the Basic Questions
In practice, how do these principles help you answer questions? Let's return to the three basic questions and outline some strategies.
Question 1: Tell us about your dissertation. First, you need to briefly tell them the subject matter, approach, and argument. Even if they did read your file carefully, they won't remember your project clearly. The answer must also contain a clear why-you-should-care statement. Use a phrase like "I argue."
The interviewers will follow up with questions about the aspects of your research they find interesting. Organize your answers in terms of the choices you've made and the strategies you've employed. Be prepared with brief examples, cases, and stories that are both interesting and revealing of what is distinctive about your work. Always be open to links between your topic and other fields of study, because few interviewers will be experts in your field.
When talking about research goals, explain how your topic contributes broadly to your field. Claim your own ideas as your own and show self-awareness of your place in a broader historical discourse. Be careful, though, to keep historiographical discussions short. Let the interviewers reveal their level of interest with follow-up questions.
Question 2: Tell us about teaching. Here you benefit from having learned more about what they need. Let them know you've looked at their offerings online or in their catalogue. It shows you've prepared for the interview in a businesslike manner.
One strategy is to make a general statement about how you can reinforce and complement their offerings, and then turn the question back on them and ask more about what they see as your role in the department.
As the discussion develops, you will want to focus on teaching experiences you've had (as a student or instructor) and how these helped you develop your own teaching style. Emphasize the practical demands of teaching in goal-oriented terms: "If the class had over a hundred students, I would.…" When discussing individual courses, point out your strategic priorities: "In the survey, I would emphasize the theme…in order to.…"
Question 3: Do you have any questions? Resist the temptation to say no and bolt. You might think, "I know this is a great job, what else do I need to know?" But even if you think you have heard enough, ask something. Your interviewers need you to question them. Your questions will remind them that you are a potential colleague, that you are mature enough to envision yourself as an actual colleague, and that you have it in your power to decline the job if offered.
The best questions show insight into the nature of the institution and its special advantages and challenges. Some basic questions can be adapted to pretty much any school: "How do you balance the requirements of teaching and research?" "How does the school's mission affect the teaching of history?" Other questions can draw on research you've done. If they have a new president, budget crisis, or religious mission, ask for their thoughts and personal experiences.
If you go into an interview with a repertoire of potential questions in mind, you can figure out which ones will work best by paying attention to things they say that seem unexpected, unusual, or unnecessary. For example, if they let it slip that locals call their university the state "zoo," ask them how they feel about that reputation. Your goal is to communicate with them, so if they give you clues about their concerns, take heed.
Sailing through Troubled Water
1. If you begin to feel defensive, think, "you're right." Sometimes interviewers will ask you questions that make you feel defensive. Your impulse may be to evade the question, blame others, or affect an attitude of mastery. Don't. Defensive behavior implies that you are insecure, narrow-minded, and prideful. Fortunately, nothing is more disarming than candid agreement.
When you get an aggressive or off-the-wall question, don't answer until you can begin with the words "you're right." Find some point of agreement. Sometimes you can just express respect for the concern and stop right there. In other cases, you'll want to elaborate by showing that you understand the problem, that you've thought about how to fix it, and that solving it has helped you become a better historian. Remember, interviewers sometimes ask such questions just to see how poised you will be in responding.
Always be honest, but positive. Your goal is to show yourself secure enough to engage in academic give and take.
2. If you really don't want to answer the question, don't. Interviewers can ask you questions that seem awkward, inappropriate, or downright unprofessional. You don't have to answer them. You have several options.
One option is to paraphrase the question to let them hear what it sounds like. They may recognize the problem and take the opportunity to change the subject.
Another option is to decline to respond. Say you don't feel comfortable addressing that topic at the moment; suggest another topic you would like to discuss. One example: They ask you what your partner does for a living. You don't have to answer such unprofessional questions. Instead, explain that you'd like to postpone discussions about the logistics of accepting the job, and that right now you'd like to hear more about the job so you can see whether you'll be able to make a contribution.
3. If you don't understand the question or its implications, bounce it back. Sometimes a question seems pointless or just plain incomprehensible. Answering the question at this stage would be reckless: you simply don't have the information to respond meaningfully. So ask for it. When in doubt, paraphrase the question first so the interviewer can confirm or clarify it. Say, "So, you're basically asking…?" When you sense that the questioner has an ulterior motive, try to flush that out. For example, say: "Could you tell me what makes you ask that?" This can elicit responses like: "Well, this small point seems important to me because it raises the broader issue of.…" Now you're ready to respond.
O.K., you have made it through the interview. One of the interviewers has graciously announced that they are out of time and has explained the schedule for the next stage of their search. Again, you may have the urge to stand up, shake hands, and leave. Don't worry—you can and indeed should.
As you get up to leave, you may want to hand them a "party favor." Something new, something they haven't seen, something that will remind them of you. A teaching portfolio, an appropriate syllabus, or a published article can highlight your strengths or redress your weaknesses. For instance, if you have little experience in the classroom, you might prepare a syllabus to emphasize your ability to succeed as a teacher. Let the party favor symbolize whatever you want to be remembered for.
Once the door closes, you may feel like taking stock. What did you do well? What could be improved next time? Or you may begin to fret about whether there will be a next time. Will they call you back for a campus visit? If they do, you're already well prepared. Every thing you've done before and at the annual meeting interview will help you on campus.
In any case, right now, you can pat yourself on the back. The next move may be theirs. But for now, you've done your job.
—Lucy G. Barber teaches at the University of California at Davis and John Wood Sweet teaches at the Catholic University of America. They have conducted several workshops about interview strategies for job seekers in history and other disciplines.
1. A very useful analysis of the process of interviewing is Linda Gordon, "Successful Interviewing," Perspectives (November 1989). See also the AHA's pamphlet Becoming a Historian: A Survival Manual for Women and Men. [Back to Document]
3. This strategy is one of the many useful ideas adapted from a popular manual of cognitive behavior psychology: David D. Burns, The Feeling Good Handbook (New York: William Morrow, 1989), particularly chapter 5, "How to Give a Dynamic Interview When You're Scared Stiff," and chapter 7, "Empathetic Communication." [Back to Document]