The MLA Job Interview: How to Prepare & What to Expect

Andrea Quarracino | November 2005

The annual convention of the Modern Language Association, to be held December 27–30, 2005 in Washington, DC, has become notorious as "the" site for the academic job interview. Considered "a nerve-wracking ‘meat market’ for graduate students and recent PhD recipients,"1 the MLA attracts hundreds of candidates in search of tenure-track jobs in the fields of English language, literature, and creative writing. Many interviews are scheduled in locations adjacent to the convention, often held in hotel rooms, with interview committees traveling to MLA from academic establishments nationwide. In an increasingly competitive job market,2 candidates preparing for MLA interviews might wonder what one can do to get an edge on the competition. With many qualified candidates and few desirable positions, how does one prepare to land their dream job?

Look Good on Paper

A well-written curriculum vita (c.v.) is key to achieving success in the academic job market. A good c.v. should be concise, readable, and-above all-clear. The most recent degree earned, most recent position held, and most recent publications (books should be prominently featured) are all highly important elements of a good c.v. Keep in mind, too, that a c.v. is your introduction to a potential employer. "If you can’t write a vita, you are not teaching in my program," said Philip Gerard, Professor of Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Gerard advises reading your c.v. with an objective eye before sending it out, making sure that the c.v. is clearly laid out, and envisioning what will make yours stand out in a stack of hundreds. "Pretend you are doing the hiring,"3 said Gerard. For information on crafting an effective c.v., AWP’s Career Services Guidelines offer step-by-step instruction. Visit the Career Services website at:

Apply for the Right Jobs

It is of equal importance to apply for a position that is right for you, one that best compliments your background, experience, and interests. "Be honest with yourself about what you are qualified for," Philip Gerard advises.4 Ted Pelton, Associate Professor of Humanities (and former Department Chair) at Medaille College of New York finds that "the candidates who are most successful are generally the ones who fit best the description in the ad." Though it is Pelton’s experience that a number of candidates fit this criterion, he seeks the candidate who would seem to "work best with our students, performed best in our teaching demonstration," who has had experience in a similar academic environment, and who might make the best future colleague. "I would thus caution against the ‘this is pretty close to what I do’ approach," said Pelton. "Even at small colleges, most jobs get well over 100 applicants, and receive a substantial pool of exact fits."5

Do Your Homework

It is to an applicant’s advantage to thoroughly explore the website of the institution before preparing an application, and most certainly before embarking on an interview. "It impresses the hiring committee to know that you have done your homework," said Jack Ryan, Associate Professor of English at Gettysburg College of Pennsylvania. It also creates the impression that you are seriously considering what it would be like to work and live there. Ryan advises looking at the campus online, and exploring it from a writer’s perspective. "Look at all things literary about the campus-the location of the school, what kind of student publications are available," and which publications, if any, are affiliated with the campus (such as a national literary magazine). It is also helpful to know the work of the faculty members before meeting with them in the interview.6

Prepare, Prepare, Prepare

Adequate preparation prior to the job interview will help alleviate the onset of nerves, and will keep you on track in front of a hiring committee. Participating in a mock interview, generating handouts, and reviewing your work and your teaching philosophy beforehand are all useful means of preparation. Dinty W. Moore, Professor of English at Penn State Altoona, found it helpful to participate in a mock interview. "I did so, performed embarrassingly bad in front of my creative writing mentors, and then did a far better job at the MLA," said Moore. "Selling myself as a writer and a teacher in front of folks who really knew me, and knew my weaknesses, made selling myself to total strangers seem easy."7
Kathryn Rhett, Associate Professor of English at Gettysburg College, suggests that candidates prepare a handout to bring to the job interview; "…something that will help them be remembered and show their professionalism, such as an annotated list of writing courses the candidate has taught, an annotated recommended reading list, or a selection of writing exercises the candidate has used in class," said Rhett. "This handout can also serve as a crib sheet for the candidate during the interview."8 Knowing your stance on subjects such as your approach to teaching composition and grammar is important, too. Many available positions involve teaching English Composition to undergraduates, and the issue of how one handles teaching grammar can be "a touchy matter, a red-button topic on most campuses," said Stephen Murabito, Associate Professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, Greensburg. According to Murabito, it is helpful to present "evidence that you have high standards for correctness in student essays but that you do not grind grammar or give grammar tests." Be prepared to elaborate on your approach to grammar instruction in an English Composition context. "I suggest mentioning that you use some abstract, concept-based instruction, that you assign a good handbook, but that you balance that with contextual discussions grounded in both what the students read and most vitally in what they write," said Murabito. "I believe you need to strike a balance: You cover it in a variety of ways, and those ways are hopefully best for the improvement of student writing."9

