Surviving a Job Register Interview

Melanie Gustafson, December 2000

Editor's Note: We publish below an extract from the author's popular book: Becoming a Historian: A Survival Manual, a revised edition of which is being published soon. A part of this extract is based upon Steven A. Leibo's essay, "Using the Annual Meeting to Win a Position at a Small Undergraduate College," Perspectives, December 1995.

There is conflicting opinion about whether or not to attend a convention without a prescheduled interview. If you think it will be worthwhile, go ahead. Remember, though, that you will be responsible for all your expenses for the trip, and the money might be better spent pursuing job possibilities in other ways. Less than a third of the search committees interviewing at the annual meeting will be accepting c.v.'s, so you should adjust your expectations accordingly. Even if you have prearranged interviews scheduled, you need to be realistic. Search committees typically use the annual meeting job register only for preliminary interviews; candidates who attend expecting a job offer at the end may be sorely disappointed.

Interviews conducted at conventions are grueling situations for everyone, because many candidates are interviewed in quick succession. The interview should illuminate what is unique about each candidate, but to do this both sides must necessarily repeat themselves. The candidate should be able to provide capsule summaries of the dissertation or other current work, preferably in two versions: one in less than five minutes, one a bit longer. Each version should begin with a summary of main arguments (not just a description of the topic) and should at least hint at, if not cover, sources, theoretical content, and what is new and important about the work. Many young scholars have difficulty in asserting the importance of their work and construe their research in the most insignificant terms possible. Avoid beginning the summary apologetically or negatively by describing what is omitted or what the work does not do. Do not be so cautious that you refuse to think and talk beyond the limits of the dissertation. Be prepared to talk about how your work will or should influence future scholarship in various areas. Be prepared to answer the question, "So what?"

Candidates must be prepared to face search committees who have not read their material and to present condensed descriptions of their work to other department members who may not have even read the accompanying c.v. If the interviewer does not know the candidate's work, important questions may not emerge until the candidate has left. Candidates can try to refocus a wandering interview by emphasizing their recent work.

Interviewers will find it useful to draw out the candidates' views of their dissertations in order to get an opportunity to see how candidates handle a historical argument and what relationships exist between conclusion and evidence; these are tests of the candidates' qualities of mind. Interviewers often ask candidates for perspectives on the general development of the field (say, colonial American history) in the past decade or two: Can candidates identify the big historiographical patterns? Do they know the literature outside their dissertation topic?

Candidates should also be prepared to discuss a long-term research agenda—if possible, a project beyond the dissertation—or, at a minimum, a vision of how the dissertation will be revised. Candidates should consider carefully whether to present themselves as continuing the same topic or ranging further. If this question is not posed, find ways of introducing it. You may have difficulty setting the agenda and seizing the conversational initiative. Bolster your courage in advance, perhaps by asking friends to participate in a mock interview by posing some difficult questions. You can also participate in practice sessions held each year at the AHA annual meeting.

Although the hierarchical nature of academia, combined with social inequalities in the academy and the wider world, may seem to require attitudes of deference, such behavior does not usually produce good interviews. Confidence is almost always an asset. This does not mean bragging or listing all your honors; real confidence is reflected in a willingness to offer genuine opinions and to respond to thought-provoking questions.

You should also take into account the type of institution you are applying to. Interviewing for a position at a small undergraduate college will call for a different emphasis. Steven Leibo, in"Using the Annual Meeting to Win a Position at a Small Undergraduate College," puts it this way:

What today's nonelite small undergraduate colleges usually need are broadly trained historian-teachers who think an intellectual challenge is learning new fields and doing comparative, non-Western and world history rather than insisting on delving deeper and deeper into their original subspecialties. In fact, there is a good chance you will eventually be called upon to teach outside the discipline itself. If candidates sound too committed to their narrow field, they may never get to an on-campus interview. A small college professor afraid to take on new areas and broad intellectual challenges can become more of a departmental "paperweight" than a worthwhile colleague.

For small colleges, hiring decisions can have serious personal and professional repercussions. Successful new faculty can bring positive recognition to a department of any size, but the reality is that any one assistant professor in a large program has relatively little impact on the lives and careers of his or her colleagues. A failed assistant professor is merely one of 20 or 30 department members. On the other hand, in a small department such failure can potentially destroy the program, driving away majors and killing otherwise popular courses.

Convention Interviews

Prior to a convention interview, the hiring institution should announce job specifications as clearly as possible, and also should announce ways to locate the interviewers at the convention. At large conventions such as the American Historical Association's annual meeting, recruiters often are not assigned hotel rooms in advance of registration and the efficiency of mail and phone message systems varies from hotel to hotel. Candidates sometimes have problems finding interviewers who have issued specific invitations. Therefore, interviewers at conventions should enter their names and hotel numbers as soon as possible in the locator file at convention registration.

No amount of good advice can obviate the fact that interviews are full of arbitrary, capricious interactions and unexpected events. Interviewees will make mistakes, but a good interviewer can distinguish them from incompetence, so you need not think you must be perfect. Moreover, some of the best interviews will deviate from the rules and will exhibit some human oddities but will still honor the spirit and purpose of the event: to focus on the academic skills of the candidate.

Graduate students often sit on search committees. The student's status is not necessarily announced. Find out if one of the interviewers is a graduate student, then follow up with specific questions or comments about matters of concern to graduate students at the university. If graduate students from the department are not on the search committee, they may still be attending the conference, so arrangements may be made for a separate meeting. Use the locator file to set up a time to meet. This may be a good way to find out about the graduate students' views of the department.

—Melanie Gustafson is an associate professor of history at the University of Vermont. She is the author of the AHA's popular guide, Becoming a Historian: A Survival Manual for Women and Men, a revised edition of which will be published shortly.