2003 Annual Meeting

Interviewing Strategies: Survival at Interviews

Melanie Gustafson, December 2002

Successful Academic Interviewing

The following discussion is directed both to interviewers and candidates and assumes that both have mutual interests. Ideally, both want to exchange as much accurate and relevant information as possible about the qualities and credentials of the candidate and the nature of the job. Yet both face temptations that can lead to unproductive interviews. One temptation for the interviewer is created by the fact that the interview often constitutes an occasion for conversing with colleagues; these occasions are unfortunately rare, especially in big departments. It is always satisfying to discover how interesting our departmental colleagues are, but such discussions unfortunately detract from the interview process. A related problem arises when interviewers want to demonstrate their own erudition. Interviewees frequently face the problem that their anxiety and desire not to offend suppress their natural personality and make them appear less interesting than they actually are. Thorough planning and preparation for the interview will make such mistakes less likely.

Inadequate preparation on both sides is a very common mistake and often results from denying that good interviewing requires a lot of work on both sides. 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.

Candidates should not hesitate to send ahead any reasonable amount of material, even beyond what is requested, to strengthen their case: the goal is to make one's work known. Candidates should also study a prospective department's makeup. Are women and minorities well represented? Do faculty members represent more than one age group? What are the areas of strength and research interests among the faculty? Candidates might find it useful to read (or at least look at) the work of department members. Interviewers reasonably interpret this knowledge or lack of it as evidence of interest and sophistication.

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. To ensure that candidates can easily find pre-arranged interviews, search committees should enter their names and hotel numbers as soon as possible in the locator system at the Job Register, and check for e-mails at the messaging system.

There are conflicting opinions 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?”

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. Typically today's non-elite small undergraduate colleges need broadly trained historian-teachers who think an intellectual challenge is learning new fields and doing comparative non-Western and world history. 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 in a large department is merely one of 20 or 30 members. On the other hand, in a small department such failure can potentially destroy the program, driving away majors and killing otherwise popular courses.

—Melanie Gustafson is associate professor of history at the University of Vermont. This article is excerpted from her recently published pamphlet, Becoming a Historian: A Survival Manual, 2003 Edition.