Expect Adversity

Though it might be tempting to dress in a manner befitting of one’s vision of the literary elite, professional attire is important. "Watch the hipster/writer thing," said Jack Ryan of Gettysburg College. Although it may be tempting to "look like a rock band…the hipster can make a lot of mistakes."10 Or, as one interviewee was told, "‘Don’t be too blah. Don’t be too conservative. Wear business attire.’"11 Dinty W. Moore of Penn State Altoona advises candidates to wear comfortable clothes. "You may end up sitting on a bed, interviewing in a crowded hotel room," said Moore. "One of my interviews actually took place in a Hilton hotel room bathroom. I sat on the window ledge while the faculty member, a senior poet who was running late, shaved in his undershirt."12 Take steps to ensure your professionalism in the interview. "Always accept water, not tea or coffee," Ryan advises. A hot beverage in the hands of a nervous candidate is a surefire setup for a "Victorian balancing act with American shakes."13

In general, maintain professionalism regardless of how others behave in the interview. In an article entitled "The Job Interview," Dennis Baron recounts the following:

At another interview for a job I didn’t get, one of the six
search committee members in the cramped hotel room
just lay back on the bed and fell asleep. This professor
was so distinguished that no one dared wake him,
and we proceeded to the accompaniment of his light snoring.14

Even while you are presenting yourself professionally, don’t expect the hiring committee to behave professionally. Many faculty members dislike committee work, and as a result, they don’t especially give enough forethought or care to organizing interviews or behaving like proper hosts. "Unfortunately, many search committees are devoid of social graces," said David Fenza, Executive Director of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP). "They often do things that many employers would never dream of doing, like scheduling interviews too closely together and then asking candidates for the same job to stand in the hallway together, because the committee is interviewing another candidate and they’re running behind schedule. A hiring committee will often make a competitive situation more unsavory and Darwinian than it need be. As a job-seeker, you just need to remain focused and unruffled." Many departments can’t afford to book a suite at the hotel, so interviews are sometimes conducted in small hotel rooms. "Conducting interviews in a crowded bedroom is pathological," said Fenza, "but it’s become business as usual for many departments of English. I guess my first piece of advice to a new academic job seeker is to be prepared for the likelihood that the interview will be conducted in a setting that is terribly awkward, off-putting, or even insulting."

A positive mindset is important when meeting a hiring committee. "Job one is to sell yourself," said Lenny Cassuto, Professor of English and Director of Placement and Professional Development at Fordham University in New York. "You’re not there to pass muster, but rather to show that you’re The One for the department."15 Conducting one’s self as an equal shows confidence, and conveys self-assurance.  Wendy Brenner, Associate Professor and Graduate Coordinator of the MFA program in Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, offers the following tips for conducting one’s self appropriately at the interview:

  • Think of yourself as a colleague, not a graduate student.
    Potential faculty colleagues are looking for someone who
    works independently, rather than a graduate student who
    typically works for professors and thus needs a certain
    amount of feedback and approval.
  • Do not align yourself too closely, quickly, or obviously with
    any member of an interviewing committee, no matter how
    well you may seem to hit it off. One never knows the political landscape into which one is entering; professors often have
    their own (conflicting) agendas about whom they believe their
    department needs. You don’t want to establish yourself as
    Professor X’s candidate.
  • Remember that if you have made it to the interview stage,
    the search committee has already decided you are qualified,
    so you should not feel anxious about proving yourself.  Finally, interviews are not about whether or not you are qualified, but about how good a fit you will be with this particular department
    and community.
  • The search committee is tired.16

In general, presenting one’s self as "plain confident and willing to pitch in," as Philip Gerard says, is important.17 Dinty W. Moore agrees. "What most committee members are looking for is a productive, intelligent, friendly colleague will help pick up some of the workload, and one who is not about to create problems (because problems take time, and writers need to be writing)," said Moore. "Take a deep breath and show that you are reasonable, eager, and willing to pitch in where needed."18

Potential Interview Questions

It is a safe assumption that a hiring committee will want to know about your teaching experience and philosophy. Again, Stephen Murabito of the University of Pittsburgh believes that the issue of teaching composition is likely to come up in interview questions. "Unless you have won national notoriety for your fiction, nonfiction, or poetry, you are probably interviewing against others of relatively equal talent and publication record," said Murabito. "Therefore, if things are relatively equal between you and the few other finalists, then the committee is going to look for the person who can teach composition the most effectively."19 Two likely questions you might encounter are:

  • How do you handle the instruction of grammar?
  • How do you respond to error in student writing?

"Answer all questions, and expect odd questions," says Jack Ryan of Gettysburg College. Keep in mind, though, that the hiring committee does have everyone’s best interests in mind. According to Ryan, "People are not out to skin you."20 Be prepared, also, to discuss your own work, but in an appropriate context. "Though the job committee is likely to want you to speak articulately about your writing, this is not a thesis defense, and defensiveness never reads well at an interview," said Dinty W. Moore. "It is good to sound upbeat about your work, and perhaps offer some context about where you think it fits in the contemporary world of writing, but the committee should know that already, or why did they invite you?"21 Finally, always be prepared to ask questions of the hiring committee. "The exhausted answer does not work well," said Ryan. He offers these potential questions to direct to a committee:

  • Is there a student literary magazine? (Ask about student publications.)
  • What is the minority ratio on campus?
  • Is there a first year seminar program?
  • Are first year students allowed to take creative writing courses?
  • For schools without a creative writing program, ask about building that structure.22

The Campus Visit

If all goes well at the MLA interview, you may be asked for a second interview on campus. "Be prepared for a long, hard day," says Jack Ryan. "You will meet folks from all strata of campus culture." MLA suggests that one should "Think of the on-campus interview in rhetorical terms, as both a performance and the creation of a text. You are the subject, and thus you are performing for the department interviewing you."23 Again, research is imperative. It is a good idea to know whom you will be meeting with, and to know something about their work, particularly since this time there may be dinners, lunches, or other one-on-one time involved. It is likely that a candidate will have time to meet with a panel of students, and a candidate is usually asked to give a teaching demonstration. "Teach to your area of specialization," Jack Ryan advises. For example, a novelist might teach a course on structure, or another topic that is germane to a larger project. For information on preparing a teaching demonstration and preparing for a campus interview, visit the MLA website at:

What next?

Be sure, through this process, that you take time to consider your options. In a competitive job market, it is easy to lose sight of one’s best interests under the pressure to secure stable employment. "With dozens of qualified candidates eager to fill each vacant position, our scrutiny rarely turns to the search committees," writes Henry Raymond in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. "But maybe it should on occasion. If the burden of proof falls on the candidate, it’s worth remembering that the host institution is also on display during the search process."24 So do your research, and be sure that your placement choice is also a good fit for you. Adequate preparation helps ensure success at the MLA job interview, and satisfaction in a solid career placement outcome.




  1. Wilson, Robin. "A Graduate Student’s Job Search Leads Her Far Afield." The Chronicle of Higher Education (April 1997).
  2. Quarracino, Andrea. "Annual Report on the Academic Job Market." AWP Job List (October 2005).
  3. Gerard, Philip. Interview by author, telephone interview from Fairfax, VA (September 26, 2005).
  4. Ibid.
  5. Pelton, Ted. Interview by author via e-mail from Fairfax, VA (October 24, 2005).
  6. Ryan, Jack. Interview by author, telephone interview from Fairfax, VA (October 20, 2005).
  7. Moore, Dinty W. Interview by author via e-mail from Fairfax, VA (October 24, 2005).
  8. Rhett, Kathryn. Interview by author via e-mail from Fairfax, VA (October 21, 2005).
  9. Murabito, Stephen. Interview by author via e-mail from Fairfax, VA (October 24, 2005).
  10. Ryan, Jack. Interview by author, telephone interview from Fairfax, VA (October 20, 2005).
  11. Wilson, Robin. "A Graduate Student’s Job Search Leads Her Far Afield." The Chronicle of Higher Education (April 1997).
  12. Moore, Dinty W. Interview by author via e-mail from Fairfax, VA (October 24, 2005).
  13. Ryan, Jack. Interview by author, telephone interview from Fairfax, VA (October 20, 2005).
  14. Baron, Dennis. "The Job Interview." The Chronicle of Higher Education (January 2002).
  15. Cassuto, Lenny. Interview by author via e-mail from Fairfax, VA (October 24, 2005).
  16. Brenner, Wendy. Interview by author via e-mail from Fairfax, VA (October 24, 2005).
  17. Gerard, Philip. Interview by author, telephone interview from Fairfax, VA (September 26, 2005).
  18. Moore, Dinty W. Interview by author via e-mail from Fairfax, VA (October 24, 2005).
  19. Murabito, Stephen. Interview by author via e-mail from Fairfax, VA (October 24,
  20. Ryan, Jack. Interview by author, telephone interview from Fairfax, VA (October 20, 2005).
  21. Moore, Dinty W. Interview by author via e-mail from Fairfax, VA (October 24, 2005).
  22. Ryan, Jack. Interview by author, telephone interview from Fairfax, VA (October 20, 2005).
  23. "Interviews, Campus Visits, Job Talks, and Teaching Demonstration." Association of Departments of English.
  24. Raymond, Henry. "The Price of Indifference." The Chronicle of Higher Education (May 2005).

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